Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Kingdom of Rust

So for those who are looking towards staffing season, a dilemma. CBS has just told its showrunners to cut up to $400,000 out of their budgets. Naturally, this cut will be out of the writing staff. Not only does this mean you won't get that CSI gig, it means that writers from these successful CBS shows will be cut loose. What that means is, if you DO get meetings on shows, the CBS writers who've been cast adrift are gonna be much more attractive.

And there's nothing you can do about that.

The entertainment divisions of these megacorps are taking the hit for the failures of the other divisions. It's trickle-down economics, all right.

Even NBC head Jeff Zucker admitted recently that NBC would never be number one in prime time again. And he should know, right? He is, after all, the president of a network that hasn't had a break-out hit in years. His decision-making is legendary. His instincts are, well... total ass. The networks are giving up. It's not only due to what's going on with them. Their parent companies have something to do with that. But it just seems that as soon as things get tough, these pansies just shrug their shoulders and cry uncle. If you can do both those things at the same time. If there was one creative, independent network president, maybe we'd see something different. But they just cave. So it should no longer be a surprise when they abandon shows. This is their pattern and now that they're in crisis, they don't know what to do. The executive food chain must be fed when really, the cuts should come from there and not from the shows. The shows should be protected at all costs but geez, who would write and distribute the memos telling shows to cut budgets if there weren't executives?

Everything these guys do, every move they make, pushes the creative people closer to the Internet. One day these network heads are going to look around at a wasteland of a TeeVee schedule and realize that everybody bailed. Until then, though, we must all make due.

Monsterbeard sez:
I didn't like Masterwork as much as I wish I did, and I think it's because I wanted a more satisfying caper-of-the-week ending. I mean, I'm all for the overarching mystery of the golden idol or whatever. I just also want an amazing week to week recovery of that lost work of michaelangelo that was up until now only a legend.

I'm a total and complete sucker for art mythology but I get what you're saying. I would love to watch that show. Did you see the Bravo docu series, "Art Crimes & Mysteries?" It was a six-part series about famous stolen art cases, and it was totally riveting. My guess is that even though Fox was eager to buy from Paul Scheuring, even he would've gotten the "What are the stakes?" question if he just pitched an art theft show. I don't know this for sure, but from my own experience, I'd guess so.

I never turn down a drink. Thanks, man!

I'm sort of watching Derby contenders. A few weeks ago, I picked my top four: Quality Road, Pioneerof The Nile, The Pamplemousse and I Want Revenge. I can't believe the4se idiots threw Quality Road out of their Florida Derby picks, especially because of their reasoning. He hadn't gone two turns, and he's by Elusive Quality. I can't believe they ignored the fact that Elusive Quality has already sired a Derby winner (Smarty Jones), and Quality Road has stamina influences Strawberry Road and Alydar in his female family, where Smarty's dam was by miler Smile. Bizarre. I'm fully aware that The Pamplemousse probably won't get the distance but I just love him. What a personality. I also like Imperial Council, Friesian Fire and Bill Mott's horse. Can't think of his name. Santa Anita Derby this Saturday, so that should be interesting!

Alfred the Human Troll wants to know:
I've seen you write before about reading pilots, etc. and this might be (okay it is) a stupid question: how exactly do you lay your hands on these pilots? Do they come to you via your agent or some other means? Or do are they in some magic box marked "pilots?" which I'm unable to find--info would be much appreciated so I don't have to continue breaking every little box I find on the side of the road.

We get them from our agent, usually as pdf files on a CD. I would imagine they'd be out and about on the Internets, being pdf and all, but I don't know where.

You're welcome! Glad you're enjoying it. And I think Galen marooned himself in Britain and built Stonehenge, so he probably quite enjoyed himself.

Anonymous Bosch opines:
For me, it's always been about Exploring Ideas and Concepts first, and good characters are just icing on the cake. I can't name the characters in Asimov's Robots books, but I can name the Laws Of Robotics.

Asimov was definitely about the Big Idea, and I devoured his books as a kid. However, I do very much remember Lije Baley and R. Daneel Olivaw, Susan Calvin, Hari Seldon, the Mule... his character work wasn't stellar and let's face it, Asimov wasn't the prose stylist others were, but I thought his Big Ideas worked because of the characters. I don't think I'm explaining this very well; I don't think he was great with characters, but I don't think his books would have been as effective if they hadn't existed.

Lots to think about with all those concepts. Syfy just continually offers us 'Monster On The Loose'.

