Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Otaku for Dummies

This week, Patton Oswalt and Javier Grillo-Marxuach both wrote articles about the over-saturation of geekdom. We have, it seems, reached the Omega Point* of nerddom.

Judging by the responses, geeks are a touch angry about the opinion that geek culture needs to lie fallow for awhile in order for it to return to maximum efficiency. Maybe it's a generational thing, because the geeks/nerds who grew up with readily available videos and DVDs and Internet shopping just come at this from a different mindset. But when you talk about the pervasiveness of geek culture, you really need to understand where this attitude is coming from, even if you wind up having a completely different opinion.

For me, it's not just that geek culture has become pop culture. It's the way it happened. Comic Con is the perfect example. The corporations jumped on Comic Con like a Biggest Loser contestant scrambles for a donut. They put their ad people and marketing departments and accountants on the case, and the job was to deconstruct geek culture. Figure out what makes the people who love this weird shit tick, then give them what they sort-of want but also make it as mainstream as possible. Knock off the interesting bits so it can be mass-produced and distributed and consumed by the largest number of people. This is what a corporation DOES. It takes something quirky and individual and turns it into a cynical bowl of shit.

A lot of people do not notice this, but some people DO and that's why both of these essays resonated with me. We are so inundated with geek culture that we're drowning, and this makes it impossible for anyone to truly be inspired by anything. There's no surprise anymore. Fans know what's coming out, when it's coming out, who's in it, who made it, how it looks. They follow writers, actors and directors on the Twitter and get text updates. They have the books, the games and the action figures before the marketing tool is even released. Because let's be honest here: The movies and TV shows and books are just marketing tools for the product.

It didn't always used to be backwards. At least if it was, it was hidden better. More innocent, maybe, even if being more innocent means you're a sucker. I just don't know if today's geeks get the same rush from seeking out the obscure. And maybe it doesn't matter to them. Maybe it IS a generational thing, and those of us who felt that rush are just fucking old assholes who don't have a place in the new world order. But I'm less concerned with the people who consume and love this stuff than I am with the people who are going to become the creators. If everything is readily, instantly available... if there is no need to seek out information... if there are no secrets and no mystery... if interpretation is something given to you by a studio marketing department... then where, exactly, is the inspiration supposed to come from?

It just seems like there used to be moments where time stops. Star Wars, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Star Trek. Moments that could be separated out from all the rest of the shit. And no matter how people feel about our geek cultural touchstones, you have to admit that they rose like a tower from the landscape. I have no doubt that a lot of you hate these touchstones for that very reason. What makes time stop now? Are there people sitting in the Transformers movie who are completely mesmerized? Those adjusting their 3D glasses in Toy Story 3? We're in a perpetual feedback loop of geekformation. We're being bombarded with it. When everything is self-referential and time moves so quickly, is it even possible for something with an original voice to rise out of the muck?

If the media that people are consuming is simply a pale imitation of what inspired the heroes of THOSE creators, then who are the heroes for today? Can anything be surprising or astonishing or mind-blowing anymore? Maybe it's not necessary. Could be that OUR inspiration isn't THEIR inspiration, and they're going to be just as creative anyway. Or maybe creativity is just so different now that it's alien to us. But I don't think so. It's impossible to keep up with everything, of course. And yes, life DOES move more quickly now. We are instant consumers. But we are also instant creators, making parodies on YouTube and Funny Or Die. Short, funny parodies are the best vehicle for the Internet. Hell, YouTube made it easy by limiting the length of a clip. It seems like we consume, delete, consume, delete, etc. While previously, we consumed, digested, reflected and searched. But did we do that because there was no other option? Is there no real difference between the two? I wonder if our ability to adjust to whatever consumer culture does is actually a detriment. We don't fight for anything. We just let ourselves be dictated to.

Americans, in particular, are bred to consume and we are AWESOME at it. The pervasiveness of collectibles that are mass-produced by the billions... I'm not sure it exists simply because of corporate greed. George Lucas owns Marin County because he had the foresight to get his Star Wars toy money, when companies didn't think the merchandising would be worth anything. Now, of course, merchandising drives movies. But if the consumers didn't demand the toys, the corporations wouldn't have bothered. So is it up to us to stop it? Is the temporary rejection of geek culture necessary for US to find a way to survive, to get back to roots that weren't so fucking obviously materialistic?

