Friday, April 24, 2009

Rule By Secrecy

I never think about how many people read this blog. That's partly on purpose; I like thinking of it as a small corner of the world. But I'm definitely careful about what I write here. I know that shocks many of you, gentle readers, but I really am. The danger is that others may not see it that way.

When I started this blog, it was in the hopes that I'd be able to chronicle the pilot we had just sold. But when it crashed and burned, that became what our President would call a teaching moment. So the blog evolved in a way, and part of the reason I look forward to writing blog entries is because it forces me to think about topics that have more going on than just the spread of information. Even rants have specific points to make. Well. Most of them do. Some are just fun. Rant candy. The blog gives me a forum to talk about shows I love, too, and there's nothing more exciting than being able to rant in a good way about excellent storytelling.

I think this business is mystifying to those who aren't in it, and to those who are just hovering at the edges. And I think there are a great number of people who want to keep it mysterious. This is a business built on insecurity. We all have it to one degree or another, because it's such a subjective enterprise. Making TeeVee is an intensely time-consuming thing. A showrunner has to be a juggler, constantly keeping all those balls in the air. Not pissing anyone off is virtually impossible, but the goal is to piss off as few people as possible.

But I don't like the secrecy that develops in TeeVee. The more people who understand this business, the better. Some people like to obfuscate what they do, so that people can't pull back the curtain and go, "Hey, wait a minute... running a show is NOT as hard as performing brain surgery!" Deep down, showrunners know this. They know how capricious this business is. Even the mega-successful ones have the insecurity that one day, their own curtain will be yanked aside and they'll hear someone say, "You're not as talented as we thought you were. Go away." I get this, to a certain degree. I've been on a lot of staffs and it's always nerve-wracking to turn in your first script on a new show. You're convinced the showrunner's gonna pull back that curtain.

An aside: I wish having been on a lot of shows counted for anything, but it doesn't, unless you have a terrific resume. Aside over.

The goal should always be to make the best TeeVee we possibly can. But because of the unstructured quality of our business, discretion is the better part of valor, and I've striven to be discrete here. Believe me, nothing would please me more than telling you the unvarnished truth. I would love to Harlan Ellison the shit out of this blog. But I can't. So I've tried to illuminate the mystery a little bit. Not in specifics, but in general ways that can, hopefully, be seen as helpful to those who are getting into TeeVee, or who are already in it and don't know which way to turn.

I know that by talking about the problems of TeeVee, I'm putting myself out on a limb. But I'm damned either way, because I can't control how people perceive the things I say. I know this might all sound a little obtuse, but it's something I've been forced to think about lately. It's somehow more distressing when people you don't know do shitty things to you. I guess that's partly because you can't defend yourself. You can't have a discussion, because you don't know that person. There's no calling them up to go, "Um, dude? You got it wrong there." But that's the entertainment business. You are constantly hearing through third parties about how people perceive you. And there's just no way for you to tell them that they're wrong.

Incidentally, and I will NOT get specific here, I had a situation before that involved the Internets, perception and someone I didn't know. But I was able to actually have a conversation with the other person and things worked out better than you could possibly imagine.

Anyway, I stand behind what I say here. I won't be brutally honest about shows I've worked on. I won't talk about what happened in specific writer's rooms, but I will talk about the mechanics of working on a show in a general way. Believe me, you'd see the difference if I WAS talking specifics. I also, by the fucking way, don't do that in meetings. There's a constructive way to talk about a difficult experience without trashing people. That's one thing I try to do here. I know I'm not always going to be perceived as successful in that regard, but I do try to be as honest as possible, while protecting the real truth.

