Friday, February 15, 2019

Friday Questions

Did you survive Valentine’s Day? Here are some FQ’s as a reward.

First question is from T.K.D. Sandberg.  And comes all the way from Sweden.

I was wondering whether you could talk about how sitcoms and certain other shows have to retain the status quo, meaning how each episode (usually) must end with nothing essential being altered even if the episode might foreshadow some possible change in character or even a location change. Is real change usually saved for "end of season?" Do you have some good examples of reasons for this and reasons why it may or may not be a good idea to make a drastic change to a show in this manner?

Several reasons. Networks like to air shows out of order on occasion (they may feel one episode is stronger than another) and they can’t do that if the show is serialized. It would be like showing reels of a movie out of order.

Also, the real endgame for sitcoms is to have enough episodes to go into syndication. If you’re planning on 100 or 200 episodes you’d be wise not to be making drastic changes constantly. People tune into these shows frankly, because they’re comfort food. When they turn on an episode of FRIENDS they don’t want to spend ten minutes trying to figure out where in the course of the series this episode lies. So in general sitcom storytelling is baby steps at best.

And yes, it does make it hard.  How many times can you tell essentially the same story in a different way?  

From Jen from Jersey:

Why aren’t networks consistent as to when they air their shows? For instance, The Good Place had a “fall finale” so it wasn’t on air during the holiday season. Then in January they only aired two episodes. The show hasn’t been on in a few weeks. How is a struggling show supposed to build an audience when they show isn’t consistently shown? Fox also did this with Last Man on Earth.

That’s the problem with short order series. In the case of THE GOOD PLACE, it was agreed upon between the network and producers to make just 13 new episodes a season. It’s a lot easier to have continuity if you have 22 or 24 episodes a year.

So it’s a scheduling dance the networks must go through to try to maintain audience interest while only having a few episodes to dole out.  Do you play them all in order, take short breaks, take long breaks?  I don't envy network schedulers these days. 

Janet Ybarra wonders:

Have politics (I don't mean office politics, but politics politics) on the part of actors ever become a serious barrier on any projects you and David have worked on?

No. In fact one of my favorite actresses to work with is Patricia Heaton and I am 180 degrees from her politically.

I’ve worked with other actors whose politics I disagree with and so far it’s never been an issue.

But I should point out those are philosophical differences. If I came across an actor who was openly racist or homophobic or wore a MAGA hat I would steer very clear of him or her. Life’s too fucking short.

And finally, from Jim S:

The process of solving story problems has always interested me.

Have you ever sweated a story logjam trying to figure out a solution, only to have someone walk in and solve the problem by saying "why don't you do X?"

Oh yes. And it’s why you have partners, and script doctors (consultants) and colleagues.

For some reason it is infinitely easier to solve other writers’ story problems than your own. Probably because you’re not as close to the story as he is. You can see the overview. You’re also more relaxed. The writer has been wrestling with this thorny problem for hours or days or weeks. You come swooping in and see other possibilities.

And remember, story problems are going to happen. If you never have story problems it means you’re not working hard enough to tell stories in an original surprising unexpected way.

What’s your Friday Question?


E. Yarber said...

It's important to remember that TV series weren't always considered long-form linear narratives. In some ways it resembles the way that a comic book used to be a story about Superman saving Metropolis, but now he can't make a move in issue #424 without having to conform to something that happened in #125.

Part of the original nature of sitcoms was isolated episodes involving a regular cast of characters, not a soap opera where the story evolves. I regularly read George Herriman's KRAZY KAT, which offers a seemingly infinite number of variations on the basic struggle between three figures. Shows like GUNSMOKE or DRAGNET are examples of the same format applied to drama... you have a basic framework set up in which you can begin and end a new story every week.

I remember watching an episode of THE FUGITIVE with a younger friend. While she enjoyed it a lot, she wondered how the woman in the story would be able to follow Kimble to his next location. I had to explain to her that he never saw her again, the story restarting from Point A the next week. She was so used to tight continuity that the anthology style format of older shows never occurred to her. Short stories rather than novels.

Brian Phillips said...

