By Jaime Weinman - Thursday, February 28, 2013 - 0 Comments
U.S. pilot season is a dog-eat-dog world where huge amounts of money are wasted on shows no one will ever see, and it is, all in all, a pretty good thing. (In theory it might be more efficient to make fewer pilots, and networks are always talking about it – but the huge number of pilots is part of what keeps the U.S. TV industry humming, because there’s a lot of work out there around this time. If we had more pilots in English Canada, even more failed pilots, we’d probably have a stronger TV industry.) But since most of these pilots will never see the light of day, at least until the networks do the sensible thing and put failed pilots online, it’s hard to know what to say about them until we know which ones made it and which ones didn’t.
What I do like to look at around this time of year is which directors got to do pilots and which ones didn’t. As you know, episodic TV directing is not and never will be a glamour job: these directors do amazing things on tight schedules and budgets, but it usually can’t be a creative enterprise like film directing sometimes is. The TV director must stick to a visual template created by someone else and shape the performances to fit in with the way the characters behaved in the other episodes; those decisions, the heart of directing a film, are really made before he or she shows up on the set. Which means that the closest thing TV directing has to a glamour job, especially now that TV movies are not very prestigious, is the TV pilot. Even there, the director does not have full power –
a Martin Scorsese is a hired gun on Boardwalk Empire in a way that he isn’t on most of his feature films. (Update: I am told that Scorsese originated the project through his production company, so this was not the right example to use; here’s an article from a couple of years ago with some examples of feature-film directors doing pilots, and at least some of them were hired after the script was picked up.) But the pilot director gets to set the look of the series and shape the performances from scratch. Every subsequent director will be to some extent imitating the pilot director. Plus the pilot director often gets residuals from the series.
But there often doesn’t seem to be a system by which episodic TV directors are “promoted” to pilots. I get the impression it happens more often outside the U.S. industry: the pilot of Lost Girl (just picked up for a fourth season) was by frequent episodic TV director Erik Canuel, and the first episode of Luther was by Brian Kirk, a director who handles a lot of TV episodes on both sides of the ocean. But in the States, it sometimes seems like the Continue…
By Jaime Weinman - Wednesday, February 27, 2013 at 5:57 PM - 0 Comments
Noel Murray’s most recent “Very Special Episode” column was about The Six Million Dollar Man and The Bionic Woman, and how much those science fiction TV shows (cheesy as they often were) meant to young sci-fi fans before Star Wars brought the genre into the entertainment mainstream. But it occurred to me, reading the column, that there’s something else about those shows that you don’t see very often today: they were prime-time, broadcast television shows aimed in large part at children. Today most shows aimed at children are children’s shows – mostly on children’s cable networks. But there used to be a whole category of what I’ve come to call “lunchbox shows,” because they were so popular in merchandising and turned up on a lot of kids’ lunchboxes.
The Dukes of Hazzard was the first prime-time show I remember seeing on a classmate’s lunchbox, and that’s a quintessential lunchbox show: after its first few episodes, which were slightly more adult (all lunchbox shows usually started that way, since they were almost never planned as kids’ shows), it emerged as a prime-time show with the simple stories, characters and action that kids loved most of all. Knight Rider, as Berke Breathed famously noted, was another prime-time kids’ show; so was The A-Team; so were most of the science fiction shows between Star Trek and Babylon 5. But while lunchbox shows tended to censor themselves to avoid anything that would bring the blush of shame to the cheek of a young person, they were not kids’ shows in the sense of a Disney or Nickelodeon show. (Sometimes lunchbox shows even had semi-adult material: Charlie’s Angels was not a “family hour” show, but it was watched by kids – it certainly explained every plot in terms that the youngest child could understand – and featured tie-in merchandising for children.) Lunchbox TV dramas usually had very few kids in the cast, and they might have more adult references than you could get on Saturday morning TV, since no prime-time TV show can afford to broadcast to children to the exclusion of adults. They were to TV as Star Wars was to film: entertainment for kids who didn’t want to watch kid stuff.
