Kieran Culkin, Harriet Walker and Sarah Snook in Succession
Filip Krenus, Billie Piper and Stevie Raines in I Hate Suzie
A few years ago, when British writer Lucy Prebble was asked to join the writers' room for a new HBO show called Succession, she was unsure.
"It's mortifying to think now," says Prebble, "but there was a horribly egotistic part of me that thought joining a room was a sign of being professionally on the downward slope. I thought I should be able to create and write my own stuff alone and get it made, and this was serving someone else's vision. I was very wrong."
Prebble ultimately became a writer–co-executive producer for Succession's first season, a writer–consulting producer for its second and a writer–executive producer for its third. Meanwhile, she cocreated the dark comedy I Hate Suzie and served as showrunner for the HBO Max–Sky Group production, which was touted in reviews like The New Yorker's, which called it "a brutally funny unravelling."
No American writer would balk at a slot in a room on a prestige show, but TV writers in the U.S. and Britain come from two distinct traditions. In the U.K., writers have tended to work alone or in pairs. In the U.S., the writers' room — led by a showrunner, a writer with management responsibilities — is a long-established part of producing scripted television.
Blame economics for the different approaches. In the U.S., a single pen simply could not write twenty-plus episodes for a season of network television. The U.K. TV industry, led by the publicly funded BBC, commissioned series with shorter runs.
Writers like Dennis Potter and, later, Jimmy McGovern came to the fore, perpetuating the idea of the undiluted writing genius. It persists — as seen in the past few years in triumphs like Prebble's I Hate Suzie, Phoebe Waller-Bridge's Fleabag and Michaela Coel's I May Destroy You.
"I think [the writers' room system] works brilliantly for the most part," Prebble says, "and is the biggest reason for the golden age of TV our generation has lived through."
But as more shows become transatlantic co-productions, the balance is tilting toward the U.S. style. And Prebble, who's worked under both systems, is not displeased.
"The writers' room provides structure that I'd lacked before," she says. "Previously, I had done many drafts of something, using another artist or producer to get notes and then reassessing and reshaping. That can be a weary process and feel a bit like you're delivering homework to someone who doesn't even write. Eventually you can forget why you were interested in the piece in the first place."
In a well-run writers' room, that redrafting happens in real time, she explains. It's more efficient and less draining.
But not all writers' rooms are creative sanctuaries. Tales of angst farms run by "difficult men" are legion. In some U.K. rooms, young, inexperienced writers provide skeleton drafts for senior writers, who then rewrite the scripts wholesale.
"I'm not sure this is a good way to copy the U.S. system," Prebble says.
So, if the best way to make premium television is to get a room, be careful who you bunk up with.