I have the pleasure of working with Dana Coen as a colleague through the Writing for Screen and Stage program at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, a dramatic writing minor for which Dana is the director.
Dana has an extensive background in television, penning episodes for “The Wonder Years” and “NCIS,” as well as eight seasons on the CBS series “JAG” [co-executive producer] and the Fox series “Bones” [co-executive producer].
Dana is also a produced playwright and freelance screenwriter, currently about to go out with an original thriller screenplay.
Today in Part 2, we delve into Dana’s experience working on a hit broadcast network TV series:
Scott: Okay, so let’s cut to 1997. That year you were hired to write for the CBS TV series “JAG”. How did that happen?
Dana: A development exec at Paramount, who I had met a year earlier at Fox, recommended me to the show runner, who read my material and called me in. During the meeting, which was going well, the series’ creator, Don Bellisario, entered the building. Before I knew it I was in an empty office scribbling episode ideas on a piece of paper. They gave me twenty minutes. I pitched two to Don, who, after hearing the second, said, “Great. Go write it.” That evening my agent told me they wanted me on staff.
Scott: Classic Hollywood story! You were with “JAG” for eight seasons and went from story editor to co-producer to producer to supervising producer to co-executive producer. For the benefit of the many readers who don’t know what those titles mean, could you describe what the responsibilities were for each of those producing positions?
Dana: Television job titles can be misleading in that the duties are often not reflective of the title. They serve more as pay-scale indicators. In my experience, story editing and producing actually occur at the Co-Executive and Executive Producer level. Everyone else is, essentially, a staff writer. I didn’t do much producing of episodes outside of my own but I did rise to the status of senior-writer in my fourth season. This involved, among other duties, rewriting free-lance scripts or writing a new one when a script fell out.
Scott: Here is a summary of the series concept for “JAG”: The cases of Harmon Rabb, former Navy fighter pilot, and his fellow lawyers of the US Navy’s Judge Advocate General’s office. What type of research did you do in the field of military jurisprudence?
Dana: I often consulted a service handbook called The Military Code of Justice. Military law differs from civilian law in that the JAG can authorize a pre-trial, investigative hearing to determine whether or not to proceed with a court-martial. Some of our courtroom stories focused just on that investigation. We also employed a former Vice-JAG who was a phone call away. He was very useful, as was a retired Two Star Admiral, and former fighter pilot who advised us on the flying sequences.
Scott: Is it unusual for a writer to stick with one series for that length of time? Why did you make that choice?
Dana: My agent asked me that same question five years in. He thought it was time for me to expand my resume. But, long-term opportunities for television writers are infrequent. Free-lance writing is a feast or famine undertaking and, after my previous drought, and the birth of my twins, I was looking for security. There were other shows that were considered hipper, and I did take meetings. But the conditions on many of these staffs were not attractive to me. There were two, very successful creator/executive producers at the time, who wrote every one of their episodes. Their writing staffs existed to provide little more than ideas and outlines. They were, essentially, glorified research assistants. I was productive and well treated at JAG, the writers worked independently, I was never rewritten, and my episodes began running in syndication early on. They still are. That said I would have jumped at an opportunity to write for “The Sopranos.”
Scott: What are some of the challenges of writing for a long‐running series?
Dana: The big one is creating fresh episode ideas. Many shows hit a story-wall within a few seasons, especially if its premise is too strictly defined. In our case, it helped to have an expansive institution like the military to explore. Each episode contained an A (main) story, B (secondary) story and character runners (developments). So, it was easy to burn through fifty plus stories a season.
Long-term character arcs can also be daunting if you lose patience. We maintained a controlled but steady pace with our character development. That way we were able to avoid short-term audience expectations. It also allowed us the license to surprise them with a big story turn when needed. At the end of season eight, Don announced that he wanted one of our characters to lose a leg to a land mine in Afghanistan. It was a smart choice because it allowed us to explore the edges of an otherwise soft character, and it provided the show with value-added drama in its ninth year. Now that I’m thinking about it, I realize how fortunate we were to be able to hold on to our central characters for almost all of my time there. “Downtown Abbey” is a good example of the story chaos that can occur when popular actors jump ship.
Another challenge was maintaining the sexual tension between our male and female leads for eight seasons. The industry acronym for this device is URST (unresolved sexual tension). Don argued that once they became a couple the show was over. But our fan base found it frustrating. An uncle called me while I was on vacation and vented for twenty minutes. They never stopped tuning in, though. One of the ways we maintained audience interest was to have our leads kiss once a season so that the possibility of their union remained alive. I got away with it one year by having one give mouth-to-mouth respiration to the other.
The last one is staying true to the show’s bible, its history. It’s easy to forget or be unaware, in later seasons, of details that were established early on. Our fan base was particularly vocal about character or story discrepancies.
Scott: URST, a new acronym to add to the list. Take us behind the scenes when you were a co‐executive producer? Let’s say it’s the middle of series production. On your busiest day, what are you overseeing…script prep, writing, production, post?
Dana: All of it, including the support and occasional rewriting of other writers’ work. The network generally ordered twenty-five scripts a year, which, at the time, was three more than most of the other prime-time series. We averaged about five staff writers a season, so I was often in writing mode, pre-production, production and post-production at the same time. I would transition from meetings, set visits, office writing time and the editing room. The busiest period by far, though, was the week of pre-production. That was when the feedback came rolling in. I was likely to hear from the show runner, the network, the studio, the production manager, the AD (assistant director), the script supervisor, the director, an actor or two, the production designer, the location manager, the prop master and others. My desk would be covered with scripts, different colored pages, slips of paper and sticky notes. The challenge was learning how to make the adjustments without comprising the integrity of the material.
Tomorrow in Part 3, Dana talks about writing 33 episodes of the CBS series “JAG” and his shift into teaching.
Please stop by comments to thank Dana and ask any questions you may have.
Dana is repped by Rosa Entertainment.