Saturday, April 29, 2006

Gilead and the artist as a god

It seems rather gauche to jump into yet another discussion of pointless TV topics with the news I've linked to below, so I thought a one-day (at least) moritorium might be in order, that we might talk about something SLIGHTLY more spiritually edifying. And this post on Gilead I've been ruminating over for the better part of two weeks seems like just the thing.

When I first got paid to write criticism (which, actually, wasn't all that long ago), it was as a book critic for an alternative weekly. While I preferred writing about film and television, an English degree in college had assured I knew a lot about literature and had read a lot of it.

Being a book critic, actually, was harder work than it looked like. Reading a good novel is a breeze, but reading a bad one is excruciating. Unlike a film or television episode, it seems to drag on and on, and if you can't force yourself to finish it quickly, it lurks, ever present, on the bedside table.

But, at the same time, there's nothing like finding yourself in a new world created wholly out of words. It gives you things to savor, to remember, to live by. Unfortunately, modern fiction gives us fewer and fewer of these worlds to get lost in every year. Where once literature was a middle-aged man's game, dominated by people who devoted their lives to their craft (and punctuated by the occasional young genius), the push now seems to be to skew younger and younger, to find genres that will lure in fickle twentysomethings.

All of this is prelude to say that Marilynne Robinson's Gilead is none of those things. It is a slow book, stately. It forces you to read it on its own terms, in its own rhythms. If you skimmed for plot, you wouldn't think much of it, but if you read to taste the language, you would find an experience almost unique in American letters.

Gilead, the story of an elderly preacher writing down his life story so that his very young son may have it when he grows older, is a novel of ideas, something which has largely fallen by the wayside in American literature. To be sure, there's a plot (actually, several plots, but I'll get to that), but the story is also filled with theological digressions, with ruminations on the beauty of life and the nature of God himself. The book is as much Robinson's reflection on the streak of white-hot Protestantism that runs through the Midwest (spurred, in large part, by abolitionists who moved there to prevent the territories from becoming slave states) as it is her reflection on the divine nature of living on the prairie, where nothing interrupts the eye.

It took Robinson two decades to write this book, and I can see why. The book doesn't seem to have been written by any writer alive. There are so many temptations for Robinson to chase this or that alluded to coincidence down a rabbit trail and utterly destroy the spell she's weaving, but she never does. I know that one particular plot point that seems to be suggested (I won't spoil it for you, but if you read the book, you'll know what I'm talking about) is one that would be difficult for any writer to avoid. But to spell it out would ruin everything. By keeping the whole affair in shadow, Robinson is able to suggest something very American: a higher power moving behind the scenes, pushing people together just when they need to come together (like Magnolia, only more subtle than the frogs). By not playing her hand, Robinson is able to very shrewdly suggest something that is always lurking at the edge of any work of art: the idea of the artist as a god.

Now, obviously, when I sit down to write a work of fiction, I don't believe that I'm literally creating a universe or anything, but for any artist, the characters they work with "become real," so to speak. The best characters are the ones that are so well developed that they develop something approaching "free will" (though, of course, the psychologist would say that this is just different facets of the personality working out various things). And when those characters have free will, they can say and do what they want, regardless of what I, the artist, want them to do. It's a neat, weird little reworking of any creation myth, carried out on a personal scale.

Of course, all humans play at controlling the universe. We are, at all times, trying to control each other in one way or another, whether we are entirely innocent in that desire or duplicitous. When we dream of the way things "should" play out, we are playing at creating our own universe, where we are the god, where we can create a perfect situation.

But that's limited godcraft, as it were. As God found out in the Garden of Eden (and as all parents find out when the kids hit, oh, about 14), free will is necessary, but it's a monster.

I remember vividly the first time I realized the power that my creations as an artist could hold over me. In high school, I was working on the teen soap drama that has occupied my mind since the seventh grade (I don't actively think about it at all times, but a part of my brain is always trying to put together the pieces I don't quite have figured out yet). As I was writing along, I decided to strike one of the characters down. I was going to have him kill himself as an expression of my own weird adolescent angst, which I couldn't fully articulate. Something about this act didn't feel right to me, and I knew it, but I continued down that path.

