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Writing Sci-Fi for Broadcast

Script contributor Tara Bennett speaks with current sci-fi showrunners Jeff Rake (Manifest), Chris Sheridan (Resident Alien), J.H. Wyman (Debris) and Todd Helbing (Superman & Lois) about how they’ve approached making successful, mainstream sci-fi TV today.

Ten years ago, sci-fi on television hit a turning point. That’s when HBO debuted Game of Thrones, their serialized adaptation of George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire books and epic sci-fi/fantasy storytelling on television unequivocally proved that it could draw huge audiences from around the world and be a worthy investment to lure eyes to premium services.

Despite being a stalwart of broadcast TV programming since The Twilight Zone (1959) and Star Trek (1966), sci-fi storytelling on television has always illustrated the complicated love/hate relationship between networks and genre audiences. There’s certainly been plenty of love from audiences who have consistently proved they are willing to invest in genre storytelling. And sci-fi creators have stepped up by writing some of the very best TV series ever from The X-Files to Lost (2004).

The hate has primarily lurked on the network side, as executives have consistently been twitchy about the merits of sci-fi storytelling. Be it a lack of confidence in mainstream interest, lesser ratings, or just the lack of “cool” inherent to niche programming, network executives have always struggled with what to do with the sci-fi series they’ve ordered to series. From brutal cancellations to constant schedule bouncing, so many genre series on broadcast have attracted ardent fans who end up feeling like their shows have been done dirty by the programming executives.

But when Game of Thrones became an international sensation—the same series passed on by a myriad of broadcast and basic cable networks—the sci-fi storytelling landscape on television suddenly came into vogue, like it had long been for film. In the decade since, the big sci-fi TV ideas requiring huge budgets and support have migrated to streaming networks and premium cable. Broadcast, unless it’s a CW network cape show, hasn’t been able to compete as the major networks still want those mainstream audiences. But they clearly can’t afford the kind of budgets to achieve the kind of cinematic output that audiences now demand from their sci-fi storytelling.

Debris, NBC

Debris, NBC

Yet it’s not a desert out there for broadcast and basic cable sci-fi TV. There are some successful current examples airing right now still planting the flag for sci-fi. They’re just doing it in innovative ways to find, attract and maintain their dedicated audiences. Script spoke with current sci-fi showrunners Jeff Rake (Manifest), Chris Sheridan (Resident Alien), J.H. Wyman (Debris) and Todd Helbing (Superman & Lois) about how they’ve approached making successful, mainstream sci-fi TV today.

Todd Helbing, Creator/Adapter, Superman & Lois (The CW)

A producer/writer on TV genre hits Spartacus and The Flash, Helbing developed and runs the latest TV series based on DC Comic’s Superman.

SCRIPT: Superman has been done a lot, and well, on TV. What was the path to making the character work with this generation of viewers and on broadcast TV?

Todd Helbing: From the first conversations [executive producer] Greg Berlanti and I had, it was really about how do we make this Superman different? We talked a lot about shows like Everwood and Friday Night Lights and [making] a family drama that had Superman in it. And tonally, whenever you do any of these shows, you want to make them slightly different. We approached this as much as we could like a feature, from the aspect ratio to the cinematography, the design of the farm, everything. We’re competing with these shows on cable streamers and cable networks, and we want to be able to offer the audience something of equal quality.

Jeff Rake, Creator, Manifest (NBC)

Newer to genre TV series, Rake was a producer/writer on Beauty and the Beast (2012) and The Tomorrow People before creating Manifest now in its third season.

SCRIPT: What’s the alchemy of having a successful, serialized sci-fi drama on broadcast right now?

Jeff Rake: I think that the success of this show in a network environment is basically connected to the fact that the show embraces a decidedly sci-fi, or supernatural concept, and then tells its story within the context of a relationship and family drama. The reason we've been fortunate enough to stick around for three years, is that for every sci-fi fan sitting on the couch watching the show, they often bring with them a spouse, a partner, a friend, a sibling who might not be the sci-fi devotee that they are, but they find something else to latch onto in the show. And then guess what? They might discover, "Oh, I guess I am a sci-fi fan. I just didn't know what that meant, or I just didn't know what that looked like." A lot of people who come to genre get there by accident, because they just had preconceived notions about what it means to watch a genre show. [Manifest] works in a network environment because we do give a serving of mythology with a heaping tablespoon of relationships, family conflict, classic suspense, and procedural suspense.