When you're talking about TeeVee, you won't get anywhere if you start with the idea first and then the characters. You have to be a giant ape to get this past them, and past the audience, too. I find this very weird, because the procedural shows are all about tech. Characters are constantly warbling about theories behind crimes. But the second you try this within the context of science fiction, you're dead. They will not let you do this. It's frustrating, to say the least. I'd love to do a Big Idea show. Actually, I think an excellent example of a Big Idea show is Flashforward. The book is very tech-heavy. It's got a good deal of hard-sf theory in the style of Asimov. The show, however, is not. The characters are taken out of CERN and put in what an executive would call a relatable situation. The pilot is more character-driven than the book, but the Big Idea is still there. That's the tricky part, and Flashforward has done an excellent job with that.

Besides, does Syfy really have the budget to support Sci-Fi shows? BSG ended up with a lot of 'Ship In A Bottle' Shows, and the money for 'Eureka' seems to have completely vanished, considering how cheap the last season was, and the fact they had to work Product Placement into it to support it.

I honestly don't know. I do know they do NOT want spaceship shows, but that's due less to budget and more to aesthetics. Their testing tells them that space doesn't sell to audiences. It will in film -- Star Trek will be the biggest movie this summer -- but not on TeeVee. Now... I don't necessarily agree with this. I think there's a way to do practically anything, as long as you do it right. But they've made their decision.

Gareth says,
I even remember a drama about space travel a while back - not SF, just workplace drama about contemporary astronauts. I wonder if you could pitch that today.

It's pitched all the time. It just hasn't gotten on the air yet. And the people pitching these types of shows aren't necessarily sci-fi people. I think the stigma occurs when you have to say, "After the 33rd galactic winter..." The same stigma applies to high fantasy: "Ephiron of G'nleth had just passed his 12th Hyrelian shrewsday..." Peoples' brains just snap. It's not a world they're familiar with, and that means there has to be a lot of brainpower put into marketing and advertising because they're starting with nothing that's familiar. The real trick is to find something that satisfies your genre brain while being familiar and comfortable to audiences and executives.

When I look back at the science fiction books I read as a kid, it's all Asimov, Heinlein, Philip K. Dick, Pohl & Pournelle, Zelazny, urban fantasy like Madeleine L'Engle... you get the picture. And what a lot of those books had in common was a relatability. Heinlein's juveniles frequently had Earth protagonists. And if they didn't, they were Earth-like enough to be relatable to kids. Why Heinlein has not been successfully adapted is beyond me. Why Asimov's robot novels haven't been turned into a series for Sci-Fi is a mystery. But there's obviously still a bias that hasn't been figured out yet.

Mr. Burnett,
What you said. All of it. Our frustrations are the same. So the question is -- what do we do about it? How do we get this across? You know, I went to a movie a few weeks ago and the Star Trek trailer came on. These kids were there with their mother. They were nine, ten, around there. And when the trailer comes up, one of the kids goes, "Ooh! Star Trek!" That reaction is something you can't test for. And we could take advantage of it, on TeeVee, but it's not allowed. I think we all need to band together somehow and create what we want to create. Maybe the Internet...

A View From My Couch demands,
The solution is simple, Kay! Pitch and create a fantastic, absolute hit of a science fiction show that destroys all stereotypes and stupidity. How hard would that be?Have it ready by this fall, please. I hate tardiness.

Whenever I think of pitching my craziest science fiction idea, I remember that I should only do that when I want to sabotage my career. I'm not quite there yet!

Anonymous sez,
I loved the BSG finale. I think much of the nasty hostility towards it stems from the impression that the showrunners were improvising to the very end rather than following an outlined arc. Observe comments on rastbm if you're old enough to remember Usenet (the Babylon 5 moderated newsgroup where showrunner JMS can still be found).

But who in their right mind is willing to bet their show will last long enough to follow a five year arc?

As usual, the best solution seems to belong to the Mutant Enemies - arc-ing on the season level and not on the series level.

That's how Morgan & Wong did season two of Millennium, and that season exists as a complete story. I think the fact that series don't have concrete ends causes more problems than anyone knows. It's certainly hurt Lost and, I gather, Heroes. Buffy certainly did it right, and that's the only way you can do a show with a mythology. We've got an idea right now that needs to have a hard end date. I wonder if the BBC would be interested... they seem to do it right.

You get the best drama when someone stands up for it. If there's too much outside input, the show will be watered down and point of view will be lost. But sometimes, a showrunner has to literally put his or her career on the line to get the show they want. It makes me wonder how they're doing it at AMC. How are Matthew Weiner and Vince Gilligan so letter-perfect with their shows? Does AMC really allow them to protect their shows like this, or are they fighting every day? I'd really like to know. If it's the former, then set a pitch meeting, please!

Kaley wonders,
But on to another show that has been steadily winning me over: United States of Tara. I was glad to hear they got renewed for a second season and then shocked to hear that Alexa Junge, the showrunner, quit! Why would a showrunner leave a show that's been renewed, especially in this economic climate?