Lunchbox entertainment is still big in the movies. Star Wars is the great lunchbox franchise, but it’s being challenged for supremacy by the Marvel movies. These are films that are not marketed as Continue…
By Jaime Weinman - Tuesday, February 26, 2013 at 12:52 PM - 0 Comments
Nikki Finke’s Deadline.com gets a lot of traffic when it’s linked by the Drudge Report, and you can usually tell which posts are linked: they’re the ones where the commenters proclaim the reason nobody watches NBC is because of its relentless liberal agenda. But sometimes Finke herself writes like she agrees with these commenters – or is at least trying to empathize with them – and never more so than on Oscar night when she was one of the first to criticize the show for having Michelle Obama on:
As if Hanoi Jane weren’t fuel enough. Oh My God – the Academy actually fans the fire by drafting First Lady Michelle Obama to help present Best Picture from presumably the White House? So unnecessary and inappropriate to inject so much politics into the Oscars yet again. Hollywood will get pilloried by conservative pundits for arranging this payoff for all the campaign donations it gave the President’s re-election campaign. I don’t understand this very obvious attempt to infuriate right-leaning audiences. Clearly the studios only want to sell their movies to only half of America. And here I’d thought Spielberg had overreached at the Golden Globes by bringing Bill Clinton onstage…
I wasn’t even sure if she means it seriously or is just trying to get some link-bait, but it doesn’t make sense either way. I’m all for Hollywood not being out of touch with half the country, but this does not apply to the First Lady, who is married to the president of the whole country. More importantly, the number of people who would be infuriated by the mere presence of an Obama on their TV screens is not the same as the number of people who didn’t vote for Obama. It’s a much, much smaller number.
By Jaime Weinman - Monday, February 25, 2013 at 12:02 AM - 0 Comments
Well, the most important news out of the Oscars is that Ben Affleck thanked Canada. This obviously makes up for everything, including our inability to make our own movies about our stories.
But, I suppose, some non-Canadian stories need to be dealt with. I wrote a piece about whether Seth MacFarlane’s stint as host of the Oscars would establish him as the live-action, onscreen star he clearly wants to be. And after his opening monologue, someone snarked that that piece was instantly dated. Well, the art of predicting the future won’t be perfected until the robots take over. Now, for all I know, the wide reaction to his performance might not have been as negative as it was among people I know – after all, in a world where Identity Thief is a hit, there is no consensus on what’s funny. But if the question was whether MacFarlane could translate his behind-the-scenes popularity into onscreen popularity, then it seems at first blush like the answer was “no.” Even before he held up the ending of a show that was running late to perform yet another musical number.
By Jaime Weinman - Thursday, February 21, 2013 at 11:45 AM - 0 Comments
Not every failed TV show deserves an oral history – strange as that may sound – but I’d read one for Up All Night, which seems to be one of the two shows that most epitomizes the weirdness of Bob Greenblatt’s tenure running NBC. The other one is Smash, Greenblatt’s highest-priority project and the one he seems to have been most invested in; its failure in the second season, coming on the heels of his statement that the first season was an “unqualified success,” may do the most to raise doubts about his track record picking scripted shows. Up All Night wasn’t as big a failure, and if the network had simply canceled it, it would just be another one of those shows that managed to survive for a second season but didn’t quite work out (along with Whitney and Harry’s Law and a few other shows the new NBC regime picked up). The constant retooling of the show, beginning as soon as the pilot was delivered, turned it into a joke, and has culminated in the insane recent series of stories where one by one, people abandon the show while the network tries to figure out how to keep it going in some form. The most recent story is that Will Arnett has accepted an offer to star in a CBS pilot from Raising Hope creator Greg Garcia. I don’t actually know if Arnett has what it takes to headline a show; certainly Running Wilde didn’t make him seem like a plausible lead. But how can CBS resist the temptation to stick a finger in NBC’s eye like that?
By Jaime Weinman - Tuesday, February 19, 2013 at 3:40 PM - 0 Comments
There’s nothing quite as inspiring as finding a cheesy sitcom intro that you had never seen before. Okay, there are maybe one or two things more inspiring, but still, this warmed my heart. It’s a Canadian (CTV) sitcom from 1988 called “Learning the Ropes,” a combination of two things that were popular in TV – cheesy syndicated family sitcoms and professional wrestling. I would describe the premise, but it has an opening narration that does it for us. And this opening narration, done by an announcer whose voice I recognize but whose name I don’t know, is followed by a whole synth-accompanied inspirational theme song. And it ends with a clip of hugging. And the hero, played by the late Lyle Alzado, is a professional wrestler and the vice principal at a school and a single dad to two teenagers, making it like three sitcoms in one. And the theme song attempts to rhyme “rule” and “possible.” And it features a young Yannick Bisson and Stephanie from Degrassi Junior High. So while I’m not saying that this is the greatest thing Canada has ever done, it certainly suggests that we could hold our head up high in the schlocky ’80s sitcom world.
By Jaime Weinman - Tuesday, February 19, 2013 at 11:27 AM - 0 Comments
I was going to write something about the controversy over the Girls episode “One Man’s Trash,” and specifically the arguments over whether Lena Dunham and Patrick Wilson were a plausible couple. I decided what I wrote didn’t really work, and besides which a) There’s probably enough Girls discussion already, and b) The discussion of these issues tend to turn a writer into Rex Reed or, even worse, John Simon. (If you think people are unpleasant about Melissa McCarthy or Lena Dunham, just read that collection of Simon’s horrifically nasty comments about Liza Minnelli – we have a long way to go before we can match that guy for sheer hate.) So I’ll let that episode go for now.
