Thursday, May 27, 2010

Wherein I Yell Loudly At A Novelist

Oh boy. I found this today.

People are still ranting viciously about the Lost finale. Fine, it's the Internet. That's what it's FOR. But then Futurismic got into the business of talking about shit they know nothing about. In the article, novelist Peter Watts was quoted. And no, this is not "Peter Watts" from Millennium. He would not be this stupid:

You know what the creators of epic, multiyear-arc television shows need? They need a novelist or two on staff. Or a playwright. Somebody who understands that an epic tale needs to be planned in advance, that plot is not something you work out after you’ve already written 90% of the story, that you can’t just throw a bunch of kicks and clues into individual chapters unless you have some idea what they fucking mean. It doesn’t matter how gobsmacking your twists are, or how effectively they entice your viewers to tune in next week: the reason we come back is because we want to see how all these intrigues fit together, what the payoff is. These guys can be absolute geniuses when it comes to microwriting: why haven’t they figured out that you gotta use that arsenal you’ve assembled on the mantelpiece, sometime before the end of the tale?

Lemme just start by saying that I have mad respect for novelists. I really do. It takes A LOT to get a book published. And there are, obviously, some remarkably talented genre novelists working out there today. But kids, there are more bad books than bad produced episodes of TeeVee. There just are.

If Mr. Watts knew a Goddam thing about TeeVee he'd know that for years now, playwrights have been motoring on over and creating TeeVee shows. Some playwrights have done very well. He may have heard of a fella called Aaron Sorkin. Others haven't had the cinematic know-how or the stomach for television. It's not too hard to figure out why. Novelists and playwrights share something in common -- solitude, and autonomy.

I don't know why this isn't just totally fucking obvious, NOVELISTS, but you write in your pleasant little room, on your nice computer, while you cat-blog or tweet about energy drinks between chapters. This being 2010, it's astonishing that people who SHOULD be more plugged in than my parents simply have NO FUCKING IDEA how television is produced. It's not a mystery, people; it's all over the Internet! Showrunners and TeeVee writers have blogs. You're reading one right now! There are even those book things y'all write. It is NOT difficult to find out how television is created. But since you don't seem to be AT ALL interested in lifting a fucking finger to find out, let me illuminate you.

We do not get to sit in a pleasant little office and write when we want. Well. Not when we're on staff, anyways. Have you ever written in a trailer while the studio built a soundstage outside your window? Have you had an office with a pipe coming from the ceiling that occasionally spews water? I'm guessing not. While you lot have folks who read and give notes (I hope, although some of you clearly do not), you get to CHOOSE who those people are. And their only mission is to focus on your words. You write what you want to write. Sure, your agent, editor and publisher may push you in a certain direction but at the end of the day, you're doing what you want. You're creating and maintaining YOUR brand.


A television writer does not have that luxury. We can't always do that, because we can't just choose to be on the shows we want to be on (or Breaking Bad would have a staff of 100,000). In fact, there are SO many factors that go into putting a staff together that it would boggle even YOUR literary brains. Suffice to say, putting a staff together is even more complex and frustrating now than it's ever been. One major issue is that staffs have shrunk. By half. So if I'm a showrunner, I'm only going to get to hire a few writers anyway. Why should one of them be a novelist or a playwright who has NO CONCEPT of what goes into making television? Do you REALLY think all writing is the same? Are you that stupid?

But you know what? I like you, novelists. So I'm going to help you out. Here are just a few of the things that you, as a television writer, will have to handle.

The writer's room. You can't sit in there and play with your precious ideas. You need to cut through the extensive pre-book noodling that you're used to. A writing staff won't put up with some asshole stopping the flow of the room. Not only that, but not everybody is going to think your ideas are genius.

You don't get to pick your readers, and you HAVE to outline. Extensively. Like, ten to twenty pages of outlining. You don't get to "find" your voice or your story or your characters. See, this isn't YOUR SHOW. It's someone else's show. And that person is YOUR BOSS. You will have at least one writer giving you notes. Probably, you'll get notes from the whole staff. After you've rewritten your outline (which, BTW, you will probably only have a few days to write -- no three pages a day for you!), it will go to the POD (AND THERE WILL BE ONE). You'll get a set of notes or two there. You'll rewrite again. Then it goes to the studio. Notes. Rewrite. Then the network. Notes. Rewrite. And then... you get to write your script, and the entire process starts over again!