I don't know the specifics, but there are myriad reasons. She could have a pilot that's going, which is an optimistic reason. I've known showrunners who left successful shows because they'd done everything they could there, and wanted to develop their own stuff. There could have been a problem between her and the network or studio. Maybe there was too much interference, maybe she wasn't doing what they wanted her to do. I don't know, but if I hear anything, I'll let you know!

silverlain wants to know:
SyFy... SyFy... such a STUPID name. i sincerely hope that this is the ONLY stupid mistake the network is making in their so-called revamp.

an NPR article speculates that the end of BSG might revive Dollhouse. i'm curious as to what you think of this.

I think that's kind of a stretch. While hardcore genre people will watch both, I think they already were. Speaking of Dollhouse, I would have found their game-changer much more of one if Alias hadn't done the same thing in the pilot. I think there are some interesting ideas in Dollhouse but as I said before, if you find yourself tossing your premise to keep the show interesting, then maybe your premise has some problems. I'm still watching, because I wonder how different the show is going to be at the end than it started out to be. I'd wager VERY.

And lastly, the execrable (always a fun word to use) Jonathan Toomey of TV Squad stuck his foot down his craw with this nonsense about Matthew Fox not wanting to do TeeVee when Lost wraps:
According to various reports, the Lost star claims that when the sci-fi drama finally ends, it'll be the last TV show he ever does. Part of me doesn't blame him. He spent six years on Party of Five, another year trying to make something out of nothing on the abysmally bad UPN (remember them?) drama Haunted, and it'll be five more years notched for him once Lost ends.

So what does he want to do instead? You guessed it, the old standby: focus on his movie career. Um... what movie career? Has he ever watched Vantage Point? Did he sit through Speed Racer? OK, so We Are Marshall was pretty good... but that's it. His TV track record speaks much higher of him than his cinematic resumé does, so why the desire to completely snub the whole medium? Something tells me his tune will change when Lost ends and he isn't getting the phone call about his dream job - a Steve McQueen biopic. How about a Wanted: Dead or Alive remake instead?

Jonathan Toomey, you are a fucking idiot. Speed Racer was one of the best movies of 2008, hated mostly by people who went into the movie like the sheep they're created to be, folks who only turn their brains on when they're told, maroons who don't think that a movie called Speed Racer could be anything other than total, utter crap. It's pretty easy to have an opinion when someone else tells you what to think, isn't it? That makes you look smart on the Internet machine. Something else that makes you look smart is ironic distance. You cool cat, you! Conventional wisdom, which is anything but wise, has told you that Speed Racer sucks, so spread that, you will.

That part was bad enough. But then we get to the second part of the case that proves your rampant idiocy: Haunted.

I worked on it and I'm here to tell you, suck is the last thing that show did. I hear your mumbling, Jonathan Toomey: "Riiight, you WORKED on it, so it HAS to be good." Like most TeeVee writers, I don't defend everything I've ever worked on. There are probably three things I would go to the mat for, and Haunted is one of them. You clearly never saw a frame of the show. Either that, or you really are completely blind, you good little entertainment consumer, you.

UPN did such a piss-poor job of promoting the show that NOBODY watched it. Now, my friends know I'm not one for self-promotion, and they get on me about that all the time. I guess all it takes is a clueless little pisher like you, Jonathan fucking Toomey, to drag me out of my promotionless shell.

Our episode of Haunted, "Grievous Angels," was chosen as one of the top 30 episodes of TeeVee for 2002 by The Futon Critic. See, Futon Critic critics actually WATCH TEEVEE. They don't only watch the most popular shit, they watch everything. As a TeeVee website, that's kinda their job. You, on the other hand, are just some asshole pretending to be more than just someone who sits on his fat ass and watches whatever they feed you.

Look, chuckles, I know what you're going for. You're trying to be "in the know," and the only way to do that is to criticize. It's always fashionable to slap actors for being whiny little turds who make too much money for doing something any drooling fool -- including you -- can do. I see your trick bag. But when I worked on Haunted, I saw an actor who came to work every day, who was in almost every scene, and who was always about the work. Matthew Fox fucking threw himself into that show, and he was amazing in it. It's a shame the network didn't know what it had. Matthew going on to notoriety in Lost is an actor getting the acclaim he deserves. And the only thing that should be blamed for Speed Racer's failure at the box office is assholes like you and the other critics who refused to look out of their sad, sick little house of mirrors and see an original, ferocious and subtle piece of work.

Unless you're hiding in Matthew Fox's closet, you don't know if he's had to turn down movie roles because of Lost. And why you feel the need to take shots at him because he just made a freaking DECISION is really mystifying. But then, you just do 24 recaps on a website, so I guess I get it.

