The looming Hollywood writers’ strike has many in the TV and film business on edge.
If the writers walk out, as they’re expected to, live late-night programming will be halted and upcoming seasons of scripted cable, streaming, and broadcast-TV shows may be shortened, pushed to later dates, or canceled. That’s if the Writers Guild of America, doesn’t reach a deal with the group representing Hollywood’s studios, the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, by May 1.
The last time the union walked out was during the 2007-2008 TV season. That 100-day strike forced the cancellation, shortening, and delay of some scripted series. And it was also a big blow to California’s economy.
But it wasn’t all bad. There are a few shows that wouldn’t have existed or wouldn’t be the same had the strike never happened.
A better Breaking Bad
The 2007-2008 writers’ strike did cost us two episodes of Breaking Bad, but it turned to be for the best.
The final two episodes of season one—cut due to the strike—would have catapulted the plot forward, transitioning high-school chemistry teacher Walter White swiftly into the hardened drug kingpin known as Heisenberg. But in the time between the first and second seasons, creator Vince Gilligan decided to slow Walter’s progression down.
“I’m very sorry the strike had to happen, it was a shame for a lot of reasons, but a bit of a silver lining for us, oddly enough, is that we didn’t get to do our final two episodes,” said Gilligan, in a 2009 interview with Creative Screenwriting’s e-magazine. “Those last two episodes…would have been really big episodes, and would have taken the characters into a hugely different realm than that they were already in, and it would have been a hard thing to come back from, coming into season two.”
Instead, Gilligan focused more on developing Walter as a character. When we first meet Walt, he’s a desperate man with a death sentence who is seeking security for his family. But by the end of season one, he’s exhilarated by the underworld he’s stepped into. It becomes an escape from his increasingly miserable home life. Season two halts that trajectory and forces Walt to first deal with the ramifications of his actions.
“We want to throttle back a little and quiet things down, modulate it, have some quieter, more character-based episodes, and then the bigger, plot-ier episodes,” said Gilligan. “Mix ’em up, that’s what keeps a show interesting.”
You know thespians—they don’t know what to do without a stage or a crowd.
So when the writers’ strike stopped production on Tina Fey’s 30 Rock, the cast performed an episode of the show live at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre in New York as a benefit for their production crew. (The cast of Saturday Night Live also performed live there during the strike.) When production resumed, Fey and her co-showrunner Robert Carlock talked to NBC about doing a live-TV episode, which came to fruition in season five.
“We did a stage version of our show at Upright Citizens Brigade during the writers’ strike,” Fey told Entertainment Weekly in 2010. “That was what made us think that it would be fun to do. And how far we’ve come: NBC at the time was furious that we did it. Now we’re going to do it on TV. It will be exciting for us to do it for a live audience and see if we get live laughter.”
Joss Whedon’s Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog
One of the weirdest and most wonderful things to come out of the last writers’ strike was an internet musical by the name of Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, from Buffy the Vampire Slayer creator Joss Whedon. The three-part web series starred Neil Patrick Harris as a vlogger and wannabe super-villain who competes with his nemesis Captain Hammer (Nathan Fillion) over his crush, played by Felicia Day.
The idea was born out of the writers’ strike, when Whedon had time on his hands and was in a bit of a mid-life crisis. He told Day about the idea for the first time while the two were both on the picket line. He also pitched the concept to his brothers, who helped write and compose the series. He financed the project himself. And he released it online five months later.
It was an early example of how an independent web-series could turn a profit by bypassing the studios and going directly to audiences who support it. Whedon said at a 2015 reunion for the project that he made more money off Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog than the first Avengers movie, which he wrote and directed.
Other Hollywood writers also took to the internet to occupy their time during the strike, and to raise awareness for the cause. A few banded together to launched a site called Strike.TV, which hosted at least 10 original web series.
In one, called Global Warming, Kristen Wiig (Saturday Night Live, Bridesmaids) falls in love with her company’s outsourced tech support in India, played by Aasif Mandvi from The Daily Show. Another, called House Poor, follows The Office writer and actress Mindy Kaling as she attempts to furnish her home with no money.
The shows, sadly, ended with the strike. But the episodes are still on YouTube and Vimeo.
This next one is a matter of debate, and where you stand on it depends on your feelings about reality TV—which got a major lift from the writers’ strike. Networks turned to unscripted shows to fill the gaps in their programming. The Amazing Race and Big Brother were among the reality shows that got extended runs or extra episodes because of the strike.
Writers got the recognition they deserved
The best outcome of the 2007-2008 writers’ strike was that Hollywood’s writers finally got the recognition they deserved from fans and the industry.
Some even had a chance to pursue passion projects on breaks from the picket line. Showrunner Blake Masters previously told Quartz that the 2016 pilot for his USA Network show Falling Water was first written in 2008, during the writer’s strike.
Now, here we are again, on the verge of another.