The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

2020 reads like a TV script. So we asked screenwriters how it should end.

(Mikel Jaso/For The Washington Post)

If 2020 were a TV show, the first draft would be terrible. The premise is promisingwhat happens when political dysfunction meets a deadly virus? — but the execution needs work. Think about how messy it all has been: competing plotlines, too-abrupt soap opera twists, one-dimensional villains, stories introduced and then just as quickly dropped.

Like it or not, we’re barreling toward the finale, and no one knows what’s going to happen in the last episode. Will there be a satisfying ending? Or one of those unsettling, ambiguous ones that gnaws at you long after you’ve finished the show? Will it be an ending at all?

Hollywood screenwriters have been thinking about that, too.

"This experience is very much kind of a joke that we make a lot in the writers' room," says Bruce Miller, the showrunner of "The Handmaid's Tale" on Hulu. The joke being: If all the crazy stuff that's happening in the world right now were a show, what kind of show would it be? It could be a comedy, tragedy, dystopian thriller, political and legal drama, medical procedural, apocalyptic fiction, horror, and satire, or all of those rolled into one.

But mostly, what it has is a completely bonkers plot. Remember all the stuff that has happened this year: The virus, the lockdowns, George Floyd, the massive civil rights marches, Lafayette Square, Elmhurst Hospital. The conflagration of the American West, the destruction of the American economy, the death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg. The president getting impeached, the president getting sick, the New York Times getting the president’s tax returns. Brexit and Megxit. Whistleblowers. Superspreaders. Murder hornets!

The Post asked five screenwriters to tell us what they’d do with this doomed script: how they’d shape it into something watchable, and how they think it should end (not necessarily how they’d want it to end, mind you).

Spoilers — maybe? — to follow.

The structure

Looking at the endless daily twists and subplots of the proverbial 2020 script, our experts have some feedback.

“I would say to this screenwriter, ‘Whoa, slow down,’ ” says Eli Attie, a writer for NBC’s “The West Wing” and former vice president Al Gore’s speechwriter. “Like, show us who the people are, or draw out and take out some of these plot events, and let the one story breathe.”

Miller says when he writes, he tries to “give people enough time to actually thoughtfully process something complicated.” In 2020, he continues, “We have so many complicated things that are very hard to process, and they’re coming one after another.”

An example Miller points to is the recordings of first lady Melania Trump that were released by her former adviser, Stephanie Winston Wolkoff. “It’s ignored in the next scene and we never hear about it again,” Miller says. “That happened in the real world. But that doesn’t work in fictional storytelling.”

Angela Kang, showrunner of AMC’s “The Walking Dead,” had a similar note. “There’s a lot that happens and then it just kind of falls away and there’s no follow-through.”

The parade of people and plotlines that just kind of fall away makes 2020 feel different from a TV show. Even though there are a lot of jaw-dropping twists, “It doesn’t feel like it has the sort of narrative structure that we expect of TV,” says Dan Schofield, a writer and producer of NBC’s “The Good Place.” “Like, it’s all rising action.”

That makes it worse than bad, according to Schofield.

“Even bad TV tends to offer resolution,” he says.

The genre

What kind of show are we living through, anyway?

“There’s ways in which this would be a black comedy or a drama or a satire,” says Schofield, but it depends on how you narrow your focus: When it comes to covid-19, “I haven’t yet found a ton of humor in the disease.”

Maybe a dystopian thriller? Miller, of “The Handmaid’s Tale,” isn’t convinced.

“We were sold, through entertainment, an idea that dystopia was going to be exciting,” he says. “And it’s been so boring.”

Pandemics in real life are slow and grinding, which is not super-compelling television. So that’s why pandemics in entertainment tend to be “some kind of contagion where people would drop dead” quickly, says Cheo Hodari Coker, the showrunner for Netflix’s “Luke Cage.” He thinks 2020 could work as a “24”-esque action show, where a hero is tasked with saving the country — both from the virus, and its infected president who is “clearly out of his mind” and has “his finger on the button.”

Or maybe it’s a zombie-apocalypse series. Kang has some ideas: The show would start with impeachment, with just a few allusions to “this weird flu that’s passing through Asia,” she says. “And little by little, people are disappearing and you don’t know why. And then, of course, you eventually learn that, in fact, the dead are marching through China.”

The zombie virus spreads to the United States. The president catches it, and the line of succession turns on itself.

“You would go through the chain of the various people who are supposed to take over the presidency,” Kang says. “And one by one, they would fall. And you would have a scene in the halls of Congress as senators are tearing each other apart, which is sort of metaphorical.”

The characters

You might think President Trump would be a good character to center a show on. Our screenwriting experts disagree.

“You can’t get inside him,” Attie says. “He doesn’t have the same inner life, emotional life, as a three-dimensional character that you want to write about. I don’t know how to make that interesting. It’s not nuanced. It’s not contradictory. He’s not at war with himself.”

Schofield puts it in starker terms: “He’s almost like Jaws,” he says. “A massive creature causing destruction, but without anything that seems to resemble, you know, motivation or logic. So, that’s good for spectacle, but bad for character.”

Maybe the problem here is lack of imagination. Kang sees slightly more possibility for nuance in the Trump character. “A villain is a hero in their own story,” she says. “If you wanted to write a story where the president was sort of a sympathetic anti-hero figure, you could absolutely do that.”

Still, a writer might do better to center the plot action on someone else.