But you're still sticking with it because GODDAMMIT, you are going to fix TeeVee. But let's back up a sec because now we're going to talk about production. As novelists, you can write anything you want. Explosions on the Moon. Spaceships. Dinosaurs. Whatever. But now you're on a TeeVee show and no matter how many shiny, beautiful ideas you have, they had better be on pattern. You get to write to a budget. Fun, right? Actually, it can be a pretty interesting challenge. You get awesome bottle shows out of writing for budget. Some of my favorite stuff I've written has been due to budget issues. If you are an experienced television writer, you know how to get the most bang for your buck. If you're a novelist, you so don't.

You are NOT going to get what you want. Being in television means constant compromise, more than you're used to. A lot more. And when you're dealing with physical production, with prep and the actual shooting of your episode, you have a billion fires to put out and a billion questions to answer. Some of these come from actors, so you'd better be ready and you'd better be CLEAR. Want to sit on a set all day? No? Then television isn't for you. But even when you're done shooting, there's more. Post-production! Some people think post is a drag but it's the opposite. NOTHING can make your show sing like post-production.

"But wait," you say. "I'm just talking about being on staff sitting in the room. I don't necessarily have to write scripts. I just want to help you with mythology and arcs and all that stuff you aren't equipped to do." Oh. Okay. So now I have to pay some layabout who isn't even going to WRITE? So that's one out of my four or five staff jobs? An entire salary from a tiny writing budget for someone who isn't going to do any of the heavy lifting? No fucking thanks.

You're still not convinced, because you say that there IS great television in spite of the obstacles. And sure. You're right. But do you really, honestly think that TeeVee writers just fucking do whatever they want no matter what? There are SO many decisions that go into making just on hour of TeeVee, you can't even imagine. EVERYBODY has a say in this. I wasn't in the Lost writer's room. I don't know how they worked. But the idea that a show creator should have everything worked out when they sit down on day one is fucking stupid. You, novelist, have clearly never pitched a TeeVee show. And you've never written 22 hours of one. All of this furtive "planning" Mr. Watts refers to would go right out the fucking window as soon as the production train leaves the station. Networks and studios throw ideas out. They want things changed. They want the show to be more episodic. They need to have only so many episodes with this actor. Testing tells them that this particular thing isn't working with the focus groups. And on and on and fucking ON.

But let's say that you, novelist, DO have it all worked out. You've somehow managed to sell a show, even though you've never done TeeVee or even film before. And you have worked out the intricacies of your plot. And it SO works! MY GOD YOU ARE A GENIUS. But then you realize, in the middle of the first 13 episodes, that you're burning through A LOT more story than you did in your head. Oh shit! WHAT DO YOU DO??? Or how about if you're working happily on a particular storyline but everybody else thinks it's ass. And those people hold the purse strings. WHAT DO YOU DO?

Yes, as a TeeVee writer you should know where your show is going. But you should not know EVERYTHING. Because it's simply not possible to have ALL of these factors, many of them potential physical obstacles, in your brain when you create your brilliant mythology. You fall out of love with characters and actors. You get different, better ideas based on, I don't know... YOUR FUCKING WRITING STAFF. Dailies. Production. Set design. Whatever. And that's the FUN of working in TeeVee.

One of my favorite stories regarding this is about Joss Whedon, a guy who's taken a lot of pummeling for not knowing shit. But see, he DID. He also followed his muse and when they were doing Buffy, Joss just thought, "What if Jenny is a gypsy?" And Jenny wound up cursing Angel, which gave Buffy one of THE BEST arcs ever on TeeVee. But if some novelist had planned all of the show out in advance, they NEVER would have been able to make that decision. Because there wouldn't be a fucking OUNCE of inspiration. But you, of course, are irritated that they didn't know how Angel got his soul from the very beginning. Do you see how stupid that is?

What's really irritating about this pronouncement is the inherent laziness in it. Some novelist wants to bring his self-identified "superior skills" to a poor TeeVee creator who's already done ALL the hard work of getting to the point where he or she can even SELL a pilot, write the fucker, and then get the show on the air.

So that happened.

Lest y'all think I'm excusing Lost, I'm not. I don't think it needs to be excused. I'm not "making excuses," as many of you have suggested, by claiming that the show is character-driven and not plot-driven. My POINT, which I'm sure I said fucking clearly, was that FOR ME, the characters were much more important than the minutiae of the plot. You simply have GOT to be open to changes and inspiration. A TeeVee show is not a novel. It's not just written and done. It's a living thing that YOU are in charge of maintaining. What Mr. Watts is suggesting will stagnate the show and slow down the process.