I love having a blog.

np -- My rage. And Fanfarlo.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

All Along the Watchtower

Battlestar Galactica ended its epic run on Friday night. It really was one of the best series on TeeVee. Not because it was science fiction, and not in spite of it. Because it was beautifully written, heroically acted, and had just the SHIT produced out of it. Things will come together on a good show. On a great show, everybody rises above what they've done before, creating work that must astonish even them. The synthesis on a show like Galactica is rare, and breathtaking. And the series finale couldn't have been more exemplary, or truer to the spirit of the show.

I realize that a lot of people -- to me, a surprising number -- either hated it, or had no reaction at all. I'm not sure if that had something to do with what people were expecting or what, but I thought it was a fantastic finale. And what Ron Moore was able to do with the twisted mythology of the show was remarkable. Y'know, all the stuff we heard from Anders, about loving perfection and numbers and all that, actually dovetailed into how simple the final explanations were. It was like a unified field theory, where the more dimensions/plot complications there are, the simpler the explanation. Ron Moore did something with the finale that physicists have been trying to do with our universe for decades.

He dealt deftly with philosophy, with Aquinas, Plato and Aristotle in particular, with the different theories of God and creation, like the clockmaker hypothesis, in fieri and in esse. He handled determinism, free will, aspects of reincarnation, Hinduism, Gnosticism. We got the logos, the elohim, deism, theism, Iamblicus. All synthesized and contained and character-driven. I thought it was magic. The circle of life really is a circle. But he also pays lovely homage to the original series, with the fleet moving towards the Sun. The music swells and it's the original score. And the ship configuration is exactly the same as the opening credits for the original show. Not only fucking great, but also something that's emotional and affecting even if you didn't know that.

Galactica ending also signaled the end of the SciFi Channel, at least as it's called the SciFi Channel. As I'm sure everyone knows, they have changed their name to SyFy. According to some focus groups, SyFy sounds cooler than SciFi, proving that focus group people are fucking stupid. They sorta had to change their name, on account of them being sued and not being able to trademark or copyright or whatever the fuck. But they didn't say that. The press releases all talked about how they really wanted to change their name.

But this assumes that the folks at formerly SciFi thought there was something to fix, which makes their job a lot harder. It also opened the floodgates for asshats like Tim Brooks, who used to work for SciFi but doesn't any more. I think you'll see why:

"The name Sci Fi has been associated with geeks and dysfunctional, antisocial boys in their basements with video games and stuff like that, as opposed to the general public and the female audience in particular," Tim Brooks, who helped launch Sci Fi Channel, told TVWeek. "It's somewhat cooler and better than the name 'Science Fiction.' But even the name Sci Fi is limiting."

Oh, Tim. Tim, Tim, Tim. You endless fool.

First of all, SyFy isn't cool because the only thing it stands for is a Polish venereal disease (it's true). SyFy, in English, doesn't mean anything at all. More on that later, though. Let's spend some time taking great offense at what Tim says about science fiction/genre fans.

According to Tim, science fiction is only associated with geeks and dysfunctional boys and video games (how random!). He specifically removes women from people who watch/read science fiction. But look at the genre shows that are on other networks. Take Lost, for example. That's a show that, according to SciFi's parameters, they would put on (and they are airing repeats). Women watch Lost. Women do not, and never will, watch Mansquito. Women did watch Battlestar Galactica. But I doubt very much that the ancient Neilsen system is going to tell you that. Just going by a decades-old ratings system isn't going to give you real information. Grabbing people off the street isn't going to do that, either. What might help, though, is gathering female genre fans and, you know, finding out what THEY like to watch.

Shows like Lost, Buffy and X-Files can serve as gateway shows to SciFi/SyFy. Cable doesn't air the same stuff network does. Cable shows are clearly delineated from network shows. Shouldn't the SciFi/SyFy channel be running the cable versions of shows like Lost? Or Heroes? Or Fringe? Or Sarah Connor? Shouldn't SciFi/SyFy have been the place for Pushing Daisies? Assuming, right out of the gate, that women hate science fiction and only psychopaths watch it is why Mansquito's on. If you make Mansquito, then you are creating a self-fulfilling prophecy there, aren't you? People who love the genre thought SciFi was created to avoid the cheesy shit but instead, it's all cheesy shit.

There's nothing limiting about science fiction. Well, I guess there is, if you think it's all about space and ships and mansquitos. But the tagline,"imagine greater," has some issues, in that I DON'T KNOW WHAT THAT MEANS. "Imagine greater" than what? What are you telling me to do here?

I would think they'd be focused on holding the departing Battlestar Galactica audience. Maybe Caprica will do it, but Galactica existed outside the realm a little bit, because it was a remake of another show. It wasn't something a writer came and pitched. It was a property they owned. I dunno. Maybe they should just rifle through the library and reimagine everything. Maybe the tagline should be "reimagine greater."

