Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Situation: Drama

Man, this script is totally writing itself!

Erm. Not really.

Because we're ostensibly doing a procedural (I say "ostensibly" because I hate procedurals), I've been thinking a lot about TeeVee and why shows used to be fun, but aren't anymore. "The Nine" is the latest slick, rich-looking show with a great cast to be cancelled. Everything about that show should have worked. So why didn't it? I know I lost interest two episodes in. I appreciated how well the show was made, but it just wasn't interesting. In the end, I just didn't care. And apparently, neither did the audience.

We had a meeting yesterday with a producer who was telling us how TeeVee used to work. In the olden days, you couldn't even get in the room to pitch pilots unless you had almost a decade of TeeVee experience. The pool of people who created shows was a lot smaller. Today, literally anyone can pitch pilots. But it doesn't seem to be working better with a larger pool of people. And a lot of those people come from features. They don't really care about TeeVee; they're just in it for the money.

Remember in the olden days when you knew what to expect? You'd watch a Cannell show, a Glen Larson show, a Quinn Martin Production, a Spelling show. And however cheesy you thought those shows were, take a serious look at them.
Obviously, one of the best detective shows ever on TeeVee is "The Rockford Files," from Stephen Cannell. This show is, for me, still the benchmark of how to do a detective show. Engaging characters, light but clever stories, and a situation. Because upon thinking about it, that's what is missing from TeeVee. These procedurals -- the "CSIs", "Criminal Minds," "NCIS," "Numbers" -- all rely heavily on their technical gimmicks. Nobody has a cool car, or lives on a boat. There's no life to these characters because they're too busy spouting technospeak that -- let's face it -- just doesn't matter. Do you really care about bullet trajectories and toxicology reports and blood splatter patterns anymore? Doesn't all that shit just go in one ear and out the other? Maybe that's why this junk's so popular. We're so used to it now. It's soothing, like a white noise machine.

Apparently, people will watch anything procedural. And, you know, whatever. I'm mystified, but people watch it no matter what I think. But what's happening is, even non-procedural are catching "CSI" sickness. You know what I mean. They're all shot through the same lens. The actors are nothing more than Dialogue Delivery Units. The sets are all blue, with luminous flat-screens. There's a lot of walking. The character quirks consist of: he smokes; she's divorced; she's got pink hair; he's got a dog. Instead of being what the writer wants to write, tt's all about trying to anticipate what the audience will want. So all the women want children and all the men are ex-law enforcement/Army/CIA. There's no emotional honesty on TeeVee anymore. It all feels so fake, and that fakeness is what (in my opinion) makes these shows feel so removed. The characters don't feel real, and the actors can't play them with any conviction. Even the non-procedurals are procedural in nature -- it's the same rhythm, the same "tortured" characters. Everything's a freakin' Jerry Bruckheimer movie. Ironically, though, the only modern procedural that works for me is a Bruckheimer show -- "Cold Case." And that's because there's a modicum of emotion and the gimmick serves the show. A lot of people would call "Bones" a procedural, but in this environment, I wouldn't. "Bones" has characters who happen to solve crimes.

Back in the day, which for me is the 80s, audiences used to watch TeeVee for the characters and the situations. The plot was just something that happened in-between the character interaction. These guys, these experienced showrunners and producers, knew how to create a show. Because they created fun. They weren't trying to prove anything. They weren't so much about their own genius that they forgot how to entertain. There was a LOT less plot, which is something we're finding with our own pilot. There's SO much plot -- because we had to do so many drafts of the outline -- that it doesn't leave any room for fun, or character.

Look at the 80s detective shows, which were the 80s version of today's procedurals (and isn't "detective show" a lot more fun-sounding than "procedural?"). "Simon & Simon" -- the set-up is, they're brothers who are polar opposites. They have an antagonist/ally within the police department. Rick lives on a boat and drives the Power Wagon. A.J. lives in a house and drives a Camaro (or, in the earlier episodes, a '57, and don't pity me for knowing that). They solve mysteries. You can take any 80s detective show and break it down like that. "Magnum P.I." -- the set-up is that he's a Vietnam vet who freeloads in a guesthouse. He has an antagonist/ally. He drives a hot red Ferrari. He solves mysteries. "Riptide" -- Army vets who live on a boat. And talk about the gadgets! Actually, Riptide went a little overboard with the gadgets. Both guys had cool cars, they had the boat, a speedboat, a helicopter, a geek, and a robot. But STILL. The show was fun, and the characters were engaging. And they solved mysteries. Since "Riptide" just came out on DVD, I've been watching it. And it's amazing how much life there is to the show. It's just goddam FUN.

