Friday, October 13, 2017

Friday (the 13th) Questions

Spooky. Friday the 13th AND Halloween the same month. Ooooooh. Here are some Friday (the 13th) Questions:

mbk starts us off:

Love your blog, and even though I think I've read all your pieces, I don't remember that you've ever commented on "Episodes" on Showtime. It seems like something you would relate to, with commentary on writing TV comedy, showrunning, dealing with network suits, actors and their egos, agents, hack writers, backstabbing, Hollywood hypocrisy, and on and on.

What's your take on Episodes?

I loved it the first season until Matt LeBlanc slept with the showrunner. That crossed a line for me and I didn’t buy it (from either side). Before that the LeBlanc character was great fun. After that he was just an asshole.

I tried watching the second season and the satire seemed very broad. The network president was a cartoon. Gave up after that. I hear it’s better. Maybe at some point I’ll revisit it.

Cliff asks:

What happened to the TV practice of 1/2 hour dramatic shows? Have Gun Will Travel, (many other Westerns), Adam-12, Dragnet, Twilight Zone, etc. etc. I enjoy re-watching these on the available old show channels, but was curious why the 1/2 non-comedy format has died.

I think in the same way VHS beat out Betamax and Final Draft beat out Movie Magic, hour dramas just became the standard. I think it’s much easier to tell a dramatic story in an hour, especially if you have returning characters. And yet, I look back at some of those TWILIGHT ZONE half-hour episodes and marvel at how great, how complete, and how satisfying they were.

People forget that in the early days of television, yes there were half-hour dramas, but there were also fifteen-minute sitcoms.

Kyle Burress wonders:

What are your thoughts on shows that have a character that is around for a while and then just suddenly disappears with no explanation, or treated as if they had never even been there in the first place? Examples that come to mind are Chuck Cunningham from 'Happy Days', Judy Winslow from 'Family Matters' and Mandy Hampton from 'The West Wing', just to name a couple. Other shows such as 'Law & Order' do it all the time.

It’s not ideal, but as a writer I know that shows take on a life of their own. And certain things work while others don’t. Especially the first season, a series is really a work-in-progress.

Sometimes that works to your advantage. A character may break out that you didn’t expect like the Fonz or Alex Keaton or (God help me) Urkel.

But other times you realize that certain aspects of your series or certain relationships just aren’t clicking. And it’s not like a movie where you can just go back and reshoot or edit. These missteps have now aired. So one solution is to just move on and hope that most people don’t notice. Another is to explain away those characters, but that sometimes really draws undue attention to them.

Again, it’s not a perfect way to go, but it can be the lesser of all evils.

And finally, from YEKIMI:

Do the producers, studio, etc. have any say so in how their show is advertised? I've seen some ads where I thought "there's no way in hell that looks interesting to watch" only to find out in re-runs or a couple of years down the road that it's actually was a pretty good show I had been missing. Or do the producers, studios, etc. just scream in silent anguish about how the networks are promoting their show?

Well, in most cases now the studio is owned by the network. I suppose they can offer their opinions. Most producers don’t have any say. Maybe if you’re Dick Wolf or Chuck Lorre you have a little more influence, but by and large the network has a promo department and a mandate sent down by the higher-ups as to who and how to promote and for how much.

Every producer I know thinks they get short-changed, even if there are billboards on every city bus.  

What’s your Friday Question? Stay away from black cats.


Wendy M. Grossman said...

Yes, the Matt character on EPISODES was an asshole, but I think for a lot of us the fun about it was the good-sported willingness of LeBlanc to *play* himself as an asshole. I still think the fight at the end of season 1 between Sean and Matt, which involved a large potted cactus, is one of the funniest things I've ever seen on TV. There was lots of good stuff in the later seasons, too. And frankly, the network head (Merc, played by John Pankow) doesn't seem nearly as unrealistic today as he did a couple of weeks ago.


Honest Ed said...

