8 TV Shows That Were Creatively Altered by a Writers Strike

Ben Leuner, AMC
Ben Leuner, AMC

Thirty years ago today, the longest strike in the history of the Writers Guild of America began, and lasted a full 155 days, affecting everything from MacGyver to Tim Burton's Batman. Writers strikes have a major impact on TV and film production. Depending on the strike’s length, dozens of film and TV projects can be suspended, delayed, or even canceled, and rebounding when a strike is over isn’t exactly easy, either. (Many people have cited the 1988 strike as part of the reason for the cancellations of both Moonlighting and Kate & Allie.)

Numerous TV series have had to return from strike to a kind of creative reboot, from rewriting single episodes to devising entirely new finales. Here are eight of them.

1. BREAKING BAD

An enduring legend about Breaking Bad sprung up around the 2007-08 Writers Guild of America strike. According to that version of events, Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) was originally set to be killed off by the show’s writers, but when the strike occurred and forced the show to cut its first season from nine to seven episodes, some hard thinking about the show’s structure led to the decision to keep Pinkman around. It turns out that’s only partially true, as creator Vince Gilligan has since noted that he’d decided not to let Paul go by the second episode of the show. The strike did fundamentally alter the show’s overall plot progression, though.

Those final two episodes in season one would have originally given us two fast-paced hours in which Walter White (Bryan Cranston) would have very quickly become the drug kingpin known as Heisenberg. With the strike standing in the way of that, Gilligan and company threw those episodes out and took a more careful approach to bringing out Heisenberg. That meant a slower pace, but an awesome three-episode arc to kick off the second season.

2. STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION

The 1988 Writers Guild of America strike was the longest in the organization’s history, and its long run cut into the production of a number of series, among them the second season of Star Trek: The Next Generation. As a result of the strike’s duration, the season order was shortened from 26 episodes to 22, and with a shorter production window, the show went looking for script sources beyond the standard writers room. As a result, the season premiere episode “The Child” was adapted from a script originally written for the aborted Star Trek: Phase II TV series in the late 1970s. Producers also began mining the “slush pile” of submitted spec scripts from outside writers and found “The Measure of a Man,” by attorney-turned-writer Melinda M. Snodgrass. The script became the ninth episode of the season, and Snodgrass was hired as the show’s story editor.

3. HEROES

After starting off red hot with huge ratings and critical acclaim, the second season of the comic book-inspired NBC series Heroes suffered a ratings decline and attacks from fans due to new characters that took time away from the old ones, a time travel storyline that seemed to drag on too long, and romances that pulled attention way from the show’s super-powered action. It got so bad that creator Tim Kring admitted mistakes in an Entertainment Weekly interview. But the writers strike offered Kring and company a chance to rethink and restructure.

The strike limited the show’s second season to just 11 episodes, and sensing that a change needed to come, Kring reshot the ending of that season’s eventual finale, ”Powerless,” in order to scrap a planned plague storyline that would have made up season two’s second half. The planned fourth “volume” of the series, “Villains,” became the third, and the show carried on for two more seasons.

4. BATTLESTAR GALACTICA

The hit sci-fi series only had one episode of its final “Season 4.5” run completed when the 2007-08 strike hit, and the situation felt so dire at the time that the cast was convinced during filming that said episode—“Sometimes A Great Notion”—would be the show’s last. The series did return to produce 10 more hours to end its run, and, like Heroes, the strike actually gave creator Ronald D. Moore a chance to rethink the planned ending of the show.

“There was a different ending that we had, it was all about Ellen aboard the Colony,” Moore told io9. “She was sort of turned by Cavil, because she found out that Tigh had impregnated Caprica Six, and that deeply embittered her. And she sort of became dedicated to the idea of destroying Galactica and the fleet out of revenge. And [she and Cavil] got Hera, and then the final confrontation became very personalized between Tigh versus Ellen, and should they forgive.”

“That was the story, generally speaking. We didn't have a lot more than just what I spun out to you, when the writer's strike hit. Over the course of the writer's strike, I rethought about it and thought, ‘That's not going to do it. It's not epic enough. It's not interesting enough.’ That's when we decided to start over, and reinvent the last arc of the show.”

Moore and his writers ultimately devised a different series finale, featuring the daring rescue of Hera Agathon and the discovery of our prehistoric Earth.