This is a delicate balancing act because like a good sociopath, the corporations have overdone it. They know how to market the product to us because we've basically told them how. They understand the geek mind, and it's THAT which has made geek culture mainstream. So is it up to the geeks to forge ahead and create something surprising? It had better be, because the corporations won't do it. They won't take a chance. Somehow, the creators need to find a way to manipulate the system to get their voice out there. People forget that Star Wars was an uphill battle. And yes, it's incredibly sad that George Lucas is re-engineering and spackling his creation like it's Michael Jackson's face. But if anyone earned the right to do that, it's Lucas. It would be great if someone else would come along and earn the right to rape their creation.

Conversely, Joss Whedon can't stop the rights-holders from rebooting Buffy and if there's one King of the High Geeks, it's Whedon.

So maybe the lesson there is that creators need to find ways to see into that future, to hold onto their creations. And maybe it's not so much about geek culture dying, but rather that those who are aware of the oversaturation and long for the days of discovery actually create something new. Surprising. Unexpected. Not derivative of other things, but inspired by them. There is a fine line between derivation and inspiration and I think both Patton and Javi have given voice to that. There's awareness now, even if people misunderstand or disagree. So someone has to do this. Somebody has to find the ingenuity with which to steer the ship.

So what are we waiting for?

*If you haven't heard of it, the Omega Point is a term devised by the French Jesuit Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. It's supposedly the moment prior to the singularity and it denotes the organized complexity towards which the universe is moving. He goes into a lot of philosophy that winds up being somewhat dualistic -- the universe is divided into matter and love, kind of a Pushme-Pullyu of complexity. Taken in the context of geek culture, my interpretation is that there's always a push towards the world being created. The world of geeks is the convention, the gathering, the assembling of like-minded citizens. Geeks gathered with their mimeographed Star Trek fanfic, with their fan clubs, on the Well. And one facet of geekdom is the love of world-building. Chardin says that the pieces of the world seek each other out through the forces of love, which is a perfect description for what geeks DO. And then, of course, there must be the wars -- the great Shipper wars of the X-Files world, the Spike Redemptionist battles of the Buffyverse, the myriad skirmishes within the Star Trek universe.

This seems to happen when the world becomes too large and too complex, forcing geeks to huddle in even smaller groups within that larger world. Is that what's happening now? Our geek world is so huge that there isn't even a small corner in which to settle. So maybe razing it to the ground and starting over is a logical way to go.

One might say that, by virtue of human reflection (both individual and collective), evolution, overflowing the physico-chemical organisation of bodies, turns back upon itself and thereby reinforces itself with a new organising power vastly concentric to the first — the cognitive organisation of the universe. To think the world (as physics is beginning to realise) is not merely to register it but to confer upon it a form of unity it would otherwise (i.e. without being thought) be without.
-- Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, The Phenomenon of Man

Happy new year, everyone!

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Walking Alone

The big TeeVee news on the Interwebs is that Frank Darabont, film director and apparently "showrunner" of the AMC series The Walking Dead, has fired the entire writing staff and is considering not even having a staff for season two of the show. This has not been confirmed, although I would imagine that the first bit of it -- letting the staff go -- has already been done. Since the show only got a six-episode order for season one, I wouldn't imagine that the staff was very large. Probably a couple of guys. And yes, "guys" is a pretty good guess.

Let's play the Holy Blood Holy Grail game and pretend that the above is all true and confirmed.

Darabont, ultimate television historian that he is not, wants to model The Walking Dead on how the BBC makes TeeVee -- with a showrunner, no staff, and freelancers coming in to write episodes. First of all, I think the BBC model works because production over there is an entirely different animal than it is here. Also, correct me if I'm wrong, but aren't there story editors on BBC shows? Isn't there some experienced framework in place to make the shows run smoothly? And haven't the majority of the showrunners come up through the very stringent system so that they know how it all works? Don't they have -- dare I say it -- experience? And don't the freelance writers also know precisely how the system works, and how to pitch and write scripts for these shows?