But then something interesting happened. I realized, intellectually and emotionally, that this would never stand. One of the other characters, a warm, open-hearted girl, was bothering me about it. And then she sacrificed herself to save him (within the story framework, which involved a complicated setup, similar to the play Everyman, which, I swear, I hadn't read at the time, or the film A Matter of Life and Death, which I also had no idea of). The dynamics were pure, high-school-level "my life is sooooooo hard" operetta, but my cruelty had spawned something in one of my characters that caused her to rise up against me (again, the psychologist would explain this as my better natures winning out). I was, to put it mildly, stunned.

Of course, if you've never written a work of fiction, you probably think I'm a crazy person. And that's fine, because an element of madness populates all art (and all science, but I digress). But the beautiful thing about all of this is that once you figure out how to let your characters wander about and do their own thing, art becomes less about the work of being an artist and more about the process of discovery. It becomes about fleshing out a world, about learning which paths to pursue, about giving full room to buried desires and shames.

And that brings me back to Gilead.

The main plot, of course, centers around the minister and his attempts to account for the vicious feelings he has that surround an event that happened years ago. And I have no doubt that this was the plot that Robinson discovered first, perhaps on her first attempt at the novel. It's very much the throughline of the piece. It carries us through the digressions and the sermons and the descriptions. But it also takes us to another, buried, secondary plot.

Gilead seems to be a weird title for a book about a man, since it refers to a small town in Iowa. But we come to realize that the town, in many ways, is the protagonist of the novel just as much as the preacher is. Founded by abolitionists as a "safehouse" of sorts for John Brown and other freedom fighters, Gilead has slowly been on the decline ever since. The final passages seem to indicate that the town will fall into decay and simply cease to exist at some point (the book is set in the 1950s), and the gradual march of technology (exemplified by the television) into the town is hastening that process.

And, eventually, we as readers make the connection that the man is dying, but the town is dying with him. Not because he's supremely important, but because both of them have served their purpose. All things must pass, and the best that we can hope for is a little grace on the way out.

And the preacher's passing seems to signify the end of a whole era. With him, it seems, the age of churches based on solemn discussions of theology and faith is drawing to a close (again, exemplified by a new, "flashy" church to be built in place of the shabby one the pioneers set in place). The preacher never tells us that this will happen, but we, as readers, know that the world of mega-churches and the American version of God as ATM machine is just around the corner (along with tele-evangelists, whom Robinson manages, somehow, to get a dig in at).

Gilead is another work I could pontificate on at length, but what I'm most struck by is how Robinson allows herself to discover her world at a leisurely pace, thereby forcing us to read at a more leisurely pace. And we are rewarded for that, richly rewarded.

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Very sad news

If you read this blog, you probably also read Matt Zoller Seitz's The House Next Door. Mr. Seitz is dealing with an unspeakable tragedy, the loss of his wife, Jennifer Dawson. She leaves behind Mr. Seitz and their two children.

Mr. Seitz is an excellent writer, critic and thinker, and he is also a good friend of South Dakota Dark, having linked over here on many occasions. He's also spirited and friendly, and he runs one of the most interesting film and television blogs out there. I can't even imagine what he's going through right now.

Alan Sepinwall is going to try to keep the lights on at The House Next Door while Seitz is away, but don't expect him to be posting much over there for now, understandably.

Information on where you can send e-mails and cards to is here. Mr. Seitz requests that donations be given to the Red Cross in lieu of flowers. If anyone here would be interested in making a donation, please tell me in the comments thread. I'll get a Paypal account set up, and we can get something going.

All of us here at South Dakota Dark offer Mr. Seitz our condolences and sympathies.

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Friday, April 28, 2006

Some thoughts on cliffhangers

If you don't vote in this best-of-TV survey, I will be very sad.

Big updates coming over the weekend. Lots of links to add and people to give shoutouts to. But that will all have to wait for a bit.

As May, month of season finales, is upon us, it's important to point out a few things about cliffhangers. There are going to be a LOT of them, and I think they need to follow a few simple rules. In lieu of doing something more intensive (like a perfect episode post), I think I'll talk a bit about what makes an effective cliffhanger.

1.) It has to be something that won't be easily undone, that will either scar the characters or change them irreparably.

