Thursday, May 28, 2009

Any Way You Want It

So last time, I said I'd take a look at the new fall shows.

But over the past week, every Goddam blog in existence has reviewed the new falls shows via the clips and trailers supplied by the networks. And really, who the fuck cares? This is all about the networks putting their best foot forward. And that foot is never going to be better placed than it is now. So their trailers and the hype? Means nothing until shows premiere.

This is only a brand new shiny TeeVee season because nothing's failed yet. Shows haven't lost their way. They haven't been recast or retooled. Everybody's happy with all those white male co-exec producers and staff writers they hired. They all think they can make the show they want on the budget they have, and they also think they'll easily be five scripts ahead by the time they start production. I'd make a snooty feature writer crack here, but there are wonderful, non-snooty feature writers in TeeVee who should not be lumped in with the assholes.


The most talked about thing during upfront week was the renewal of Dollhouse. People were either surprised, enraged, confused or delighted. A lot of the enraged couldn't understand why Dollhouse was renewed while Sarah Connor wasn't. The network rather harshly said that Sarah Connor had two years and that was enough, which tells you something about the graciousness of networks. But if you look at it realistically, FBC owns Dollhouse through Twentieth TV, where it does not own Sarah Connor. And the studio for Sarah Connor, Warner Bros, seems to perennially be stretched thin in the money department. They also seem to have problems giving a network the series they promise in the pilot. While I don't imagine that this was the only factor involved in the decision, I think it had something to do with it. But really, the cold hard fact is that Fox didn't make many pilots and they didn't pick up either of the two Twentieth studio pilots. Instead, they picked up Past Life and Human Target, which are both from Warner Bros. Did they really want to subtract a Twentieth show and add another WB show?

Other networks got in on the vertical integration game a little. ABC picked up Flash Forward and Happy Town, both from ABC Studios. Which surprised me a bit, because they picked up two others from Warner Bros and one from Twentieth. I really thought that this would be the year they'd pick up all ABC shows, but maybe that'll happen next year, after their integration of the studio and network. CBS picked up a Warner Bros show (from Bruckheimer) and three Paramount shows, so they own three of the four. The CW picked up two from Paramount and one from Warner Bros. Slowly but surely, we're inching towards complete vertical integration. Warner Bros is ostensibly independent (sort of) and Sony, the real independent, got dramas made but not picked up. I wonder how much that had to do with what they could afford in this climate.

Don't kid yourself, gentle readers; no matter how much they talk about product, it's all about money. That's not cynicism. It's reality. But ever now and then, something peers through. And that thing staring at you through the curtain is Glee.

There have been great high school shows, most recently Buffy the Vampire Slayer (what, you don't think it's a high school show?), Freaks & Geeks and My So-Called Life. High school shows work on many levels. They can be metaphorical (Buffy), nostalgic (Freaks & Geeks), achingly real (My So-Called Life),or even bitchy soaps (Gossip Girl). And with few exceptions, they work. Because everybody went to high school. So there's really nothing more relatable than a high school show.

Glee is relatable in a different way. It's nostalgic -- not just the Journey, but it's written into the characters. And the adults on the show seem to be struggling with the transition to adulthood. Are they teachers because they want to recapture that experience? Most high school shows are about the outcasts because that's also a relatable feeling. Everybody, no matter how popular, felt like an outcast in high school. That's what high school's FOR. And even though we're supposed to move past it, that feeling always simmers and can surface at any time, apparently until you're, you know, dead. But there are a few geek arenas that even TeeVee hasn't fully embraced -- and we're looking at a biggie: Music nerds. I mean, even Lane Kim quit the band and became a cheerleader. Glee embraces the music nerd and as a former high school music nerd, I couldn't be happier. And it couldn't be more authentic, even with its occasionally broad tone. You should see my high school band now. Pathetic.

Glee is such a wonderful, open-hearted show that it made me think about the fall shows and why I've become so meh about them. Because I'll watch Glee. I don't know if I'll watch any other fall shows beyond their pilots.

Even when it's focusing on outcasts, TeeVee is still all about the cool. That's why these fast-talking procedurals are ordered every year. That's why main characters are lawyers and cops and detectives and forensic specialists and doctors and nurses (a hot new genre in 2009). Now, God forbid that they be actual geniuses, like physicists. Real scientists can appear as supporting characters, but they can't be leads. You can have a physicist, but he has to be twitchy and weird, like Daniel Farraday. Or he can be crazy, like Walter Bishop. But they must be balanced out by cool doctors (Jack Shepherd), or scruffy, hot rogues and sleek FBI agents (Peter Bishop and Olivia Dunham). You don't believe me? Go pitch a scientist show to a network (comedies, BTW, are different animals).

Think about it -- what drama do you watch on network TeeVee that features uncool lead characters? Even my favorite network shows featured cool people. The Gilmore girls were cool. The politicians on the West Wing were cool, even when they were policy wonks because they would still sleep with prostitutes. And even Buffy, with her outcast-ness, slayed vampires. Willow became a cool lesbian witch. Xander married an ex-demon and lived in a weird 80s condo.