Galactica had a huge uphill road just to get an audience, though, and I wish the network saw that and appreciated it. Because it wasn't the name recognition that made the show something to talk about. It became that IN SPITE of the name, because it had to overcome an expectation of cheesiness. What worked with the show wasn't distinctly about spaceships or special effects. It was about characters, and writing. Because science fiction is ALWAYS about characters. If you don't know this, then you aren't paying attention. Now, the network doesn't want to do another show like Galactica and on some level, I totally understand why. They really did love the show, and they desperately wanted it to do better. It didn't, so as a money-making venture, as a business, they don't want that business model.

I'm sorry serialized drama doesn't do better and I know they want shows that are more episodic and close-ended, but they're still a genre network and genre works best when it's serialized. I don't know if there's any way to come to grips with this, to strike some sort of a balance, but I think it's important. The network distinguished itself critically with Galactica, even though the fucking Academy and all those assholes didn't acknowledge it. I'd hate to see them cut off their nose, etc.

The advantage of a cable network, especially with genre, is that they'll leave shows on. A lot of fans won't bother to watch genre on a network, especially in the age of DVD. Why invest, when a network's so quick to cancel a show?

Here's an excerpt from an interview with SciFi president David Howe:
As the SCI FI Channel, we've always defined the sci-fi genre very broadly. Some of you may disagree, but we believe that sci-fi includes fantasy, supernatural, paranormal, superhero, horror and quite a lot of speculative action and adventure. Since we launched 16 years ago, we've always carried this broad range of sci-fi/fantasy programming on our air. So the mix of shows isn't new and won't change in the future.

The challenge for our brand is that many non-SCI FI Channel viewers think "sci-fi" is only about space, aliens and the future. (Those are the actual words many people use in focus groups.) They still only expect to see reruns of Star Trek on something called the SCI FI Channel.

So we believe that by evolving our branding, we'll be able to encourage more viewers to check us out and watch the broad range of shows on our air. And that includes our hit reality shows—such as Ghost Hunters and Destination Truth—which are rooted in the supernatural: ghosts, myths and legends. And because our new brand is less literal than the letters "sci-fi," it's actually catching up with our current range of programming and makes more sense to new viewers. And by expanding our audience, this will help us grow as a business.

When the public reads this, they think, "Gee... I like all that stuff. But it's not on the SciFi Channel." And it's true. Every network, even a cable network, has a mandate, a list of things they're looking for. You would think that you COULD pitch all of these things to the SciFi Channel but the reality is, you can't. Their paradigm doesn't include supernatural shows, or horror. They don't want superheroes, vampires or werewolves. Yet, what's funny is, they will air Lost, Moonlight and Haunted. That conflict is a bigger problem than anything else.

If they put on a supernatural show, or a horror show, or a time travel show or whatever, then people would start to think of SciFi as more than spaceships and aliens. Put on the supernatural equivalent of Battlestar Galactica. Break boundaries. Look at AMC, for example. Nobody knows what the fuck their brand is, but they have two of the best -- if not THE best -- dramas on TeeVee.

Their miniseries get huge numbers. That should tell them something. It also gives them a new way to develop, to try stuff out. Order a limited series -- a mini, or a six hour -- and see what the response is. See if it's a viable series. You know it'll most likely get great numbers, so you're already making money there. And with the added possibility of an actual series, well... seems like a win-win.

Yes, we did extensive research with our core audience. Here are three quotes from sci-fi fans that are a good summary of what we heard:

"SCI FI sounds very generic, sounds basic. Syfy sounds cool, cutting edge, ... the cool thing you want to be associated with."


Look. If focus group testing worked, then any show that was a hit with thirteen people in a flat little room would be a hit with everybody. But we know that's not the case. It's also dangerous because you're asking them to think about something they have never thought about. Nobody goes, "Gosh, I'd watch that channel but the name doesn't sound very cool and I don't like spaceships." You are forcing them to articulate an instinct, something for which they literally have no words or thoughts. And then you base your network on that.

Another way to get genre fans to the network -- the first step on their way to growing the audience -- is to get the right people selling shows. In genre more than anywhere else, fans revere their creators. If they get JJ Abrams, Joss Whedon, Chris Carter, other Trek people, anyone considered a star of the genre, the fans will follow. Obviously, the work will need to be good to keep them, but getting them there is the first step, yes?

I desperately want this network to succeed. I shower them with kudos for Battlestar Galactica. And I only hope that they don't stop there.

np -- some bizarre distant hammering. WTF?

Friday, March 13, 2009

Fluid Soundbox

Just a reminder: This is my blog, wherein I make the decisions about what goes here. I don't have to take anonymous attacks if I don't want to. This is not an egalitarian society. So if you are cowardly enough to submit said attacks, don't be gobsmacked if I reject them and just ignore your ass. And I say to you, don't read this blog if it bunches you up so much.

Moving on...