Good example: The West Wing's first season cliffhanger was an assassination attempt. Now, on a show about the president, you knew they were getting to this eventually, but you also knew that when we came back for season two, EVERYTHING WOULD CHANGE. Since the whole cast (virtually) came under fire, there was also the possibility that one of them would die or be seriously injured (Josh was injured). And the whole event had emotional payoffs throughout season two. In short, ramifications were in order.

Bad example: The West Wing's second season cliffhanger was a weird mash-up of multiple sclerosis and the Clinton scandal (should the president be allowed to keep secrets was what Sorkin was going for, I think). None of it quite worked as well as anyone wanted it to, and then the cliffhanger was the president standing in front of the press, ready to say if he was going to run again or not. OF COURSE HE WAS GOING TO RUN. If he doesn't run, there's no SHOW. It makes NO LOGICAL SENSE for him not to run. What's more, he wasn't really tested by the scandal (this is when Sorkin got into his weird, "I'm right; you're wrong" phase of the show). He just became even more convinced of his principles. The rest of that finale (Two Cathedrals) is shockingly well written, but that cliffhanger is pretty dumb.

2.) It shouldn't be something that presents two options: a.) the show stays pretty much the same or b.) the show ceases to exist.

We kind of talked about this above, but here is another example.

Good example: The X-Files second season finale featured Mulder trapped in a burning rail car full of dead alien bodies. Now, we all knew Mulder wasn't going to die (the show wouldn't work without him), but he was closer to The Truth than he ever had been before. Therefore, the show created a false cliffhanger (would Mulder get out alive?) that was supplanted by a much better real one (what would he learn about the conspiracy?). It all sort of makes you wish that the conspiracy wasn't so darn convoluted.

Bad example: In The X-Files' fourth season, the cliffhanger centered around Mulder dying. Scully reported this to her bosses. But we never saw his body. Not only did we know that he wasn't really dead (again, no show without him), but we ALSO knew that it was probably a put-on. But we really had no idea why. The show didn't provide a substantial backup cliffhanger to keep us interested. It pretty much relied on us to say, "I wonder how they'll get out of this one!" to hold interest over the long summer.

3.) It's not necessary, but it's nice if the cliffhanger doubles as something that could be a series finale.

Obviously, there aren't going to be good and bad examples of this because it's so rare, but I think the show that did it the best was Buffy the Vampire Slayer. If you "ended" the show in any of the six seasons before the final season, you would have a nice, complete story. Most of this was because each season had a main, over-arcing villain who was defeated in the finale, but credit is also due to the writers for coming up with scenarios that doubled as reasonable stopping points AND credible cliffhangers.

To wit:

First season: Buffy defeats The Master, an ancient vampire who has plagued her nightmares. In addition, love triangles resolve themselves. We've ended the first season's main storyline, but we've still got room for more stories.

Second season: Buffy sends the man she loves to Hell. Love triangles become more tangled. Everyone suffers and is in pain. Buffy leaves town for good. While this is a "cliffhanger" scenario if ever I saw one (and every genre show has tried to have a finale as stuffed to the gills as this one is, mostly failing), it also works as a credible ending point. Ending the story with Buffy removing herself from the monster-killing life would have been downbeat, but it would have been an ending. No real loose ends there.

Third season: Buffy and the gang graduate. This, obviously, is an ending point, but it's also a great cliffhanger because the WHOLE PREMISE OF THE SHOW is going to have to change.

Fourth season: Buffy and the gang take down a government project, then have crazy dreams. The dreams work both as a look back at four seasons of the show and foreshadow the fifth season to come.

Fifth season: Buffy dies. Now that's closure!

Sixth season: Willow doesn't destroy the world. Buffy ends her depression. Etc. For a season about how life kicks you in the unmentionables, this brought the show full circle. Only the weird Spike-has-a-soul addendum crosses over into cliffhanger territory, though it conforms with the next rule. . .

4.) A good cliffhanger throws everything (or one very important thing) into question.