There are two ways to be an outcast: You either hide your weird qualities (Buffy), or you showcase them (Glee). It wasn't until I watched the Glee pilot that I realized what had been bothering me about the pilots, and it's that cool factor. Even when a pilot tries to make a character less cool, they invariably balance that quality out with a cool element: Mary Sue's a mousy librarian, but she's also a witch who looks GREAT with her hair down and her boobs pushed up. Cool is the safe zone for networks, whereas cable networks are at ease with cool (Damages), or not (Breaking Bad). Actually, cool and not-cool exist in both AMC shows. Mad Men would be the cool one, people. In case you're slow. But Mad Men also writes towards the cool, in order to show the audience the interminable pain of maintaining that cool. Network dramas don't seem to be that layered. And if they manage to be, the audience isn't there and the network doesn't get the show. I think the characters on Sarah Connor were cool, but in more of a cable way than a network one. Their cool was desperation, the need to stave off the coming apocalypse. They became cool because of that. They didn't come that way. And that makes TeeVee viewers go, "Uh, what?" And then it makes networks cancel the show.

So are these shows layered when they're conceived and pitched, but then those layers get stripped out by the process? I honestly don't think so. Because if you try to come up with a network show, you automatically create cool characters. You know what they'll want to hear, and it's not your show about the droolingly crazy mad scientist who doesn't have any interest in forensics or solving murders. But in thinking about spec pilots, maybe it's a better idea to consciously write away from that. A spec doesn't have to be a network show, and it's not easy to distinguish yourself in a spec if you're already reining yourself in and trimming the edginess out. Pitching network pilots is and should be a different prospect than pitching cable pilots.

So the fall season is what it is. Once those shows are launched, with the same people as last year behind slightly different helms, the networks will turn their attention towards creating next year's cool shows. Going on the assumption that all of their shows will be big, big hits (because this always happens), they will begin to buy companion shows. Once the majority of those shows are bought, the fall shows will premiere. Most of them will fail (because this, really, always DOES happen). And then they will panic and begin to buy different shows. I'm not psychic, by the way. This happens every single year.

The real losers will be any audience member who expects this season to be any different. The networks have their niche. That would have been painful before cable, but now it doesn't matter as much. I say "as much" because there's still a lot of work to do to make really good TeeVee. There are things I would like to see from cable, such as separating its structure even more from network TeeVee. I'd like to see more of a division between network writers and cable writers. The cynicism of the major networks doesn't translate well to cable. A good example of this is the TNT show Trust Me, which nobody watched. And I think that had to do with the fact that it had a network patina to it. People who watch cable shows like them for different reasons than they like network shows.

But the audience who tunes into the networks while they're folding laundry, or making dinner? They'll be happy with the new fall schedule. In-between life, they'll see bright, shiny, expensive, handsomely cast cool shit on every network. Network TeeVee isn't gonna change. Shows will sneak through on occasion, but it's going to stay essentially the same.

Not that I can't still complain about it, of course.

I'll get to the rest of the comments next time. Until then... enjoy the Breaking Bad finale!!

PS -- Mormons, get your shit out of California, or we're gonna be coming for you.

np -- The Dodgers/Cubs game.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Speak Softly

Thanks to everyone for your comments on my "Rule By Secrecy" post. Ultimately, the Internet is all about perception and interpretation. If it wasn't, there wouldn't be flame wars. As politic as I try to be, there's always going to be someone who doesn't get what I'm saying, or who gets offended. Whatevs. I'm doing my best.

Getting to some comments, but not all of them, because what fun would closure be? Next time, I'll blather kindly about upfronts. No real surprises there, because networks are always going to develop what they develop. But there were some surprises regarding renewals, and one fall show has already premiered. I watched it. You don't get to know what I thought until next week.

"gentle readers" - Way to go all Jane Espenson on us!

I was actually going all Isaac Asimov, which I suspect she may be doing, too!

I'll be curious to see what you think of Damages season 2. I love virtually everything about the show--cast, tone, scene-for-scene writing--except for...the storytelling. I find the flash-forward bookends to every episode kind of a cheat, a way of maximizing and extending the shock value of what is actually a solitary twist/cliffhanger. And I don't find that the bookends comment all that meaningfully on the particular episode we've just seen, although I suspect I maybe haven't paid close enough attention to that. But I'm grateful to Damages: swanky, smart, upscale, educated, cutthroat NYC (with blood and sex) is a combination I've ALWAYS wanted to see on television.

I agree about the bookends, but I still like them and think they're effective for this particular show. They add a great sense of dread to the show. And that's really what I love most about Damages (and the acting, of course). Dread infuses every moment of the show. This show is about the unreliable narrator, the skewed point of view character. Because we weren't really sure how far Ellen would go this year. She was unreliable, too, and that enhanced that sense of dread. I just love it. I think it's such an underrated show.

Rob, from WAY back:
On another note... are you excited about the upcoming GAMES OF THRONES adaptation? It's kinda' flying under the radar, but if done correctly, this could be the LOTR of television.

I haven't read the books, but I know they're supposed to be fantastic. The biggest issue is going to be money. This shit's expensive, and we'll see if HBO can actually afford it. What's good about HBO doing it is that it will hopefully lend the genre some critical cred. I don't know if this will be another example of a genre show that isn't going to help the genre or not. Time will tell.

EDT -- Kings was a good-looking show. Luck to your friend.

Yes, Bridget Regan can act. Lots. She has star quality, that one. Now, getting into a discussion with pisher, gentle readers, isn't always the best way to go. Don't try to convince him that TeeVee can live without Joss Whedon. He's on a Whedon-hating kick right now. Just let him have it. So I'll comment on only a few things:

I'm sorry, TV is full of itself. Everybody wants to write the Great American Novel, when even real geniuses writing novels with no network suits to deal with couldn't manage that.

Everybody wants to make the best show they can. There's nothing wrong with aspiration, regardless of whether it's an aspiration to do a great drama that wins awards, or make something that's purely entertaining. It's been proven, especially this season, that the spectrum is alive and well. I'm tired of our whole humble American thing, where we're not supposed to aspire to anything because it's unseemly, and intelligence is arrogant. That's bullshit.

