In 'The Writers' Room,' Sundance hosts conversations with those who create the stories

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Given that we already have TV shows devoted to other, specific TV shows -- most notably AMC's "Talking Dead" celebrating AMC's "The Walking Dead" -- it's not surprising that there's now a program devoted to the work of TV writers.

Each week Sundance Channel's "The Writers' Room" (10 p.m. Monday) will showcase the writers of a series in a panel discussion about that program. It's a more elevated level of conversation than you might get from a panel Q-and-A at a "Star Trek" convention but not much different from those 30-minute bonus features found on TV DVD box sets.

'The Writers' Room'

When: 10 Monday, Sundance Channel.

Host: Jim Rash.

Because the stars of TV's top programs are often executive producers, too, usually at least one star is also along for the ride. "Community" regular Jim Rash, who's also a 2012 Oscar-winning writer for adapting "The Descendants," hosts "The Writers' Room."

Why should TV viewers care about any show's writers? Because they are the ones calling the shots, determining the story, picking who lives and dies. While film is a director's medium, TV is all about the writer. The head writer -- who also carries an executive producer credit and is often referred to as the showrunner -- is in charge.

In the series premiere, Mr. Rash chats with "Breaking Bad" creator/head writer Vince Gilligan, the show's other writers and star Bryan Cranston. Attentive fans who consume many print/online articles about "Breaking Bad" probably won't come away learning much new. Mr. Gilligan again describes his pitch for the show as "Take Mr. Chips and turn him into Scarface" and he shares that one network's executives said they loved the show's concept but if they bought it, they would be fired. Following that, a pop-up trivia bubble appears on screen to let viewers know what networks turned down "Breaking Bad" before AMC picked it up.

The bubble is sponsored by Entertainment Weekly, which is co-producing "The Writers' Room" with Sundance. It's the best use of EW on the show. The worst is when EW editor Jess Cagle arrives on set at the end of each episode for "The Last Word," which is really just the last few questions. His arrival feels like that of an intrusive, uninvited dinner guest. Mr. Rash handles the questions just fine most of the time; there's no need to add another host to the mix.

There's a casual, informal, willing-to-take-chances tone to "The Writers' Room," which works most of the time but in the second episode, devoted to NBC's "Parks & Recreation" (Aug. 5), the show suffers from too many people trying to be funny.

In addition, Mr. Rash interrupts a writers' story with a good follow-up question, but that question should have been held until the first answer was complete. The writer never finishes his story.

When "The Writers' Room" devolves into silliness and a game of comedy one-upmanship, it's a drag. When it reveals insights about the smart, well-written TV shows in question, it's a worthwhile showcase of TV's smartest minds; a half-hour series with appeal to people who take the medium seriously.

Upcoming episodes explore the work of the writers on "Dexter" (Aug. 12), "New Girl" (Aug. 19), "Game of Thrones" (Aug. 26) and "American Horror Story" (Sept. 2).

tvradio

Ron Owen: rowen@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2582.


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