Good example: Alias was a show that was built on cliffhangers in every episode, but the ones it had in its first and second season finales were doozies. The first season cliffhanger revealed that Sydney's mom was, indeed, alive. And she was evil. And running the organization Sydney had been fighting against. While it wasn't a reveal that shook up the whole show, it shook up the central dynamic (Sydney's relationship with her estranged family) in many new ways. The second season cliffhanger involved Sydney waking up TWO YEARS after the scene immediately preceding the wakeup. It could have been a soap opera plot device, but on a show about spies, it made a kind of crazy sense, especially since it essentially voided all of the relationships that had been built up to that point (and, apparently, turned Sydney's father into a crazy hobo).

Bad example: Alias' third season ended with a ho-hum scene where Sydney went to a bank and. . .read some documents. In season four, we learned just how boring those documents were. But because we didn't learn what was in the documents in the third season finale, we simply couldn't be bothered to care about what they said. It's the equivalent of Darth Vader saying, "Luke. . .I may know who your father is" at the end of Empire Strikes Back.

5.) If possible, a good cliffhanger encapsulates the show's central conflicts.

Good example: In Cheers first-season finale, Sam and Diane finally kissed. Because the whole show was about how the two couldn't stand each other, tuning in for season two was guaranteed, simply because we couldn't wait to see how they would embark on a relationship.

Bad example: In one of the later season finales, Sam and Rebecca finally slept together (in the case of a romantic cliffhanger, you should almost always end on foreplay). Because the show had ceased to be about that will they/won't they tension at its heart (it was much more interesting as a big, loopy ensemble comedy), the cliffhanger failed to sustain much interest.

Whenever possible, a cliffhanger should take chances. It should change the show in a way OTHER than a plot shift. It should threaten the characters or move things forward thematically. It should place them in new situations that will test them physically AND emotionally.

Because, even though that's how they got their start, a good cliffhanger is NEVER just, "How are they going to get out of this one?"

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Thursday, April 27, 2006

Perfect characters: Jimmy James from "Newsradio"

Look! A best-of-TV survey! Those of you who have e-mailed me discussing how you're carefully considering your ballots have but a little over two-and-a-half weeks to vote!

Moses wants more perfect character and episode write-ups, and I agree that I've let this particular feature slide (though it wasn't that I forgot about them; I just had other stuff that seemed more pressing).

So here we go.

Newsradio, the five-season-long NBC sitcom from the mid-90s, is, honestly, one of the all-time underrated sitcoms (even James Burrows thinks so), despite its near absolute critical acclaim when it was on the air (except for the Phil Hartman-less final season, which was good, not great). In the minds of most viewers, it was simply one of a huge glut of office-centric sitcoms that NBC put on the air in the 90s (to be fair to its legacy, it predated most of those office-centric sitcoms). Because so many of its peculiar peccadillos have been subsumed into the sitcom zeitgeist (Newsradio, in its huge influence and low ratings, was practically the Arrested Development of its time), those coming to the show cold now may wonder what all of the fuss is about. "Haven't I seen all of this on 'Suddenly Susan?'" they might say. (Yes. Yes you have. But executed MUCH more poorly.)

To those naysayers, I point to Jimmy James, played by Stephen Root (perhaps, not coincidentally, one of our great, underrated American comic actors). Though many shows have tried to have their own Mr. James, no show has found the right writers and the right actor to pull off the perfect blend of business savvy, sheer idiocy and outright weirdness that Newsradio and Stephen Root pulled off on a weekly basis.

There were dumb bosses before Jimmy James. There have been weird bosses after Jimmy James. But Jimmy James is a character unto himself. He seemed to arrive sui generis from the television firmament (in reality, creator Paul Simms had conceived Jimmy James as a much straighter character, but Root's reading of the role kept pushing the readers further and further into looniness).

But I've talked a lot about why Jimmy James was so great and why he was so original without giving you any real idea of why I think that.

Put simply, Newsradio was the ultimate expression of how the existential crisis of the modern workplace leads men to be forced to dream (Apparently, Moses missed my pretentiousness). The show tried to keep its tenuous grip to office-life reality before it finally gave up and spun off into its own galaxy somewhere in season three. If The Office (U.K. and U.S.) is the ultimate expression of just how soul-crushing office work can be, Newsradio is about how that soul-crushing can turn into something vital and alive (be it a workplace romance or a daydream).

