Sunday, December 15, 2013

I did not pay this person. Honest.

Adi Tantimedh writes:

Ken Levine, not the chap who develops the Bioshock videogames, but the Emmy-winning screenwriter who has written for shows like M*A*S*H, Cheers and Frasier, has forgotten more about screenwriting and comedy than most of us will ever know.  He has a very funny blog where he talks about screenwriting and the industry, offering a very insider look at how things are done in Hollywood.  Must Kill TV is his first novel after decades writing scripts.  You should read it.  It’s on Amazon in print and as an ebook.
Must Kill TV is about a beleaguered TV network president Charlie Muncie, a nice, likable guy with his job on the line – his network only has one hit show after all the other new shows he greenlit tanked, and its star is threatening to quit after going through several seasons of boffo ratings.  However, said star has asked Charlie for a favor: in return for which he would agree to stay for another season of his popular sitcom.  He wants Charlie to have his ex-girlfriend killed. The bitch had the audacity to turn down his marriage proposal and therefore must die. Can a desperate network president afford to say no to his biggest star?

Hollywood is a state of mind. It’s part of, but not always the same as, the Los Angeles state of mind though they’re often intertwined.  People who work in the Film and Television industry have a rather different way of looking at life since their work involves creating a fictional and often idealized, if not skewed, version of reality that’s sold to millions if not billions, of people worldwide, and that many eyeballs are worth a lot of money. I’ve always been fond of Hollywood novels.  They tend to be quite existential in nature, presenting a point of view that many people don’t have and might find fascinating, even when it’s appalling.

Charlie goes around telling himself he’s a nice guy at heart, and many people say that to his face, enough for him to believe that even, as he not only slips but barrels at full-speed down several slippery slopes and does things that nice guys would never do.  And all the while he tells himself that he’s entirely justified in what he’s doing. He’s in therapy and he’s a reasonable guy, so whatever he decides to do must be for perfectly reasonable motives. Like plotting to have someone murdered.
Comedy is also a state of mind. It’s about taking the piss out of bad situations and laughing at people making bad decisions.  What drives Must Kill TV is being inside Charlie Muncie’s neurotic head as he tries to think and justify his way through his escalating set of problems without any real self-awareness at all.  He is pretty much the walking definition of a schlemiel, the Yiddish term for a stupid, awkward, unlucky person. There’s nothing more dangerous or funny than a stupid man who thinks he’s being clever, and that provides endless fuel for comedy.  Charlie is in complete denial that he might not be a good guy even as he does more and more bad things, thinking his marriage is fine when it’s in freefall, from his anxiety over ratings and its effects on his job security, to thinking he might get away with cheating on his wife with an on-the-make massage therapist, and trying to work out how to find a hitman by reviewing how TV shows do it. This is a comedy about a man systematically ruining his life while wondering why his life is getting worse.

What makes the book funny is the way it uses Charlie’s headspace to make fun of how a network suit thinks, how someone who doesn’t have any real imagination or creativity tends to draw on terrible TV and movie ideas to look for solutions to their real life problems.  The book is also a time capsule for what the TV industry looks like in the 2010s, full of insider satirical asides  into what executives are thinking when they greenlight new shows. Charlie muses on headaches like the cop show that evolved into a gay cop couple show because its stars ended up in a relationship off-screen, which also resulted in the ratings dropping, the failed David Caruso sitcom, the failed Ann Coulter family comedy, all of which put a dent in his credibility as a president who could deliver hits.

He worries as much about keeping up his lifestyle of executive privilege and the entertainment industry’s version of street cred should he get ousted by the stockholders if he fails to deliver a hit or keep the one hit show that’s keeping his network afloat.  The book is also a satire of how people in Hollywood generally think of themselves as well-intentioned even as they do awful things to each other.  It even takes the piss out of people in the entertainment industry turning to religion to try to absolve themselves of the horrible things they do.

