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Writing a TV drama unfolds as a mostly solitary process

Sunday, October 17, 1999

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

Sitcoms are written by committee, but television dramas usually are not.

Javier Grillo-Marxuach has seen both sides of the process.

Grillo-Marxuach, who graduated from Carnegie Mellon University in 1991 with a double major in creative writing and cultural studies, saw the sitcom process at work as an executive at NBC; now, he writes for The WB's witch drama "Charmed."

On a drama, "after you've worked out the general story structure with some or all of the [writing] staff, you go off and write the script alone," Grillo-Marxuach said. "It's not about the entire staff throwing lines and jokes at you; it's about the executive producer and you looking at the script and him giving you notes. It's a much more private process than comedy."

A sitcom script may have a writer's name on it, but it's conceivable that little or none of the writer's original dialogue remains by the time the show is taped.

"It's not a bad thing. That's just the nature of the beast," Grillo-Marxuach said.

Dana Reston, who worked most recently on Pax TV's family drama "Hope Island," said writing for a dramatic series usually doesn't involve being rewritten as often as it does in TV comedy.

"You do get rewritten because the executive producer will have a voice, and he'll want to take a pass at it," Reston said. "But your stuff is less tampered with."

But there are always exceptions. The comedy-drama "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" breaks the rules. Supervising producer Marti Noxon said the writing process is solitary like other dramas, but some of the more comedic lines may have been pitched in the writer's room by another staffer.

"Nine times out of 10, someone will walk up to me and say, 'You know that part in your script ...' and I'm like, 'Yeah, Joss made that up.' "

That would be "Buffy" creator/executive producer Joss Whedon, who, Noxon says, puts his stamp of approval on every episode. But there are times when an episode makes it to air almost entirely as the writer originally wrote it.

"When I say 'entirely,' I mean, like 70 percent," Noxon said. "I don't think that happens very often in comedy."

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