Or staffing season. Really, take your pick. One and the same.
The Kung Fu Monkey hisself has a post about staffing a TeeVee show. He's got a cool-sounding show called "Leverage" for TNT. I'm still waiting for a fun heist show. Will this finally be it??
Anyhoo, if you really want to shit yourself, read the post. Go ahead. I'll wait.
Yep, you read it right -- 210 submissions for four staff jobs. So if you actually got submitted for the show and all scripts being equal, your chance of staffing is 1.9%. Shit, just take some money and go to Vegas. You'll get better odds. So exactly what the hell is going on here? Is TeeVee really in such dire straits that there isn't any work? Sure seems that way. Because if there are that many submissions for a cable show, imagine what a network submission list looks like.
(NOTE: The notion that network is more prestigious than cable still exists, Mad Men and Battlestar Galactica notwithstanding. Whether or not it's a fallacy is up to you.)
The problem is that staffs have gotten so much smaller, and it's not as though the business is going freelance, either. Shows just aren't hiring writers. But what are these writers who ARE being hired doing right? Are they writing mind-blowing samples? Probably. But there's another factor as well, and that has to do with connections. More and more writers get jobs because they know the showrunner. We've gotten some jobs that way too, but it's even worse now. And I get it. If you can only hire four writers, you want to make sure they don't fuck you. So you hire who you know. Makes perfect sense.
But when you hear those numbers, it makes you go, "Why the fuck should I keep doing this if the odds are so against me even getting a meeting?" And the answer to that is... fuck, I dunno. I honestly DO NOT KNOW. There are moment of sheer bliss, when you're in a story break and you come up with something awesome; when you write a particularly evocative scene; when you hear production talking about how they're going to make a stunt dude jump off the Queen Mary; when you see an episode of a show that just blows you away. Those are the sustainable things that really do and are supposed to keep you going. But... the cons are so outweighing the pros that the second-guessing starts to creep in.
I know the conventional wisdom is to have an original spec and a show spec, but I honestly don't think that's necessary, for several reasons. Primarily, I have read enough screenplays and teleplays (trust me, I HAVE) to recognize whether or not somebody can write. All a "House" spec shows me is that the writer can write a "House" spec. Just because she can write in that voice doesn't mean she can write in mine, and that is actually not a requirement for any show I create. I am MUCH more interested in how a person can write than in how they can ape. And having read gazillions of show samples, it truly doesn't tell me anything. I would rather a writer focus solely on original material and knocking my fucking socks off with that then wasting time writing a "Desperate Housewives." But then, that's just me.
So because writing jobs are so scarce and selling pilots (so they tell us) will be even more difficult, the micromanaging becomes even more severe. By the way, though, how selling pilots can be more difficult than last year will be interesting to see. Will they actually start setting writers on fire if they don't like the pitch?
So micromanaging leads to soul crushing, the kind that's done slowly and relentlessly. TeeVee is the Gitmo of that sort of thing. And like Gitmo, it should be stopped. But, also like Gitmo, it won't.
One of the most soul-crushing aspects of the New TeeVee is how ideas are generated. There are a few ways writers do this. The best way (because there isn't any obvious work involved) is when an idea just appears out of fucking nowhere. It sounds great and as you work on it, it continues to work and be great. Two -- you go looking for ideas. Articles on the internets and in magazines, notions you've written down, etc. And three -- starting from fucking scratch. Going to a coffee shop with a notebook and just writing. Although these are the ideas I usually love the most, they rarely make it. Why? Because they're not high concept enough. They involve more complexity and, frankly, creativity.
I like to have a lot of ideas in different stages of dress. I go back and forth on whether or not this is a good idea. On the one hand, I'm fucking terrified to go anywhere with only one idea. Agents will tell you that you HAVE to go in with only one idea, or the people you're pitching to won't think you're passionate. I don't buy this, for a few reasons. Agents don't come up with ideas and don't pitch them. And it's entirely possible to be passionate about many ideas. All that matters is how you sell it.
But on the other hand, I tend to second-guess myself about ideas, if I've got a bunch of them. Part of it has to do with the marketplace and what I see selling. I always fall into that trap, too, of trying to anticipate, which is easy to do when you have a lot of ideas. So you wind up trying to develop a specific type of show, which might be easy if you go the cop/lawyer/doctor route, but is much harder if your tastes and instincts are further off the beaten track.
So the big question is, do you try and fit in, or do you just go, "Fuck it. This is what I want to do, beeyotches, so suck it." I haven't been successful deliberately trying either approach, so the only conclusion I can draw is that it's gonna happen when it happens. That either drives you more crazy or less crazy; I haven't decided which.
