Monday, August 30, 2010


The passing of writer Jackson Gillis at the age of 93 could be viewed, if one were prone to overwrought metaphors, as symbolic of the death of a whole era of television.

His list of credits is astonishing.  He wrote for more prestigious shows like Perry Mason and Columbo, but he also contributed scripts to Lost In Space, Longstreet and, for God's sake, Jason Of Star Command.  He penned many episodes of the old George Reeves Superman series, as well as a script for its snarky modern update, Lois & Clark.  In a way, he was TV history.

But now, it seems, ancient history.  Though Gillis occasionally landed regular gigs on particular shows--he was a story editor on Perry Mason--he mostly made his living as a freelancer.  Until sometime in the eighties, most programs depended on freelance writers for scripts, particularly one-hour dramas.  (Sitcoms were more likely to be written in-house, but even then, most of them would routinely feature a few episodes per season written by outsiders.)  Then as now, the vast majority of programming was formulaic--cop shows, medical shows, lawyer shows, westerns.  The regular characters were pretty much set in stone, unchanging from episode to episode, there only to drive this week's storyline. 

That's where somebody like Gillis came in.  Unlike some of the more densely-packed series of today, when even the relentlessly disposable likes of CSI: Miami comes complete with a ton of backstory to its characters, it didn't really matter to a freelancer if they weren't up on the show's bible.  If Gillis sold a spec script to Barnaby Jones, but producer Quinn Martin was short on storylines for Cannon that season, eh, no problem, it was easily retooled.

If Gillis could devise an airtight plot, producers were interested--that's what their shows were about.  It was the story that kept a viewer hooked.  Nowadays, almost every TV drama is primarily character-driven--not just the good ones, like Mad Men and Breaking Bad, but shows like House and the Law & Order franchise, which spend way too much time on the ongoing personal lives of not very interesting characters, and give short shrift to the stories they presumably mean to tell.  Almost all of these shows are scripted by staff writers, and then filtered through the sensibilities of whatever powerful writer-producer is in charge.

Which is fine, for shows where it makes sense.  The Sopranos and Deadwood, or to go back farther, Wiseguy and Homicide: Life On The Streets, were mostly written by a small staff who knew the characters intimately, and produced some of the best dramas ever.  But when the same approach is taken to what should be fun junk food, something's wrong.  A program like Criminal Minds has pretensions it hasn't earned, and its undernourished storylines, buried under a mountain of character details, are grindingly predictable.

Which is why producers use to wisely depend on Jackson Gillis.  If nothing else, he knew how to tell a story.