But the discussion did illuminate something for me about our expectations when it comes to a character’s looks. We all know about the famous sexist double standard for looks in film and television. An ordinary-looking or overweight man is more likely to be paired with a beautiful woman, while the opposite pairing almost never happens. Even a woman with looks that are just unconventional – like Liza Minnelli, see above – will sustain the types of attacks that a Dustin Hoffman, say, doesn’t usually get once he becomes a star. But even though we’re more used to that kind of pairing, it still jars us more in fiction than it would in real life. Jason Alexander is married to a tall, good-looking woman, but it looked silly to us that George Costanza was going out with tall, good-looking women. Woody Allen’s ability to get women on the screen is more puzzling to us than his ability to get those same women in real life. And so on.
The main reason for this is that in real life there are many different reasons why people would get together, beyond looks – which, after all, are subjective. But the actors are often playing characters who Continue…
By Jaime Weinman - Tuesday, February 19, 2013 at 10:45 AM - 0 Comments
Enlightened is about to wrap up its second season (its season finale will air on March 3). Unless HBO decides it likes the show a lot, there isn’t likely to be any more: the first season got almost no viewers and, worse for HBO, very little buzz. They were able to get a Golden Globe for Laura Dern, but they couldn’t get people talking about it the way people talk about Girls (a show that doesn’t have a whole lot of viewers, but is constantly in the news and may drive some subscribers HBO’s way). It didn’t have a clear selling point the way Girls does; that show is almost as much about the behind-the-scenes story of a new talent and a new generational perspective in TV as it is about what happens on the screen. Enlightened is a half-hour comedy-drama conceived as a vehicle for an actress who’s been in the business a long time, and both HBO and Showtime have had so many of those shows that it’s hard for one more to stand out. Today’s shows almost need a compelling promotional hook as much as they need a compelling story, just because there are so many shows fighting it out for our limited time.
I don’t think the second season has been quite as overwhelming as the first, though that still leaves it as one of the most interesting shows on TV. Mike White, who created the show, acts in it, and writes every episode, made some subtle changes to try and get a slightly bigger audience, as outlined in this New York Times article. In keeping with convention, he added more of a serialized story to the season, reducing the first season’s sense of floating in space, of not quite knowing Continue…
By Jaime Weinman - Friday, February 15, 2013 at 4:43 PM - 0 Comments
I was working on another post that didn’t quite come together, and you know what it means when that happens: off to YouTube to find novelties that can fill another post!
The theme is the TV tie-in novelty record, and what’s strange is that despite Glee and its success tying in with the new digital world of easily-distributed songs, we haven’t had as many TV-character and TV-actor albums as we got in earlier eras, when recordings had to be distributed on vinyl (well, I mean, people are still buying vinyl, but you know what I mean). The most famous tie-in recordings are probably the Star Trek ones, but another one that gets quite a bit of play is the album that was recorded by the stars of The Odd Couple. Someone had the bright idea of making them do it in character, which somehow made it easier to accept the fact that one of them could sing a little and the other one couldn’t sing at all (he’d barely croaked out part of one tune in Gypsy with Ethel Merman). The best-known track is their cover of “You’re So Vain,” which is “sung” by Oscar and a bunch of backup singers whose presence seems to surprise Felix; if the album were more famous, then the “Don’t you?” “Yes!” “Don’t you?” “YES!” bit would be a meme.
Generally, if you wanted to put a TV star on a record and he couldn’t sing, the preferred method was the Shatner method: have him talk his way through a song as if it’s poetry. This is what was done by Continue…
By Jaime Weinman - Tuesday, February 12, 2013 at 5:15 PM - 0 Comments
Sorry for another sitcom-theory post so soon after the last one, but a reader asked me if I had a specific post where I outlined why I think the mockumentary format is the modern version of the laugh track – or at least, as we saw on How I Met Your Mother last week, that it’s okay for a laugh-track show to turn off the track when they do a mock-documentary segment. I think I did write a longer post explaining this, but I can’t find it, so here is sort of a quick summary of my thoughts on the mockumentary and why it seems to work.
By Jaime Weinman - Monday, February 11, 2013 at 8:24 AM - 0 Comments
This is not the time to opine on the quality of Community post-Dan-Harmon, not only because of my own ambiguous attitude to the show (the best episodes are really great, though) but because that show’s season openers are not known for being the most spectacular episodes – in quality or in ambition – meaning that it’s hard to tell much about the direction of the season from one episode, although the over-emphasis on Jim Rash’s character is a bit worrisome. I did want to make an observation about the sitcom parody that formed the majority of Abed’s “happy place” fantasy.
