“Aw, they’re just making this up as they go along.”
Matt: It’s illuminating to discover in your chapters on Lost—and really, in some of the chapters on other shows, such as Breaking Bad—just how much of the plots of these shows are being driven by things that are happening behind the scenes, at the production level. Like what happened on Lost with Mr. Eko. Can you summarize that for us?
Certainly there’s an amount of improvisation in everything on television. You can’t plan for it. Nancy Marchand died in the second season of The Sopranos, and they had to deal with that.
Matt: That’s frustrating for me as a television critic, trying to communicate this to people who watch TV but don’t really know how it’s made. To say “they’re just making it up as they go” is thought of as a pejorative way to describe television, but really, it’s just a statement of fact. Every show is just making it up as they go. Mad Men, even though it had something like eighteen months off between seasons four and five, was still just making it up, in a sense. Even if they have a rough roadmap of where they want to go from episode to episode within a season—
Alan: I’m sure [Mad Men creator] Matt Weiner was responding to certain things that the actors were doing, certain things that he felt were working or not working, and that’s a form of improv.
Matt: And when you’re writing or directing anything, you might go in thinking the character is going to do “A”, but then you have an inspiration and think, “What if they do ‘B’ instead?” Maybe that’s a better idea, but once you make that decision, everything that comes after “B” has to change.
Alan: What happened in Breaking Bad, Season Three, is a classic example of that. Season Two was very meticulously plotted-out. They were working backward from the plane crash. Not everybody liked the plane crash, even though they liked Season Two as a whole. In Season Three, it was more like, “Let’s fly by the seat of our pants, and these cousins will be the big bad guys.”
Midway through the season they decided, “The cousins need to die. They’re more trouble than they’re worth. We’ll make Gus Fring the big bad.” Season Three is everyone’s favorite season of the show.
Matt: Yes! That’s part of the appeal of television to me. I like to say that it’s not just an artistic endeavor. It’s also an athletic event.
Matt: They have ten or 12 or 22 episodes to tell a story, and they have an outline going in, but beyond that, they have no idea where things will go. And they have to wing it.