Writers on staff, or assistants working for showrunners, have no recourse if they're working for someone who treats people poorly. What distresses me about this business is how many people have horrible first experiences. I had the best first experience you could have, so it's very easy for me to recognize showrunners who aren't doing it right. But say you work with a showrunner who verbally berates you and throws things at you (yes, this happens to people). What can you do? You can't call the studio exec. If the showrunner's bringing the show in on budget and time, that's all they care about. And besides, then you'll be known as "difficult." There is no human resources for writers. Our guild doesn't take care of us in this way. And if you're an assistant who's being mistreated, you REALLY can't say anything because you're just starting out.

People misbehave because they're allowed to. I hate the conversations about which showrunner is a petty little sub-Hitler, which one's a credit hog, and which one trashes his staff to the studio or network. It would be lovely if being a decent person mattered. Because I've worked for a number of decent people, and it's just sad that so many writers haven't. TeeVee should be fun, to a degree. Right? We're getting paid to tell stories. You should WANT to work hard, but because inspiration and creativity are fostered. Not because you're terrified.

Lastly, my job as a writer on staff is to fulfill the showrunner's vision of the show. I'm there to support HIM (or, rarely, HER). When I get a job on a show, I am 100% loyal to that showrunner and will defend the show and do anything to do the job the showrunner wants me to do. When you're on staff on a show, it is NOT your show. And if you treat it like it is, you're going to eventually have problems. This is what I tell showrunners in meetings, not because it's playing into their ego, but because it's true.

Anyway. This blog's primary purpose is, really, to try and unravel the mysteries of storytelling for our medium. Why? Because it's an endless topic, gentle readers. THIS BLOG WILL NEVER END. My friends are constantly telling me that I don't market myself well (true), but I also think that beyond the mechanics of doing that, the blog is -- and this may frighten you -- about marketing something more hidden, more esoteric, than what projects I have going on.

Now that the blog has evolved in a teaching sort of way, I'd like to stick to that and if a project comes up that really fits this blog, then I'll talk about it.

np -- Doves, "Kingdom of Rust"

Thursday, April 16, 2009

The Cross-Eyed Rambler

It's been a busy week or so. Not busy in the "Gee, I'm never home" sense, but rather in the "It's time to start working on six projects at once" sense. Because nothing will get you through this time of year quicker than having a lot of projects to juggle. Spec pilots, pilot pitches, features, a novel rewrite, messing about with the video camera, trying to figure out who I hate more -- talk-show harridan Heidi Harris or certifiably crazy alien Michelle Bachman (it's a tossup). But now that I hear the dulcet shouts of Billy Mays from the other room, I may need to rethink that. Shut UP, Billy Mays! I CAN FUCKING HEAR YOU!!

Anyway. For now, comments, y'all!!

Monsterbeard wants to know:
And, now that Kings is finally airing, I'd like to hear your thoughts. I was a little disappointed withe the premiere, but I think the more I see the actual episodes, the more I realize my version of the show is not their version so I can just be happy with what they're doing. Hopefully it'll last long enough to get there.

You probably already know that it won't, as NBC has exiled it to Saturday nights after finding out, much to their surprise, that it is possible for TeeVee to air on Saturday nights. There was no suspense to this decision because from the moment the show was announced, it was obvious that it wouldn't work on NBC. I don't think they knew how to market the show which, we all know, is at least 99% of a network's interest in anything. They get angry if the show isn't easy to market. I applaud them for making it but in the end, its failure hurts speculative network fiction. You probably won't notice this in the fall (or whenever the fuck the networks will start their seasons) but people going in to pitch speculative shows to the "major" networks are going to find it a tough slog.

I appreciated the idea of the show. Thought the pilot was pretty good but was curiously uninvolved in the second episode and based on the ratings, I had a pretty good idea that it wouldn't last.

mvfernandes writes:
BSG was really great. But I like to remember a mini-series from Sci-Fi (or Syfy) that was also very good: "Lost Room" with Peter Krause. I don´t know what you think about this one, but I thought It was a decent effort. A shame they couldn´t think in a way of turn the concept from a mini-series to a series. This kind of thing makes Sci-Fi the network of wasted opportunities.