Re the half hour dramas - here in the UK they still exist. Not just the heavily serialised soaps like EastEnders and Coronation Street but shows like Doctors, which are serialised but which still have self contained guest stories from the writers. Sometimes its only the guest stories. I was recently at a meeting with a development exec in LA who started waxing lyrical about Doctors which was bizarre for show that doesn't really sell anywhere!

Juli in St. Paul not Minneapolis said...

Hi, Ken! I just listened to Episode 28, your interview with Winnie Holzman. Yes, it's from July, but I put it off. Years ago, many people were raving about Wicked, and it sounded interesting, so I bought the book and started reading. It was horrific! Nasty, twisted, grim, dark, unpleasant - I quit part way through when (I think) a character was murdered as part of a sado-masochistic beastiality live sex show. I have never understood why anyone would want to watch this.

Your interview was really interesting (you are really great at asking questions that bring out the subject!!), and Ms. Holzman casually mentioned that many mothers and daughters bond over the show, and then get the book, only to find out it is really different and "quite dark." Lightbulb moment! Maybe I'll give the show a try.

Later, she mentioned a couple of times that she and her co-writer made a point of staying true to the original source, the movie. That stopped me again. The original source for the Wizard of Oz is the series of books by L. Frank Baum. I read and loved them as a child. I certainly saw the movie (I'm of the generation where the annual show was an event), but I would never consider it original. Baum's creation was both more expansive (he had more time and space to tell his stories), and more interesting underneath (he was consciously creating a mythology of the American Experience). The movie had interesting songs and visuals, but it leaves out a lot.

I know you are around my age, so you must at least be aware of the books, yet you didn't seem to think her comments in any way unusual. Why not? Is the movie so iconic that no one thinks about the books? (To be honest, from what I can tell, Gregory Maguire had read them very carefully.) Have we truly become such a post literate society that no one thinks about books at all? If you were hired to write a screenplay set in the world of, say, Alice in Wonderland, would you read the books, or watch the movie(s)?

Terrence Moss said...

a half-hour drama could still work today if given the opportunity to do so -- although today they'd be all of 20 minutes with all the ads.

Mitchell Hundred said...

I remember reading a piece on Breaking Bad where Vince Gilligan was quoted as saying that even though this was a dramatic, serious show, he realized the need to have moments of comedy in it to keep from being too depressing (like this scene, for instance). So my question is: as a writer, how do you maintain that kind of balance?

David Schwartz said...

I have a Friday question, Ken. Why is it that some shows never get a real chance on a network? What I mean by this, is that there are times shows clearly premiere at a time when the network can't help but realize that no matter how good the show may be, it's not going to do well on the air.

For example, I worked on an Ann Jillian show called "Jennifer Slept Here" in the 1980's. It aired on the half-hour and its lead in was a show called "Mr. Smith," which featured an orangutan as the lead character. Anyway, that show premiered a few weeks before "Jennifer Slept Here," and got bad ratings. The competition during that hour were two hit shows, "The Dukes of Hazard" and "Webster" on the other networks. So they premiere the orangutan show a few weeks earlier than "Jennifer Slept Here." It does poorly. Then they premiere "Jennifer Slept Here" on the half hour after much of the audience has already decided they ain't watching "Mr. Smith."

How in the world did NBC expect "Jennifer Slept Here" to get any kind of decent ratings under those circumstance? Could anything? Why would NBC allow a show to premiere where it would be nearly impossible to make an impact and then not give it a chance in a time slot where it could actually succeed?

Marv Wolfman said...

Twilight Zone worked best as a half hour drama. Its formula demands a shock or twist ending and that works better with a get in the story and out quickly approach. It didn't work the one season they went to an hour. Ultimately, Twilight was about the set up and twist, and only very little about the middle act.

E. Yarber said...

Some of the transference to longer dramatic formats was indeed aesthetic (and don't forget the example of 60-and-90-minute live broadcasts of the 50s from Playhouse 90 to Your Show of Shows) but there was also a degree of power playing taking place.