5. PUSHING DAISIES

When it premiered in the fall of 2007, Bryan Fuller’s inventive fantasy series was hailed as one of the most original new shows on TV, and developed a rabid fan base eager to learn more about the love story between the Pie Maker (Lee Pace) and the Dead Girl (Anna Friel). Initial enthusiasm for the series led to a full season order in October 2007, just weeks before a writers strike was declared. This meant that the series had to halt production with only nine of its 22 ordered episodes completed. Fuller rewrote episode nine to serve as a season finale, leaving lots of loose ends to entice viewers back. It worked. Pushing Daisies got a second season, but unfortunately didn’t get a third.

6. SCRUBS

The 2007-08 strike interrupted production of the NBC medical sitcom, leaving it hanging in the midst of what was, at the time, expected to be its final season. Creator Bill Lawrence was offered the chance to film an alternate final episode to serve as a series finale should the strike limit the seventh season, but Lawrence declined, hoping he would eventually get to do things his way. When the strike ended, the future of Scrubs was still uncertain. Season seven ended at just 11 episodes, but the show continued to shoot episodes for season eight even as it no longer officially had a network. Ultimately, ABC picked up the series for an eighth season in the spring of 2008, and Scrubs finished its run on that network after a ninth season featuring new lead characters was also produced.

7. 30 ROCK

Tina Fey’s Emmy-winning comedy shut down production during the 2007-08 strike, but the biggest creative consequence of that break wasn’t felt until 2010. While the show was shut down in early 2008, the cast performed a live episode as a benefit at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre in New York City. When the strike ended and production resumed, creator Tina Fey and co-showrunner Robert Carlock began having serious discussions with NBC about a live episode broadcast. Though it was originally planned for season four, the episode was rescheduled for season five. Titled “Live Show,” it was finally performed (twice, once for the east coast and once for the west) on October 14, 2010.

8. DR. HORRIBLE’S SING-ALONG BLOG

Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, the musical webseries from Joss Whedon, wasn’t so much altered by the 2007-08 strike as it was born out of it. Whedon conceived the series, which he calls his “midlife crisis,” during the strike, and actually first mentioned it to co-star Felicia Day on the WGA picket line.

“I asked if you’d seen The Guild. You didn’t have to say anything! But you said, ‘Oh yeah, I saw it and loved it,'” Day recalled in 2015. “You said ‘I’m actually working on a supervillain musical’ and I pooped myself. Later I got an email that was just, ‘Can you sing?’ Signed, ‘J.’ Then I pooped again.”

Whedon financed the series himself, and it was produced in just five months. Today, it remains an early example of the reach and profitability of web-distributed programming.

The Most Successful Entertainment Production in History Might Just Surprise You

Goran Jakus Photography/iStock via Getty Images
Goran Jakus Photography/iStock via Getty Images

Last year, Marvel Studios capped off an unprecedented run of success with Avengers: Endgame, a movie promoted as the culmination of over 10 years of storytelling. The film made $2.8 billion, unseating 2009’s Avatar and knocking 1997’s Titanic down to third place. With nearly $3 billion in ticket sales, you would think Endgame would count as the most successful entertainment production of all time—be it a single movie, book, album, or video game.

It isn’t.

While it earned a staggering amount of money, Endgame is hobbled by the fact that theatrical runs last just a few weeks or months. To really roll in the dough, it helps to have a combination of high ticket prices and a show that runs almost in perpetuity. That’s why it’s another Disney production, the Broadway adaption of The Lion King, that can make a credible claim to being the most financially rewarding entertainment effort of all time. Since debuting in 1997, the stage show has grossed $9.1 billion. (The 1994 film, 2019 live action remake, and merchandising aren’t included in that total. If they were, the number rises to $11.6 billion.)

A theater sign for 'The Lion King' is pictured in New York City in March 2003
Mario Tama, Getty Images

The musical, adapted by Julie Taymor, follows the story of the animated original, with lion cub Simba learning to accept his role as king of the Serengeti Plains. It’s estimated the show has been mounted 25 times globally in nine different languages, with more than 100 million people purchasing a ticket to see it.

Does that make Endgame a distant second? Not quite. Another long-running musical, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Phantom of the Opera, has grossed more than $6 billion since its 1988 debut. The 2013 video game Grand Theft Auto 5 cleared $6 billion in 2018. And if one were to account for inflation, 1939’s Gone with the Wind made $3.44 billion.

The Lion King does have one asterisk, however. If inflation is taken into consideration, then 1978’s arcade classic Space Invaders comes out the winner. The popular coin-op game—which was later ported over to the Atari 2600—was a smash hit. By 1983, it had made $3.8 billion. Accounting for inflation, it earned $13.9 billion. What’s even more impressive is that unlike big-ticket movies and stage shows, Space Invaders did it one quarter at a time.