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"

Thursday, March 05, 2009

Babel On

A busy few weeks, gentle readers, trying to get pilot ideas together, gearing up to actually reading pilots, you know the drill. We're going to be pitching something in a few weeks, and I'm really excited about it, both because of the idea and because of who we're working with. It's vitally important to find people you like to work with. I can't stress that enough.

I also spent a shocking amount of time following the fallout from the Bobby Jindal Republican reaction after President Obama's speech to Congress. Jindal was from another planet during his rebuttal. The last time I saw somebody implode this badly involved orange juice, a quart of Vodka, and Danny Bonaduce.

The Dodgers got Manny (MANNNNNY!) and SoCal racing fans got The Pamplemousse. It's been an interesting week.

Which means that I've been horribly remiss with comments. I'm doing ALL of them today. Strap in, y'all!!

Monsterbeard goes:
I completely agree with you about Twin Peaks and Lost. Twin Peaks was always going along saying "Look, you're not going to get the answers, but you're going to enjoy the characters trying to find out those answers." Who killed Laura Palmer always remained the central reason to watch the show. I think Happy Town exhibits this, and I hope it continues as a series with the same light touch.

I think it does, too. "Happy Town" is an impressive piece of writing, with a LOT of characters to handle. And they're well handled. You get just enough mystery, and just enough intrigue, to come back. I like the set-up a lot; it makes sense that the show starts when it does. And I also like the fact that the mystery feels complex, but that doesn't bog the pilot down. I'm looking forward to this one. "Twin Peaks" was maligned because it was assumed that the reason for the show was ONLY the question of who killed Laura Palmer. But the show was never just about that. And it worries me that TeeVee has to be so specifically about the Big Idea. A high concept works for a movie but it just doesn't work for TeeVee. Even when there IS a high concept, shows tend to move beyond that.

Mr. Burnett says,
Loved your comment about the "pile on" nature of the show's mythology. I'd bet when the pilot was first produced, none of the elements of LOST's current mythology was even considered. In fact, if the show runners knew then what they've written today, the network probably wouldn've laughed in their faces. Can you imagine..."See...there's this WHEEL at the bottom of the Island which, when turned, MOVES IT THROUGH TIME!"

Yeah. There's no way. One thing that I've struggled with in regards to this is how to trick them. Because that's basically what's happened here. You sell them a show they understand, and then you sneak in your cool shit later. It's tricky.

Regarding Rucker's comment there are no new story ideas...perhaps not, but I find the work of Charles Stross rather compelling. I remember first reading Stevenson's SNOWCRASH and thinking it was full of new ideas. Also, if you haven't read it, Steven Hall's THE RAW SHARK TEXTS is worth checking out. Love to see THAT movie.

What I was reacting to was the notion that the only ideas of value were new ideas, and if someone took a Heinlein-ian approach, say, then the book was uninteresting because the idea wasn't new. I dunno. I really liked "Old Man's War," and the Jupiter novels.

I still think great televised science fiction will continue to happen, but only by accident. Scheduling Sarah Conner Chronicles and Dollhouse on Fridays, when their target audiences are seeing the latest genre fare at the multiplex, will always be a plague on their ratings, especially as the age demographic of viewers who tend to go out on Fridays instead of staying in, continues to climb. 40 is the new 30 and all that.

And then the Live + 7 comes in, and "Dollhouse" jumps 26% while "Sarah Connor" jumps 30%. THIRTY FUCKING PERCENT. Maybe the networks aren't taking this seriously yet because TeeVee is still bound to commercials, but you would think they would be working very hard at trying to find a way to advertise to all of those people. If the fates of either of these shows are determined in part by these numbers, things are going to get very interesting.

And what about all those viewer who now wait until an entire season of a show comes to DVD? I'd have never seen FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS without reluctantly seeing the DVDs...and now it's a show I buy first week it's released...although I've never watched it during it's regular broadcast run. Same goes for DAMAGES and NIP/TUCK.

This is crucial to TeeVee right now and if the networks continue to ignore it, then the Internet will pick up on it, I think. I didn't see "Damages" when it ran but I watched the first season on DVD and loved it. More people are doing this now, I think partly because they don't want to invest in something only to see it canceled. The viewers are expected to be loyal to a show, but the network doesn't have to be loyal to the viewers. So I can't blame anyone for waiting for DVD. Especially with genre fare, because it tends to be more serialized and can be better appreciated on DVD. I kinda wish they'd just start making shows for DVD. Make 13 episodes, air it if you want, but make it primarily for DVD. I wonder what would happen then. Would there be as many close-ended procedurals? What's the "CSI" Live + 7?

AJ, you're welcome! And thanks back.

Gareth says,
I've thought about the space show thing myself. I think it's just that spaceships, and future settings in general, are unfashionable at the moment. I don't think there's any permanent problem with setting a show in space - the various Star Trek shows didn't do too badly.

