SLEDGEHAMMER AND WHORE
This is the story of a Procedural.
So I’m at a meeting with a producer the other day and he’s pitching me a tv idea. As way of emphasizing why I need him and his idea, he brings forth a piece of paper. On it, my credits. He doesn’t actually hand it over to me but he says this:
PRODUCER: I’ve been looking over your credits, pretty impressive.
ME: Thanks, we try.
PRODUCER: Seems to me you’re just missing one thing from these credits. And I’m gonna tell you what it is.
ME: Please do.
At which point he turns the piece of paper towards me and I see he’s written in bold black marker near the top, pointing to the list: BIG FUCKING HIT TV SHOW.
ME: Well, yes, I am missing that. Very true. I think about that a lot.
PRODUCER: That’s all right. Because I’m here to change all that.
At which point he launches into his pitch for what may or not be “my big fucking hit tv show.”
Now, I leave it to you to debate whether pointing out my shortcomings is a good or bad sales strategy (it rarely works for my dad but often for my wife), and I’ll leave it to me to decide whether or not the idea he pitched me was the answer to my problems.
I will say this about the idea, however: IT WAS ENORMOUS. The concept, the scope, the budget, it was resolutely and irresponsibly EPIC and for that I was totally grateful. Because if I’d been pitched one more aspirational character-driven procedural you were going to have to peel me off the Barham asphalt.
Not that I don’t understand the impulse for procedurals. They’re the golden retrievers of television. They’re cheap. They’re endearing. Not too hard to understand. And they won’t cost $3.5 million per ep, pull in a 1.4 rating, and pee on your favorite tauntaun sleeping bag.
On the other hand, there’s been a lot of recent attempts at “event” television and almost all have been utter failures. Even some of the ones still on the air stagger around like a drunk who woke up with a Season 2 and have no idea who drove them there or how to get home (I’m looking at you, V.).
With the death of Lost and 24, we find ourselves looking for the next bit of pop culture big-fucking-dealness that we can get ourselves all worked up for. And when I say “we” I’m referring to Fans of TV with a capital F and not simply those for whom TV is the thing that occupies the space between dinner and the sleep apnea machine. We Fans of TV want that Big Sexy Going Down the Rabbit Hole Feeling and no matter how much my mother loves Simon Baker, The Mentalist just isn’t going to do it for us.
The Mentalist, is, however, going to make a shitload of money for all involved. It’s easy on the eyes and is habit-forming much in the same way two glasses of red wine a night is: you’ll get a nice, warm buzz but you’re not gonna get really wasted and wake up with Cobb’s malevolent freight train blasting through your cortex. The Mentalist isn’t the best sex you’ve ever had, but it’s also not likely to leave you to finish yourself off while your partner falls asleep to reruns of Cheaters.
The Character-driven Procedural works for a number of reasons, but the biggest and the best of them is this: they almost never get picked up to series without a Serious Asswhipping Actor in the lead. Simon Baker. Hugh Laurie. Tony Shaloub. Kyra Sedgwick. Angie Harmon. These are legitimate cleanup hitters in any TV lineup. They might not be the favorites of the genre crowd. You might not stand in line for their autograph. And you are not going to see them down at Comic-Con doing funny panels with Jeff “Doc” Jensen. Why? Because they are too busy making the other twenty million people who watch tv every night love them.
“Event” television, on the other hand (and here we can probably insert the word “genre” or “science fiction”), usually demands a big canvas, a big cast of characters, and a large concept that often dominates. It’s ideas first, characters second, and that, dear friends, is often a recipe for tv disaster. FlashForward tried to balance a lot of character work on the big bouncing back of their elephantine idea but the show never found a proper stride and a lot of people were knocked off into the pachyderm shit. Warehouse 13 works for SyFy because it’s what X-Files would be if Mulder and Scully took Ecstasy and dry-humped their way through a Freak of the Week. Which is to say, a quirky procedural.
Aaah, but what about Lost, you say? Explain Lost, or at the very least, explain Lost‘s success? Big ideas, lots of characters, no big alpha stars, lots of story, lots of…lots?
I’m not the first to say this, but Lost is a freak show that will never be repeated. It’s the Michael Jackson of television. No one should try to deconstruct the Lost phenomenon ever again. There is nothing to be gained from studying Lost‘s success. It’s a “Black Swan”, or an “Outlier”, or one of many other books on my Kindle I’ll never read now because, let’s be honest, it’s on my Kindle.
You can’t construct a phenomenon from the outside-in. You can’t will a show into the public’s consciousness. Both of this year’s breakout hits, Glee and Modern Family, had big buzz coming into the season. But that’s because people who’d seen them knew they were good. They didn’t just decide they needed them to be good and then set out to market them so, they actually KNEW they were. Both shows also have very strong creators who know television, know their own minds, and know what show they’re making. These are not shows that could’ve been created by anybody–and that’s not something you can say about most television. They are also decidedly NOT procedurals.
The stories I love often involve world-building. But most people working in the tv business are terrified of building worlds. They want shows that are relatable and recognizable. They want real worlds with real people that will under no condition make viewers uncomfortable or remind them of anything remotely strange and unknown. No Ordinary Family is a perfect example of this: the family is Absolutely Ordinary until they’re NOT. And when they’re NOT, they respond to that very NOT-ness just as any other Ordinary Family would.
But much of our most successful and daring television is, if looked at broadly, Fantastic with a capital F. Ryan Murphy is a world-builder, Matt Weiner is a world-builder, Vince Gilligan is an 800 lb world builder. Breaking Bad exists in a strange Albuquerque Dream State that is at once the most surreal and also the most achingly real drama I’ve ever watched. These are “genre” shows, maybe not exactly science fiction, but certainly not traditional “dramas”, either. They are as weird and off-putting and daring and out there as any “space ship show” that the networks refuse to put on every year. And that was even before mother and daughter sang “Poker Face” to each other across a grand piano.
But I digress.
This is a story of a Procedural. Specifically, mine.
Last Sunday night the wife and I were sound asleep at 11:45pm (more…)