So here's a belated resolution for 2009: no more excuses, no more waiting around. I don't want to hear myself talking about what I wish I was writing, what I'm planning to write in the future. Fuck the future. If you want to be a TV writer, you make something happen by bloody writing. That's not rocket science, it's common sense - but you need to embrace that reality and act up it.
Don't be content to sit on the subs' bench, waiting for somebody - a script editor, a publisher, an agent, a producer or a competition - to invite you into the game. You want to play? Get your boots on, get your freak on and get writing.
This is easy to forget, especially when staffing season rolls around because there's the promise of jobs. But remember, the business is changing, and not in your favor. If you're just breaking in, or if you haven't been fortunate enough to get on a long-running, popular show (these days, any show that last longer than 13 episodes), this business is going to punch you very hard in the head. Repeatedly. Studios, networks and showrunners have hundreds of people to choose from for one staff job. Because so many people weigh in, shows are normally staffed by consensus. Studios and networks insist on people and have grudges against others, showrunners hire their friends or people they've worked with, there's no job at your level, etc. So all you can do is keep writing.
So what should you write?
The inclination is to write that one thing that will knock everyone's socks off, that will make them take notice of you. You'll show THEM! Don't fall into this trap. It's an impossible goal. If you don't already have a reputation, you still have the same problem as you do trying to get on staff -- you have to find the exact right person for your material. All you have to do to know this is true is look at Desperate Housewives or Mad Men. These scripts floated around, gentle readers, until they finally landed on the desks of the right people. So don't set a lofty goal like, "I'm going to write the script that will be universally adored." Because it isn't going to happen. Write what you want to write. Write what you don't have. And do that really, really well.
Speaking of shows, nobody watched Sarah Connor or Dollhouse on Friday, which probably seals the fates for both shows. I'm very angry at America for not watching Sarah Connor, which I consider to be one of the best shows on TeeVee right now. But it's science fiction the way Battlestar Galactica is science fiction. It would like you to think. And most people don't want to think when they're watching TeeVee. As soon as Lost asked the audience to think, the audience went, "No thanks." A very small number of viewers watches this kind of TeeVee. I think we know what most viewers like: Plot-driven standalone crime shows where you can only half pay attention and still get the gist of it.
I'm still not quite sure what to make of Dollhouse. As a pilot, it didn't set up the show. Sometimes I like the idea of being dropped into a world, but I didn't find the world of Dollhouse to be defined enough for that. Not yet. And while I partly agree about Echo, in that it's hard to identify with her because she is a cipher who becomes different people each week, I also see how the writers are dealing with that. I think it kind of worked. The identities Echo assumes are of real people, and the real person she became in the pilot had a very emotional problem that tied into the case. That worked for me. And since the clients know that Echo is a blank slate infused with another personality, Eliza Dushku's youth isn't a problem.
But the Alpha mythology was abruptly dropped in there and since we don't know a whole lot about the dollhouse and the program yet, I don't think we're ready for mythology. With Buffy, the mythology was about her initially and then spread outward. I think Dollhouse would be best served by that as well. The pilot felt like it had gotten lost a bit, which probably has something to do with the difficulties the show went through. The world isn't working for me yet. In contrast, the world of Firefly was rich and real. But America just didn't care. I commend Joss for attempting science fiction on TeeVee, but I think he's gonna get smacked down for this one, too. Still, there's something to be said for a writer who honestly does the shows he wants to do instead of kowtowing to the status quo and cranking out procedurals. But then I think about what happens to those of us who are Not Joss when we try to pitch our science fiction shows. Wait. I know how that one ends...
Here's a quote from Steven Johnson on Lost/Twin Peaks:
Twin Peaks is definitely a precursor to Lost (along with Star Trek, X-Files, etc.) But it was largely a commercial flop after a strong open: it limped its way through a second season and was canceled. And in terms of narrative complexity, it wasn't even in the same league as Lost; yes, there were multiple threads and a lot of ambiguity, but nothing like the depth of Lost's mythology, and all the formal tricks (the time structure, etc.)