By Jaime Weinman - Friday, February 8, 2013 at 4:02 PM - 0 Comments
I was wondering the other day what became of NBC’s plan to retool Up All Night as a studio-audience sitcom, a plan that already resulted in the creator leaving (par for the course for NBC at this point, which has let creators go from many different shows). I was wondering if it was actually going to be taped or if they’d just forget about the idea. Now star Christina Applegate has quit the show, declaring that she can’t go on with it in the new creative direction. And according to the report, NBC still hasn’t given up on the idea and is trying to get Lisa Kudrow to do it. Maybe that will never happen – hopefully – but the very idea is hilarious. Would Kudrow really even consider becoming the new Sandy Duncan (update: hence the Hogan Family clip below; that story never gets old), or is this just a fake idea someone leaked to make it sound like the project isn’t dead yet? (Update: An associate of Kudrow’s has already denied the rumour, so it sounds more like “fantasy idea someone floated to the press.”)
Update 2: Kate Aurthur of Buzzfeed (who previously wrote the in-depth reported piece on Smash‘s troubles, and is therefore an expert on problems at NBC) confirms a rumour that I’d heard floated in Deadline comments, but which I thought was a joke: The idea for the retool of “Up All Night” is to turn it into a behind-the-scenes show about the making of a sitcom, with the actors playing actors on the show “Up All Night.” This, presumably, is why they can even consider going on without the star, because they could theoretically write the Continue…
By Jaime Weinman - Friday, February 8, 2013 at 3:25 PM - 0 Comments
Not to make light of the inconvenience and unpleasantness of a snow storm, but still, on days like this, you sometimes can’t help dragging out that old favourite Simpsons clip:
Digression. That clip may be the perfect 15-second summary of a distinctive trend in Simpsons episodes run by David Mirkin (seasons 5 and 6, and a handful in seasons 7 and 9): while the show has always made fun of media sensationalism, Mirkin really hated it and made it practically his number-one target. One of the best episodes of his tenure, season 6′s “Homer: Badman,” was pitched by Greg Daniels as a story about Lisa being torn between her feminist impulses and the urge to defend her father, but wound up being steered by Mirkin into an epic satire of the modern news media – which, I think probably worked better than the more emotional story would have.
Digression over. Be careful out there in the snow, and remember, you can blame it all on Ronald McDonald.
By Jaime Weinman - Monday, February 4, 2013 at 12:16 PM - 0 Comments
The release of the first season of the loose U.S. remake of House of Cards on Netflix, and the massive publicity Netflix has stirred up for its new method of releasing an entire season at once, has brought a lot of discussion about whether taking in a whole season at once is a good way to watch TV. Encouraging binge-viewing over watching one episode at a time, effectively, is a big part of Netflix’s campaign for the show, as is the idea that distributing one episode at a time is an outdated model: Beau Willmon, the head writer of House of Cards, told the New York Times that someday TV “might even dispense with episodes altogether. You might just get eight straight hours or 10 straight hours, and you decide where to pause.”
Now, some of this talk is inseparable from Netflix’s attempt to take on the cable TV dinosaurs, the same way cable took on broadcast TV. In other words, Netflix’s campaign can be seen as a form of trolling HBO, or at least emphasizing the things they can do that HBO can’t or won’t. There’s a big advantage in appearing to be the distribution model of the future, because if Netflix can convince the world that this is the future of television, then that makes it easier for them to grab the big projects. House of Cards would probably have been more or less the same on HBO or Starz as it is on Netflix, but part of what attracted the producers to Netflix was the promise of being a game-changer and helping to shake up the way TV shows are distributed. The argument at the moment is not so much about what these shows should be like, creatively, as what is the most forward-looking way to release them and the most forward-looking outlet for production companies to go with.
By Jaime Weinman - Friday, February 1, 2013 at 4:54 PM - 0 Comments
Disney recently posted its Oscar-nominated short Paperman on YouTube, creating a lot of discussion about the new technique developed by director John Kahrs for this film. Kahrs got the idea when he was working on Tangled, a Disney 3-D CGI film which was essentially straining to preserve as much as possible of the classic hand-drawn Disney style that the animators were no longer allowed to use. After being removed from the picture, Glen Keane, one of the best of the Disney traditional animators, left the studio altogether; several other animators have already been moved out as a result of the studio canceling its traditionally-animated projects and trying to make everyone switch to 3D. Since The Princess and the Frog was an aberration and Disney is unlikely to return to hand-drawn animated features any time soon, Kahrs decided to try and find a way of reviving some of the virtues of hand-drawn animation – the 2D look, and the more personal connection between the animator and the scene (obviously, Pixar animators aren’t just automatons, but the system they use doesn’t allow for the kind of quirky animator styles of Disney’s Nine Old Men) – within the CG process, to “celebrate the line,” get away from realism, and give animators more control over things like clothing and hair.
