Thursday, November 09, 2006

No Such Thing As A Well Adjusted Slave

When I was an actor, people used to tell me I wasn't "weird" like other actors. I didn't really know what they meant by that. All the actors I knew seemed like completely normal people. Still do. When I switched to the other side of the camera, I was often assigned to deal with "difficult" talent. It was an attitude that silently implied..."You used to be one of them. Maybe you can figure out what they want."

Studio guys often resented the perks stars requested, seeing them as somehow more outlandish than the "poached not broiled white meat only oriental chicken salad, dressing on the side, none of those noodle things and a '85 Chablis very, very chilled" orders they would specify in the commissary. And they could not comprehend how a line they had studiously inserted into a script could be morphed into something else as it made its way through the actor. Didn't matter that the line made the same point or improved on it. Why couldn't these people just do what was expected of them?

Realizing I could never make them understand Abraham Maslow's "Heirarchy of Human Needs", I copped out by tossing off one of his quotes, "There's no such thing as a well adjusted slave."

Most producers could understand that at some level. They knew how little most television actors actually earned, how far apart their work opportunities were and that they endured the harshest rejections and the constant victimization of ever shifting tastes. Yeah, they conceded, that could make anybody a little nuts.

Traditionally, the November Sweeps are the time when new shows are either made or broken. Even those that are doing well don't learn which side of the bubble they're truly on until the first Christmas Carol hits the radio.

Industry pundits and bloggers have spent the last six or eight weeks dissecting the candidates and the audience response, trying to define the paradigm that explains the season. Although they all ascribe to the adage that "Nobody knows Anything", everybody still has a theory -- make that a well reasoned thesis -- on why "Studio 60" isn't clicking, "Friday Night Lights" hasn't got an audience, "Jericho" has an audience or how any idiot could have seen that "Smith" wouldn't work while "Shark" would.

Over at Ken Levine's wonderful blog that's evolved/degenerated into a comment string where the sitcom is dying because none of the idiot suits know the first thing about funny.

To which I reply, "There's no such thing as a well adjusted slave."

I doubt there has ever been a season where all the good shows succeeded and all the bad ones failed. I'm just as sure the reverse has not been true. Yet somehow we believe that assessing the outcome and laying the blame on one network decision or another explains things.

It can't.

I've watched countless innovative, creative, can't fail series with a dream time slot and talented stars disappear in a heartbeat, while ones I'll never get are packaging their 7th season on DVD.

There's a free radical at work here that's known as "Life". With the millions of people being programmed to with their millions of personal priorities, daily schedules and varying levels of taste, nothing will appeal to most of them and some things will appeal to none of them.

Yet we continue this rending of the entrails for clues to what is working and what we should therefore be working on next.

Think of the TV season that's currently upon us and put yourself in the place of the network drones who put those shows on the air. Oh, I can trade you "idiot exec" and "stupid note" stories til the cows come home. I can completely relate to any anecdote you've got about the VP who couldn't comprehend either your brilliance or your talent. I fully share your insatiable appetite for external validation.

But so do they.

And in whatever circle of hell I'm destined to land, I pray it does not include having to do their job. I mean, most dogs seem to like me. I can't be that bad.

I've had the pleasure of working with development executives who loved my show even more than I did. And I've survived the misery of working with those who couldn't give a damn. Some of each group earned their way into the executive suite, and several on each side failed their way in that same door. The difference for me is how much they cared about what they were doing. For the least helpful, dealing with my show was just part of their job. But even the ones who don't care would rather have a show succeed than fail.

Hunter Thompson's television hallways where "Good men die like dogs" (a quote we creative types always assume means us) are also littered with the career corpses of executives who tried to get stories about cigarettes on "60 Minutes", didn't back down from Senator McCarthy and championed "EZ Streets". The guys who fought to bring you "Lost" and "Desperate Housewives" were unceremoniously fired before those series premiered -- utterly obliterated the competition -- and changed the face of 21st century television; or at least what was ordered the following season.

What these network people achieve depends as much on timing and dumb luck as what we do. They are at the mercy of more current events and influences changing public taste than anyone can measure. Imagine how popular "Lost" would have been had it debuted its plane crash in the weeks after 9/11. Envision "Grey's Anatomy" with a Nick Lachey as Dr. McDreamy. Imagine "CSI: Miami" written with dialogue real people actually say.

All of those situations are completely plausible. Consider how differently you would view the end product of the network choices under those conditions.

The people in network offices don't get a lot of what we do and they mostly don't get us. They make the bizarre decisions we think they make because they have a whole different set of priorities.

They are overwhelmed by the demands of pressure groups, affiliate needs, shareholder earnings and the fact that Dominoe's has suddenly moved their 2 for 1 pizza deal to Friday and now everybody wants something to stay home and watch on that night instead of Thursday. The good ones will try to work out the disconnects. The bad ones just want to make it through the day and go home.

Understanding those pressures won't get your script made. But it'll keep you from feeling that idiots run your lives. Those idiots run the network execs lives too. We're all working on Maggie's farm...

There's no such thing as a well adjusted slave.


ME said...

Everyone is someone's monkey.

Piers said...

Excellent post, sir.

Sign me up to the Legion.

English Dave said...

It would be nice to think that a great relationship with an Exec meant a great show.

Ignorance isn't the same as stubborness. I'd rather have a stubborn Exec than an ignorant one. And I'm sure they feel the same way. I have a gut feeling that the shows that were most fought over be it writer/exec exec/ network, are possibly the most succesful.

Networks want to play safe. Discord means less than safe. Discord can be good.

ED's theory of something...

wcdixon said...

There's something to all this...for all of our bitching, I still contest that no one wants to make a bad show - writers, creators, execs, and networks alike. Now a bad show and a show that everyone watches can be one and the same. But it speaks to the differing agendas of writer/creators and the execs/networks.