I actually never saw Lost Room, and I have no idea why. I've seen a few minis on SciFi and the minis always do spectacular numbers for them. Is it because they're easier to market and advertise? Is it because an audience is more willing to commit to a limited series that they know has an end date of a few days from now? I don't know. Not sure why they never decided to take Lost Room to series, but I'm glad they are still making minis and movies as backdoor pilots. I'd rather see cable and network try this than make pilots that wind up in the trash. You want to REALLY focus group something? Make all of your pilots, AIR them, and then see what people want to watch.

SciFi's walking a pretty thin line with their shows. They're still trying to figure out who they are while adhering to the parent company's desire for Blue-Sky (tm) shows. Their shows need a signature, but they also need to be accessible enough for the masses, and genre enough for their core audience. It's always tough working at a network that's redefining itself. Cartoon Network's going through this right now, as they've decided to try some live-action scripted shows.

BTW, the concept art for The Phantom's costume? LAME. It looks like a fucking spacesuit.

Stephen Gallagher sez,
Last December I saw an announcement that the BBC and Fox Television are co-producing a "space travel drama" with Fox titled DEFYING GRAVITY.

According to the press release:

Set in the near future, Defying Gravity will star Sex and the City and Band of Brothers actor Ron Livingston and will follow eight astronauts from five countries on a mysterious journey through the solar system.

But despite those blazingly obvious sf elements there's some serious twisting and dodging to avoid ever calling it science fiction. It's "a 13-part drama series about astronauts" and "primarily a human drama".

But I suppose if the only way to get sf to the screen is for executives to delude themselves, then we need to let them.

Agreed, and it's something I'm always thinking about when working on pilot ideas. How can I hide the elements that excite me in an executive package? I love what JJ Abrams does, but he's JJ Abrams and after Lost, he doesn't have to hide a fucking thing. I've got ideas that are unabashed speculative fiction and I haven't figured out how to hide that scary thing yet.

For some years now BBC's drama department has has been inviting pitches on the subject of global warming and producing the occasional bog-standard conspiracy thriller on the subject, blind to the fact that everything they're looking for could be achieved if they adapted our own J G Ballard with the same kind of commitment they give to middlebrow Victorian novelists.

Heh. But middlebrow Victorian novels are literature because they're VICTORIAN!!! What's also frustrating is how everyone pretends there's absolutely no connection between people who go to movies and TeeVee viewers, yet networks want feature writers to come in and sell pilots. If they paid attention to the box office, there would be more attempts at genre, for sure.

Eileen Kane says,
I found your blog because I am a fan of Legend of the Seeker. I like the show and the premise since I am a woman who likes fantasy and scifi genre, but if 4 fansites are any judge, the book readers have been very disappointed.

The only thing I'll say about the fans of the books is that no matter what, they were going to be disappointed because they have that "WE OWN THIS" mentality. As soon as you see fans saying things like that, there's no pleasing 'em.

My problems with the show though happen to be the writing - so much else about it is fine, likes sets, costumes etc. In other words, just the kinds of things you have said in your blog about other shows: short, choppy acts; not enough character development; 3-4 fight scenes per episode (yawn!) and no clear story arc except the mild romance. The program never explained why Darken Rahl was so evil at the start, just that the Seeker has to find and kill him. These characters wandered around for weeks just fighting - though one could see inklings of a more complex story, so I hung on. (I had not read the books). Finally, this stuff is getting sorted out, but we are 3/4 way through the season. I don't know if you and Erin will do more writing for LOTS, but jeepers, I sure hope there is a story arc for season two worked out during the hiatus.

We were on the show for 13 episodes, so we weren't even there for the entire season and we won't be back for season two.

I'm going to try and be somewhat delicate here.