There’s a certain amusement in seeing a lot of money spent for R&D on a system that, in essence, is supposed to recapture some of the things that you could do by giving an animator a pencil and paper. I’ve heard some fellow hand-drawn fans express frustration at this: why, they ask, doesn’t Disney just make more hand-drawn films and achieve the same animation effects with less trouble? But I find the techniques used in Paperman to be a very hopeful and promising development. American studios – this is not true around the world, mind you – are very quick to give up on any technology they consider obsolete; this is one of many ways in which movie studio people have always thought more in terms of business (where you throw out any technology once there is a superior alternative) than in terms of art (where no technology is inherently superior to another in terms of its ability to produce valuable art). They’re also easily impressed by new toys, and traditional animation is literally the oldest toy in the history of moving pictures.
Therefore, the best hope for reviving some of the animation values that the dominance of Pixar has tended to overshadow (though other studios, particularly Dreamworks, have done a good job in getting more fluidity and weight into the CGI style than Pixar usually gets) is to develop new toys that do the same things. The question is not whether you could do a lot of the sentimental Milt Kahl-esque animation in Paperman by hand; you could, but it wouldn’t be covered as a new development, wouldn’t impress studio executives. Kahrs’ new technique has impressed enough people and made enough noise that it may help to show that you can do that kind of animation without reverting to the “obsolete” techniques. It is, in a way, a gigantic, Rube Goldberg device for getting the old results while still working within the glamorous CGI world. And it’s most encouraging for exactly that reason. Because the only way to bring back 2D is to smuggle it in using 3D technology, and that will have to be fine with me, because the alternative is that nobody even tries to bring it back and everyone imitates Toy Story forever. Now let’s see Disney get back some of the strong animators they let go – Keane, Andreas Deja – and make a feature using this technique.
By Jaime Weinman - Tuesday, January 29, 2013 at 4:38 PM - 0 Comments
I remarked earlier today that future cultural historians will look to old 30 Rock episodes to tell them what the broadcast TV system was like in its declining days. As we wait to see what happens in the series finale this Thursday (and whether they’ll have Liz turn out the lights in the building after everyone else has left), I wanted to expand on that a little. 30 Rock wasn’t simply the show that proved a live-action comedy could have the joke density of classic Simpsons; it was like a little mini-history of broadcast television in its decadent phase. If a good comedy is usually about something serious, then 30 Rock was really about something the people involved had every reason to take seriously: the impending decline of broadcast television in general and of NBC in particular.
By Jaime Weinman - Wednesday, January 23, 2013 at 10:39 AM - 0 Comments
The broadcast networks’ pilot pickup season has begun, but I have trouble thinking about what to say, since we all know most of these pilots will never be seen by the public, and most of them seem to be:
a) A comedy about somebody forced to move in with somebody else;
b) An edgy high-concept drama which will finally, finally at last win back all those Emmys cable has been stealing from their rightful broadcast owners;
c) Based on a book I haven’t read.
But since the start of pilot season coincides with the cancellation of Don’t Trust the Bitch in Apartment 23, a show I greatly enjoyed for its attempt to bring the sociopathic comedy of American Dad to live action, I thought I might talk a bit about what the networks seem to expect from their comedies and whether they still have the ability to create popular entertainments. Tim Goodman at the Hollywood Reporter reacted to the death of Apartment 23 by arguing that broadcast networks need to lower their ratings expectations, or else smart comedy will be in danger on television: “Anyway, put another tombstone in the crowded graveyard of funny sitcoms. And if the networks don’t recalibrate their expectations about modern-day ratings results, we’re going to need a lot more shovels.”
By Jaime Weinman - Thursday, January 17, 2013 at 5:08 PM - 0 Comments
I’m not completely sure what I think of this, but via Frank Conniff, here’s a video where – through the use of lots of stills and some fairly accurate voice impressions – we get a review of Les Misérables from TV’s beloved sitcom maid, Hazel. I think the movie review video genre could be saved if more ’60s sitcom characters stepped up to do them.
Also this is the only place I’ll get to say it, but I think Don DeFore and Whitney Blake still rank as the most implausible pairing in the history of sitcoms. I can believe Kevin James and Leah Remini, but I never believed this couple made any sense.