Burn Notice is basically genre (okay, no magic or superscience, but c'mon--it's sure as hell a fantasy), and it's the #1 scripted show on free cable. It's been renewed for another 16 episode season.

Burn Notice is not genre. Are you also going to appropriate Jane Austen as romance? Because I've already won THAT particular fight.

Whedon started out with the WB, which gave him a lot of room to run. Maybe it gave him a false impression of what it's like to work on a real network, but then again--he's a third generation TV writer. How could he not know? So maybe the REAL problem is that the WB, through Buffy, gave us slightly impression of how good a showrunner Whedon really is?

There are flashpoints in TeeVee, and Buffy/WB was one of those flashpoints. Another was X-Files/Fox. And right now we're looking at AMC, with Mad Men and Breaking Bad. When a network is starting out like that, the sky's the limit. The executives are hungry and enthusiastic, and they'll take chances they won't take later because they don't have that development box all set up yet. I know what it's like to have a great first experience and then be smacked with the reality stick. I know what it's like to trust people, and how hard it is to stop doing that. I honestly believe that Whedon tried like the devil to work with Fox, but his default is trust. Even more than that, though, has to do with something you mentioned. He's from an industry family. The last thing you want to be known as is a complete asshole. There's certainly a fine line. You can be partly an asshole. You can be a big asshole if your show is a huge hit. But if you choose to be a complete asshole, well, that's gonna hurt you eventually. Whedon grew up in the system. He works within it. He worked on Roseanne, for God's sake. Those writers learned a little something about bad experiences. No matter what, you HAVE to be at least somewhat accommodating, or they won't hire you again. And I think that hurt -- but didn't destroy -- his show. Ironically, it also may have helped. More on that next week.

We each fight as much as we can, and we pick our battles. Sometimes we're wrong, but at the end of the day I think we all have to be true to who we are.

I haven't seen the Trek movie yet, so my only comment is that Dorothy Fontana says she has no intention of seeing it. This being the same Dorothy Fontana who was story editor on the original series, and played an important role in creating Next Generation, and was one of 5 women credited on 16 of the 79 original series scripts (20% of the show). In the 60's. And here we are in the 00's, and there are two men credited with writing the script for this film, seven men credited with producing it, and Roddenberry gets exclusive credit for creating the characters, even though we know it wasn't quite that simple.

Ah, I love it when have the gall to whine about how there aren't many women writing for TeeVee or film. Hilarious. Also, I have this bizarre thing of making up my own mind about going to see something. I know. Like I said, bizarre. But that's how I roll.

Finally, as to samples, I often wonder if writers know which samples their agents are sending to which shows. Somehow I doubt it.

You'd be correct. Sometimes an agent will ask you what to send, but more often than not they will send what they think is the right sample. On a list of ten things that gall me about staffing season, the search for the perfect sample is way up there. If someone doesn't know how to recognize good writing, then yeah. The perfect sample is crucial. I wish it didn't matter as much as it does because at the end of the day, good writing should win out. But it doesn't always.

A few ways to at least try and put your best foot forward: Read all the pilots. Know the shows. Send your agent a list of what sample works for what show. Also, if you want to be submitted to a wide range of shows, you need to have a wide range of samples. It's retarded but true.

Regarding Heroes, I can't speak to specifics because I don't watch the show, but based on the pilot, what others have said about it and what Kring himself has said, it seems to me that he bit off something he just didn't want to chew. I don't think I could create a legal show, because I don't have a background in that world. When Kring sold Heroes, by all accounts it was a rich, detailed, wonderful pitch. He was excited about the idea. But see, if you're a genre writer and you come up with that idea, you already know that you have to make it different somehow, because there have been sixty million comic book stories about a group of modern-day superheroes. I feel somewhat justified in talking about this because we sold the same kind of show years earlier. And based on our knowledge of the genre, we knew we had to change it up and make it fresh -- and that was just because of the comic book world, not the TeeVee world. Because it hadn't been on TeeVee all that much at that point. We also knew that we had to create arcs, for the characters and the story. We had to keep everything organized, and all the rules clear. I honestly don't think Kring knew what he was getting himself into. You can't break the rules unless you already understand them.

David Bishop:
As to procedural creators not getting it in the neck from procedural like Whedon has done from some genre fans, I'd humbly suggest it does happen. David Milch's John From Cincinnati caused all sorts of head scratching and angst from fans of Deadwood and NYPD Blue. But those communities are far looser knit and less vocal than genre fans, in my experience, so maybe the noise wasn't so deafening...

They do if they stray from what they do best, but when they're actually IN the crime/procedural drama, things settle down. I just think genre fans demand different things than procedural fans. For a procedural fan, a satisfying mystery with some character work is exactly what they're looking for. But genre fans, well... it runs a little deeper than that, which sadly leads to jokes about parents' basements and virginity.

Anonymous Bosch:
That's my main problem with the show. It's not exploring the harsh realities of the very loaded ideas it raises, but engaging them in only in the most superficial, glossed-over shiny-background, cool-sunglasses, endless-back-flippy-fights-where-nobody-gets-bruised-let-alonehurt, alt-rock CW montage way.

I think they've gone away from that with the season finale. And not that I know from the inside or anything, but based on how I do know TeeVee works, I believe this was a function of a network trying to make the show into what it wanted. The show struggled all season, but that's what happens when you make the wrong compromises.