If any of us live long enough for my book to survive pre-publication (I'm going over the edit today), you'll see I devote some space to MCA, which ran Universal in the 60s and 70s (into the 90s) and had extensive ambitions to lock up television production. Not only did they retool shows like their "Alfred Hitchcock Presents" to an hour length, but made a decent run at the 90-minute dramatic form with popular shows like "The Virginian" and "The NBC Mystery Theater," featuring entries like "Columbo" and "McMillan and Wife."

By the 70s, 90 minute anthology dramas were taken for granted as "Movies of the Week."

I still find it interesting to see how a show like "Gunsmoke" transitioned to a point where the stars frequently had LESS to do each week because the longer format often left them supporting characters in a story centering around one-shot characters, while the half-hour stories had to put the regulars front and center to include them at all.

Anonymous said...

Episodes was one of my favorite shows ever, on TV. It got a little more "quirky" as it went on, but I'm sure some of the incidents were based actual happenings. The ending was was very fitting.

Anonymous said...

ElleKC in St. Paul not Minneapolis said...

To Juli:
About Ms. Holtzman's comments about the movie 'Wizard of Oz' being the source of 'Wicked' (the show). I think she meant that the MGM movie was the inspiration for the Broadway show, in the same way the Baum books were the inspiration for the book Wicked and it's sequels.

I've both read the book and seen the show Wicked. At first, I expected the show to follow the book. But the show's tone is much lighter and the themes are different, much in the way the MGM movie is different from the Baum books. The adaptation of the basic plot of the original Baum stories are changed by the medium and by the environment of when they were created.

Jeff Maxwell said...

Ken said: I loved it the first season until Matt LeBlanc slept with the show runner.

Yes yes yes. Didn't buy it from either side either. Really enjoyed the show but never went back after that. Air went right out of the balloon for me.

By the way, never have been a big fan, but Ray Ramano is so good in GET SHORTY.

YEKIMI said...

Thanks for answering my question!

MikeN said...

I thought Star Trek Enterprise could have done well if they had just taken the opening theme and played that instead of the ads they did show that could only appeal to Trek die-hards.

Mike Bloodworth said...

The promos for "This is Us" are a perfect example of how they can really turn one off to a show. The very first commercial I saw, before the show even aired, showed the fat characters (I know. Not P.C.) falling in love at a Weight Watchers meeting or whatever it was. My very first thought was, "Didn't they just cancel 'Mike & Molly?'" I know, one is a comedy and the other is a drama. And while it may have been a coincidence, that plot line seemed way to similar. Plus, the promos pushed way too hard the idea that this was NBC's "quality, grown-up" show. Apparently a lot of people like the show. It has won Emmys, but I've still never watched it. The Black List is another example. (Also NBC) The commercials made me think, this show looks very cliched and pretentious. Yet, the ratings are good enough that it's still on the air.

DBenson said...

Perhaps more maddening than characters who simply disappear are those who intermittently reappear with no real logic.

I've been revisiting the highly entertaining "Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries". Early on, Miss Fisher takes Jane, a girl pickpocket, under her wing. In some episodes, Jane is front and center at the breakfast table or bringing home a mystery from (non-boarding) school. In others, she simply doesn't exist (convenient when Miss Fisher is entertaining murderers or momentary lovers). Late in season two, barely teenage Jane is packed off to see Europe -- and is back in a couple of episodes, having evidently exhausted Europe in a few weeks.

A related peeve: Where a character has a job and never seems to be doing it unless there's a plot point at the workplace. Much like school-set shows where nobody appears to study or attend class (in Harold Lloyd's silent comedy "The Freshman", there is literally no mention of classes. Just football and dances.)

MikeN said...

> this show looks very cliched and pretentious.

Yes it is. James Spader was funny early on, but the writing ran out. Plot makes no sense when he just gets to do whatever he wants. But if the FBI reins him in, it doesn't fit his character.

Edward said...

Characters that disappeared include the late Charles Briles as Eugene Barkley in "Big Valley" who left after 8 episodes in season one since (allegedly) Lee Majors character Heath Barkley was breaking out on screen.