I strenuously disagree. The depth of Lost's mythology has become a freaking pile-on. One I'm weirdly enjoying, but still. It's one thing on top of another with no resolution. Twin Peaks was, in my view, a much more tightly focused show. Sure, it wandered around from time to time (Leo, freaking Nadine, etc), but the show had one central conceit and spun out of that. I don't know how many conceits Lost has anymore. Lost is metaphysical because there's a physicist, and because they keep mentioning Philip K. Dick and all those philosophers. Twin Peaks didn't need to mention anything. That show was metaphysical without winking about it to the audience. I've never seen anything so deliciously dualistic on TeeVee. And yes, Twin Peaks lost its way after the Laura Palmer resolution, but what Johnson fails to mention is that it found its way again. There are so many moments on that show that you just can't do on TeeVee, and they did it. Lost's story is rooted in its influences. Twin Peaks stood on its own. For all its lofty metaphysical goals, Lost is a very safe show. Twin Peaks was never safe.
In a similar vein, science fiction writer Rudy Rucker made a comment on his blog awhile back that there are no new ideas in science fiction, and he wondered where the new ideas were going to come from. I always thought that the joy of science fiction was not in new ideas but in the way writers explored the already existing conventions of the genre. And I think the genre's doing just fine, because there have always been writers who read Asimov or Heinlein or Philip K. Dick as a kid and want to explore their own take on those conventions. And if you take fantasy into account, that genre's even older than science fiction but writers still find ways to use the old stories and myths and tell compelling stories. Vampire and werewolf romance excepted, of course. I'll die happy if I never see another naked back with a vaguely Celtic tramp stamp on a book cover.
But Rucker was talking about novels. This gets much harder when you talk about TeeVee. We already know that you can't do full-blown space shows on TeeVee. Battlestar Galactica never got the audience it deserved. And the dearth of viewers for Dollhouse and Sarah Connor is telling us that we can't do "grounded" science fiction, either. Lost has science fictional elements, and so does Fringe. But notwithstanding how freaking cool the mythology is, I'm betting Fox doesn't think Fringe working. Science fiction is about building worlds. Not necessarily alien worlds, or worlds on other planets. But the world of your story or show. A procedural comes with a built-in world -- whatever city you want to set the thing in. Procedurals have an incredibly narrow focus but the procedural is also a proven formula for TeeVee. It doesn't matter if you're in New York, Los Angeles or Decatur, as long as you're catching serial killers, dusting crime scenes, interrogating drug dealers or mentalizing, the audience will be with you.
That makes it increasingly harder to do genre but I'm just glad networks are still ordering it. You just have to be about nine kinds of clever to succeed as a genre show and one way to do it is to not sell it as a genre show, and to sneak those elements in. It's possible to do but it's HARD and it requires a lot more brain power than does coming up with a quirky cop. I don't blame writers for selling quirky cops or medical shows or shows about how a woman's place is in the home (not even kidding there). This is a business. You pitch what you can sell. But the dream lives on.
A note from Amy about theft:
Although, my dearest Kay, I would argue the chances that Heroes borrowed from your pilot are slim. After all, everyone knows that Heroes is a direct rip-off of The 4400. Execs at NBC Uni have even acknowledged to me personally that "it seems like the showrunners over there are using your playbook for the show." But, hey, what do I care? Heroes sucks and The 4400 doesn't pay me anymore.
I would guess that the chances of him having even heard of our pilot are so infinitely small that they are quantifiably impossible to measure. The reason Heroes looks like so many other things that has come before it is the exact opposite of theft. Tim Kring is not a comic book guy, or a science fiction/genre guy. So to him, these ideas he had were totally fresh and new. His problem was, he wasn't familiar enough with the genre to steal from it. When people wonder why the show went off the rails so severely, there's your answer. Would you write a medical show or a cop show without any familiarity whatsoever with those genres? Of course not. So that's another reason I don't like Heroes. He showed no respect at all towards the genre, and now it's biting him in the ass.
Still, the origin and evolution of Heroes is much too close to The 4400 to ignore. Although ignore it is exactly what Rogers did when he claimed characters with superpowers was new to a TV audience. Fact is, The 4400 had already been on the air for two years when Heroes was being developed.
We've definitely seen superheroes on TeeVee, going all the way back to the 80s. Most recently, Buffy was a superhero. We just hadn't seen it done so freaking blatantly before.
I'm hoping to read some pilots this week, which will give me next week's blog post. Hooray!
np -- Stereophonic Space Sound Unlimited, of course!