Now this gem from the writer of the article, one Paul Raven:
My guess is that they’ve never learned to because there’s never been a need for them to do so. And I find it interesting that the two TV serials I’ve enjoyed enough to really engage with in recent years were not written in response to the production schedule: Dexter, for instance, was based on the novels of Jeff Lindsay, and – despite its initially ridiculous premise – blew me away with its narrative tightness, and Sons Of Anarchy – which has some lumpy moments and clunky cliches, but otherwise moves very smoothly – is on many levels a retelling of Hamlet.

I love that he calls them "serials." I mean, really? We're not at Radio Ranch anymore. He seems to be under the impression that the only good TeeVee shows are those which are based on novels. Weird. As a TeeVee writer who's sold a bunch of pilots, I will say that Yes, I fucking DO know how to arc a series. But I also know to roll with the punches. And you guys just... don't. Most egregiously, however, Mr. Raven proves he has NO knowledge of how television works by stating that Dexter was "not written in response to the production schedule." I don't know how he figures this, aside from the fact that Showtime is on a different schedule than network TeeVee. Thus, he concludes that Dexter isn't on ANY kind of a schedule. Dude, production schedule and airing schedule are completely different. Dexter, LIKE ALL TELEVISION SHOWS, goes into production. You don't just have oodles of time to fuck around and do what you want. Every show has a production train, and that train always leaves the station. THAT IS A SCHEDULE. So your premise is ASS.

This was supposed to be much shorter but they just made me so GODDAM MAD. I know there are some comments to get to. Keep your hair on. I'll get to them.

Shit. I mean really.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Lost Souls

Now that Lost has ended, there are a bazillion blog posts on how unfulfilling, stupid, disjointed, illogical and pointless it was. Many bloggers ask many questions about the point of it all, and then complain that none of the questions was answered. As one of the viewers who didn't chart the plot points of this bitch, I gotta say... is that REALLY what you want? Or is it possible to just, I dunno... WATCH the show and follow the characters and enjoy the tremendous symmetry of the finale? I always weary of logic nerds who seem incapable of understanding character and emotion and exist only to complain about red matter and disappearing islands. Because all of the plot detritus aside, what the Lost finale did for me was create a resonant send-off for these characters. But too many people seemed too focused on WHY the flash-sideways universe existed than on what purpose it served.

Giving the flash-sideways universe time to unspool was rewarding, unless you were desperately trying to figure out where to add it on your Lost flow-chart. I found it interesting that all people wanted to do was solve it. They wanted Answers, Goddammit, and screw what was happening with the characters. But everything does NOT need to be spelled out and wrapped up in a neat little bow. That's not what I'm looking for in drama. I like the things that rarely happen in life, like parallels and symmetry and the impossibility of people finding each other. I didn't need to know the express purpose of the hatch (although it's not too hard to figure out now). The hatch introduced me to Desmond, who became one of the show's most captivating, lovelorn characters. But people reject that character development because The Hatch Was STUPID.

Lost was a genre show and as such, that means that every little plot point needs to make perfect mathematical sense. This is also what people objected to with JJ Abrams's Star Trek. It's STAR TREK. It should make logical sense. But what I like about Abrams' ouevre is that he utterly, completely refuses to sacrifice character for logic. Sure, it can get messy and confusing but the Lost finale was SO resonant that all you can do is sit there and marvel at how beautifully these characters were created and developed. You don't get that resonance without all that work, and sure, without some missteps along the way.

For me, the missteps on Lost came in the middle part of the series, when the writers paid too much attention to the Internet and tried to answer questions at the expense of character. And when the writers finally went "Fuck it," the show relaxed back into what made it so fantastic: A character show. Asking for a television show to be perfect for six years is asking the impossible. Every show is going to make mistakes. And a show like Lost, that's so dependent on exploration, takes more of a risk. Look at where this show began, and where it went. People who are so used to being locked in to a premise that carries throughout the life of a show just got mad. They couldn't go with it because that's not what they wanted out of their TeeVee shows. And that's fine. But that doesn't mean Lost was a failure.

What's so wonderful to me about the finale is how it took the crazy six years of this series, with smoke monsters and hatches and psychics and Others, and brought it right back to where it began -- the characters.