“Often your leading character is the audience,” Attie says. “It’s a vessel through which the audience can put themselves in the story and see what’s happening.”

He thinks a good subject “would be a person who begins as a Trump supporter and is radicalized and is changed, and realizes she has to risk everything she comes from and everything she’s had to tell her story,” he says. Perhaps a staffer in the administration who is driven to mutiny.

The story of 2020, Miller says, would be best told “through the eyes of someone who is seeing this as the end of one era and the beginning of another” — ideally, someone who isn’t in politics.

“I would certainly use the point of view of a young woman of color,” he says. “It seems like that person is going through the biggest, most interesting perspective on history, I think. Someone who is just trying to grow up in the world and get their life started.”

The plot twists

“This is a year that’s so crazy that literally, actual government footage of a UFO was declassified, and nobody talked about it,” Coker says.

Then there were the “murder hornets,” a.k.a. Asian giant hornets, an invasive species that decapitates bees. The hornets flew into the plot this spring, adding an extra layer of Old Testament energy to a country already addled by disease.

As a harbinger of the End Times, their presence may have been overhyped. But if this were a TV series . . .

“That’s the kind of thing where you just drop a mention of it somewhere in an episode, and then you forget about it,” Kang says. “And then it’s supposed to come back at the end of the season in some unexpected way.”

There was the toilet paper hoarding. Tom Hanks’s coronavirus diagnosis. Kanye West’s presidential campaign. (“You could just cut that out of history and, you know, save yourself some pages in the script,” Schofield says.) Another made-for-TV moment was Kimberly Guilfoyle’s bizarre and forceful speech at the Republican National Convention. (Guilfoyle, the ex-wife of California Gov. Gavin Newsom, is dating Donald Trump Jr.)

“The fact that the president’s dopey son’s girlfriend is also the ex-wife of the governor whose state is on fire — like, that just feels too convenient,” Schofield says. “That feels like a contrivance where the producers of a show were like, ‘Oh, we already have this actress that we like. Let’s just make it the same person.’ ”

And then there were the events of late September and early October, a period in which Justice Ginsburg died, the contents of President Trump’s tax returns were revealed, the disastrous first presidential debate occurred, and the president and many of his staff members tested positive for the coronavirus. The revelation that Amy Coney Barrett, the conservative judge nominated to replace Ginsburg, once held the title of “handmaid” in a Christian group was a particularly strange clash of reality and fiction for Miller, the “Handmaid’s Tale” writer.

“You really could make a miniseries just on those two weeks,” Kang says.

But would the president get the coronavirus in the TV-dramedy version of 2020?

“People would say that it’s too on the nose,” Coker says.

Attie disagrees.

“I think the most Shakespearean element of [those] 2½ weeks has been Trump’s diagnosis with the disease, and its failure to change him,” he says. “It’s a karmic irony.”

The ending

We’re almost at the last episode. So the challenge for these writers and showrunners is: Given everything that has happened so far, how does it end?

In screenwriting, as in life, there isn’t an easy answer.

“The first thought that I had was like, is this a season finale or is this a series finale?” Schofield asks. “Is this a wrap on America, as a country?” It will be hard, he thinks, to wrap up all the loose ends of this year in any meaningful or satisfying way.

It makes him think of the “it was just a dream” trope, or the famous ending of “St. Elsewhere, which ended with the camera pulling back to reveal that the hospital drama took place inside a snow globe, and was perhaps the figment of an autistic child’s imagination.

“I don’t know who’s holding the snow globe,” Schofield says. Maybe “Mark Burnett or Jeff Zucker” — two of the executives behind “The Apprentice” — “having created a Trumpian reality.”

Or maybe the writers would need to rely on a deus ex machina — an unexpected actor that changes everything at the last minute. “The murder hornets come in,” Schofield spitballs. “The aliens come in simultaneously with the seas [rising]. The wildfires come in from every corner. You know, human nature is extinguished. That seems to be the only possible way to tie up all the loose ends.”

Guess it’s not a comedy after all.

“I think I would look for some absurdist turn,” says Kang, and not one that involves zombies.

“It could be, Trump goes out to California and there’s wildfires,” she says. “And he seems to go on location for a photo op, and disappears, and he’s presumed dead. But it turns out he used that as an escape to go to Russia because he figured, ‘Well, I’m going to lose. . . . Russia will protect me and I won’t have to pay my tax bill.’ ”

We should pause to acknowledge that these screenwriters skew liberal. If that wasn’t already obvious.

“The happy ending is: Right at the brink of things falling apart, the president comes out of his steroid stupor and realizes that I’ve lost myself. I’ve lost my country. I’ve lost my party. I apologize. I resign,” Coker says.

He knows it won’t play out that way. “What’s on the whiteboard, so to speak, is civil war,” he says, “no matter who wins.”

Does the whiteboard have to go there? Attie has a more ambiguous cliffhanger in mind.

“Honestly, I think the end could be now,” he says. Biden is leading in the polls, but it’s unclear whether his lead will carry him to a win. “With scenes and stories, you want to enter as late as possible and get out as soon as possible.”

On the other hand, artful ambiguity is a risk. Viewers demand satisfaction.

“You want to end with Trump’s walk out of the White House, whenever that comes,” Miller says.

“I don’t know if it’s a happy ending,” he continues. “I mean, it’s the beginning of something hard. You know, it’s not an ending at all.”

Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush never faced a pandemic, but each took steps to prepare. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Brian Monroe/The Washington Post)