Since that's not how we do it here, I can't imagine that this sort of thing would run smoothly. Actually, hang on a minute... I actually have experience with this sort of thing! I was on a show where it was decided that the majority of the episodes would be freelanced. This led to hearing A LOT of pitches and not surprisingly, an enormous number of those pitches missed the mark. Because see, that's how our system is designed. It's almost impossible for freelancers to pitch an acceptable story to a US TeeVee show, which is why the WGA required freelance episodes are usually given to friends or assistants. Freelancing, for the most part, is so that people who want to break in are given the chance to. I'm a huge proponent of handing freelances to assistants. If I had a show, that's what I would do, too.

Darabont, unfortunately, is speaking from ignorance. I don't know what his thought process is for this decision (if indeed he made it). But I can imagine a few possible reasons: One, he figures that he is doing all of the work anyway, and can continue to do all of the work AND keep up with production. And two, that because of his feature director mentality, he truly has no idea what the fuck a writing staff is FOR. But this isn't all on Darabont. The comments on sites reporting this potential news have been staggeringly ignorant. Nobody understands what a writing staff does. Many of the comments say shit about staff writers just lazing around collecting paychecks they aren't actually earning. Other comments say that the writing sucked so hard that firing the writers is the right thing to do. Others say that hey, Darabont wrote most of the episodes and how long does it take to write a script anyway? Just don't fire the make-up guy. A goodly number of comments mention David Kelley, Aaron Sorkin and David Milch, three showrunners who write the majority of the episodes of their shows. So certainly Darabont, great genius that he is (he's from FEATURES!) can handle 13 zombie episodes. Still others -- and these are the most dangerous -- are from people who heard somewhere that TeeVee used to be mainly freelance, so obviously it works. And then the BBC example.

Over on Blastr (they spell it that way), Marc Bernardin -- one bloody smart cookie -- had these comments:
Is there a virtue in having a writers' room, in fostering the free-flowing exchange of ideas, inspiration and experience? Absolutely. But that's not the only way of making television; there are others, and they are perfectly capable of turning out excellence. Babylon 5 was written nigh-exclusively by J. Michael Straczynski, and didn't have a writing staff. Every line of dialogue during the first three seasons of the Emmy-winning West Wing came from Aaron Sorkin's keyboard; the writing staff there served more as a platoon of researchers.

Actually, word is that Sorkin's room broke the stories and then Sorkin wrote the scripts. So I suppose if you think that dialogue is 99% of writing, then this theory makes sense. However, that's not what I think.

Turning to freelancers might allow for a shorter production schedule, with a dozen writers all working at the same time, turning in an avalanche of material simultaneously to then be honed and polished by executive producers like Darabont and Robert Kirkman.

That's certainly the shiny fantasy of how this could work. But I have to ask... exactly WHEN is the heavy lifting -- the actual breaking of stories -- supposed to occur? If you haven't worked on a production schedule, then you really don't know what happens when the train leaves the station. If the writers are involved from the ground up, then they are more adept at getting the voice, pacing and characterizations. If you keep them out of the process and just hand them an outline, you are fucking yourself. Like, seriously.

And freelancers will get you new voices, fresh legs to help carry the drama over the long haul. They can also come from anywhere: Wouldn't it be sweet to see Stephen King bounce in for an episode, or David Chase, or Neil Gaiman, or Steven Moffat?

Because Stephen King bouncing into X-Files was such a success. This is backwards. The showrunner IS THE VOICE OF THE SHOW. The last Goddam thing you want is for a TeeVee show to have a thousand different voices. If it's an anthology, maybe. But this format doesn't work for anthologies, either. I have first-hand experience with that. But that's not even the biggest outrage with this statement. Now what you're talking about is famous writers, who don't need the work and don't need the money, taking work away from actual TeeVee writers. Well, how fucking OFFENSIVE. Is television REALLY going to turn celebrity? It's bad enough that networks want names for everything but REALLY? You're going to turn TeeVee back into a freelance medium and rather than that being a GOOD thing for writers, you are now just handing scripts off to Stephen fucking KING? Go tell your great idea to working TeeVee writers and see what they say about it.