Some people said Lost has changed television. But unfortunately, it hasn't. Now it's just... gone. If Lost really WERE the game-changer everybody seems to imagine it to be, then there would be more chances taken in network TeeVee. But networks aren't taking any chances right now. They're circling the economic wagons. I'm not even sure television shows CAN be game-changers anymore. We're too locked into the procedural way of life. ABC took a chance with Lost. The show was bold, rich and different. And it kept being different, to such an extent that people wanted to crush it with a rock. It's funny, because people will go on about how TeeVee is just the same-old all the time but then they'll turn around and criticize the Jacob/Man In Black origin episode by going, "Gee, there are only a few episodes left and THAT'S what they want to spend their time on?" Well, YEAH. THAT'S WHAT MAKES THE SHOW DIFFERENT. You, guys, are trying to shove it back into that safe format that networks have been forcing upon you for decades. You're not ready for different either, audience.

Getting into fights on the Internet about creator intent is SO mid-90s. If you didn't like the finale, fine. We're just looking for different things from our drama.

So maybe you're wondering WTF happened. Were they dead? Alive and then dead? Not waving, drowning? Here's my interpretation, which also happens to be pretty much what Christian Shephard said in that monologue in the church. Seriously. Go back and watch it: Think about the castaways' lives prior to going to the island. As Jacob said, they were all pretty fucked up. They all had problems. They create their universes where their lives are better. Their problems are fixed. And they could exist there forever, if they wanted to (the choice Ben made at the end). But instead, they choose to remember their fucked-up existences. They can't be together in their perfect lives, so they sacrifice those lives, those fantasies, because moving on together is preferable the superficial fantasy of a life that hasn't really been lived.

And the ending mirroring the opening shot of the series? How often does a show actually get to pick their ending? It was a beautiful, perfect bookend.

Bravo, Lost. You went out on your own terms.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Business As Usual

It's been awhile, mostly because I just can't think of anything nice to say. And you know what Mom says about THAT.

But since this blog is ostensibly, partly, sometimes about TeeVee and the upfronts just happened, I figured I should post SOMETHING. Only I haven't really read many of the pilots. My favorite of the pilots that I did read, CBS's Chaos, didn't get a pick-up although it may still be in contention for midseason. It's really hard to tell. The problem with Chaos is that it's not really a CBS pilot and unlike NBC or even ABC, CBS doesn't have another network that would be a better fit. Back in the day, they used to make Haunted and then shovel it off to UPN. Although UPN sure didn't know what to do with it. BTW, Haunted is now on DVD if you weren't one of the 5,000 people who watched it when it was on UPN. I'm really proud of that show.

How networks pick up TeeVee shows has changed. Surprisingly, not really for the better. Back in the day, testing was an aid to the networks. A show's life didn't depend on how it tested (see The Mary Tyler Moore Show). But as networks became less creative and more corporate, they needed to find ways to take something speculative and turn it quantitative. And also, the executives needed to be able to justify and keep their jobs. Because that's what the corporate life does to people -- it makes them constantly afraid of being fired. So testing became less of an aid and more of a necessity. If your show didn't test well, it didn't get on. If a crappy show tested great but everyone hated it, it got on anyway (and didn't last long, either). But then businesspeople did what they do best -- they ran the economy into the ground. And the entertainment divisions of these lumbering behemoths had to carry the rampant incompetence of Harvard MBAs on their backs. What that means is, even shows that tested well this season didn't get ordered. It was all about how little a show costs.

While it looks like the networks are flush with pick-ups, don't think for a second that that means TeeVee has recovered. It hasn't. These shows are being given the smallest budgets imaginable. The writing budgets are laughable. And the fight has only started. Don't think for a second that you're gonna see tanks and helicopters and spectacular car crashes in episode two of Hawaii 5-0. And so few of these shows are going to shoot in California because GOD FORFUCKINGBID that shows and movies should get tax breaks here. So even though it looks like the TeeVee business is moving forward, it's actually moving backwards and out of state. And I'm telling you, this is going to have more of a ripple effect towards the future than you think. If you're thinking of getting into this business right now, DON'T. Wait a few years. See what happens.

