Dollhouse episode three: No. Just... no. Episode four... much more stuff to like there, but it's a bit of a worry when you have to break your premise to do a good episode.
Joss says the show gets good around episode six, which is also when he got to do what he wanted. I will stick it out because I really liked the second episode, and the original pilot, and Joss. But after the pilot aired, the show was called a failure, and death watch was initiated. Death watch has been initiated for Sarah Connor since the middle of last season. Death watch, actually, exists for every show, right out of the gate. It just claimed Life On Mars. It did not claim Heroes, which is just fucking weird and inexplicable, but death watch can't be all things, I suppose, and god only knows what's really going on at NBC.
As annoying as death watch is for the audience, it's just as annoying for the staff.
You used to get on a show and feel comfortable that you had thirteen episodes. But now, it's terror from the first story break. And that, gentle readers, is no way to foster a creative atmosphere. I think shows should be innocent until proven guilty. If one airing is all it takes to put the show on death watch, then networks should just fucking stop making TeeVee. Why spend all that money if you're not going to at least support the initial order? And that's without even talking about how much meddling there can be right off the bat, when the network's made the pilot, ordered the show, and then suddenly turns into Hyde and goes, "Wait. Hang on. WHAT show is this?"
This buyer's remorse comes from different places but it's partially about the hand-off from development to current, and the relationship between the studio and the network. Remember, the studio is the first to hear a pitch. They put up the money to make the show, but it's the network that controls whether or not the show gets on the air. Having never produced a pilot I can only guess, but I would think that the studio is going to do everything in its power to give the network the pilot it wants. But things change once a show is ordered to series. Different executives, and money, become an issue. Defining the show past the pilot can turn into a tug-of-war between the network and the studio, and an ineffectual showrunner only makes things worse. Joss Whedon isn't an ineffectual showrunner but for God's sake, this happened to him before. Why did he let them do it to him again? If you're going to fail, fail on your own terms. There's nothing worse than letting your identity vanish and failing on THEIR terms.
It just never works. Doing what someone else wants you to do at the expense of your instincts and beliefs never results in a hit. Hits are shows that are entirely creator-driven. What's funny is, everyone can recognize these shows. It's in the details, and you can't fake that. If you cynically pitch a show you don't believe in because it's something a network will buy, then you will eventually be found out. Your show will lack details. I think about my favorite shows currently on and they are all rife with detail. Battlestar Galactica lives in a rich, layered world with compelling, three-dimensional characters. The mythology is big, tangled and wound around itself. It's messy, but it also has great energy, and you can't fake that shit. Mad Men is nothing BUT detail. I love Matthew Weiner's insistence on making sure the sets look lived in. Maybe that's something you can only spot in HD, but even if you don't notice it, that detail is filtered throughout the show. Breaking Bad, which just started up again (hurray!), has exquisite detail, in the characters, the way they talk, the look of the show (which feels achingly authentic), and the dangerous new world Walt has entered.
If you strip out detail because you're afraid every single person on the planet won't understand every single word, then you're doing your show and your audience a disservice. I've worked in this type of atmosphere before. Nobody is happy -- not the staff, and NOT the viewers. How can you engage an audience with something deliberately generic? I think this has happened with Dollhouse. And it's too bad. Compromise is essential in this business but there's also a time to put your foot down. It's super easy to just keep compromising, although then you find yourself in a living hell. A perfect example of this is the movie "The TV Set." If you haven't seen it, this movie will make your teeth hurt.
On TV Squad, Richard Keller has a pretty good list of ten things he would get rid of in TeeVee. The list is hard to quibble with, but I do take issue with Number 9:
TV show remakes: Okay, the remake of Battlestar Galactica was a hit. And, the return of 90210 made its mark. However, that doesn't happen with every remake of a classic television show. More than likely, the remakes are a pale comparison to the predecessors. Instead of thinking of ways to remake shows like Melrose Place writers should think about original ideas to submit to the networks.
