Monday, March 21, 2011

But Wait! There's More!

One of my favorite shows is Discovery Channel's "Pitchmen." While it misses Billy Mays (as does the world), it still features Anthony Sullivan, pitchman par excellence, Yoda to other pitchmen and developer of product. The slogan is "simple solutions for everyday problems," and Sullivan sticks to that like... something that sticks to something else. Aspiring pitch people and inventors pitch their products to Sullivan and he tells them why they will or will not work in the direct response market. He's so good at his job that the show is completely fascinating. Because after awhile, you start to anticipate his response to a product.

Although Sullivan has inventors pitch to him, he rarely turns a product down because an inventor doesn't pitch well. And believe you me, the majority of them are NOT pitchmen. But then it's rather a separate skill, pitching and inventing. Sullivan isn't an inventor. He's a tremendous salesman, though. If he can immediately see how a product should be pitched, then he's hooked. But he's also been hooked by a product and initially flummoxed by how it should be pitched. Regardless, when you see the final commercial you get it.

I am in love with the culture of direct response and the history of pitchmen. In one episode, for example, a legendary knife worker comes out of retirement to demonstrate a new set of knives. It's an interesting subculture, to be sure.

Another reason I love the show is that it does relate to what we do in television. We have to pitch, too, and we have to be just as clear and concise as the pitchmen. Our product -- our idea -- has to have that "why didn't I think of that" element. It has to be familiar enough, yet different enough. It has to fill a niche, but not create one. It has to be, in essence, a simple solution to an everyday problem. As I said above, the big difference is that in direct response, the pitchman is generally separate from the inventor. The pitchman helps the inventor achieve his or her dream.

In TeeVee, pitchman and inventor are one in the same. And there are very few people who got into television because they could sell. Oh, many people discovered that they have the skill to sell, to pitch. But a rather large majority of writers would be just as happy not having to sell (hi, here's one!). It used to be that pitching was an aid, and not the whole enchilada. You could be somewhat proficient and still sell your idea if the idea was a good one. But the more corporations seized power, the more important pitching became. Because corporations, as we all know, are not about creativity. We all know what happens when sociopaths create art. Hitler and John Wayne Gacy come to mind. Ideas are commodities, not inspiration. They have to be unimpeachable. And this is where pitching comes in. It is entirely incumbent upon the pitchman to do all the work. Think of it as a baseball pitcher not having a catcher to throw to. That's what it's becoming.

AMC has taken a unique stand on this. They have something they cheerfully call a Bake-Off, where they have writers come in and do an entire presentation on their idea. To how many people, I do not know. Now, this isn't necessarily a bad thing. After all, as writers we all have our entire pitches prepared. We know what the pilot is, we know who the characters are, we know everything about our world and we have at least the first season figured out. So it's not as if AMC's asking writers to do THAT much more work than they would ordinarily do. But see, the Bake-Off is for people who have already SOLD pilots to the network. THEY HAVE ALREADY SOLD THEIR SHOWS. And AMC is asking these people to pitch AGAIN in the hopes that they are good enough salespeople that the network will pick their show up to pilot. The show that already had to be unimpeachable when it was sold now has to be superunimpeachable. It's bananas on bananas. While it's good business practice to make sure you extinguish problems, it's another thing entirely to work over an idea to such an extent that you strangle it. This starts to have an effect on the market, in that audiences start getting bored.

EVERYBODY is trying to get into AMC and it's certainly no secret why. They've got the best shows on television. But when that happens, a network can afford to get very selective, which means that they can pick and choose who they want to be in business with. Not that they don't already do this, but it's made even more evident when things aren't working elsewhere.

But making people perform like this, I dunno... it smacks of gigantism to me. Sometimes success breeds success, but sometimes it breeds a quick path to failure. It's just a little too "The Next Great Restaurant" for its own good. If AMC ever erects enormous statues outside its offices, then we'll know that the fall of a civilization is imminent.

Yeah, we have to verbally pitch our ideas but now they're expecting us to be Anthony Sullivan. And that's not fair.

Tuesday, March 08, 2011

Women Of A Certain Age

Oh look. I still have a blog.

(insert vague but impressive fake reasons for why it's taken me this so long to write another long-ass post, also including the fact that nothing was seriously pissing me off)

One of my favorite shows on TeeVee is TNT's Men Of A Certain Age. It's really hard to get a straightforward drama on TeeVee, and having Ray Romano as one of the creators must have certainly helped. If you haven't seen this show, you're probably one of THOSE who hasn't watched Friday Night Lights, either. SHAME ON YOU. Men Of A Certain Age, if you don't know (WHICH MAKES ME HATE YOU), is about three friends approaching middle age. I say "approaching," because nobody knows when middle age is anymore. What I love about the show is how frank and honest it is. These men are not portrayed as heroes, or sad sacks. They're people, navigating life, and it's wonderful. The writing could not be better. My only complaint is that the seasons are too damned short. Eight episodes?? Are you freaking crazy??

This is a show about men in the way that they haven't been portrayed on TeeVee. It really is. We have certain archetypes that we love on TeeVee. Hawaii 5-0 has sort of cornered the market on these guys, and that show does it very well. Men on TeeVee have to be cool, you see, even if they have other problems. At some point, they have to bank-turn a product-placed Camaro through the door of a nightclub. It's just the nature of television. And God knows there's nothing wrong with it. It's not easy to do well.