I don't like the books. High fantasy isn't something I love to read and I don't care for Goodkind's writing. He never truly resolves anything. He just keeps adding characters and ideas on top of what he's already got. However, I will say that this is something that can be very helpful when you're adapting his books because there are so many different ways to go with it. As someone who tried to come up with an exegesis for the whole "Holy Blood Holy Grail" thing, I dig this. There are about fifty million different ways to take the mythology. But no matter how much the writers love a thing, there are other reasons why it isn't realized onscreen. A lot of people have a say when you're making a show and because this is the first syndicated show in quite a while, the chances of you being able to do something great and edgy are diminished.

If it were my show, I would have no doubt tried like hell to use more from the books and to synthesize it into a show but there's also a good chance that I would have faced some pretty stiff opposition from the various elements.

Anyway, this is a long-winded way of saying that I agree with you, but that some of the factors troubling you (the short acts and the fight scenes and the lack of mythology) are a product of first-run syndication and what is expected by the money people. I would like to give a more detailed analysis but alas, I cannot.

Alan Smithee, who thinks the BBC is sorely lacking, says,
Wider adaptation wouldn't be my ideal solution. Why must we adapt at all? Shouldn't television strive to be true to its own medium -- be the best TV it can be? To me, that means original scripted drama, not necessarily literary adaptation (without discounting it entirely, of course - relax!).

They do it for the same reasons American execs do it. Because it's proof that it already worked once and all these guys want is to protect their jobs. If an adaptation fails, they can point to the novel or whatever and say that it's not THEIR fault, for God's sake.

It'd be nice if the BBC's commissioners could put their money where their development execs' mouths are. But I guess the problem is there just ain't no money to move, let alone into the jaw region. I'd be interested to know which BBC shows you'd say handled the fixed-end point right.

Here's what I like about British TeeVee. Yeah, you have probably as many dumb cop shows as we do but I think your genre shows are, on the whole, much more interesting and cerebral. You will do six-episode seasons and some creators seem to have a say in when the series ends. You will also do miniseries of varying lengths. And (this from an outsider) your shows don't have the frightening overhead our shows do. All you have to do is look at the development list of pilots and you will see at least one, but sometimes up to FIVE non-writing exec producers. Now, I'm not against non-writing exec producers because they can be extremely helpful in setting the show up, selling it and protecting it. But if you sell something with Bruckheimer, you not only have Bruckheimer but you also have all of his executives. Do all those people really need to take a chunk out of your budget?

Our shows are too expensive but rather than cut non-writing producers, our networks want to cut writing staffs. I don't know what the budgets are for British shows but based on the way you do business, I'd guess shockingly less than ours. So as a paradigm, it looks much more attractive to me than how we're currently doing business over here. Staffing here is a joke. I think that if all writers had to hustle like you guys do, things would be very, very different. For some of us, it would be business as usual. But for others, it would be horrifying.

Okay, maybe I just want to torture people. That's a definite possibility.

S. Harlan Cone: There are more of us Speed Racer fans than you think...!

Mr. Burnett, regarding Day One:
While I actually enjoyed it very much, I found it shockingly similar to the works of one of my favorite Science Fiction writers, Robert Charles Wilson. Specificially, his novel THE CHRONOLITHS. Almost to the point of plagiarism. Even the overall tone and storyline, ordinary people caught up in huge hard sci-fi ideas, is right out of most of Mr. Wilson's novels. I'd be very, very surprised of Jessie Alexander hadn't heard of Mr. Wilson. Hope the network's legal team vetted this one...because if not, they're gonna' wish they did.

Hmm... that's one RCW I haven't read. While it's thematically similar -- regular people and sf ideas -- that's also going to be a part of any speculative fiction on TeeVee. Flashforward and V share this, too. Because remember -- in order to have a character work on TeeVee, that character must be relatable at all costs! And whether or not a character is relatable is something that only an executive can decide. All I know is, a scientist is not relatable. Single people who aren't looking to get married and settle down aren't relatable. Geeks aren't relatable. You get the picture.