Anonymous attacker guy,
Well, thanks! I think I've only rejected two comments, and that was because they were obvious trolls that had nothing to do with the blog. Don't try and push that envelope or anything, but I said early on that I didn't want to be a blog Nazi. I mean, I approve pisher's posts, for God's sake!

I think you are overlooking some cool genre shows on TV. Supernatural started out looking like Buffy with dudes, but really became something cool, and supposedly they're having the balls to end it next season even though ratings are good. Also, Eureak really is a quality show, and it's one of the few shows with a positive outlook on the future. Also, Smallville has had some great moments. What about True Blood(which I don't actually like but it is a genre show you left out?

I haven't seen True Blood yet (no HBO), but I will watch the first season. Because there's so much shit on, and also work to do, I can't watch everything (I know. Sad). But I do sample as much as possible. Supernatural has definitely filled that void, and my understanding is that they're doing some cool stuff and constantly reinventing the show. Smallville is what it is, and what it's been for the four thousand years it's been on. I sure liked what I saw of Eureka. Of those, though, I think the only one that's relevant to the conversation is Eureka, because SciFi is really trying to build the network around it. Bringing up the eight million seasons of Smallville isn't going to get you anywhere. That show exists outside of any conversation about genre. See, the networks like to make exceptions, which means that if something like Heroes works, the network will make up some excuse for why it works, which precludes anyone pitching anything in the same vein to NBC. You simply can't go pitch a superhero show to the CW.

I had a question. You have written that network shows are viewed as being more prestigous. Why does it matter who's signing your check? I would think, writing good TV would be the true measure, but I could be wrong.

Well, I agree with you. But the business is still focused on the big networks. It's the major leagues, baby, and sure, you can make your quirky little show on cable, but the networks... that's where you rake it in! This is mostly, at this point, an agent discussion. The agents LOVE the big networks, because THEY make more money. For writers, though, the majority just want to get a show on the air. I would put myself in that majority.

My one (very minor) critique with STAR TREK (and MI III) is that the villian was only okay. It's tough, with everything the movie accomplishes, but a great villian would have nailed it for me.

Not that I've ever written a great villian either...

I see this complaint a lot and from a storytelling point of view, it makes sense. You can't have a great hero unless he's fighting a great villain. But I don't think that's as important in a franchise like Star Trek. This movie in particular was a pilot for a new franchise, and in that sense the most important element isn't the fight between the hero and the villain. It's the coming together of these characters.

Geez. Long. Again.

np -- Doves, "Kingdom of Rust." It really is an excellent record.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Absolute Reality

Alternate reality is the new black, at least if you work at Bad Robot. And if I had to pick one place I'd want to develop shows, well... Bad Robot would be it. JJ Abrams has assembled an enviable, talented team of executives, headed by producing partner Bryan Burk, film head Sherryl Clark, and TV head Kathy Lingg. In the entertainment business, we spend an awful lot of time talking about bad executives. It's nice to be able to praise good ones. The whole Bad Robot team is entertaining the crap out of me.

The Fringe season (and thankfully not series!) finale ramped up and solidified the fact that there is at least one, but probably infinite, alternate realities. When the show started, it seemed like X-Files, but with freaky science. What I love about the show's revelations is that the show hasn't shifted position. Nina Sharpe tells Olivia that it's due to our freaky science. We have meddled with the primal forces of nature, and we will atone. Looks like we're atoning by becoming embroiled in a war with an alternate reality.

The idea that we ARE meddling with the primal forces of nature when we do scientific experimentation goes all the way back to Mary Shelley. But this hasn't been the focal point of a TeeVee show in a long time. This season, there were five of these suckers -- Eureka, Dollhouse, Sarah Connor Chronicles, Lost and Fringe. And there will be another in the fall -- Flashforward.

I've talked about Dollhouse and Sarah Connor extensively here. Both of those shows, and Eureka, use the science as a way in. But the Bad Robot shows do things a little differently. They establish our world, make us comfortable, and then totally subvert everything we think is real. And we're seeing this through the eyes of characters with whom we identify. This is always the trick, and JJ Abrams and the people who are hands-on with the shows are masters of it. It's one thing to have an enthusiasm for the subject matter, but it's something entirely different to be able to get it on the air. I would guess they have daily struggles with the network and studio over this, but if you're not fighting for your vision, what's the point?

Anyway. Back to Fringe. The idea of "soft spots" that will allow us to get from one reality to another hearkens back to the concept of ley-lines, and of the veil between worlds growing thinner at certain places or times. And our atom splitting and super colliding having caused more to appear is that meddling idea. We don't truly understand this stuff. It's still theoretical, and there's so much we can't prove. Who's to say that the work we're doing isn't going to cause an island to travel through time, or alternate reality windows to open up?

There's this moment I usually have when watching Bad Robot shows reveal something, and I had the same moment when watching the Fringe finale -- Please don't make this too close to the thing I'm working on! It happened with Alias and Lost. And it got frighteningly close with Fringe. I got very nervous when Walter talked about taking LSD With William Bell and seeing an alternate reality, for example. I've always wanted to do something with Terence McKenna and his DMT experiences (the seriously old X-Files spec doesn't count). But nonetheless, I'm delighted that this stuff is getting onto the television box. It's actually cool to be on their wavelength, because it means I'm getting to watch shows that I love.

And characters, too. Olivia, Peter and Walter have worked for me all season. I really don't get the enmity towards Anna Torv. She's cold? Really? I don't see it. What I do see is her dedication, and also her open-mindedness, which is refreshing on a show like this. It's clear that JJ Abrams loves the idea of kids being experimented upon, which we also saw with Sydney Bristow in Alias. Well, it IS cool, and it has a really specific reason on Fringe, giving new meaning to "the children will lead us." A lot of the baggage has been jettisoned here, with Broyles and even Charlie Francis believing. X-Files already went to the believer/skeptic well. Just because there's a speculative fiction show with an FBI agent, doesn't mean we need to go there again.