There's a beautiful simplicity to the way show creators used to come up with their shows. Their version of high-concept is different from ours. Ours is all about the technocrap whereas their was about the characters, the situation, and the cars. The actors had a chance to freakin' BREATHE on those shows. Now, most actors on TeeVee just look dour and uncomfortable. Creators used to pitch their show, then write the script. This whole two months of outline hell didn't exist then. And maybe it's a problem. The outline is scrutinized at the expense of the characters and the situation. Those things tend to get lost in the mad rush to make sure everything in the plot is fully explained.

Since we're doing essentially a procedural but for a younger network, we need to really, really understand what conventions are going to work for our show, and what we can say about the genre that's new. Why is our show different? I think it may be partially a generational thing. Straightforward procedurals work on CBS and NBC, but not so much on Fox (witness the trainwreck that was "Justice"). And if you think about it, shows like that shouldn't fit a younger-skewing network. It feels wrong. I think there's a new way to do a procedural, to call it a detective show again, and to make it less about the technology and the cleverness of the plot and more about being fun. Hopefully, we'll come close with this pilot.

Is there a "Rockford Files" on today? I know a lot of people like "Monk." I just can't stand the show. But it does have the thing that is lacking on TeeVee -- the quirkiness of a lead character. "Veronica Mars" has the gimmick -- a girl with a past working for her detective dad. While "Monk" has ties to the past twenty or so years of detective TeeVee, "Veronica Mars" owes more to film noir. There's a show on USA, "Psych," that definitely gets the spirit of a fun detective show, but the gimmick (the main dude pretends to be a psychic but he really isn't) is a little tough to shoehorn into every episode. Still, I appreciate the attempt. At least these guys get it. Another show that makes the attempt is "Dexter," on Showtime. I hate this show (it tries too hard to be darkly quirky, a gimmick that needs to feel effortless), but it has several hallmarks of a good detective show, even though it's heavy on the procedural.

So, Gentle Readers, are you also sick to death of blue television? Do you want fun TeeVee back?

Friday, November 24, 2006

Our Master's Voices

Whew! Long time, no blog!

The past month has been all about outline hell. And I don't mean that as a cute little euphemism; it was literally HELL. Part of it is that I HATE outlines. You have to explain so much before you've really had the chance to work out who the characters are. So when you get a note like "What's the main character's voice?" it can be a little frustrating. The outline process seems to have become more important than the script process. The studios and networks need to know every little thing that's going to be in the script. They don't want to be surprised. They can't afford to trust the writer anymore. This comes as a shock to people who haven't done TV in awhile. It can blow your mind. And not in a good way.

On the heels of this comes the news that Akiva Goldsman will be paid four million dollars to "adapt" Dan Brown's "Angels & Demons." Something tells me that Akiva ROCKS outlines because for him, it isn't about exploring character. It's about making the little fuckers do what you want them to do, no matter what as long as it's simple and uncomplicated to a retarded degree. Akiva doesn't strike me as the type of writer who finds cool character moments when he's writing. On the other hand, that doesn't mean that he's a plot guy because so far, he hasn't struck me as caring one little bit about plot, either. So what exactly does this dude do that garners him four million dollars for transcribing another Dan Brown book?

No, I'm seriously asking that. Does anyone know? Does he do whatever a director like Ron Howard tells him to do without ever defending anything HE wants to do? Does he comb Brian Grazer's hair just the way he likes it? WHAT IS IT? WHAT DOES HE DO? I'm dying to know. Does anyone know this cat? Is he just a great guy to be around? Because from what I can see, he's merely competent on his very best days. I think he's the kind of writer that most producers and executives want all writers to be. Just transcriptionists, not artists. It would be a lot easier if the writers would just write down stuff the executives say, rather than arguing about why such-and-such won't work.

