By Ben Travers | Indiewire April 17, 2014 at 4:40PM
Jim Rash can do no wrong. From his impeccable five-year performance as the Dean on "Community" to his Angelina Jolie-inspired, perfectly-timed pose at the 2013 Academy Awards, to an astute parody of "True Detective" with buddy Joel McHale, the Oscar-winning screenwriter is charming to the nth degree on and off camera. As the host of SundanceTV's "The Writers' Room," he effortlessly pushes for insights from some of the most in-demand writers out there -- and often gets them. While the mood is light during the Q&A session, the entertainment value is high thanks to well-chosen guests, intuitive features, and, of course, its amiable host.
The second season kicks off Friday, April 18th with the creator, lead actress, and writers of ABC's hit late night soap opera, "Scandal" (a well-timed episode considering the show's season finale airs Thursday night). Creator Shonda Rhimes, Kerry Washington, and writers Mark Wilding, Jenna Bans, Matt Byrne, and Heather Mitchell all sat down with Rash to take questions not just from the writer behind "The Descendants" and "The Way, Way Back" but from fans themselves. "The Writer's Room" puts a strong and welcome emphasis on fan involvement throughout its half-hour block. It incorporates on-the-street interviews with the most passionate fans of that week's show, providing sprightly fodder the guests along with a few jokes along the way. Rash even prompted Rhimes and Washington to tweet at their considerable followers during the show and then read aloud the best question shot back to them. Since the show doesn't air live, there's little benefit for "The Writers' Room's" social media presence, but the involvement of the audience remains high -- and that's their priority.
The show seems uniquely targeted for viewers with a short attention span, aka most of today's 18-35 demographic. Pop-up blocks of information spring up during interviews to keep you engaged in case what the subjects are saying isn't enough. Some of these "Pop Up Video"-esque blocks provide standard information to support a guest's point while others reveal little known facts related to the show or its writers. Combined with the large group in the room and various interaction points such as Twitter and fan videos, "The Writers' Room" moves quickly through its half-hour installments.
This particular framing of information works well in breaking "The Writers' Room" apart from other celebrity Q&A shows of a similar ilk. There's only so many ways to format a show so heavily reliant on guests providing content, and the information is still front and center here. Everything works toward elevating the stories told by each week's guests, and it certainly helps they've stacked the season two lineup with excellent writing staffs (see below for a full lineup). From "Scandal" to "House of Cards" to "The Good Wife," these are most of the shows fans desperately want to know more about and programs all audiences can appreciate from a writer's viewpoint -- kind of impressive considering it's only a six-episode season. Rash digs into writers' backstories and how actors reacted to portraying some of the wilder moments. In the season premiere, there's a lengthy discussion on the "wrist-biting scene" in "Scandal." It's inarguably entertaining, but also truly informative. Simply asking who had the nerve to pitch that concept is enough, and Rash casually keeps the conversation flowing.
Rash isn't afraid to touch on dicier issues as well, like network involvement with showrunners and scripts. I imagine many of the topics were cleared by agents ahead of time, but it's surprising how much is packed into each episode. Rhimes touches on how people first balked at her "Scandal" pitch when she said Olivia Pope (the main character) would have an affair with the president, and later comments on how little ABC restricts her staff's creative process. It's compelling content through and through, aided by a team of editors carefully choosing the best moments of the show. "The Writers' Room" is a well-paced, free-flowing, and educational experience unique in every way possible -- let Rash's hot streak never end.
Criticwire Grade: B+
Full Season Two Lineup:
Premieres Friday, April 18 at 9:00 PM ET/PT
Jenna Bans (Co-Executive Producer)
Matt Byrne (Story Editor)
Heather Mitchell (Supervising Producer)
Shonda Rhimes (Creator and Showrunner)
Kerry Washington (Cast Member)
Mark Wilding (Executive Producer)
"The Walking Dead, Smallville and Other Comic Book Adaptations"
Premieres Friday, April 25 at 9:00 PM ET/PT
Blair Butler (Writer of the comic book Heart, Geek Culture Expert for MSN Nerdcore)
Al Gough and Miles Millar (Creators and Executive Producers, “Smallville”)
Robert Kirkman (Creator and Writer of The Walking Dead comic books and Executive Producer and Writer, AMC’s “The Walking Dead”)
Michael Schneider (Los Angeles Bureau Chief, TV Guide Magazine)
"House of Cards"
Premieres Friday, May 2 at 9:00 PM ET/PT
Matt Bai (Political Consultant/National Political columnist for Yahoo! News)
Laura Eason (Writer and Story Editor)
John Mankiewicz (Writer and Co-Executive Producer)
Molly Parker (Cast Member)
Beau Willimon (Creator and Showrunner)
"Sons of Anarchy"
Premieres Friday, May 9 at 9:00 PM ET/PT
Mike Daniels (Co-Executive Producer)
Charles Murray (Co-Executive Producer)
Katey Sagal (Cast Member)
Kurt Sutter (Creator and Showrunner)
"The Good Wife"
Premieres Friday, May 16 at 9:00 PM ET/PT
Ted Humphrey (Writer and Executive Producer)
Michelle King (Creator, Executive Producer and Showrunner)
Robert King (Creator, Executive Producer and Showrunner)
Julianna Margulies (Cast Member)
"Pretty Little Liars"
Premieres Friday, May 30 at 9:00 PM ET/PT
Joseph Dougherty (Executive Producer)
Oliver Goldstick (Executive Producer)
I. Marlene King (Executive Producer)
Shay Mitchell (Cast Member)
Sasha Pieterse (Cast Member)