By Jaime Weinman - Thursday, January 17, 2013 at 4:58 PM - 0 Comments
The New York Times has an article on Scandal, a show that has slowly built itself into one of the more solid performers on ABC and another success for creator Shonda Rhimes. The author, Tanzina Vega, says that Kerry Washington is “the first African-American female lead in a network drama in almost 40 years,” the last being Theresa Graves on Get Christie Love (the networks’ few attempts, along with the Shaft TV series, to cash in on blaxploitation). Of course J.J. Abrams’ flop Undercovers a couple of years ago had two black leads, though neither of them were originally from America. And NBC’s new show Deception stars Meagan Good, making it look like a trend – if you assume two shows make a trend. But while we’re waiting to see if Deception survives to a second season, Kerry Washington on Scandal is a genuine breakthrough: there have been hardly any successful U.S. drama series with black leads, and black female leads are so rare that Vega has to go back to Diahann Carroll in Julia, which was a half-hour comedy.
By Jaime Weinman - Monday, January 14, 2013 at 11:35 AM - 0 Comments
Emily Nussbaum, the New Yorker TV critic, has a good piece on the show Justified and the issue of the stand-alone story.
Justified is one of many shows that started as a procedural and then “shed its skin,” becoming more of a novelistic serial with every passing season. The first season followed a pattern that a lot of shows seem to follow, where most of the season stand-alone mysteries, but a bigger story is teased and finally dominates the last few episodes of the season. Season two, with the unforgettable Margo Martindale arc, was shaped similarly, but the seasonal story took over the show about halfway through – and since it was the Mags story, no one could really complain. And then season 3 was essentially a full-fledged serial with some procedural elements.
It’s gotten to the point that you can almost bet that any drama that runs long enough will become a serial, unless it is on a network that in some way enforces the procedural format (if The Good Wife were on any other network but CBS, we probably wouldn’t be seeing many case-of-the-week stories by now). And I think it’s not simply that the serial is more prestigious and acclaimed; it’s that the stand-alone story can sometimes turn off viewers, especially cable viewers, who have come to think of a season as a little novel and therefore want each episode to move the story forward. A stand-alone episode can sometimes seem like “filler” if you think of a season that way. I’ve noted before that a situation like The X-Files, where fans often preferred the crazier, more experimental stand-alone episodes, rarely happens today.
But sometimes this view of the season as a novel, and every episode as a piece of the novel, can contribute to the tendency of arcs to burn themselves out before the season is over. In particular, Nussbaum notes that one of the clichés of serialized TV is to tease a big battle that isn’t happening in this episode, but which will, we are assured, happen in a future instalment – not next week, or the week after, but certainly no later than the season finale.
Extended storytelling has its own conventions and clichés… late in the season, when one character intoned, “There’s a war coming,” my heart sank: it echoed every cable drama, in the worst way.
To me the most memorable example of this is still Buffy season 7, which did a run of something like 12 episodes about preparing for the Big Final Battle, making speeches about the Big Battle that not everyone will survive. It was especially egregious because the big villain they were fighting was an incorporeal Satan figure who wasn’t scary at all, but the big thing that made it a problem was that nothing seemed to happen on the show, we were just told that something would eventually happen. And when the battle comes, of course, no TV show has the budget to deliver a final battle that lives up to that kind of hype.
Which may provide a logical reason for taking some breaks, even in a 13-episode season, to address other issues and tell shorter stories: a sprinkling of tangential stories can help prevent the inevitable feeling of anti-climax when the big arc is resolved.
And if nothing else, some X-Files-style stand-alones can help create the feeling that the characters are not simply focused on one thing all the time, but have to do their jobs, take on smaller assignments and short-term issues. You don’t have to do stand-alone episodes to convey this feeling; the really great serialized shows find ways to make it clear that there are other things that go on even while the big story is playing out, and that the characters’ lives are not solely defined by the arc. When one arc takes over a show completely, that’s no more true to life than the old format where no story ever had ramifications beyond that week’s episode. Life mixes arcs with stand-alones, you might say.
By Jaime Weinman - Monday, January 14, 2013 at 8:44 AM - 0 Comments
This probably should have been a weekend post if anything, but I wasn’t able to post that weekend, so here it is: after Jack Klugman died, I looked for the infamous Quincy episode “Next Stop, Nowhere,” where the good doctor and his only somewhat age-inappropriate girlfriend (Anita Gillette) take on the menace of punk rock. Airing in the last season of the show, when it had de-emphasized mysteries in favor of preachiness, this one became instantly legendary as the purest example of TV’s inability to deal with youth culture. “The Quincy Punk” became a term for a fake Hollywood-ized version of a punk.