Always pushing the show further and further in this direction was the character of Jimmy James. While the character doesn't really stand out in the pilot, by the end of season one, Root had begun to find in the character the sorts of eccentricity that hadn't been seen on television. By season three, Mr. James became the center of many of the show's best storylines (his run for president may have been the only long-running story arc the show had that actually worked and the episode where he's incapacitated and all of the staff speak to him while he's in his coma is pure comic bliss). In addition, Root and the writers allowed the character to completely lose his grasp on reality as only the ridiculously rich can (importantly, Mr. James' bouts of surrealism worked simply because he was so rich).

A typical Newsradio riff on a joke that might be found on another sitcom can be found at the start of a season three episode when Mr. James enters brandishing a sword. He proceeds to explain how he wants to sword fight like in "The Sound of Music." In and of itself, this joke isn't that great (someone getting confused about the plot of a movie or novel is a pretty old standby that's only funny if tweaked just right). But Root pushes the joke in a new direction when he begins swinging the sword wildly about, singing "Sound of Music!" to the tune of the Hallelujah Chorus. The joke goes from an obvious one, to a deliciously absurd one (Mr. James has obviously seen SOMEthing called The Sound of Music, though it bears no resemblance to what we know The Sound of Music as).

Of course, overanalysis is the death of comedy. In short, Mr. James was a character that shouldn't have worked, but through the actor's unusual reading, something was sparked, and the collaborative process between the rest of the creative minds behind the show created a character that has never been matched or duplicated on television.

The lesson to be gleaned? In any collaborative art form, the American impulse is to find someone to give sole credit for the enterprise to (in a film, it's the director or producer; in television, increasingly, its the show-runner). But the truly memorable moments we look for may come from a careful alchemy of different elements, arrived at through many minds melding as one. Don't shut out your co-collaborators. They just might turn a dull boss character into someone who might say this (I'm grateful to Jamie Weinmann for the transcript):

JIMMY: The original title of this book was "Jimmy James, Capitalist Lion Tamer" but I see now that it's "Jimmy James, Macho Business Donkey Wrestler." You know what it is... I had the book translated in to Japanese then back again into English. Macho Business Donkey Wrestler... well there you go, it's got kind of a ring to it, don't it? Anyway, I wanted to read from chapter three, which is the story of my first rise to financial prominence. "I had a small house of brokerage on Wall Street. Many days no business come to my hut. But Jimmy has fear? A thousand times no. I never doubted myself for a minute, for I knew that my monkey strong bowels were girded with strength like the loins of a dragon ribboned with fat and the opulence of buffalo dung. Glorious sunset of my heart was fading. Soon the super karate monkey death car would park in my space. But Jimmy has fancy plans and pants to match. The monkey clown horrible karate round and yummy like cute small baby chick would beat the donkey."

REPORTER # 1: Mr. James, what did you mean when you wrote "Bad clown making like super American car racers, I would make them sweat, War War?"

JIMMY: Well, you know... it's like when a clown is making like a car... racer... it's sorta... like... the FCC. The clown is like the FCC... and I was opposed to the FCC at the time, right? So it was like I was declaring War. WARRRR!"

REPORTER # 2: So then, did the "American yum yum clown monkey" also represent the FCC?

JIMMY: Yeah, it did. Thanks a lot.

REPORTER # 3: What did you mean when you said, "Feel my skills, donkey donkey donkey, donkey donkey?"

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Tuesday, April 25, 2006

The art of spec scripts (from someone who's never actually, y'know, written one)

Whenever I'm not sure what to blog about, I ask Daniel what to write about, and he always has ideas of what HE wants to see. So if this sucks, blame him.

But before we get to the subject at hand, vote in the best-of-TV survey. Your country thanks you.

Let's start with the basics. My mom doesn't even know what a spec script is, so we'll start with that.

A spec script is something written to send out to agents, production companies, etc., in the hope of getting work as a film or TV writer (in my case, I'm sending the spec I'm writing to fellowships). Since I know WAY more about TV writing, I'll be talking about that, primarily.

In TV writing, spec scripts usually take the form of prospective episodes of shows already on the air. The spec script you write will never BE aired (usually due to legal issues). What's more, the people on the show you write a spec script for will almost never hire you based on a spec for that show, so if you want to get on staff at, say, Grey's Anatomy, you're better off writing a House than an episode of Grey's. (In my case, I haven't done a lot of thinking about this. Since I'm applying for fellowships, rather than actual jobs, I just need a really, really good script. There's little to no strategy involved.)