There was also a young actress, Rebecca Balding, who was part of the cast on "Lou Grant" but was fired from the show after three episodes. Her replacement, an older actress named Linda Kelsey, was nominated for Emmy's all five years of the shows run. The producers made the right call with that change.

FRIDAY QUESTION:---Any stories about casting changes good, bad, ugly???

D. McEwan said...

My favorite "Forgotten Character" was Dobie Gillis's older brother, Davey Gillis, played, of course, by Darryl Hickman, who as in three episodes the first season. About the time Dobie went from being a blond to having brown hair, he also became an only child.

D. McEwan said...

Juli in St. Paul, as I was also raised on Baum's Oz books, read all 14, and reread them in my 30s, it also drives me nuts when people assume the movie is the mother load source, especially when the movie committed the cardinal sin of making Oz a dream when in the books it is a real place where eventually, in book six, Dorothy and Aunt Em and Uncle Henry go to live in permanently. (My mother never forgave the movie for changing the Silver Shoes to Ruby Slippers.)

I read Wicked back before it was ever made into a musical, and I found it a tad too dark, but OK, but the musical is a vast improvement over the book. I tried reading a couple of Maguire's later Oz books (He's written four), and never finished any of them. Frankly, when the Cowardly Lion married a human woman, he really, really lost me.

But the musical is much better.

Unknown said...
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Kevin FitzMaurice said...

When Freddie Prinze committed suicide in January 1977, "Chico and the Man" still had four episodes to complete that season. In those episodes, the other characters explained that Chico was visiting his father in Mexico.

When the show returned in the fall, it introduced a new character played by a young boy named Gabriel Melgar, but Prinze's absence remained unresolved.

Finally, a special one-hour episode in January that incorporated both multi-camera videotape and single-camera film, explained without elaboration that Chico had died.

The episode was telecast a week shy of Prinze's suicide.

Kevin FitzMaurice said...

Sorry...the special episode of "Chico and the Man" that finally resolved Freddie Prinze's disappearance was shown a week before the first anniversary of Prinze's death.

Mark said...

The Have Gun Will Travel reference bring up a Friday question I've been meaning to ask. HGWT was the Sid Caesar of TV drama -- nearly everyone in the writers' room seemed to go onto greatness. Here's a partial list of future work:

Cool Hand Luke/Dog Day Afternoon
Dirty Harry
They Shoot Horses, Don't They
The Subject Was Roses
The Agony and the Ecstasy
Man from UNCLE
Star Trek
Mission Impossible

and these are just the repeat contributors. I'm skipping names like Charles Beaumont, Richard Matheson, and Sam Peckinpah.

Why do you think certain shows have such a great track record spotting up and coming talent behind and in front of the camera?

Brad Apling said...

I'll pop in with two questions. 1) Has any TV writer career-wise successfully written for both comedy and drama (e.g. Cheers and Crime Story)? Granted that it's different style of writing & you're likely chosen based on writing a similar style before). 2) An actor/actress decides to leave a series after a few seasons, how do the writers decide to write off the character? Generally speaking, it seems there are few options in a comedy series as you can't just have them killed. MTM's Chuckles the Clown episode was different in that respect.

Kevin FitzMaurice said...

Something interesting about the "Chuckles" episode, which aired originally on Oct. 25, 1975, is that the MTM company had just dealt with a real-life tragedy.

Barbara Colby had appeared in a couple of "Mary Tyler Moore" segments and just been signed to play Cloris Leachman's boss on the new "Phyllis" spin-off when she was killed in a drive-by shooting in Los Angeles on July 24, 1975.

Colby had only completed three "Phyllis" episodes when she died. She was replaced by actress Liz Torres.

Do You Do Any Wings? said...

Hi Ken, long time lurker, occasional poster here. A couple of books I've enjoyed are Rob Long's 'Set Up, Joke...' and Fred Stoller's 'Maybe We'll Have You Back'. I wondered if you'd had time to read either of these and your thoughts on the guys and their memoirs? Thanks for listening.