Novels about the movie industry are often serious and literary, even somber as they explore moral and existential dilemmas, though a small minority are comedies. On the other hand, I’ve found that the majority of novels about TV are comedies, and Must Kill TV is the funniest I’ve read for a while. It’s not often that a book makes me laugh hysterically at every page, sometimes several times per page at that. It’s not so much that Levine is writing a wisecracking protagonist so much as Charlie Muncie is completely unaware that his 90 mile-an-hour stream-of-consciousness musings are frequently ridiculous and thus hilarious. His self-examination is entirely on the shallow side, saturated with industry and business-speak to describe and exacerbate his insecurity and anxieties.  The universe of Ken Levine’s Los Angeles is just that little bit off-kilter and over-the-top, but not by much. He knows of what he writes, a world that’s endlessly incestuous where everyone knows each other and wants to know what they’re doing, running into each other at social functions all the time and putting on a polite face even as they might loathe and plot against each other.

This is a Los Angeles not that far away from the satirical, murderous hell depicted in Grand Theft Auto V where everyone is on the make and morally vacuous. If Must Kill TV is a snarky Dante’s Inferno, then Charlie Muncie is its hapless Virgil.  He’s very far from innocent and he’s desperately trying to convince himself things aren’t that bad, not matter how much worse they keep getting. Levine makes him deceptively sympathetic in order to really turn the screws when the farcical plot twists into high gear. There’s a steely mercilessness underneath the easy-going prose that’s the sugar-coating to a hilariously bitter pill.  Nothing turns out the way you think and certainly not the way Charlie Muncie wants.

Ken Levine shows that when a man descends into hell in the TV industry, it’s film noir turned into high comedy.

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Hamid said...

Ken hasn't met me either and I can say the review is spot on. It's great fun and has lots of brilliant jokes. A one-liner about al-Manar cracked me up.

John Leader Alfenito said...

It took me longer to read that review than it did to read Ken's book.
Sometimes writers love sentences so much, they just don't want them to end.

Dodgerdog said...

This is quite a wonderful review from a person who clearly "gets" you, Ken. Congratulations to both!

Johnny Walker said...

Ken, I think you're probably the most optimistic and upbeat person I know. Not that I really know you -- but I've read your memoir, met you a few times, and read your blog most days for several years, and your positive world view seems to be a throughline in everything you say and do. Take for example today's post: The fact that you can actually appreciate a positive review of your own work!

Most creative people I know seem to live (and die) by the old adage: "A positive review is never good enough, and a bad review will kill you." (My mind goes to a friend who made a movie which was favourably compared to then-blockbuster The Phantom Menace by one internet reviewer -- the gist being that my friend's film showed up Lucas as an amateur, being much more enjoyable and fun than Lucas's blockbuster, using a fraction of the budget. My friend forwarded it to me as an example of the "negative reviews" he was getting -- God only knows how he managed to persuade himself of that.)

Sure, you have your "ranty" days (but that's perfectly normal), and I guess I can't expect you to pass down some great philosophical wisdom that's going to automatically change the world view of everyone who reads it, but: What's your secret? Do you have one?

I just spent some time watching an old home movie from 1999 and all I could think was: "Everyone is so happy, carefree and playful... What happened to us all? What happened to me?"

In all earnest seriousness, do you have anything to share about maintaining a positive outlook? Have you ever even given any thought to your world view? Is it something you have to work at, or are you just blessed with a positive natural disposition? (I used to have one of those, but at some point I think I mislaid it.)

I watch the people around me getting older, and more cynical and jaded as they do. Worse, I sometimes even see people mistaking cynicism for wisdom, without realizing that it takes zero experience, knowledge or even effort to have a negative opinion about everything. You could teach a child to act negatively, and they could do it just as well as any adult... but who wants to see a miserable child? And, for that matter, who wants to be a miserable adult?

Is it something simple and external like, "find yourself a great therapist and don't let go"? Or "meditate twice daily"? Or even "get the strongest anti-depressants you can find"? Or do you have a way of looking at things, a philosophy that you've developed, that puts you in good stead, no matter what life throws at you?

From hearing all the horror stories that come out of Hollywood (constant pressure, rampant depression, even suicides), it seems that if you can survive that, and still greet every day with a smile, that you must know something that could be useful to the rest of us who find themselves struggling from time to time.

(Wow. That was a tiny comment that balloon into a mammoth post -- Oops.)

Dale said...

Excellent novel. I highly recommend it.

Ken, why are you not advertising this work? As someone said, "not advertising is like winking at a beautiful woman in the dark".

ScottH said...

Ken, is your book longer or shorter than the review?