The reason someone like Goldsman makes me so mad is because there are SO many writers who aren't like him. Not all of them are, thankfully, struggling. Some of them have climbed the ladder and have taken their integrity with them. But others just stab their children in the back and toss them down the well for that big paycheck. The trickiest thing to do in Hollywood is to learn that balance. When do you question a note, and when do you compromise. You can't exist at one extreme or the other. Or can you? Can you be a right hack who ALWAYS compromises and still climb that ladder? Maybe if you're Akiva Goldsman. I love one announcement about "Angels & Demons" that said Goldsman would have to make sense of Dan Brown's plot. Huh. Right. Like he's going to HAVE to do anything other than typing in dialogue. Unfortunately for Goldsman, "Angels & Demons" is a substantially better book than "The DaVinci Code." That isn't saying much but given how impossibly wretched "The DaVinci Code" is, "Angels & Demons" can't help but be better. The plot is quite a bit less linear than "The DaVinci Code," and I don't think Brown steals as liberally in this book. It's at best an enjoyable read. So Goldsman is going to have to make an actual effort here.

Or I guess he doesn't need to. They gave this guy an Oscar, for God's sake! He can just do whatever the fuck he wants. Things like this are never good for writers; they're only good for that one annointed hack. And today, it's Akiva Goldsman. I really don't know how you can just crap stuff out the way he does. Aspire to something more than four million bucks, dude. And you know what? Prove me wrong. Write the hell out of that thing. Earn your money.

I'm extra mad about this because I've seen two wonderful movies that are about the power of storytelling -- "Stranger than Fiction" and "Pan's Labyrinth." STF has that plot that every writer wants to do -- a writer is approached by one of their characters. But the beauty of this film is that writer Zach Helm doesn't try to explain it. He explores it. "Pan's Labyrinth" is a lovely film about the power of myth, and that's all I'm gonna say because everyone should see it, especially people who are familiar with children's urban fantasy. Seeing two films that feature such a love of storytelling makes the Goldsman thing tougher to swallow. You could program a robot to do what he does, and you wouldn't have to pay it four million dollars.

I don't think writing should be treated like you're dealing with the Anderson account. It's hard, and you have to be totally committed to it. You shouldn't just be able to shut it off and clock out at five. It requires more of you. People who do the bare minimum and just get by are never going to be fulfilled and really, maybe writing isn't for them. Writers who aren't always thinking of the next project will remain incurious and their work won't grow. I don't get that mentality at all. And maybe Akiva doesn't have it. Maybe he really hustles and works his ass off. If that's the case, pay the cat four million dollars.

Now that I've alienated Akiva Goldsman, I will tell the people who keep badgering me to watch Heroes to KNOCK IT THE HELL OFF. I work in TeeVee. I don't need to watch shows I don't enjoy. It's the same thing with sushi. I tried it and didn't like it. I don't feel compelled to eat it until I finally like it. I loathed the Heroes pilot. Deal, okay? My personal reasons for hating it could be overcome by it actually being something I want to watch. It isn't. I've already explored that world and don't have any compulsion to tune in to watch characters I hate. It's not like I'm going to get anything out of it professionally, either; the success of Heroes is not going to mean that TeeVee will suddenly be open to genre material. That only worked once, with X-Files. And you saw what good came out of THOSE shows. The only genre that works on network TeeVee is genre that tells its audience that it's NOT genre -- i.e., "Sure, we have genre elements but we're using them to illustrate REAL HUMAN EMOTION. Just bear with us; we don't take the genre shit seriously either but we're going to elevate this genre if it kills us."

Not. Interested.

What will be interesting is to see if any fun shows are being developed for next year. Because this heavy serialized crap? Really not fun. Am I the only person who wants to see a new Rockford Files? Or, hell, a new Simon & Simon? Riptide? Magnum? I can't be the only one.

Speaking of fun, I hope everyone has seen the new James Bond movie. Daniel Craig is almost otherworldly in it. Best Bond in years. Decades, actually.

Ah... it feels good to get a little screed out of my system! We've finally gotten through the torturous outline maze and are writing the actual script for the pilot. There are two parts of this process that I love -- pitching pilots and writing the first draft. For me, this is the most creative part of the process, fleshing out the characters and finding their voices. So hopefully, our first draft will be fun.

And now, enough procrastinating. On to the next act...