[Sci-Fi Circuit: The Purpose and Value of Science Fiction]

SCRIPT: Since Lost, networks often demand the whole road map of a sci-fi series. Have you had to stick to your plan with Manifest, or has it been more organic?

It's sort of somewhere in the middle. Because I have the benefit of a roadmap that takes us all the way to Season 6 there are certain fundamental things that I know we need to achieve each season. As I sit here, we're about 80 to 90% of the way through filming Season 3. One of my colleagues and I are in the middle of writing the finale, so most of the writing is finished. And that gives us some bandwidth to start looking forward. After we catch our breath for a minute, before we wrap Season 3 production, as I've done in the past, we'll connect as a writing staff, and reassess, look back at our global notes going forward and just start eyeballing what the next season wants to look like moving from the very macro that already exists and start trying to move down to the micro. And from a production standpoint, it's necessary to do that sooner rather than later because there's questions like which sets are still in play in the next season? You have to figure those things out. And are there any major new pieces of casting? By necessity, you typically have to start thinking about that in advance. And luckily, two thirds of my writing staff has been with me from the beginning. They know the mythology, and all of the characters as well, if not better, than I do. Many times during the week, I'll text our group thread, and say, "Somebody remind me of this remind me of that...." They just have an encyclopedic knowledge of the show and we figure it out together.

J.H. Wyman, Creator, Debris (NBC)

A film screenwriter who migrated to TV, Wyman started as a producer on Fox’s Fringe and rose up to showrunner for the fifth and final season. He created Fox’s Almost Human, which ran for one season and he then went into development for several years before returning with the original premise series, Debris.

SCRIPT: You were out of TV for long enough to see how much the landscape has changed towards sci-fi with premium cable and streamers investing in it heavily. But you chose to come back to broadcast with Debris. Why?

J.H. Wyman: I think there's room for it. With Fringe, there's no way it would have gone on without the fans. And people are out there waiting to hear stories like this and waiting to get into the worlds that we're creating that I think real sci-fi fans are interested in. When I first figured out what I wanted to do with this show and that we were going to sell it, one of our stops was NBC. And I have to say that when we went in there, literally they said, "Hey, we're looking for things that break boundaries. We're looking for things that are artist-driven and really allow your vision to come through.” That was, obviously, great to hear, and I think now is encouraged.

Sci-fi has really come into the mainstream as far as it's no longer alternative. It's no longer something that's very strange, or for a “certain” crowd. Cara Dellaverson [EVP, Drama Programming, NBC Entertainment] knew right away that this was something that they wanted to do and immediately got the concept and ran with it. I have to say they've been the best partners, and they really want to tell the same stories and reach the same people that I want to reach.

Chris Sheridan, Creator/Adapter, Resident Alien (SYFY)

A veteran of sitcom and comedy writing, Sheridan spent many years as an executive producer on the hit animated comedy, Family Guy. Resident Alien is his first time showrunning a live-action series, and it’s been picked up for a second season.

[SCI-FI CIRCUIT: Exploring Sci-Fi with Writer Scott Myers]

SCRIPT: Resident Alien’s first season was absolutely fearless about moving its stories along, which isn’t always the hallmark of much broadcast or basic TV. Why go for it so aggressively with your storytelling?

Chris Sheridan: It's mostly done as a TV lover. I had a great writing staff with me coming up with all these turns. I've been studying these cable dramas for years: The Wire, The Sopranos and Breaking Bad with the Vince Gilligan's and the David Milch's and the Shawn Ryan's of the world. These are the people who really set the stage for a lot of these shows. And one of the things that you learn doing these shows is you can't save anything for later because you just don't know if there's going to be a later. I'd rather pack as much stuff into make it interesting and exciting for the audience, and then figure out now what can we do? I know that that's the path that a lot of these writers who came before us have done it, and it works. With 500 TV shows on the air, I can't be precious. The slow burn is harder to do these days. We want to keep the audience invested, we want to keep the audience involved, get them hooked on the characters, keep them laughing, give them great storytelling where they want to see what's gonna happen next week. In the writer’s room, that was our plan going into it and UCP and SYFY supported us throughout. I think the result ended up being pretty compelling. I'm happy with how it came out.

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