FRIDAY QUESTION: This is a question for you and David Isaacs, if he has time to chip in. In your latest podcast, you say that you are working solo. Do you find when you are writing that you hear your partner's voice in your head even if you aren't working with him?

The Bumble Bee Pendant said...

Happy Belated Birthday Ken.

Chris G said...

Is "Friends" the best example of a sitcom with a status quo? The basic premise generally stayed the same, but that was a show with lots of ongoing storylines - who was dating or marrying or breaking up with whom, babies being born, who lived where, etc. Depending on when an episode was made the interpersonal relationships of the main and supporting characters could be very different.

Anonymous said...

Hi Ken,
I recalled you enjoyed Tasmania on your cruise and double checked that, because there is a quirky little TV show that is just entering it's 3rd season here called Rosehaven set in a small town in Tassie. Put together by two local comedians. Nowadays, quirky often means strange and boring, but I highly recommend this one because it's not that. I believe it's really character driven mixed with fantastic Tassie scenery. When a show has a 24 hour emergency butcher, there's a lot to enjoy.

VP81955 said...

"Mom," though it has a full 22-episode run (for its sixth season), has much the same problem as "The Good Place." It was preempted two of the past three weeks before last night's ep, was off for a few weeks during the holiday season and will miss two weeks in March because of the NCAA men's basketball tournament. It has a very loyal fan base and almost always wins its time slot, but its 1.1 rating last night was a season-low (not aided by repeats of "The Big Bang Theory" and "Young Sheldon"). Newer fans, drawn to "Mom" via its vast exposure in syndication since fall 2017 (local stations, FXX, the Paramount Network) probably are a trifle confused over when a new ep will air.

Myles said...

Heads up Jen, that episode in January was the season finale. Like Ken mentioned it only does 13 episode seasons. That was it until next season. Short and sweet like always.

Bruce P said...

Question -- I sometimes am amazed looking at old sitcoms / dramas that either had a short run or were on the decline in both quality and ratings. I realize the actors and crew are professionals and will do their jobs whether their shows are ranked #1 or #120. But is there a discernible difference in attitude on the set of a hit compared to the set of a soon-to-be cancelled show? I can understand disappointment on a low rated show set. But isn't there also tension on a hit show set as the writers, crew and actors feel like they have to continue to produce quality to maintain their high ratings/

The Bumble Bee Pendant said...


Lemuel said...

@VP81955: You're right about MOM. Also, I saw it for the first time in weeks and and was still good. But did they fire the secondary characters? It's starting to look like THE GOLDEN GIRLS.

Jen from Jersey said...

I didn’t realize that. Every episode ends with a bit of a cliffhanger. They even changed the time slot to 9:30 for the last two episodes.

Gary said...

Regarding the change in the focus of MOM, I think the producers realized (correctly) that the true comedy gold was in the interactions of the women's support group. So they gradually phased out the children, although they do still appear occasionally. Probably the funniest network sitcom currently on the air, from an admittedly weak crop.

Janet said...

Hey, Ken, thanks for answering my question! And Happy belated birthday wishes!

Tyler said...

I agree with Ken's point in his first response, but I think Friends may have been a poor example. In fact, Friends is probably the most serialized sitcom there has ever been. I've even heard it described before as "a soap opera that happens to be funny".

Myles said...

Yep, I've even read an interview or heard a podcast where they made this very clear. They were finding the show that first season and when they found it they faded the kids out. Definitely an amazing show. Glad they were given the chance to find themselves because not every show is as lucky.

Peter J. said...

It's funny to follow a question about status quo sitcoms with a question about a sitcom that's anything but. As Marc Evan Jackson regularly marvels on the podcast for The Good Place, it's the smartest dumbest show on television: the writers aren't afraid to follow an esoteric bon mot about the nobility and fragility of the human species with a literal fart joke, and somehow they get away with both. Looking through the archives, you haven't said a lot about The Good Place, which I find curious given your love of (and, obviously, writing on) smart, funny shows that go past being a series of setup/punchline combos; is it just not your cup of joe, or do you consider it something other than a sitcom (maybe the rare half-hour drama, or *rolls eyes at the term* dramedy)?

Coram_Loci said...