And then there's Walter and Peter, cracked genius and reluctant genius. Walter's craziness and memory loss can certainly be explained, at least in part, by the revelation that either he or Peter is from an alternate reality. But see, there's the coolness of the concept there, and then there's the remarkably moving scene of Walter in the beach house, trying to remember and going off the rails while a helpless Peter watches. Or the story Peter tells of Walter making pancakes. Was that this Walter, or another? The notion of a fractured father/son relationship takes on new meaning when they may not be from the same dimension. Their estrangement is illustrated by this cool concept. And that's what science fiction is supposed to be able to do.

If Peter is from the alternate reality, does that mean he may have abilities in this one that he doesn't know about? If there is a big war coming, which side will he be on? And what about the Walter Peter remembers? Does he exist in the other reality? When, exactly, did that reality branch off from ours? According to the sharp eyes of fans, it seems like either JFK or RFK lived. Was it then? Was it earlier? Etc.

These are questions that can yield story, and I'm sure that's what we'll get in season two of Fringe. Anyway, I can't wait to find out.

JJ Abrams is building an empire of speculative fiction. Everybody at Bad Robot seems committed to a high standard of storytelling, a particular vision, and what's most exciting about it is that it doesn't just exist on TeeVee.

I have now seen the Star Trek movie twice. Most of the negativity towards the film seems to come because the science doesn't compute, the time travel doesn't work, the nitpicky logic is all off, and the characters don't act like the characters from the show. I just don't agree with any of that. As Neils Bohr said to Albert Einstein, "You are not thinking. You are merely being logical."

See, storytelling demands a balance in order to be effective. It's a fluid, living thing, and if all you're going to do is focus on one element, your story isn't going to work. There's something about science fiction that says it has to be logical and scientifically feasible first. I understand this in part because in science fiction, you're essentially world-building. We already live in a world that works on a logical level. But when you're world-building, you have to build that logic in. So a movie like Star Trek should have rules, and it should follow them and be logical.

However, I think that what's happened with Star Trek is, the balance went all out of whack. The world-building aspect of the franchise has become the most important element. And when the focus shifts that way, the characters become objects by which those worlds are built. That, I think, has happened to Star Trek. Fans have had forty years to play in the universe Roddenberry created. Their imaginations took them to an idealistic future where the problems of the present had been solved. There was no money. No swine flu, or cancer. No psychopathic villains. Only pure exploration, with the kind of altruistic characters that would be employed in such a mission.

As conceived, Star Trek gave us a hopeful future where smart, driven, honest people succeeded. Who wouldn't fucking love that?!?!? But to focus too much on the hopeful future aspect is to ignore human nature. And human nature is what science fiction is about. What the franchise got away from, IMO, are the basics. And to me, the characters are those basics.

Trek's history -- five TeeVee shows and all those movies and tie-in books and original novels -- has given the world a rich universe in which to play, but when it comes time to try and tell a new story, that history acts like a fucking boa constrictor.

The masterstroke of the movie is that Abrams, Kurtzman and Orci have found a way to free themselves of the strangling yoke of forty years of Trek, to go back to those characters and to identify with them in a way that's fresh, without crapping all over canon. They clearly wanted to do the "let's gather the crew" story, but they were hamstrung by the history of the franchise. So they took a page from their work on TeeVee. They created an alternate reality, where they would be free to carve their own path for the series.

These characters are no longer the distant archetypes that history made them. The restrictive reverence has been stripped away. That allows for the return of the duality of Spock, taking the character back to the struggle between his Vulcan and human sides. Because that, and not his scientific acumen, is what made Spock identifiable. He was an outcast, a situation almost everybody has faced at one point or another. This is another example of what science fiction can illuminate. And Roddenberry was smart to create a character who strove to be logical, but just couldn't because of this human infection he had within him. The new movie infuses Spock with this duality and gives him an emotional attachment to it, and thank GOD for it.

The fans have made a lot of Kirk, whom they see as the rebel frat boy and nothing more. I don't see it that way. This Kirk has a duality in him, too -- he has a death wish, but also a terrible fear of dying. The Kirk of this reality was born into death and spent his whole life being reminded of that. His life is a gift, one that he didn't ask for and now resents. His father sacrificed his life for a son who couldn't thank him, or blame him him. The guilt that goes along with that is unimaginable, and Kirk simply doesn't deal with it. He acts out against it. He wants to get in trouble, because he thinks he deserves it. He doesn't think much of himself. If he doesn't try, then he can't fail. But Pike doesn't treat him like everybody else does. Pike sees through that shit, and challenges him. And Kirk takes up the challenge.

The Kirk/Spock friendship is a core of the best Trek movie, "The Wrath of Khan," and it's made the core of this film as well. I utterly love that. I also love the destiny angle, and the idea that the entrop of the universe -- even if it has become a different reality -- is still tilted towards getting this crew together. The collection of the crew -- THE crew, people! -- is such a wonderful dramatic device, one that we love because we rarely see it in real life. It's the idea of the group that is greater than the sum of its parts. And the Enterprise crew being that group is what makes us come back time and time again. And that is what made the assembling of the crew, and Spock's meddling with fake time paradoxes, so much fun and so satisfying.