Once you have your idea, all the fun and inspiration and life you've poured into it is slowly drained out by the well-intentioned people who also have jobs to do. Work is so scarce and pilot season's been fucked for a few years now so everybody, from writers to producers to agents to executives, is overthinking every aspect of the business. Agents want to hear your ideas, and then they'll give you notes on them and tell you which ones will sell and which won't. Same deal at a POD and a studio. And then they expect you go to be passionate about an idea that's already been scrutinized and changed for the marketplace.
You, the writer, don't realize you're on that hamster wheel until it finally stops and you see that your idea, your inspiration, was sold down the river before you even get on the wheel. So what you really need to do is, you have to figure out how to work within the system. When to hold 'em, when to fold 'em. When do you threaten to walk away from a project or a show? How long do you try to please people before you've had enough? Or do you always try to please them because shit, this is your shot and if you blow it they'll never look at you again?
How far down the river do you go?
I know people who take the entire ride, and people who won't even get in the boat. I'd love to find a happy medium but... I'm wondering if there just isn't one anymore. You can no longer put your faith in someone else's convictions, because they're all in the same position you're in. Since I admire the people who refuse the ride, I suppose I should start working in that direction. But... scary.
The only person in this process who even has instincts anymore is the writer but mostly, we drink the Koolaid. We talk ourselves into believing one of two fallacies -- we can just say yes now and do what we want later, or their notes are actually improving on your vision. I don't think you can fully appreciate the ending of "The TV Set" unless you've been in that position. Would you totally destroy your life to get your show on the air? How about sell out all of your principles and your instincts to get something on the air that no longer resembles anything you wrote or wanted to write? How far should we go to succeed, and on whose terms?
I went to the Buffy thing at the Paley festival the other night and Joss Whedon was talking about how he came to write "Hush." He thought he was being somewhat hackish and wanted to break out of those conventions.
It would be nearly impossible to do the following today: have the time to realize you were becoming hackish, and successfully get "Hush" past the studio and the network. I've talked about the notes process before and I'll continue to talk about it, because it is one of the biggest problems facing TeeVee. It's not that the notes are horrible or the executives stupid. It's that the process of giving and taking notes is so time-consuming, nobody involved has the time to really devote to crafting an hour of television. A good executive can be very valuable and can give a project or an episode a fresh look that, at times, is sorely needed. But even the brightest of executives is going to struggle when they have to give notes on a story document, an outline and several drafts of a script. They don't just have to do this for one show. A current executive covers many shows.
This leads to notes calls being pushed, which leads to drafts being delayed, which makes problems for production, which costs money. Everybody is trying to make the show work. The execs at the studio want to save money and stay on budget and get the show picked up. The execs at the network want to get the show picked up as well. And the writers want to get the show picked up, and write and produce decent hours of television. You may think you're done with the notes at some point, but you're never really done. And all the craft and heart you've put into your script is eliminated in hurried notes sessions during the last day of prep.
The days of Joss Whedon having the time to actually focus on the aesthetics of his show are long gone. Now, everybody is just trying not to get buried. Forget theme and depth and subtext. You're lucky if the story is coherent. Many times, stories have to be rebroken more than once at the behest of the studio or the network. And that is not going to lead to depth and meaning. It's going to lead, instead, to just getting the fucking thing done so you can shoot it.
The notes process is killing everybody in television. It's killing shows, writers, executives and production. Shows that manage to transcend this are creator-driven shows but those shows are increasingly few and far between. See, making television really isn't that hard... if you're allowed to make it. But due to the corporate nature of things, even a simple process needs to be fucked up.
That's why, when I see something like the Johnny Cash scene in "Sarah Connor," I'm so fucking blown away because THEY DID IT. They got through... somehow. It's a big deal, gentle readers. And for those of you who didn't like the scene (and no, I don't think you are morons, for God's sake), at least try and understand part of why its existence is so remarkable.
That sequence defies current TeeVee convention. Sure, it's the kind of thing we got to do on Millennium pretty much every fucking week, but that was in the distant past, before all the scrutiny. Sadly, I think TeeVee audiences are bothered by that defiance. It doesn't fit what you're used to seeing, so I get the reaction.
I think this is the same rant I did last week, actually. And I'll probably do it next week, too, because... hey, we're in pilot season! Yay! I'll be getting to some comments next time. We were busy finishing Moonlight and getting a spec pilot half broken (the rest to come this week). To people like Robin Hobb, who rant about people wasting time blogging, I've now got three chapters of the YA book done.
All things are possible in moderation.
np -- Vincent Vincent and the Villains, "End of the Night."