They sure didn't. But they went to the well once too often and that changed the perception about the franchise. Also, it's a franchise, so it doesn't count when you're talking about space shows. Ridiculous, I know, but that's how they think.

As for Heroes, it's fascinating how someone with no comics background can end up duplicating all the worst parts of superhero comics. It's not just bad TV, it's bad comics, on TV.

It actually makes perfect sense. You have to know the rules before you can break them. At the top of my list of annoyances: the insufferable, know-nothing snobs who are going to elevate the genre.

Alex wonders,
How would you compare the DOLLHOUSE pilot to the pilot script that was floating around last year? I felt the script was stronger, more coherent, and less jammed with expo. The pilot felt like it was drenched in network notes. You?

Couldn't agree more. And I see that Joss is threading in some stuff from the original script. In the original, I get the show. He's setting up a lot, but he does it in that script. A pilot is like a house of cards. Because you're creating a brand-new world, you have to build a very intricate foundation. And the second networks start taking individual cards out, well... I refer you back to the Great Trading Stamp debacle involving Marcia's bracelet and Tiger.

Amy sez,
Would love to hear your thoughts on Day One vs. the V reboot. I know both writers and thus am hesitant to discuss in a public forum... having just learned my lesson from you quoting my faux rant on your blog. :)

You have yet to rant!! I have read "Day One" but not "V" yet. I will read it soon and then both of us will be quite civil and lovely. Because we are.

Sasha says,
The complexities of Lost's plot don't do much for me, but I do love the way everything that happens has emotional resonance for the characters involved, and each character has changed and grown over time.

Yup!! Same thing with "Twin Peaks" & Laura Palmer, and that's what networks don't always understand. I know everyone LOVES procedurals, but really... the audience STILL won't watch a procedural if they don't like the actor or the character. It's not as important in a procedural as it is in "Lost," but it's still a factor.

Anonymous goes,
'Dollhouse' - well it doesn't reach out and squish a viewer with a feeling of awesomeness; however, it's Joss - more like a slowly being eaten away by a lightly acidic awesomeness.

Nothing to add. I just like the way you said that.

Devon ponders,
Your comments about LOST are interesting. It's a show that I stopped watching regularly a couple of seasons ago, not because it made me think -- I like that part -- but because I felt the creators were jerking me around just to jerk me around, rather than having a specific vision for the overall mythology. The way it layered felt false to me, I felt like they broke my trust, and that was it. I like the writing, I like the scene work, but I don't trust the creators to fulfill the promise of the mythology. There was a point where I could see three possible trajectories for the storyline, and they picked the one I liked least and the road I hoped they wouldn't go down. I realize it's all overly personal, and it shouldn't be, but that's what turned me off to the show.

I think this, in part, speaks to the idea of character. If you're not hooking into the characters, then yeah, you are totally being jerked around. I haven't spent three seconds thinking about what the mythology means. If I did, I'd probably want to kill someone. But I've been here before, with "X-Files." I DID spend more than three seconds thinking about the mythology, but back then we didn't know any better. And there wasn't the interactive component that there is with "Lost." But as soon as the characters began to change, that's when I checked out. It wasn't because of the mythology.

Oh, and some people known to both of us are now in a "reality show" --but that's probably something we should discuss off the board! ;)

OMG, I am LOVING it! I really am. It makes me want to write an ensemble pilot SO MUCH. I think Animal Planet has done a wonderful job with the show. I also love that they shot it last year, so it's all incredibly relevant. And seriously, I would watch it every day forever. That's how much I love it.

For those of you who suddenly went, WTF??? The show is "Jockeys," a docudrama that follows the Southern California jockey colony during last year's Oak Tree meet.

Silverlain asks,
Thanks for the great post. It scared me a little though.Whatever great script one manages to brew up, what really matters seem to be how lucky one is for it to be picked up.

I have a question: is it common for producers/directors to have preference for hiring writers that they've worked with before?

First of all, yeah. There's a point at which it's up to luck and the capricious whims of the higher-ups who weren't involved in the development process. This is almost as hellish for the development execs as it is for the writers, because it's those execs who were won over in the pitch, who shepherded the project, and who lived with it. And yes, it's extremely common for producers to hire people they've worked with before. It's so common that it's getting impossible to just get hired. But hell, if I got a show on the air, I already know who my staff would be, so it's not like you can blame anyone for that. I do wonder how many brothers Joss Whedon has, though. Seriously. Stop already.

There were a lot of comments from people who don't hate "The West Wing." Cool. What I'm not loving when I'm reading pilots and pitching is how everything has to have an ironic distance to it. There was also an incisive intelligence in that show that's very hard to get away with anymore.