But wait! There's more!

Spec pilots, i.e., pilots written on your own with no network involvement, are becoming a bigger deal (especially in tandem with a normal spec script). It's a handy way to show you have ambition and the ability to think of larger ideas. It's also a handy way to look stupid. So handle with care.

There are MILLIONS of posts out there about how to write a spec (here's a good place to start), so rather than tell you all of that minutiae (which, let's not forget, I'm not exactly an authority on), I thought I would talk about how far I've come in the process and what I'm doing right now, in the hopes that it would give you some insight into the process.

I've chosen to spec Supernatural. Why? Well, there are many, many reasons. But I'll outline the main ones briefly.

For starters, the subject matter of Supernatural is something that interests me, so I know a lot about it. I've been reading about weird monsters and ghosts and unexplained phenomena since I was a little kid. So it's not something I have had to do a ton of research on to come up with a good story. If I did a House or something, I would have to pore over medical journals, looking for that ONE case that would make a kick-ass script. Don't get me wrong. I'm sure I could WRITE a House, but it would be a much more painful process (and since this is my first spec, my first time working with others' characters, it's important the process be enjoyable). When I went in to work on Supernatural, I had not just one story idea, I had dozens. I could narrow those down to six or seven, then narrow THOSE down to the one that would be the best possible fit for the show. (And, no, I'm not telling you what that is.)

In addition, Supernatural is a good show, but it's not intimidatingly good. For the most part, it's a show that sets out to have fun and scare you silly. Battlestar Galactica, Deadwood, Lost, The Sopranos, they all have higher goals in mind much of the time. I love all of these shows. To work on one of them would be a dream come true. But, until I have more experience, I simply can't write an episode of them that is BETTER than the episodes that have aired. (The goal with any spec is to write an episode that is absolutely the best episode of said show ever. Now, most don't succeed. The ones that do, get hired. Or fellowshipped. Whatever.) Writing a story of existential crisis on an island in the South Pacific is something I don't feel comfortable trying right now. But writing a scary, semi-gory horror tale? I've been doing that since I was seven.

Now, Supernatural is a real risk in one regard: It's not that popular. When people in the industry read my script, they may be enthralled to read something they haven't seen 1,000,000,000 (I wish I was kidding) other examples of. But they also might say, "What the hell is this?" It's a gamble, but it's one I'm willing to take.

So where am I now in the process?

Right now, I'm logging the better part of a season of the show. I'm also trying to get a hold of some actual scripts from the show.

Logging is the process of breaking down an episode into its component parts, so you can better copy the show in your script. Where does the exposition occur? Where do the big fights occur? Which characters tell the most jokes? You can get as anal as you want (I've been getting, perhaps, too anal).

What's the benefit of this? Well, once you've got enough episodes logged, you can see the underlying formula behind every episode of the show you're working on. Once you've got that, you can lay that structure over your story idea. And once you've done that, the writing gets a LOT easier, especially when you're me, and you can write stuff REALLY fast if you know where you're going. And if you do enough of this, it gets hard to watch TV. Because you start to see the formula underneath every show, even the ones that hide it really well.

So there you go. That's the story of where I am right now. Perhaps once I get the episode finished, I'll talk a little about that process as well.

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Monday, April 24, 2006

More things I hate about TV: Will They/Won't They

The will they/won't they relationship is going to rise up and destroy television.

Not right away, mind you. There's still some mileage to be gotten out of the old warhorse, so long as TV writers come up with fun new twists on it (I'm thinking, particularly, of Deadwood's richly conceived Alma/Bullock relationship, which feels like something out of a Victorian novel, or How I Met Your Mother's novel twist -- they won't -- or Jack Bauer, primetime's unluckiest lover). But, for the most part, will they/won't they, largely invented by Cheers and perfected by Moonlighting, has gotten tired.

Here's the problem: We know they will. But we also know that most TV writers fear that leaving their protagonists in a healthy relationship will remove all of the drama (because seeing all of the permutations of courtship and breaking up is more interesting). So we know that the will they/won't they duo won't actually DO anything until, say, the series finale.