20 Best Docuseries You Can Stream Right Now

A still from Netflix's The Devil Next Door (2019).
A still from Netflix's The Devil Next Door (2019).
Netflix

If your main interests are true crime and cooking, you’re in the middle of a Renaissance Age. The Michelangelos of nonfiction are consistently bringing stellar storytelling to twisty tales of murder and mayhem as well as luxurious shots of food prepared by the most creative culinary minds.

But these aren’t the only genres that documentary series are tackling. There’s a host of history, arts, travel, and more at your streaming fingertips. When you want to take a break from puzzling out who’s been wrongfully imprisoned, that is.

Here are the 20 best docuseries to watch right now, so start streaming.

1. Making a Murderer (2015-)

One of the major true crime phenomenons of 2015 was 10 years in the making. Laura Ricciardi and Moira Demos uncovered the unthinkable story of Steven Avery, a man wrongfully convicted of sexual assault who was later convicted of murdering a different woman, Teresa Halbach. Not just a magnifying glass on the justice system and a potential small town conspiracy, it’s also a display of how stories can successfully get our blood boiling. Three years after the docuseries became a surprise hit for Netflix, it returned for a second season in 2018.

Where to watch it: Netflix

2. The Staircase (2004-2018)

In 2001, author Michael Peterson reported to police that his wife, Kathleen, had died after falling down a set of stairs, but police didn’t buy the story and charged him with her murder. Before the current true crime boom, before Serial and all the rest, there was The StaircaseJean-Xavier de Lestrade’s Peabody Award-winning docuseries following Peterson’s winding court case. The mystery at the heart of the trial and the unparalleled access Lestrade had to Peterson’s defense make this a must-see. And Netflix's addition of new episodes in 2018 led to a resurgence in interest in this mind-boggling case (with armchair detectives even positing that an owl was the real killer).

Where to watch it: Netflix

3. Flint Town (2018)

If your heart is broken by what’s going on in Flint, Michigan, be prepared to have that pain magnified and complicated. The filmmakers behind this provocative series were embedded with police in Flint to offer us a glimpse at the area’s local struggles and national attention from November 2015 through early 2017.

Where to watch it: Netflix

4. The Jinx (2015)

After the massive success of Serial in 2014, a one-two punch of true crime docuseries landed the following year. The first was the immensely captivating study of power, The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst, which chronicled the bizarre, tangled web of the real estate mogul who was suspected of several murders. The show, which could be measured in jaw-drops per hour, both registered real life and uniquely affected it.

Where to watch it: HBO Now and Hulu

5. Wild Wild Country (2018)

What happens when an Indian guru with thousands of American followers sets up shop near a small town in Oregon with the intent to create a commune? Incredibly sourced, this documentary touches on every major civic issue—from religious liberty to voting rights. When you choose a side, be prepared to switch. Multiple times.

Where to watch it: Netflix

6. Wormwood (2017)

Documentary titan Errol Morris turns his keen eye to a CIA project that’s as famous as it is unknown—MKUltra. A Cold War-era mind control experiment. LSD and hypnosis. The mysterious death of a scientist. His son’s 60-year search for answers. Morris brings his incisive eye to the hunt.

Where to watch it: Netflix

7. Five Came Back (2017)

Based on Mark Harris’s superlative book, this historical doc features filmmakers like Steven Spielberg and Guillermo del Toro discussing the WWII-era work of predecessors John Ford, William Wyler, John Huston, Frank Capra, and George Stevens. Also narrated by Meryl Streep, it looks at how the war shaped the directors and how they shaped the war. As a bonus, Netflix has the war-time documentaries featured in the film available to stream.

Where to watch it: Netflix

8. The Devil Next Door (2019)

In 1980s Cleveland, John Demjanjuk was living a quiet life as a grandfather and auto worker. Suddenly, he was being extradited to Israel over accusations he was once notorious Nazi concentration camp monster Ivan the Terrible. As Demjanjuk mounts a defense, the trial captivates a country—but was he really the monster? This riveting series will have you guessing until the very end.

Where to watch it: Netflix

9. Ugly Delicious (2018-)

David Chang, the host of the first season of The Mind of a Chef, has returned with a cultural mash-up disguised as a foodie show. What does it mean for pizza to be “authentic”? What do Korea and the American South have in common? With his casual charm in tow, Chang and a variety of special guests explore people the food we love to eat as an artifact that brings us all together.