The episode is on Netflix in the U.S., but not, I think, in Canada, so here’s an upload of the episode I found on the Vimeo website; it was recorded in the UK and is therefore a little sped-up, but that just makes it easier to appreciate the speed with which “that violence-oriented punk rock music” can take an innocent girl like Melora Hardin and ruin her life.
I once heard a theory that this episode was sort of an attempt to diversify the issues being dealt with on the show: a bit like Asner on Lou Grant, Klugman had gotten a reputation for making his show one of the last bastions of liberal causes in a TV industry that had run screaming away from such causes. In this theory, an anti-youth, anti-rock episode might have been a way to prove the show wasn’t so out of step with the culture after all. But I’m more inclined to think that the bashing of these kids today and their music (“Why listen to music that makes ya hate when you can listen to music that makes ya love?”) is all of a piece with the usual formula where Klugman becomes outraged by something and won’t stop talking about it until everyone agrees with him.
By Jaime Weinman - Wednesday, January 9, 2013 at 5:20 PM - 0 Comments
I’ve been a bit cynical about Mitch Hurwitz, creator of Arrested Development, in the years since the show was canceled. Not when the show was on the air, you understand; while Hurwitz had a reputation as a difficult man at times, there was no doubt of his devotion to the show and to making every moment matter – and he made an epic, exhaustive comedy that was like nothing anybody had ever seen on television. But then the show was canceled, something everybody saw coming (including Hurwitz and his writers, who gave Michael Bluth a speech about how the Bluths had been given “plenty of chances” and just weren’t likable enough to succeed), and the time came to decide whether the show was going to be picked up by a cable network, and Hurwitz decided he’d had enough:
“Arrested Development” creator Mitch Hurwitz says he will not be continuing with the series, throwing a major — likely fatal — monkey wrench into attempts to keep the Emmy-winning laffer alive for a fourth season.
Series producers 20th Century Fox TV and Imagine Television had agreed on a deal to move “Arrested,” previously on Fox, to Showtime — assuming Hurwitz was willing to come back. In the end, however, a mix of creative and financial concerns has prompted Hurwitz to move on.
“The fans have been so ardent in their devotion and in return … I’ve given everything I can to the show in order to try to live up to their expectations,” Hurwitz told Daily Variety on Monday in a telephone interview from Gotham. “I finally reached a point where I felt I couldn’t continue to deliver that on a weekly basis.”
By Jaime Weinman - Wednesday, January 9, 2013 at 3:18 PM - 0 Comments
The Baseball Hall of Fame failed to elect anyone this year, for the first time since 1996. This was the big test year for whether the sportswriters would soften their stance on the steroid era, since several known users and suspected users were on the ballot for the first time. We got the answer: the majority of sportswriters eligible to vote agree with Ken Burns that Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens “deserve to suffer for a while.”
Though Burns isn’t eligible to vote, his thinking does seem to sum up a lot of what voters feel: no one from that era is clean except scrappy little singles hitters (“I know one person in all of the Major Leagues I’m absolutely certain didn’t, and that’s Ichiro Suzuki”) and although Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens are indisputably qualified – even if you discount their obvious steroid-enhanced years – they need to be kept out at least for a while because that whole era makes it “impossible for us to judge excellence.”
Personally I’m more inclined to side with Daniel Tosh – and this is the first time I have ever quoted Daniel Tosh in a favourable manner – who said this a couple of years ago:
We’ll put an asterisk next to Barry Bonds’ name, sure, as soon as we put one next to Babe Ruth’s name. Getting to break records before black people were allowed to play? Excuse me, where is that asterisk? Why don’t people talk about that?
Is that facile? Sure. But what I think is more relevant is that Burns’s big problem with the steroid era – we don’t know who was clean and who wasn’t – applies to almost any era of baseball, unless we think that performance enhancers of one kind or another magically appeared at a certain point in the ’90s. When you add in the fact that every major league baseball player before 1947 is tainted by the fact that some of the best players in baseball weren’t allowed to compete against them (not their fault, unless you’re talking about Cap Anson or somebody, but it does diminish the level of competition they faced overall), there’s a serious question of why this one era has to be treated so differently from all the others.
I’ll add this: I’m not sure if it is fair at all for me to feel this way, but I sometimes feel like the steroid era is dealt with particularly harshly because it was an era of big hitting and home runs, which fans tend to like but which baseball purists often find a bit vulgar. (By the way, I myself prefer a high-average, speed-based approach to baseball; aesthetically speaking, I’d rather see a player with 100 stolen bases a year than 100 walks, even though I know the 100 walks are usually going to be more valuable to the team.) The factors that went into creating the pitchers’ era of the ’60s, like the pitchers throwing at batters and building up the mounds as high as they could, never really seemed like a huge problem.
