Offspring, Death and The Challenge For Writers

by |August 8, 2013

One of Australia’s biggest television shows has left viewers stunned. John Purcell examines the decisions TV writers wrangle with at every turn.

Last night social media went nuts over the decision by the writers of Channel Ten’s drama Offspring to kill off one of the lead characters. The heated emotions displayed by the audience in their reactions were only made possible by effective writing. Bad writing does not generate such a response.

Writing for a TV drama must be one of the most difficult, thankless and unnerving writing jobs going. Writers are generally solitary beings and writing for TV is a group sport. As the vast majority of dramas offered up to the public are rejected within weeks of their premiere there can be no job security for anyone involved. Once the axe falls, the writers’ characters continue to live, love and die on their pages alone.

But if the TV drama is successful the writers face new challenges. A story which may have been written for 6 to 12 episodes tops may run to 30+ episodes. The unknown actors playing the leads may become Australian superstars and, filled to the brim with the belief that they and not the writing have been the cause of the show’s success, may leave mid-season to pursue fame and glory in Hollywood. We all know it happens, it happened in the case of Offspring last night. The writers must learn to adapt, to accept compromises, to write on taking in the changing landscape as they go. What a difficult place to write. And they must bear the burden of failing TV ratings alone. When a show succeeds it is the actors, when it fails it is the writing.

offspring_mainImagine having a bigwig sit on the edge of your desk to suggest you kill off a character that ‘audience testing’ has told them is unpopular. Or suggesting people are bored of the setting and could you perhaps move the characters to the bush, the coast, Italy. Or they may just suggest that you’ve become too expensive and replace you all with writers desperate to break into TV and willing to work for peanuts.

Putting all that aside. What of the writers’ intent? What was it they set out to achieve in the first place? Did they want to take TV drama somewhere new? Did they want to excite new emotions or ideas in their audience? Most writers have some agenda. They believe in things. Their initial motivations develop, mature, deepen and intensify. They look for clever ways to infiltrate the minds of the public. The more, the better. How does a writer reach millions of people? TV is one way.

The reaction of the public to last night’s episode of Offspring serves the needs of the writer in two ways. The first is utilitarian; it raises their profile, improving their chances for further work. The second is that it answers the purpose of the work, to entertain and to awaken. But though the majority of the viewers would not dispute that they were entertained, most would dispute they were awakened. Yet so many of the comments on social media suggested the opposite was true. The detractors only prove that it did reach them. I bet they hugged their partners more tightly and they thought about death in a way which unnerved them.

One of Offspring’s writers/hatchet men, Jonathan Gavin

But you may ask, but why write all this about a silly TV show? Because the writing was good.

The death of the much loved character was written in a completely unexceptional way. It presented a death that carried no meaning. It was ordinary. It was quiet. And was all the more shocking because it rolled on regardless of our wishes. As is the way with death.

And this serves a purpose. We should think about such things. We should examine them. We might alter our behaviour, even if only slightly. We may lose our fears and act more freely. Our lives are made brighter having done so. Anxiety is often caused by unknowns. Writers have been leading us into these dark places for years, illuminating them with their words, knowing that it is necessary for us to explore them. As Socrates said, the unexamined life is not worth living.


John Purcell is Booktopia’s Head of Marketing, and earlier this year came out as the author of the bestselling erotic series The Secret Lives of Emma. He has been involved in the book industry for nearly half his life.

You can follow John on twitter at @Bookeboy

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About the Contributor

While still in his twenties, John Purcell opened a second-hand bookshop in Mosman, Sydney, in which he sat for ten years reading, ranting and writing. Since then he has written, under a pseudonym, a series of very successful novels, interviewed hundreds of writers about their work, appeared at writers’ festivals, on TV (most bizarrely in comedian Luke McGregor’s documentary Luke Warm Sex) and has been featured in prominent newspapers and magazines. ​Now, as the Director of Books at booktopia.com.au, Australia’s largest online bookseller, he supports Australian writing in all its forms. He lives in Sydney with his wife, two children, three dogs, five cats, unnumbered gold fish and his overlarge book collection. His novel, The Girl on the Page, will be published by HarperCollins Australia in October, 2018.

Follow John: Twitter Website

Comments

  • August 8, 2013 at 4:43 pm

    Brilliant post! Especially….”The death of the much loved character was written in a completely unexceptional way. It presented a death that carried no meaning. It was ordinary. It was quiet. And was all the more shocking because it rolled on regardless of our wishes. As is the way with death.”

  • Jo

    August 8, 2013 at 5:32 pm

    Yes, I loved that passage too. So true. It was the suddenness of it, the banality of it (not the writing, but the event itself), and the lack of meaning or motivation, that made it so affecting.

  • Ashleigh

    August 8, 2013 at 5:49 pm

    It was heartbreaking but it could have had more of an impact. Writing deaths is hard, I struggle with it in my own writing. We all thought Patrick would be okay…maybe the funeral will have the desired impact?

  • julie scott

    August 8, 2013 at 8:19 pm

    I thought it was very well done I just hated the fact that Patrick is now gone him and Nina were so happy and excited @ becoming parents. I couldn’t stop crying

  • Patricia Franks

    August 8, 2013 at 8:41 pm

    I would hope that this ‘ordinary’ death will raise an awareness of organ donation.

  • August 9, 2013 at 1:26 pm

    Brilliantly enacted. Of course they had to find a way for Nina to move on and have new and exciting adventures. Who knows what will happen next. Watch this space!

  • August 9, 2013 at 1:34 pm

    For me it bought back memories of my husbands sudden death, knowing that when you leave that room you will never see them again, smell their scent or talk to them, it was very upsetting for me even though my husband has been gone for almost 13 years it stirred up strong feelings I thought I had dealt with

  • Denise

    August 9, 2013 at 6:53 pm

    John Purcell: “The unknown actors playing the leads may become Australian superstars and, filled to the brim with the belief that they and not the writing have been the cause of the show’s success, may leave mid-season to pursue fame and glory in Hollywood. We all know it happens, it happened in the case of Offspring last night.”

    I would normally not say anything, however you attributed Patrick’s death solely on Matt Le Nevez desire to leave the series and you made some allusions, which I feel are incorrect. For us who have followed his career for some time it doesn’t cling true:
    1. Matt Le Nevez (MLN) has lived in LA since 2006.
    2. I doubt that MLN considers himself a superstar. His interviewers have consistently referred to his humility and his own statements in the last few years have only confirmed that.
    3. MLN has often told his interviewers about his lack of success in the US (including a very recent Another Aussie in LA podcast – when he was getting ready for the Kokoda trail, just before starting filming Parer’s War in Queensland).
    4. Offspring producers (John Edwards and Imogen Banks) answered David Knox’s (TV Tonight – August 8) question if actor Matthew Le Nevez wanted out of the hit show? “ as follows:
    “Not as specifically as that,” says Banks. “There was a lot of pressure on him from his US representation, for him to be over there because he’s a hot property. “So it was more that we knew there would come a point where we would have to let him go. So we were thinking about the future and because we knew we had two series (S4 & S5) we were in a position where we had to think long-term. So we knew we had to consider a future without him. We debated a lot about what that exit would be.”

  • Andy

    August 11, 2013 at 1:16 pm

    Patrick’s death was unnecessary and only done for ratings.
    Offspring should have finished this season with the birth of Nina and Patrick’s baby.

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