What I love most is that these characters' actions are justified. They are individuals. And let's face it, nobody casts actors better than JJ Abrams. He is just a master at it. And this movie is cast perfectly. Chris Pine and Zachary Quinto (who we were lucky enough to cast in our Haunted episode) give star-making performances. All the actors work so well together. There's so much energy and excitement given and received among these characters. It's kinetic, and fun, and audiences are loving it.

One thing that struck me when I watched the movie is that I'm not sure Abrams, Kurtzman and Orci could have made it without their TeeVee experience. In TeeVee, one of the most important skills is to be able to play in someone else's sandbox. You learn how to do this by, well, doing it. And what I see with this reboot is the surety of a TeeVee background. They seemed to come at this like one would come at a TeeVee pilot. How do I introduce my characters and my world? How do I set up a continuing series? Star Trek benefits, in part, because it WAS a series. But I also think this has proven to be detrimental. Some of the movies have been big-budget episodes, and what works on TeeVee doesn't necessarily work in film. But JJ Abrams is aware of this. He's able to use his TeeVee knowledge and expertise and infuse that with an inanely high level of filmmaking. This is a MOVIE, gentle readers. It's not a blown-up TeeVee episode.

I could go on and on and fucking ON about how much I loved this movie. This is how I felt about Iron Man last year. Wildly entertaining, with great characters and tight storytelling. This movie really zips along, even with a second viewing. It's not easy to entertain, yet this movie certainly does.

So thanks, Bad Robot. And keep up the good work.

np -- The Enemy, "A New England." Yes, the Billy Bragg song. It's quite great.

Saturday, May 09, 2009

The Space Between All Things

A note -- if you want to engage pisher, you do so at your own risk. He has Ideas. He will tell them to you. You think this will be okay. You think you can handle it. You cannot. Trust me.

I've got comments to get to and all that, but I wanted to get this up quickly. Er, quickish. It's going to be a little messy, but that's fitting given what the post is about.

Dollhouse has ended. At least for now, but probably for good. I can't think of another show that earned as much enmity as Dollhouse. People seemed ready to jump all over Joss Whedon and take his genre hat away, then throw that hat on the floor and stomp viciously upon it while cutting Joss with razors. Maybe this is about knocking Daddy off the pedestal. Maybe people think that Joss is an arrogant ass. Or maybe genre kids are pissed off because they aren't the successful, break-out stars. I dunno. But I do find it interesting that it's only genre people who are targeted like this. Is it because we know that inevitably, they will disappoint us? Then does that mean that David Milch, David Chase, and Anthony Zuiker are immune to this because they don't do genre?

I do think it has something to do with perception and interpretation. One element of genre that I love -- both in the watching and in the writing -- is that it's essentially one big question. And you, the audience, get to interpret and answer that question. Maybe this is an element that genre people don't like. They like aliens and space and the future and vampires, but they also want clean, understandable answers. Things that are messy make them fucking INSANE.

And if there's one thing genre's been lately, it's gloriously messy.

The whole point of doing a genre show, gentle readers, is to be able to explore all those fundamental questions through a different lens. EXPLORE. Not solve. Somebody asked what's different about genre thinking versus cop show or soap thinking, and that's as close as I can come to an answer. Crimes are solved. Relationships begin, then end. Mysteries are brought to light and then understood. But in genre, it's all about exploration, and about how that exploration affects thinking, feeling beings. If you want your box with its well-fitting lid and tidy bow, don't come to this house. There are other houses for that.

When I think about genre television now, good LORD. I mean, I was despairing of it and while I still think we've got a ways to go before genre has that firm foothold on TeeVee again, look at what's on.

Battlestar Galactica, which ended this year, set the bar pretty high for exploration. But it's been the NETWORK shows, believe it or not, that have continued to raise the bar. Lost, Fringe, Dollhouse, Sarah Connor Chronicles... these are on NETWORKS, people! Okay, only two. But still. I give props to both Fox and ABC for supporting genre shows. Maybe the networks don't support the shows the way we would hope. Fox's genre shows are always on life support, aren't they? But they GET ORDERED.

I wish the networks, especially Fox, would look at this as success rather than failure, but they don't seem to be doing that. And I get it, I guess. When Fox has a hit with procedural Lie To Me, they're going to be somewhat justified in giving their genre shows a hard time. But to a certain degree, that's America's problem. And America likes answers. Preferably in forty-two minutes, please. But what genre shows have given to TeeVee -- NETWORK TeeVee -- is anything but.

Based on these shows, I think genre is evolving. And although there was only one genre show on cable -- Battlestar Galactica -- I think cable's format has actually helped this happen. If you have a crime show, or even a soap, a 22 episode order is pretty easy to work with. But genre -- this kind of genre -- suffers. Lost relaxed SO much these past few seasons, when the writers didn't have to worry about 22 episodes. That big question, or the revelation that turns the show on its head and shows us that what the characters perceive as reality but isn't... that doesn't come in an easily solved or straightforwardly plotted story. And genre shows can lose their way over 22 episodes. I mean, I wonder if X-Files would have been more focused over 13 episodes per season. I suspect it would have.

So. Cable format. When I look at the cable shows I love -- Breaking Bad, Mad Men, Damages -- I see messy, morally ambiguous shows. Episodes aren't necessarily self-contained but because it's cable, they don't have to be. But on network, they do. Your show MUST be episodic and not serialized. Serialization is the exception. Not the rule. And if it's a genre show, that is even more important because networks know that genre shows have smaller audiences than other types of shows. So they want to ensure that the format, at least, is familiar to an audience. That's why most genre shows have investigators as main characters. But what I've noticed this year is that the people who are doing genre shows aren't adhering too closely to that missive. I know it's hurting them with the networks, but it's not hurting the shows creatively.