Now, maybe I'm just stupid, but since these relationships become the focus of so many shows (indeed, a will they/won't they relationship is practically de facto in any show on TV now), the drama is gradually sucked out of these shows the longer the relationships are willing to straggle on. In addition, the couples at the center of these relationships aren't really cast with chemistry in mind (the producers of Cheers VERY carefully selected the actors who would play Sam and Diane because they knew they wanted the sexual chemistry between the two). In many cases, the will they/won't they becomes an afterthought.

Now, honestly, when there IS chemistry, this old dance feels like something worth watching still (I'm looking at you, Bones). But when there isn't chemistry or when the relationship stretches on through too many unrealistic plot twists (Luke and Lorelai?), the characters cease to be relatable. If no one on TV can have a functional relationship, it all starts to feel a little silly.

So here's a challenge issued to some brave producer out there: Get your characters together. Keep them together. Or break them up for all time (even if they still have friends in common). This is the way things work in the real world.

Sure, toss every obstacle in their path to getting together. But once they're together, make a choice whether they work as a couple or whether they don't work as a couple. And stick to it.

But, y'know, I'm clearly in the minority, judging from all of the weird, shipp-y fan fiction out there.

So I should probably just be ignored.

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Some things about writing

What could this be? A best-of-TV survey? Well, let's vote right away!

Also, if you're linking to my blog, please let me know. I'm starting up a "They link, we link" section to highlight all of you, and I'd like to make sure I don't miss anyone. And Steve Barnes? I've already got your message. Thanks. Fun blog too!

So I always SAY I'm going to write about writing here, but I never actually DO it. I thought I might, though, just this once, share some things I've learned about writing (specifically MY writing) from the many, many start-and-stop attempts I've made at it over the years.

I've wanted to be many different KINDS of writers over the years, but, strangely, I've never wanted to be a screenwriter. Why do I call this strange? Because it seems EVERYONE wants to be a screenwriter nowadays. Writing the Great American Novel is out-of-date. Everyone wants to move to Hollywood and make millions to be treated like crap.

Now, I would love millions of dollars. If someone came up to me and asked me if I wanted it, I would say, "Back up the truck!" I consider myself an artist, but I'm not THAT committed to my principles.

I don't want to write a screenplay because of that whole "treated like crap" thing. My stories are MY STORIES. In the film world, your stories are often stripped from you, ripped into shreds and thrown about all over the screen. That's because the writer rarely has power in Hollywood. I'm not saying there's anything WRONG with directors having the power; I'm just saying that it wouldn't work for me.

Oddly, though, I've gravitated to wanting to write for television, which is another collaborative art form. Why? I think it's because television gives the writer power and manages to remain a more social environment. Writing novels, I think, would get too isolating. If I can't break in to television writing, I'll fall back on writing novels (story's gotta get told somehow), but I like the idea of sitting in a room with other writers and hashing out stories.

But why choose this life? It's full of uncertainty, to be sure. The only reason to choose this life is because you can't NOT choose this life. You've got to be the sort of person who sees stories EVERYwhere, who can't read the newspaper WITHOUT seeing a novel or a movie or a TV series or a play (or anything else). The people who are just in this for the money aren't going to make it. It's the people who are in this because they need to get these ideas out there that are going to make it. It can seem tough, I know, but it will pay off.

If you're going to be a writer (or think you can be), get a job where a deadline is important. It will teach you about getting things written even when it seems impossible. Wander down to your local alt-weekly or send stuff out to web sites and get those pieces out there. Then, when the latest draft of your novel is due in two weeks, you'll know how to budget your time.

And don't start a blog. It's going to suck up your time.

Sorry for the disjointed nature of this post. But I wanted to share a few of these thoughts. The next time I touch on issues like this, I'll talk a little about the nature of the spec I'm writing and the project I'm working on and how it evolved.

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Sunday, April 23, 2006

Required Reading

Jace works in the TV industry, and his blog, Televisionary, offers up insightful commentary on lots of subjects on a near-daily basis.

In particular, check out this post on which pilots are getting the most buzz at the networks. It's like a WAY MORE INFORMED version of my Super TV Preview of a few weeks back.

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