Okay. People. Please. Don't be fucking stupid. You have no idea how it works. You don't know what writing is. You don't know what a writing staff does. You don't understand how the BBC model is different, or that because TeeVee used to be freelance-heavy, that was before even your parents were born. And ultimately, you have NO FUCKING IDEA how the credit process works. There are certain showrunners who have a tendency to put their names on scripts with other writers. They all have different reasons for doing so. They could just adore the shit out of residuals, and want as much as possible, even at the expense of a staff writer making a tenth of what the showrunner makes. They could be of the philosophy that since they are running the show, they have every right to put their names on scripts. They could want to cover their asses just in case a script gets nominated for an award. Or, they could think that actually sitting down and writing dialogue is REAL writing, and the work the writing staff does is not.

My favorite comments blame the staff for horrible shows. But see, a writing staff on its own has NO power. The power in TeeVee is ceded to the showrunner. So if you're watching a show you hate, blame the executive producer. Don't blame the writing staff.

It still astonishes me that people do not understand that the writing of the script comes at the END of the writing process. Just because you are not typing "Fade In," that doesn't mean you are not writing. Writing is preparation. Writing is construction. Destruction. Composition. It's editing. Storytelling visually, emotionally, humorously, logically. Critical thinking. Letting go of great ideas in service of the story. Character arcs, planned over an episode and a season and the life of the show. It's inspiration, the testing of that inspiration, the honing and fine-tuning of that inspiration. It's collaboration, for the love of God. It's a group of experienced brains tackling a blank white board and breaking a fucking story in two days.

Nowhere in the comments of one of these sites do you see someone say, "But who is going to break the stories?" Because that's not why people go into writing. They have "ideas." They think sitting in front of a computer or a typewriter or putting pen to paper is romantic. Writing is never shown as it really is, from the bottom up. Nobody gives a shit about how the chassis of a car is built. They only care about the trim. It's really easy for someone to read a script and give notes, just thoughts off the top of their head, and think that those notes will be a cinch for the writer to incorporate. Because after all, you just need to put in the leather seats or tint the windows, right? With a story, though, if the person giving the notes doesn't understand how that story was built and created, then the notes could be difficult to implement. And sometimes, they will be impossible. The writer will have already thought of the things the note-giver wants, thought about them, tested them, and rejected them.

Because THAT, people, is what a writing staff does, and the fucking disrespect being blurbed out on blogs and news sites is really offensive.

If you want to break into television and your fantasy about writing involves you sitting at a computer, then you're not ready. Go write features. Television is, as I said above, a collaborative medium. First of all, you will need to collaborate with your fellow writers. You will be facing that empty white board at least 13 times, and as you face each new episode, you will have previous episodes with story and character development to consider. You will have upcoming episodes as well, especially if your show is serialized. You will have budgets to consider in your story breaks. Actors. Production. Crew. Studio and network executives. You will have to become a serial killer of your story children and let your great ideas go. And all of THAT is before you even get to the script. What bothers me about writing programs at schools is that they don't generally teach this. Sure, they'll teach you how to write a solid script, but they won't teach you how to be on a staff. But geez, given the utter lack of understanding of how a writing staff works, I'm not terribly surprised.

A good showrunner depends on his (or rarely her) writing staff. These people have the showrunner's back, and he has theirs. It greatly disturbs me that people with NO understanding of this are being given shows, and it accounts for the upswing in horrible treatment of writers in TeeVee. TeeVee IS a writer's medium, but it shouldn't be a tyrant's medium. And it shouldn't be about someone's misunderstanding and misuse of writing staffs. I don't know why Darabont decided this (if he has), or why his experience with his staff was apparently so wretched that he doesn't want anyone around anymore. Sometimes, showrunners are just lousy communicators and aren't able to impart what they want to the writing staff. And sometimes it's just not a good fit. But again, it's up to the showrunner to use his experience and if someone doesn't actually HAVE experience, then THIS happens.

If Darabont wants to go this route, he'll have a somewhat easier time of it because this isn't a network show. He doesn't have the layers of executives and producers he has to go through to get something done. So his process is going to go smoother anyway. But it's a seriously bad example that's being set for the rest of the industry. If our system was set up for freelancing, that would be one thing. But it isn't. This isn't the BBC. And frankly, using Steven Moffat's S5 of Doctor Who as a shining example of freelance genius is rather Goddam stupid. Moffat was clearly overwhelmed, and it showed.

Maybe a writing staff could have helped him out with that.