Where to watch it: Netflix

10. Evil Genius (2018)

At approximately 2:20 p.m. on August 28, 2003, Brian Wells—a pizza deliveryman—walked into a PNC Bank in Erie, Pennsylvania, and handed a note to a teller demanding $250,000 in cash. Wells had a bomb, which was strapped to his body via a metal neck collar, and a loaded shotgun that was fashioned to look like a walking cane. Approximately 12 minutes later, Wells strolled out of the bank with $8702 in cash, then made his way to the McDonald’s next door, where he retrieved a detailed note that told him where to go and what to do next. Within 15 minutes, Wells would be arrested. At 3:18 p.m.—less than an hour after he first entered the bank—the bomb locked around Wells’s neck detonated as police watched (and waited for the bomb squad), killing the 46-year-old in broad daylight. The bizarre incident was just the beginning of Evil Genius, which documents the peculiar case that would eventually entangle a range of unusual suspects, including Marjorie Diehl-Armstrong, and has had armchair detectives—and the FBI—questioning whether Wells was in on the bank robbery, or a genuine victim, for more than a decade.

Where to watch it: Netflix

11. The Confession Tapes (2019)

A spare room. One or two detectives. A weary suspect. That's the set-up for this series that lets archival footage of police interrogations tell its own arresting stories.

Where to watch it: Netflix

12. Our Planet (2019)

Be amazed at the sensational vistas and eclectic wildlife with this beautifully-photographed trek through some of nature's most astounding sights—and the environmental perils that affect them. David Attenborough narrates.

Where to watch it: Netflix

13. The National Parks: America's Best Idea (2009)

The cheapest way to visit Yosemite, Yellowstone, Muir Woods, and more. This Emmy-winning, six-part series is both a travelogue and a history lesson in conservation that takes up the argument of why these beautiful places should be preserved: to quote President Theodore Roosevelt, “for the benefit and enjoyment of the people.”

Where to watch it: Amazon

14. The Innocent Man (2018)

After two brutal murders in 1980s Oklahoma, four men are convicted of the crimes. All of them maintain their innocence, causing observers to question whether they were guilty or themselves victims of police coercion. This drama is based on John Grisham's 2006 book of the same name; Grisham executive produces.

Where to watch it: Netflix

15. Last Chance U (2016-)

Far more than a sports documentary, the story of the players at East Mississippi Community College will have you rooting for personal victories as much as the points on the scoreboard. Many of the outstanding players on the squad lost spots at Division I schools because of disciplinary infractions or failing academics, so they’re seeking redemption in a program that wants them to return to the big-name schools. Later seasons switch focus to a team out of Independence Community College in Independence, Kansas.

Where to watch it: Netflix

16. Vice (2013-)

The series is known for asking tough questions that need immediate answers and giving viewers a street-level view of everything from killing cancer to juvenile justice reform. Its confrontational style of gonzo provocation won’t be everyone’s cup of spiked tea, but it’s filling an important gap that used to be filled by major network investigative journalists. When they let their subjects—from child soldiers suffering PTSD after fighting for ISIS to coal miners in Appalachia—tell their stories, nonfiction magic happens. The first six seasons are available on HBO, with a seventh airing on Showtime in 2020.

Where to watch it: HBO Go

17. Chef's Table (2015-)

From David Gelb, the documentarian behind Jiro Dreams of Sushi, this doc series is a backstage pass to the kitchens of the world’s most elite chefs. The teams at Osteria Francescana, Blue Hill, Alinea, Pujol, and more open their doors to share their process, culinary creativity, and, of course, dozens of delicious courses. There's no shame in licking your screen.

Where to watch it: Netflix

18. The Toys That Made Us (2017-)

Who knew the origin of classic toy lines could be so dramatic? This series puts the spotlight on the creative friction that led to some of the most iconic playthings of the 20th century, from Transformers to the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

Where to watch it: Netflix

19. The Eighties (2016)

CNN's series highlighting the pop culture of the neon-colored decade boasts familiar talking heads like Tom Hanks and enough nostalgia to keep you afloat for weeks. The network's The Seventies and The Nineties are also available.

Where to watch it: Netflix

20. Bobby Kennedy for President (2018)

This four-part series utilizes a wealth of footage, including unseen personal videos, to share the tragic story of Robert F. Kennedy’s run for president in the context of an era riven by racial strife. Watching this socio-political memorial told by many who were there (including Marian Wright and Congressman John Lewis), it will be impossible not to draw connections to the current day and wonder: What if?

Where to watch it: Netflix

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