With one exception.

I don't think Joss Whedon is as cagily adept as JJ Abrams in seemingly giving a network what it wants, only to merrily go along and do his own thing anyway without pissing people off. Joss trusts these guys. And that's made for a fascinating, frustrating season of Dollhouse.

It's easy to see what the network wanted and how Joss tried to give that to them. But that didn't fit the show he'd conceived. It was never about the actives being sent out to solve problems or save people. These episodes felt hesitant. Unsure. A little bit bland. And that's what happens when you're trying to do notes that just don't work within the framework of your show. When you're trying to fit a square peg into a round hole. Because anytime Joss and his writers could spend some time in the Dollhouse without trying to solve an outside mystery or save someone, well... the show came alive. This show lives in moral ambiguity and exploration. Throw a group of people this speculative into a TeeVee show and see what happens. How do they justify what they're doing? DeWitt justifies it by sending the actives out to do good. Boyd justifies it because he's protecting them. They're his children. Ballard justifies it by putting himself in the category of morally right, and unquestioning in that belief even as he's taking advantage of November, and falling for Echo. That nattering nabob, Topher, justifies it in his actions. He continuously reinforces how fucking COOL this technology is, and how brilliant he is. He avoids faces the morality of it. Well. Until the season finale. Where his nerdish energy was sometimes off-putting earlier in the season, by the finale we understand it. Because if Topher ever stopped to think about what he's done, he would go fucking crazy.

On a global level, Dollhouse is a show about the potential singularity, about a possible transhumanism movement. What happens when our technology outstrips our ability to understand it? The pre-eminent physicist Michio Kaku has a lot to say about this when he discusses Superstring Theory. He contends that the theory evolved backwards. We simply don't understand it yet. We don't have the math for it.

On Dollhouse the technology exists, but the characters don't have the evolved morals to understand it. And if you think this type of thing isn't happening in the real world, then you're not paying attention. How about the dollhouse as a future Monsanto? What good genre fiction does is heighten our reality and get us out of that particular box so we can look back inside at ourselves without strings attached. Of course the technology doesn't exist in our real world, but there are enough examples of this idea (artificial life, brain mapping, Asimo) in the world that it's applicable. We've come a long way since Disney's Mr. Lincoln, but why do we want to replicate humanity? Just because we can? Are we trying to replicate it because of our drive to understand that most fundamental question -- Why are we here?

The idea that we are morally inferior to our technology was made patently clear in the season finale of Dollhouse, which was a stunning hour of TeeVee. This was an episode filled with anger and rage, not only from Alpha but from every character on the show. It was a race against time to try and understand Alpha, because at the same time Alpha was trying to understand the mind of God. And that'll drive anyone insane. Based on this episode, the mind of God is a collective. It's every mind. Alpha only had about forty-eight in there, so he was falling a bit short. He was Philip K. Dick, seeing the pink light and trying desperately to write it all down before it went away.

Alpha's experience is similar to the theories about how the internet could become sentient. How many minds, how many experiences, does it take? That's what happened with the actives. It happened all of a sudden with Alpha, but Alpha also started as an amoral person. As a psychopath. Echo did not. And when Echo was bombarded with all of her past personalities, her moral center stayed pure. Yes she understood, but she was not Alpha. Because at our core, no matter how brilliantly we can use our technology to simulate humanity, we can't quantify that which makes us truly human. But these people are going to try. They're going to continue their mission and ignore their fallacies.

That is Dollhouse. And when the show explored those ideas, it was breathtaking. But this isn't a show that should have ever been a standalone mission-of-the-week show. It's better than that. I certainly hope for a second season, but I think we all know how unlikely that is. However, Joss has proven to be tenacious in his quest to finish his stories. I hope he finishes this one in another format.

I want to talk about Fringe, too, but I'll wait until this week's season finale. Because the Bad Robot people have fucking done it again. And like I've said before, we can all take a lesson from how JJ Abrams does business. He's sneaking shit onto TeeVee that is smart and innovative, so utterly speculatively wonderful. And then there's Star Trek, which I will also talk about. There's a lot to say there, and so it will be something of a continuation of this post.

np -- The Len Price 3, "Rentacrowd"

Friday, May 01, 2009

Girl From Mars

Welcome to the Massive Insecurity Show known as staffing season! You can throw all reason out the window at this time of year. But there has to be a way to make sense of it all, so I put together a list of rules to help you make it through:

1. If someone says they love you, that only means they don't hate you. It does not mean that they will hire you. Quite the contrary.

2. No matter what level you are, you will always be too expensive.

3. Even if you have twenty different samples, you will never have the exact right one.

4. The studio or network list doesn't mean anything if you're on it, but it does mean something if you're not.

5. Most people don't know how to recognize good writing, which is why having the exact right sample is so crucial.

6. You will always knock a meeting out of the park on a show that doesn't get picked up.

7. There is always one show that gets picked up that makes everybody in town go, "Where the fuck did THAT come from?" That show never lasts.

8. The rumors you hear only come true if they diminish your chances of getting a job.

9. Somebody in one of your meetings went to college with that psychopath you worked for.

10. Showrunners will never be impressed enough that you researched your ass off about their credits.

11. If you go into a meeting with story ideas, the showrunner won't want to hear them. But if you go in without story ideas, they will inevitably ask.

12. Every year, on every show, the number of gatekeepers you must impress grows by one.

13. The best pilot you read won't get picked up.

I'm shocked that there are only thirteen.