More to the point, Gaylord Perry‘s open and proud cheating always seemed cute because it was a triumph of smarts and con artistry over sheer athletic ability, as opposed to steroids, where the point is to enhance athletic ability. A scrappy guy triumphing over the limitations of his body is fun; a big strong guy making himself bigger, stronger and more resistant to injury is not (and it certainly won’t be fun for him when he gets older). I’ve just never been sure that the fans, as a group, felt quite as betrayed by the steroid era as the sportswriters did. Whereas the revelations of the gambling era, and even the era when baseball had a really bad cocaine problem, shocked fans because the players were making their level of play worse through the things they were doing. And I wonder: if steroids had produced a game built around singles and speed, rather than slow people hitting homers, would the sportswriter backlash have been quite so fierce?
I don’t want to sound like I’m minimizing the impact of steroid use. But the fact that the fans loved the hitting bonanza of that era is an unavoidable part of the story; so is the fact that, as Dave McMahon notes in that Burns piece, there is no way to tell for sure that anyone – even the scrappy singles hitter – is truly “clean.” As with the era when baseball was overrun with gamblers, the people we believe to be “clean” as opposed to the “dirty” ones often says as much about our preconceptions as our knowledge. There were probably a lot more games thrown in 1919 than the ones we know about, and there were probably a lot more steroid users in baseball than the ones who are being made an example of. Not that steroid use, circa 1998, was as bad as throwing a baseball game at any time in history.
Finally, every time the Hall of Fame ballot comes out I feel bad that Tim Raines didn’t get in, because he’s Tim Raines, and I’m an Expos fan, and everybody needs a cause, and he’s mine. At least Raines moved up the ballot enough that he has a real chance to get in someday, if only because the sportswriters’ obsession with baseball’s steroid problem is clearing a possible path for players from the era of baseball’s cocaine problem.
By Jaime Weinman - Tuesday, January 8, 2013 at 10:09 AM - 0 Comments
The site Pop Focal recently posted some clips from the original unaired pilot of 30 Rock, where Jenna, based partly on Tina Fey’s friend Rachel Dratch, was actually played by Rachel Dratch. After viewing the pilot, one of the changes the network asked for was to have the part recast with a more experienced and attractive actress, so they got Jane Krakowski to play the part. Fey tried to keep Dratch on the show by giving her a series of small guest parts, but that only lasted for the first season.
There’s never been much doubt that this is one of those cases where network meddlers have a point. (Network notes are somewhat more likely to be effective when they’re about big, specific things like whether one actor is right for a part; it’s when they meddle with every individual script, or give vague notes like “can this have more heart?”, that the trouble really happens.) Turning Jenna from an insecure woman whose big break gets taken away from her into a vain, entitled diva is one of the things that makes the premise funny rather than sad, and it also helped lead to the crazy, cartoonish tone that the show successfully adopted by the end of the first season. Everything is a little more realistic early on – including the character of Jack; it’s startling to be reminded of what a plausible executive he originally was, instead of the lovable madman he became – but it probably would have had to stay a little more realistic if the Jenna character, and her relationship with Liz, were still based in reality.
The other actress replaced after the original pilot was the one who played Cerie, whose name escapes me at the moment, but since the character has never done anything on the show in seven years, I don’t think even I can come up with an argument for why this change was a make-or-break decision for the series.
By Jaime Weinman - Friday, January 4, 2013 at 2:26 PM - 0 Comments
I spend more time defending The Big Bang Theory than I do criticizing it, mostly because I don’t think much of the internet’s most popular lines of attack against the show. (These are, as follows: the show laughs “at” nerds instead of “with” nerds; the show is not funny when you remove the laugh track; and it is “nerd blackface.”) I don’t think it’s ever been quite as good a show as we hoped it would be in its second season, though that season is still good enough to justify its success, and it can still turn out very good episodes.
To some extent, the issues with the show have changed a bit in the last couple of years. The thing holding it back was that it seemed to be stuck in the same groove, but there’s no doubt that the addition of two female regulars has allowed it to go different places, plus it’s turned one character, Wolowitz, from the most irredeemable character in the group to arguably the least immature. The changes have had problematic effects as well as good ones – for example, it’s split the show into “girl” and “guy” scenes, and Penny and Sheldon rarely have scenes together – but at least it doesn’t do exactly what it did for the first three years.
The other issue that I feel has come to the forefront, at least when I watch it, is that Sheldon gets away with everything, and it’s gone past the point where the group dynamics make a whole lot of sense. This has always been something people pointed out with the show, and they even made fun of it themselves (it was made clear that there wasn’t much reason, beyond force of habit, why the other guys hung out with him). But last night’s episode, the highest-rated in the show’s history, had him going to near-apocalyptic Continue…