Men Of A Certain Age isn't that show. This isn't the show where Ray Romano is going to take off his sunglasses in a sexy way. It's such a beautifully written show and I don't know anyone who watches it. And that pisses me off. But it also got me thinking about what the same show is for women. Someone is going to say Sex And The City, or Desperate Housewives. And I say... not quite. I don't think there could EVER be a show featuring women the way Men Of A Certain Age features men. Because even though we pretend we're all about equality, we're really not. There's always a quota for women, whether it be women on staff of a show, or women as leads in shows. There is NEVER a quota for men. It's assumed that the shows will all be male-driven and have male leads, unless they need to add a touch of diversity and feature a woman. And that's just how it works, y'all.

Why isn't Sex And The City the female version of Men Of A Certain Age? Because it's a fucking fantasy, that's why. It's the female version of Hawaii 5-0. The women are always cool, no matter what. And even if it's well done, there's still that Wall Of Cool protecting the audience from brutal honesty. There's something about Men Of A Certain Age that goes so much deeper than shoes and clothes and finding love and kids. In the woman fantasy shows, these are generally the end of things. Dramas about women all eventually wind up in that little box. Desperate Housewives has been guilty of that as well. But as someone who's seen every episode of that show, I will also say that they have told some really wonderful stories. Not necessarily relatable to me, but extremely well told. But then nothing on television is ever going to be truly relatable to me. Desperate Housewives is, however, much more of a soap than Men Of A Certain Age, which adds a certain tart outrageousness to the storytelling. And it has that hook -- the desperate housewives themselves, defined by their 50s jobs. Is it wonderful that women over the age of 22 are leads on shows? Absolutely. No question. But I want television to take that and go deeper. The problem is, there's no home for that kind of a show. It's not a Lifetime show. It's not a network show. So what does that leave?

This kind of honest exploration is only going to happen in an ensemble situation, like (apparently) any Jason Katims show. And I guess that's fine for now. It's not like I don't adore those shows. But you try pitching a female character who has no interest in marriage or kids and see how far THAT gets you. This is an inevitability in drama. And while it usually is for male characters, it's not imperative. It ALWAYS is for female characters. Because, as our President says on a fucking constant daily basis, it's all about the working families. There are no others. Maybe that's why I usually default to creating male characters, because I just don't want to fight about it.

Growing up, girls have books to read and TeeVee shows to watch but I know I wasn't the only one who read boy's books and watched boy-oriented shows. Because the accepted model is that girls will always consume boy-oriented entertainment but boys will NEVER read books aimed at girls. This is a sad truth. For every Podkayne of Mars, there's the entire Harlequin line. And even Podkayne had a ton of problems. BIG fan, Bob, but your views on women leave something to be desired. But girls take what they can get. Boys don't have to. They don't have to compromise about anything. Don't want a family? No big deal. You make more than any woman anyway. But if a woman doesn't seek that traditional role? HORRORS.

Then we come to the YA explosion and almost all of this is aimed at girls. Publishers realized that there was an audience for this stuff. What's unfortunate is that a lot of it is the same old thing dressed up in a genre package. Twilight is a Mormon fantasy about true love through stalking, and babies. All Bella wants is to marry Edward and have his creepy vampire baby who will imprint upon the werewolf and then he will fall in love with it. BECAUSE OF COURSE. But it's disturbing, isn't it, that Twilight is SO popular for these very reasons? Is THAT the kind of fantasy girls are STILL being asked to want and accept? I looked at the March releases in YA fiction and it's pretty much all the same thing. There's some beautiful boy involved who changes everything. I don't have a problem with that archetype in general, but when enough people cynically dive into the pool, the pandering begins. The poorly drawn characters arrive. I am all for a female teen protagonist meeting the mystical guy but DO something with it. Having finished my own YA book that features the opposite arc for my female protagonist, I'm pretty sure no book agent will even read it.

"Happily ever after" isn't the end. That's where the second act starts. In the 50s and 60s, publishers like Julian Messner published career romance novels -- simply the greatest books of ALL TIME -- where girls went to the big city to start their careers and choose between the two inevitable guys. The best of these books found the protagonists figuring out how to do both. The worst of them, of course, found the guy ordering the protagonist to give up her job so she could raise his fucking kids. But this was at a time when a woman's place was pretty well defined. The only show that is truly honest about women is, ironically, Mad Men. Because even though the show is called Mad Men, it's about those women. Is it easier to tell stories about women back when they really had little choice about their futures? Why can't we do that now? Maybe it has to do with how far removed we are from that time period. Matthew Weiner has said that he considers Mad Men to be, in part, a science fiction show. And if you really think about it, that makes sense. It's safer to tell stories about people who are removed from your audience. But if you do that, then you'd better Goddam be as good as Matthew Weiner.

And I haven't even talked about the Judd Apatow movies, because I would probably starve to death ranting about what they're telling our society about women. But I think I may have touched upon that before. Ahem. So that's the babbling quotient for now. Incidentally, this fine post comes at you on International Women's Day, which probably has as its logo a uterus or a mother holding a baby and Jesus or something.

Next up: I saw The Adjustment Bureau. I will have some things to say.