Since pilots are either being shot or are being edited, the rumors are starting to fly about what's hot and what's not. If you pay attention to this stuff you will go insane. Especially if you've met on any of these shows, or know people who can get you in. I think this year's still showing the effects of last year and things aren't quite settled yet. Also, cable's importance is taking a toll on network staffing. Pilots that need showrunners may have a tough time finding them because showrunners may also have their own pilots at cable networks. And if the decision is between running your own show and someone else's, well... that's really no decision at all.

Showrunners are under an intense pressure right now. They have to cut their show, take network and studio notes, read samples, find their number two, and try to put together a staff with what will be a frighteningly small budget. What we saw the last few years was that writers would take pay and level cuts to go on staff. I don't know if that will happen this year, especially for upper level writers who also have the option of selling to cable. They no longer have to wait until networks open up for development.

Back when pilots were being picked up, I was thrilled that there were so many genre shows. But now the same old thing is happening. People are ashamed of their genre shows, and genre writers are again being marginalized. Procedural writers are getting those jobs, because it's embarrassing to hire writers who are actually fluent in the genre. Apparently. This is aggressively stupid. TeeVee has been fragmenting, and the procedural world has, I think, become a world unto itself. Procedurals beget procedural writers, and they move from one Bruckheimer show to the next. This is not a slam against procedural writers. It takes a special skill to be able to break and write those shows. It's not really my first choice, although I've done some work on procedurals that I quite enjoyed, but the people who do it are very, very good at it.

But see, it takes a special skill to write genre, too. You have to think differently when you're writing genre, just as you do when you're writing a procedural. But a procedural is a socially accepted show, while genre shows are dirty and embarrassing and sub-real. Apparently, all we should aspire to is to elevate the genre so that mainstream America can understand it. I find that a little curious. I think mainstream America got Iron Man and The Dark Knight just fine. There's been a lot of talk lately about why audiences go to big genre movies but shun genre TeeVee, and the general consensus is that (A) Audiences love the big-budget explosions and effects of a movie, or (B) The genre shows suck, and audiences don't watch shows that suck.

Really? Don't they?

Yes, some genre shows suck. But some genre shows are really, really good and just didn't find an audience. Like non-genre shows that didn't find an audience. Yes, non-genre failures exist, and pretending they don't for the sake of proving a rule about genre shows is dishonest.

It's harder to market a genre show, especially when you're talking about the fifteen other TeeVee shows that are being marketed at the same time. That's a much different scenario than marketing a big-budget science fiction movie when you only have two or three movies opening that day. It is much harder to get a TeeVee audience to stick with a show because there are so many different options. Procedurals have the advantage there, because the marketing can be shorthanded. Everybody's seen a procedural, so there's not a lot of world-building that has to go on, and it's easier for an audience to grok what the show's about. But even procedurals fail. Having been on two of them, I can attest to that. It's just easier to assume that there's a problem with genre, though, isn't it? Especially with Dollhouse on the air. Dollhouse, everybody's favorite punching bag. More on that in another post. Because seriously, people. STOP IT.

I don't think it's the budget and the explosions that people miss in genre TeeVee. And I don't think that every genre show that fails does so because it's bad. I think most genre shows are more complex and as such, they require more attention. And a marketing department gets very impatient with that. It's hard to market and to promote. But look at some cable shows, like Breaking Bad, or Mad Men, or Damages. These shows are still on the air. They don't do massive ratings, but they don't have to. They are complex shows that emulate what I like best about genre shows. But on a major network, they're canceled.

Enough of that, because just talking about it makes me angry, and I'm already annoyed today. Sure, partly because Zenyatta scratched out of her race and now Jon Court's wife gets a new pair of shoes, but for other reasons, too. SO DO NOT FUCK WITH ME. Seriously.


If people outside the genre (let's call them executives at major studios and networks) want to elevate the genre, then we as genre writers should fight against that. But if it's also the genre writers who are ashamed of what they're doing, then that's sad.

There have been shows that have aggressively gone after genre writers, and those shows have worked great. But some people think that in order to have a big network hit, they have to hire procedural writers. It's an easy formula -- if you hire someone who worked on a ginormous hit, then your show has a better chance of being a ginormous hit. But I can only imagine how tough things are going to be in the writer's room on those shows. Executives do have that default position, that a show can get more of an audience if it becomes more of a procedural, but I strongly disagree with that. It simply hasn't been proven.

Genre writers aren't only going to write about spaceships and time travel, you know. Genre writers just have a slightly different way of looking at the world, and sometimes shows can benefit greatly from that. But people are afraid of it. You see it all the time, in cracks people make about geeks living in their parents' basements and playing World of Warcraft. Which I've never played, BTW. I wouldn't know the first thing about it.

What compounds that, too, is the fact that female genre writers are doubly creepy. For some crackpot reason, women are not considered diversity by this industry. That means that a showrunner is safe to hire only men. And that's what a lot of male showrunners want. So they do, and that's fine with everybody. Sometimes, someone notices and a showrunner is told to hire an upper-level woman or something. But it's rarely a number two, which means that this woman is upper-level in title only. Or, they'll go, "Fine, I'll hire a woman," and they hire a staff writer or a story editor. This is easy for them, because they're hiring a woman who doesn't have any inherent power. Of course, if women were diversity, then only lower-level women would get hired, so maybe it just doesn't matter, in the end...

np -- My Derby picks, which are: Pioneerof The Nile & I Want Revenge, plus big looks at Chocolate Candy, General Quarters, Hold Me Back and Desert Party. Going out on a potential limb here by throwing out Friesian Fire and Dunkirk, and maybe I'll be proven totally wrong, but I just don't believe in them.