I'll continue the "Why people who are in finance and business are incompetent asshats" rant. It's affecting baseball (thanks, Frank McCourt) and especially horse racing. There is an Austrian. And it's not Schwarzenegger! This Austrian is the idiotic boob Frank Stronach. He's a horse owner and an all-around rich business type who decided, many years ago, to buy every racetrack he could get his grody hands on. And then, like apparently every business does at one point or another (there must be a graduate class on How To Declare Bankruptcy), his Magna Corporation went effing bankrupt. Naturally, it's absolutely FINE if a business declares bankruptcy. But if a human does it? Christ, the republicans jump all over the lazy, incompetent assholes. Businesses, though, get hand-outs and bail-outs. Magna's problem is that IT OWNS ALL THESE FUCKING RACETRACKS, including Santa Anita. And they are FUCKING WITH IT. The Oak Tree Racing Association, which for forty years has been leasing Santa Anita for their fantastic fall Oak Tree meet, has a sixteen-year contract with Magna. Well, HAD a sixteen-year contract. Some fuckwit incompetent who calls himself the president of this company decided to rescind Oak Tree's lease. For no apparent reason, other than I'm sure that somehow, it saves them money. Corporations are the Han Solos of this world without the character turn.

BTW, this president's name is Dennis Mills. AND I AM COMING FOR HIM.

If these people cared one iota about anything OTHER than money and shareholders and board meetings, then maybe they would find the money a little easier to make. I just don't understand people who care only about finance and deals and mergers and whatever but prior to all of this economic bullshit, I had a "live and let live" attitude. But now, THEY ARE FUCKING WITH ME AND MINE. And that is not cool. So finance and business people, show me that you're not just all fucking idiots who had no talent for anything else. It's on you now.

Back to TeeVee.

Well, shows are wrapping up their seasons and lives (Lost), leading to that wasteland of summer that really isn't a wasteland anymore because there's always Mad Men to look forward to. The only show that's been firing on all cylinders this year is Breaking Bad. There's just not a thing wrong with that show. Vince Gilligan keeps finding ways to up the stakes without changing the show. This is a lesson for the majority of showrunners but then Vince Gilligan is exceptional. He's better than you, he's better than me, he's better than ALL of us. And really, that's been one of about two bright spots on TeeVee. I utterly relish how good he is. It makes me think that maybe there's some light at the end of this corporate tunnel, that at the end of the day, maybe it CAN be about talent and drama and fierce individualism.

Another show that's working for me is Parenthood. It can get a little frenetic in recent episodes and I hope they keep an eye on that. Because this is a fantastic ensemble and the writing has been wonderful. Remember Once & Again? It's like that. I applaud NBC for picking it up for another season. NBC also picked up Chuck. And I really like that show, too. It's proof that television can and should be fun. And I don't mean "fun" as in "it's just goofy, go with it." Chuck's got real characters, too, but it's not trying to prove a point. Ironically, the network that took the most hits with the Leno debacle is bouncing back quite nicely. NBC seems committed to regaining their legacy of the home of the classy drama. It'll be interesting to see how their pilots fit into that. All three of these shows, Breaking Bad, Parenthood and Chuck, are different legs of the TeeVee table.

A show that used to be the fourth leg of that table, Doctor Who, just isn't working. I was SO looking forward to seeing what Steven Moffat would do with Who, especially given the episodes he had already written, his magnificent miniseries Jekyll, and his TeeVee resume. This is a guy who should have knocked this out of the park but so far, he's just fouling off one slider after another. It's hard to judge Matt Smith and Karen Gillan at this point because their characters haven't been developed at all. Maybe Moffat has something magnificent up his sleeve and all of these weird pegs will fall into place at some point but we're over halfway in right now and nothing is working. It's too frenetic by half and those wonderful emotional moments that Russell Davies did so well just aren't there. The last two episodes, Vampires Of Venice and Amy's Choice, slowed down the pacing a bit. And that was good. But aside from the first of the two-parter, these episodes don't have any teeth. To be disappointed by Doctor Who is to be disappointed by television in general. Come on, Moffat. Step it up!

Scattered comments. From Jeff:
Isn't Mad Men a show with writers portraying writers?

Why, yes, I suppose it is! The advertising talk definitely feels like a writer's room. I wrote a Mad Men spec and the ad campaigns were the most fun part of it.

It appears that the pilot for the "Rockford Files" retread, remake, re-imagining -- whatever, is a huge dud. Everyone is pointing fingers at everybody for the failure. Here's a thought, maybe it was a bad idea to try to do remake of a show that was completely dependent on James Garner for its success.

They all seem to be pointing the finger squarely there. This is exactly like the Mad Men episode where they're trying to use Bye Bye Birdie for the ad campaign but it's not working and finally Roger, Scotch in hand, goes, "She's not Ann-Margret." Without James Garner, The Rockford Files isn't even a premise. On the other hand, Hawaii 5-0 has Hawaii. Everybody is bathed in that heavenly golden light and they all look gorgeous.

Posting this today because I may have some junk to say about Lost after tonight. It's ending or something?