I love how people blame the writers for this. The writers aren't sitting there going, "Shit, I really want to remake something." The writers don't own these properties. The studios do. It's the studios and networks that want to remake shit, not the writers. They bring properties to the writers. Sure, writers can say no, but if a studio comes to you and says, "We want you to write this pilot," you fucking DO it, for many reasons. The goal is to get a show on the air, and part of the way you do that is to get them invested in the show. If they come to you with an idea, even if it's a stupid remake, then they're invested. Get a pilot shot, or a show on the air, and then you have a much better chance of doing what you want later.
If you get a show on the air, it's MUCH easier to get something else on the air. And if you play things right, you can do the show you always wanted to do. I believe that if you have enough clout, you can ALWAYS do this. I mean, within reason. Don't do something stupid, like Blind Justice. Okay? Sometimes you hit it out of the park with your first show. It's your passion project, the story you always wanted to tell. But most of the time, you won't be that lucky. I'm incredibly proud of several episodes of ours. I can't imagine what it's like to have a WHOLE SHOW, where you're able to do what you want. Amazing.
Speaking of this, I am still sadly remiss in reading pilots. I haven't read V yet because I just HAD to read Masterwork, from Prison Break creator Paul Scheuring. A goodly number of TeeVee writers have pitched an art theft show. Some have pitched a (forgive me for making this reference) DaVinci Code show (we actually sold one to Lifetime several years ago). But the comment is always, "What are the stakes?" In other words, "Who gets killed?" I think the stakes of an art theft show are pretty self-explanatory: Art theft is the fourth largest international criminal enterprise (after drugs, money laundering and weapons). Before the looting of Baghdad, the FBI set the size of the market as high as five billion dollars. Art theft doesn't just encompass Van Goghs or Cezannes, but baseball cards, comic books, archaeological artifacts, war artifacts, Hollywood memorabilia, antiquarian books, you name it. The FBI has an art theft division, which they modeled on similar squads in Italy, France and Spain. The LAPD has the nation's only dedicated municipal art theft detective. This is a guy who stops assholes from violating innocent people by fucking stealing from them. The "stakes" of CSI have nothing to do with the dead body. That's a MacGuffin. It's all about how to solve the mystery. Ditto, art theft.
The question of why the stakes always have to be murder go out the window when the guy pitching the show is coming off of a successful show at the network. So how is Masterwork? Well, the dude totally did his research. The art details are authentic, down to paint chemistry and the carabinieri.I suspect I know which conspiracy theory he's after, and he does a neat job of setting up the central mystery. So I'm really pulling for this show and I hope that if it DOES go, he sticks to his guns. Because I think there may be some fights ahead to maintain the intricacy and integrity of the show.
One comment (I'm trying to keep up) From A View From My Couch:
Thank you very much for the response. It was a very good and informative read. Which brings me to my next question...I know this isn't an interview, but I'm writing a pilot script and I was wondering if you'd be able to give me any insight into a day for a writer. Say the writer is working on a procedural that is shot in various locations, but based in LA or some city. What would a typical day(s) be like for a writer?
Well, right now I'm sitting in a coffee place writing a blog post! You know, research is a pretty individual thing. Some people go crazy with it and if they're writing a procedural, they'll get people on the phone to talk about their day-to-day lives. I think you can do a lot of research on the Internet, though. If you're setting your show in a specific city, it's pretty easy to get those details into your script. What I will say, though, is not to get bogged down with research. It's easy to just live there, but it stops your from writing. You definitely need a certain amount of authenticity but you need character detail, too, and that comes more from you creating compelling characters. I tend to do a lot of initial research, and I also just sit and write stream-of-consciousness character stuff, usually focusing on the character's background, almost like doing a biography. I probably won't end up using any of it in the pilot, but I like to know who the characters are before I start.
Pilots are tricky because you have to set up the world, the premise, the show and the characters. As you write, there are going to be things that don't work. Recognize it, accept it, and try to solve it. Always be thinking about how your pilot sets up your series, if it will give the reader a good idea of what the episodes are, and if your characters are interesting enough to follow. One more tip -- Don't be too clever. Don't think too out-of-the-box. Make it your own, but make it identifiable, too. This isn't a development I'm particularly thrilled with, but people only want a voice within reason. They don't want to read something they can't see on the TeeVee. This was learned the hard way, BTW. So I hope I'm saving you from some heartache!
np -- The View, "Which Bitch"