"Comfort food"

Is there any better show that exemplifies comfort food with long lasting (re: syndication) appeal than Three's Company?

It's on.
You sit down.
You watch.
You laugh.
You check on the chicken in the oven and move on with your day.

No heavy "War is Terrible" theme. No grating Julia Sugarbaker "Piece of my mind" soliloquies at the end of each episode. No "Will they or won't they" relationship to follow. Not much thinking; pretty much just laughs. Three's Company is like a refined carbohydrate: an easily digestible quick boost of laugher that can pleasantly be enjoyed in moderation.

Pseudonym said...

Anonymous Dave:

"Rosehaven [...] Put together by two local comedians."

That depends what you mean by "local". Luke McGregor is Tasmanian, but Celia Pacquola is Victorian.

Not that this matters to the show at all, but I just happened to know.

Roger Owen Green said...

Grey's Anatomy and Station 19 are responding to the same wind storm during their respective cliffhangers. Grey's returned in early January, 19 not until March 7. And they have crossover characters.

The Bumble Bee Pendant said...

Coram_Loci, here's to you to mention Three's Company.
Some people mock it, but it's a show that always makes me laugh.
The theme is simple, nothing much goes on. In fact, it's produced much like a play (just a handful of sets).
Except for a rotating 3rd roommate and Mr Furley taking over for the Ropers, Three's Company could be counted on for a non-changing set and situation.
Everybody Love's Raymond is another non-changing set and situation. Except for the addition of Robert's gf/wife Amy, the cast didn't change, and neither did the issues (since they came from real life). Everyone's role in the show stayed forever in place.

Graeme said...

Hi Ken, long time reader, first time caller to the Friday questions... I've been watching season 6 on M*A*S*H (your first as producer and I was curious because it's the first season where they ended the tag scene with a freeze frame and a musical sting, which they did until the end of series. What led to that decision?

Isaac Lin said...

Just a note for Jen from Jersey: The Good Place aired its season finale in January so there won't be any more episodes this season. Networks don't do a lot of re-runs any more, and particularly not for heavily serialized shows.

Unknown said...

Dear Ken,
I used to love your blog, but my gosh... Can we stop conflating "wearing a MAGA hat" with "raaaaaacism"? Pretty please?

I understand that a differing political view is frustrating. The "O" (rising sun) symbol of "Obama" meant a splintering of my healthcare (I have a child who has intractable DAILY SEIZURES), and royally screwed over my family, but I don't conflate people who still sport a crusty "O" sticker on their cars or on a t-shirt with bigotry, stupidity, or (fill in blank with any other stereotype or insult). There were some a-holes who supported Obama, just as there are a-holes who support Trump, sir.

Scapegoating people who truly just want a JOB and for government to GET THE (BLEEP) OUT OF THEIR HEALTHCARE PLAN does not make them racist. Stereotyping and scapegoating a group of people who possess a different view than your own does not make them racist. It's a cheap shot. Is your life really worse off than it was in 2016? Because of Obamacare being rammed through and shoved down my throat, our family (who has never let our healthcare lapse) pays 4X as much in our yearly healthcare deductible, 3x in premiums, and now (because health insurance companies HAVE to take everyone), they've decided they can't afford to cover my son's seizure meds until after we meet our deductible. His seizure meds (which he requires, and there is no generic) used to be about $100/month. Now, they are $1800/mo until the deductible is met. Yep, so, it stands to reason that I'm no fan of Barack Obama's policies. My family makes about $130k per year. I'm a real person who was minding her own business, paying her taxes, working her a$$ off... Has Donald Trump REALLY harmed you or your family?

This is one of the big reasons why Trump won in 2016, and will likely win again in 2020. Demonizing 60 million middle-class American voters isn't enlightened, sir. I love your work, by the way; but please, PLEASE, can you give us a break with the "MAGA hat-wearers are racist!" stuff?

Anonymous said...

Friday question:

Have you listened to Alan Alda's podcast "Clear+Vivid" - the one that reunites him with Loretta Swit, Mike Farrell, Gary Burghoff and Jamie Farr? It's a great listen and 68 minutes of fun!

Craig J.