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The Writers' Room

The Writers' Room debuts tonight on Sundance at 10 p.m. Eastern.

The Writers' Room isn't exactly extravagant. The sole set is a bare bones conference room, with everyone sitting around an OfficeMax table in shiny wheeled desk chairs. The only decorations are a few lines of colorful index cards and a rotation of relevant show posters, which are hilariously, perfectly cheap. It’s not glamorous, but to be fair, it's about as close to an actual writers' room as they could get without littering the table with take-out sandwiches.

The series’ conceit is just as simple as its set. Host Jim Rash (Community, The Descendents) throws questions at the writers and showrunners gathered around the table, with a bonus representative actor from each show, ostensibly for additional knowledge but more obviously to reel fans in. The premiere episode goes for broke with the entire writing staff of Breaking Bad plus Bryan Cranston reminiscing on the series’ entire run. The series has a quick run at just six episodes, but it will include panels with the writers of New Girl, Parks and RecreationDexter, American Horror Story, and Game of Thrones. It’s an admirable cross-section of network, cable, drama, and comedy, though I still would have loved to hear from the writers of a cartoon like Bob’s BurgersArcher, or Adventure Time, since they’re almost always overlooked in favor of live-action.

There's also a weird disconnect between the Breaking Bad episode and the others screened to critics, since New Girl only brings three writers on (plus star Jake Johnson) and Parks and Recreation just four (including Amy Poehler). It’s a shame the comedies couldn’t get more of their writers in, since comedies depend on the group dynamic of the writers’ room far more than dramas and those panels might have been the closest to spending twenty minutes in their writers room with more actual writers present. It’s also a shame that neither comedy brings more of their female writers in; Poehler’s the only one represented, even though the Parks and Rec and New Girl staffs have recently included such charismatic female comedians as Chelsea Peretti, Megan Amram, and Kay Cannon.

To no one's surprise, Rash makes for a delightful host. He's not only qualified, being an accomplished improviser, actor, and writer (most recently of The Way, Way Back), but he also has the kind of unthreatening amiable personality that sets the camera-wary at ease. It’s a shame that Community doesn’t have an episode for Rash to moderate, especially since Rash himself got into that writers’ room for the fourth season, but it's easy to imagine Sundance’s rationale there (i.e. that a Writers’ Room episode devoted to Community would inevitably become the Community Wasn’t Community Without Dan Harmon show). Still, that Rash’s own show never comes up even in passing is downright bizarre. The absence is especially weird in the Parks and Recreation episode, when Rash’s opening narration tells us that Community’s neighbor “survived threats of cancellation and is now hailed as one of the best series on television.”

Ultimately, it must be said that the (adorable) credits’ promise that the creators will “tell all” is an exaggeration. The show tries to be as inclusive as possible, which on the one hand means even someone who had never seen the show could enjoy the interviews, but on the other hand means no episode will be especially revelatory for die-hard fans, or even just enthusiasts who have caught an interview or two. In this bold new era of PaleyFest panels and walkthroughs and live-tweeting and DVD commentaries, “tell all” actually means “tell all,” and it proves a dangerous promise for Sundance to make in just twenty minutes. Rash does a fine job of steering the conversation, but he has to cover such a broad swath of topics that none get enough time to really qualify as “in-depth.” Even the Entertainment Weekly-sponsored “Last Word” at the end of each episode lobs softball questions that the magazine probably answered months ago, and so we get columnist Jess Cagle asking the Parks and Rec panel about their high-profile political guest stars (translation: “tell us about Joe Biden again all the time always.”)

But while no one will be surprised to hear that New Girl creator Liz Meriweather drew from her own personal disasters to create Zooey Deschanel’s Jess or that Amy Poehler thinks Joe Biden totally nailed his cameo, The Writers Room still has appeal in its host and game guests.  Breaking Bad’s writers are fresh off their final season and are eager to reminisce. (This goes double for Bryan Cranston, who got a Breaking Bad tattoo with the crew on the last day of shooting to commemorate what he calls his “greatest role.”) The Parks and Recreation panel is the funniest, getting mileage from Rash, Poehler, and writer Joe Mande’s improv backgrounds. New Girl is the most compelling, if only because Meriweather has never written for any other television show let alone run one, and therefore lets slip more insecurity and chaos than the more seasoned showrunners of Breaking Bad and Parks and Recreation. Rash also tries a spur of the moment game with the New Girl panel that I wish he had tried with the others, making them outline an episode that’s supposed to be complete nonsense but ends up sounding like an actual contender for season three.

So no, The Writers Room isn’t a revelation, but it doesn’t need to be groundbreaking to be a perfectly pleasant way to spend twenty minutes. When the storytellers are this open and charming, it’s less important that you’ve heard the stories before.

Stray observations:

  • There are some crazy pop-up fun facts a la “Pop Up Video” throughout the episodes, which range from “Tom Haverford is Leslie's assistant” to "mercury fulminate was originally used to detonate gunpowder in firearms.”
  • UPDATE: Amy Poehler's cackle is still a total delight.
  • Vince Gillian, sans context: “Let's all just put on matching Reeboks and black tracksuits and just Heavens-Gate it.” [cue pop-up fun fact explaining Heavens Gate]
  • One actual revelation comes when Mike Schur starts rhapsodizing about Pohler writing the line, “I love you and I like you,” and she has to cut him off because - this is true - she stole it from Quincy Jones after he grabbed her face in his hands and told her that in Monte Carlo.
  • Jake Johnson likes to text Liz Meriweather with suggestions for Nick. Some of them, like Nick talking at a man on a park bench, even make it on.
  • Amy Poehler, on John McCain (sort of): “If Democrats and Republicans took more showers together, Congress would at least be cleaner.”