Day One also, BTW, shares similarities with the recent "War of the Worlds." Is the conspiracy stuff similar, too?

Speaking of RCW, how fucking great is Spin?? Axis was good, but Spin was GREAT.

More comments later, and hopefully a "How to get ahead during staffing season" post.


np -- that fucking Billy Mays commercial thing. SERIOUSLY, dude!!!

Friday, April 10, 2009

Broken Love Song

My God, it's full of stars... the TeeVee, I mean! Although we are in the silent days of spring, there are a few shows I'm not only just watching, but actually liking. A lot. The first of those shows won't surprise anyone. It's Breaking Bad, of course, which is also the best show currently on TeeVee. On the surface this is a small show, the kind not favored or really understood by networks. Even with all the technology available, TeeVee is still an intimate medium. And no show proves that more than Breaking Bad. Its brilliant creator, Vince Gilligan, writes towards that intimacy. He lets the show breathe. And it's been breathing even more bleakly and eloquently this season than it did in its first 8-episode season. You might expect a show's pace to increase around this point, especially with the intensely serialized nature of Breaking Bad. But Gilligan refuses to go there. He uses the medium to explore stillness amongst the madness. This show lives in between the moments that networks usually spark to.

The pacing is just superb. Scenes that would be artificial and glam on a network drama are real and halting on this show. It's funny, because when networks talk about needing relatable ideas, they don't mean truly relatable. Because the things the White family is going through on Breaking Bad ARE relatable. What gives it that shiny spectre of network glitz, though, is the fact that chemistry teacher Walt cooks meth. But that's where this show is so clever because people are fooled into thinking they're watching a heightened reality when, really, they aren't. And here's where the meth aspect actually becomes relatable. The characters are so well written and dimensional that a viewer identifies with their struggles and thinks, "Huh. I'm going through a lot of the same stuff Walt's going through. If I had the chance, would I cook meth?" See? Not relatable because Americans are meth dealers but relatable because it makes the audience wonder. Relatability isn't just about creating characters who, on the surface, are made of the elements that somebody somewhere decided would resonate with all Americans -- husband or wife, children, a house, a job that can be the engine for a series, etc.

Relatability is about grokking where a character is coming from. A villain can be relatable. And so can a meth dealer (I'm looking at YOU, Jesse Pinkman!). A Madison Avenue ad exec in the vintage 60s can be relatable. But the networks don't trust the ability of a writer to create three-dimensional characters. They need to hear the elements that they have decided constitute relatability because they don't fully get the creative process. So the trick for a writer is to get as close as possible to executives and networks who understand and accept what you want to do. Failing that, it's about being able to pitch what they need, but write what YOU need. I wish this was easy to figure out but if it was, everybody would be doing it.

When you talk about TeeVee that's totally true and fearless, Breaking Bad is at the top of the list. It's hard to imagine it getting better week to week, but it goes ahead and does that anyway. I know people have been shocked and amazed at Bryan Cranston's magnificent performance as Walter White, aka Heisenberg, but take a look at every other actor on this show, too. They are all absolutely committed and believable. And if you think about it, when you look at other shows that are greater than the sum of their parts, the acting reaches that standard, too. Shows that just go through the paces, well... you can tell when actors aren't getting challenged. Because writing staffs aren't getting challenged, either. Those shows are about banality. Fuck creativity. Let's just pay the bills.

But everybody involved with Breaking Bad is completely committed to the story. And you can tell when the synthesis of story to script to pre-production, production and post is working. Breaking Bad is seamless, from the stories to the dialogue to the beautiful little touches the camera captures. This is an authentic show but it's not self-conscious about it. It just IS. TeeVee is about the audience inviting the characters into their living rooms, but Breaking Bad is a different kind of show. It invites the audience in. It's honest, and not cynical even though it's dark.