Deepstructure wonders,
so why are tv programs given more slack than films? films not only have to give you their entire world in 1.5-2hrs, but also have to do it in one episode. why can't tv pilots accomplish the same thing? (fully acknowledging that many films don't accomplish it either).

In a movie, you have a very specific issue that you have to set up and resolve. Your characters exist within the parameters of the movie, but they don't need to exist outside of that. In a pilot, you have to set up the possibility of an endless series of issues while also introducing characters and relationships and intimating that they will also have myriad places to go. A pilot has to be both finite and infinite at the same time. A film doesn't have to do that.

A View From My Couch sez,
Well my blog is a graveyard, like Friday night TV, so I'm back here to annoy.

Have you checked your DVR ratings? You never know.

Please oh wise TV woman, please write a blog talking about how mid season replacements go down (ie; what execs have to consider, processes, stuff like that). Gracias.

Midseason shows are usually pilots bought for fall. When the networks are deciding what pilots to shoot, they always shoot more than they need. Around January/February, they start picking those pilots. There are pilot scripts they will flat-out pass on, but there are others that they won't shoot, but won't officially pass on either (this is annoying, BTW). If you don't get an official pass, then that could mean that your pilot is still in play and that they may decide, after they've finalized their fall schedule during May upfronts, to shoot your pilot for midseason consideration. Alternately, they could decide to order their midseason shows from the pilots they've shot. A lot of the time what happens is, they make the calls one by one, and they'll call those whose pilots don't get a fall slot and say they're in midseason contention. Then comes a frightfully long, drawn-out process where they'll make one decision, then wait awhile and make another... it can be really painful. They normally don't just order stuff that they know will be midseason right off the bat, but there are exceptions. They'll occasionally make pilots and then push the shows to the next year, so they'll reshoot pilots, recast, that sort of thing. Basically, there's no hard and fast rule. You can't really develop something specifically for midseason. Hope that helps!

Lee says about Dollhouse,
And after two episodes, is still trying to established its needlessly complicated and uninvolving premise. This has nothing to do with settling for status quo TV. The show just isn't very good.

I agree that it's still trying to find its premise, and I don't think that everyone who don't like the show feels that way because the show isn't conventional. Not at all. I'm willing to stick with it, but then I'm not some super champion, either. There are shows I walk out on really early. Just not this one! I do think Joss is trying something different, and I think it's important that we get different stuff on TeeVee. There's always the danger of failure, I know. If something that isn't a cop/lawyer/doctor show fails, that hurts the chances of something else unconventional making it. Cop shows can fail all over the place and it never hurts the chances of someone selling a cop show. I just wish genre shows had that comfort zone, but it's like the networks are just waiting in the weeds for them, and when they fail (even if it's due to a lot of network interference), the networks jump out and go, "HA! See? Nobody wants to watch this shit." The best case scenario would be for genre shows to be the first to migrate to the Internet but the quandary is that they're usually much more expensive, so that probably won't happen.

Alan Smithee says,
Fringe got good? When was that?

I was with you up until then. Totally agree about taking time to absorb something and reserve judgment. That's what I've been trying to do with Fringe, despite wanting to give it up after that one about the mystery cylinders chased by a man with no motive but had a mind-reading machine AND a super gun from the future. But apparently people lapped that stuff up.

You would be referring to me. As I said somewhere earlier, I'm a sucker for this stuff. I know that, and I acknowledge it. I don't like everything they've done on the show and actually, the engine of the show rarely works for me. But the cool stuff? Works like gangbusters. I can't help it.

Fringe seems to operate with the same pile on tactics as Lost -- throw on the Super Cool Ideas and don't worry about resolution or motivation because half the audience will just assume you're doing something really clever called "foreshadowing" that they heard somewhere without properly understanding. They end with a big cliffhanger of Olivia being kidnapped, then next episode she's out of there without rhyme or reason IN THE FRAKKING TEASER! Does that not cry foul to any writer, let alone those on staff?

We saw her escape, though... I will say that the one network note I have no use for is the introduction of the sister and niece. It's a false attempt to warm the character up. I know most people think she's cold and uninteresting, but I like her. And I don't think she needs to be defined by how much Lilith Fair music they listen to while drinking bottles of Pinot. I just don't.

Fair play to them getting their numbers though, and the production values give it that obligatory lure of gloss, but it's gotta be frustrating for anyone who's read the pilot script -- if that had A.N. Other spec writer's name on it instead of J.J. Abrams, no one would have made it to the end, let alone bought it.

Not that that's a surprise or a revelation, of course.

It isn't, but it's totally true, and I wish I could sell something that has some of the elements Fringe does. But it's just not possible.

Hey, look! Another long post!

Hope everyone enjoys "Watchmen" this weekend. We'll see, Zack Snyder. We'll see...

np - Soundtrack Of Our Lives, "Communion"