You can't set out to do that sort of thing. Either you have it, or you don't. And AMC has it with both of their shows. Pretty remarkable.

But before you think that only gritty and intensely realistic shows make me happy, I'm gonna blow your fucking mind.

Castle has arrived.

(waits for the catcalls to die down)

Yeah, I hear you bitches: "Castle's that slick faux Moonlighting thing on ABC! How can you talk about Breaking Bad on one hand, and then go on about Castle? WTF?!?!? Castle is one of those shows that's going to cause the complete and total collapse of network TeeVee. We do TeeVee to defeat shows like this!!!"

Calm down, gentle readers. There's a place for the verite of Breaking Bad, but there's also a place for escapist wish fulfillment, the kind of character-driven TeeVee that hasn't existed in decades. Shows like Castle are danged hard, if the scrap heap of failures is any indication. Not only is there the slippery slope of tone to contend with, but what will make a show like Castle rise or fall is the chemistry between the leads.

Initially, Castle felt like two shows -- Remington Steele, and a procedural. Well, they totally fixed that in Monday's episode. Both halves of the show finally came together, AND we got some nice backstory on Beckett, AND Castle's now got a secret he's going to be keeping from her. In this episode the story serves the character, instead of the other way around. What I really love about Castle, what makes the show fly, is the relationship between Castle and Beckett. Both Nathan Fillion and Stana Katic are thoroughly, wonderfully committed to that relationship. And it isn't so much Moonlighting for me. It's definitely Remington Steele. Both characters acknowledge, although not quite so out in the open yet, that there is a connection between them. This is something they didn't handle all that well on Moonlighting, which resulted in the destruction of the show and made David and Maddy act like shrill children. Remington Steele, on the other hand, found both Steele and Laura frequently acknowledging and even discussing their developing chemistry. This made the show feel more adult and less like bad fanfic, which is where Moonlighting inevitably wound up.

I see Castle moving more towards Remington Steele, and that's going to serve the show well. Castle's got that wonderful childish glee to him but he's also got a seriousness to him that he tries to disavow. Beckett, conceived as the ultra-professional detective, is definitely in the Laura Holt mold. She's a female professional in a male world. There's the chance for her to tilt towards being shrill and humorless but the writing and Stana Katic's portrayal keep Beckett from crossing the line. The actors are finding small, delightful moments to play and that tells me that the show is growing beyond the page and taking on a life of its own.

It would be a shame if ABC didn't give this show a chance. They have stars in Fillion and Katic (seriously, you have NO idea how good she is) and a premise that, if served as well as it was on Monday, can be used as a great playground. I've wanted this kind of show to come back and I really think it has in Castle.

I will probably be including Damages on this short list of great current TeeVee, but I've only seen the first ep of season 2. More on that later, as well as the season -- hopefully not series -- finale of Sarah Connor, which is on tonight. I can't wait! And also... sad. My mission statement for this post was... SHORTER! So I'll get to comments a bit later because if I included them in this post, people would kill me.

One small sports note: Ernie Paragallo. Here's a quote from the article:
Paragallo told the Associated Press he did not abuse any of the animals. "It wasn't knowing neglect," the 51-year-old Paragallo said. "Did I try and harm any of those horses? Absolutely not. Did some of them come up skinny? Absolutely. Was it mismanagement? Absolutely. I'm not shying away from it. But I didn't abuse them."

Hey, cupcake? Neglect IS abuse. These are YOUR horses and as such, YOU ARE RESPONSIBLE FOR THEM. There's no passing the buck here, you fucking asshole. Mismanagement does not result in horses being STARVED TO DEATH. I hope you go down, Ern. I only wish that as punishment, you're sentenced to stand in a fucking field with no food, shelter or medical care. It won't happen, but I'd REALLY love to see you "mismanaged."

np -- Peter Doherty, "Grace/Wastelands." Stay on the horse? Get off? I dunno. Whatever keeps you making great music, Pete.