Friday, June 21, 2013

The Elusive Big Question...

My goal is to write a TV series. One of those 22 minute shows that get people addicted, like Californication, House of Lies, and Orphan Black.

Californication and House of Lies are both American productions on Showtime in the genre drama/black comedy. Showtime in fact seems to have perfected its formula, although I have to say the closing of the second season of House of Lies felt forced and inauthentic. Orphan Black is a sci-fi thriller and because it’s a BBC America production I had assumed it was British, but in the show they reference New York (which you never see), and characters appear from Minneapolis in fairly short shrift i.e. not the time it takes to cross the Atlantic. The characters’ accents, though location neutral, are English… at least to my ear. Where the show takes place is unclear and somewhat of an irritant. Here’s my surprise for the day, BBC America is based in New York. AND, Orphan Black is shot in Toronto. AND, the cast is Canadian.

In a casual survey of my family in Scotland, I learned that they watch American shows, but they have no idea what channels or studios produces them. My nephew watches Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead, while his wife watches Dexter, Vampire Diaries and True Blood. My sister watches Criminal Minds, Family Guy, The Following, and Mad Men. Again, she is not channel aware. And here’s something I find interesting, her husband, a taxi-driver, downloads “a lot” of shows so he can view them in the car.

So my question of, “do British shows translate in the U.S. and vice versa?” is clearly yes. Here’s another question, did BBC America deliberately keep location and cast country-neutral?

Picking up on my nephew and his wife’s different tastes, I notice that my friends and their husbands go to different rooms in the house to watch their own shows. Rarely is there a crossover. For example, he likes The Walking Dead (as does their 12-year daughter), Game of Thrones, and various other reality shows like Pickers, Pawn Shop, etc. She watches The Good Wife, Californication, House of Lies, and Luther.

Since I’ve always considered TV viewing as a community activity i.e. the family sits around and watches a show together, I’ve never asked the question of whether TV execs create shows targeted at different audience segments in the way the film industry does, other than the obvious kids, teens, adults segmentation. So when it comes to writing, do I chose my target audience based on gender rather than nationality, which may be more of a relevant question.

In the way that a fellow student wants to quantify the “fear” factor, I want to identify the “crack” factor, which I’ve distilled down to the “shock” factor, as in “did s/he really just say that?” Viewers of Sex and The City will never forget when Carrie admits that she farted while having sex, or had the first discussion of anal sex we’ve ever seen on TV. This week, we mourn the passing of James Gandolfini, who played Tony Soprano, in The Sopranos, the number one television show of all time. Who ever heard of a mobster going to a shrink? We love our characters wrought with angst.

So for my TV show what angst can I wring up that hasn’t been seen or done before? I have this idea about exploring religious beliefs in the setting of a dive bar, kind of like a priest, a rabbi and a monk walk into a bar… except not that obvious. I want it wrapped in dark humor. I want it to open people's eyes to other points of view.

Should I be researching what is it about religion that touches people’s nerve points? Are Catholics shocked by different things than Muslims or Jews? My guess is yes, but I'm happy to be wrong. Is their humor different? My guess is no, but I'm happy to be wrong. Is this what I should be researching? If so, how? I could talk to a priest, a monk and a rabbi and get their take on things. I can talk to muslims, monks and Catholics and get their take on things... and write it all up in a paper… or just, maybe, I can create a YouTube Channel with different religious content from around the world and invite commentary. Or… ????

Suggestions, please? Thank you:)



    Hey Lorraine, I feel that I have been a bit rude to read the comments you have made about my 3 questions and not reciprocated, however I feel a deep sense of irony in commenting here simply because it is nearly 8 years and well over 7 that I have not watched TV. This is not an exaggeration and while I own two pristine 51 inch flat panel TVs, broadcast TV hasn't been a part of my life for close to a decade. The concept of this, my mother (80) for example, cannot fathom. She says things like, "but on the news the other night, you must have seen about the horrible murder..." and VERY VERY tired of saying it now, but say all the same "Mum I don't watch TV." But she doesn't get it.

  2. PART 2.

    But anyway, onto your questions, I am struggling to see what you want answered. Is it the concept of three religions making jibes about each others practices? Yes, I see great scope for humor there, but I have to stop you when you refer to the monk as having a religion, no offence taken, but Buddhism is a faith and not a religion. Absolutely Judaism and Catholicism are religions. This is dangerous ground as well. Must say half of the TV shows you reference I have never heard of. A few things I'd like to share,.. Mel Gibson was drunk and insulted the Jews, he ruined his career with one drunken rambling. Billy Connolly made fun of a hostage by saying "just shoot the guy", the next day he was shot, he also ruined his career with that joke. Tommy Tiernan (you might not have heard of) made fun of the Jews on the brink of a sell out tour of the US, the tour was cancelled. But heck, when Brian (Life of Brian) is dying on the cross and they all burst into song "Always look on the bright side of life," it is hilarious. I think you need to tread very carefully and do a lot of research into who you make fun of. My Buddhist mentor takes the piss out of Buddhism all the time, this is a pretty safe one to make fun of. I find the Dali Lama hilarious in some of the antics he gets up to. Salman Rushdie wrote about the Muslims a couple of decades ago and now spends the rest of his life in hiding. So you must narrow it down. Is it fair to make fun of safe faiths such as Buddhism but exclude radical religions such as Islam and even not so radical Jews? OK, what Hitler did was horrendous, but I get the feeling that Jews are over-sensitive and think they are put upon all the time, they are not. Come on, who controls Hollywood? I saw a post by a young Palestinian wannabe terrorist threatening to "leave Taiwan in dust" and was gob smacked when I saw Emma Watson is one of his 8 friends. He has his Facebook page set up so that no one can leave comments, and I was infuriated not to be able to directly tell him what he thought of him, however what the Jews are doing to the innocent and non-violent portion of Palestinians is horrendous. So why is it safer to make fun of Christians and Buddhists? Well to answer my own question, personally I think the 2 feature a lot more love and forgiveness in their different teachings. However you just stick to the safe stuff and I think it will not have the same impact. So, you need to be a brilliant writer to be able to walk across that minefield blindfolded without irritating people, and not just once, but over and over because this is a TV show and you want it to run for several seasons AND finish on a high note, don't let it run out of gags and die a slow death until it gets cancelled, if you feel you are running on empty, stop immediately. Way back in the day, when TV did factor in my life, I hated shows that Petered out. Look at that old show "The Life and Times of Grisly Adams", it's a childhood favorite of mine, and many people have sentimental recollections about it, but it only ran for 1 season. Unfortunately from what I recall, it wasn't that they wanted to kill it in its prime, it was more a matter of they weren't sure about the ratings, then it made so much money in reruns that I guess the producers where kicking themselves in the butt.

  3. PART 3.

    If you can, I'd like you to show me a sample of what you have written for the pilot and I will give you my honest feedback, TV or not, we both have experience writing. Can you play dodge ball with the Jews? Or even go further (I would) and make fun of the Muslims. I guess what I am saying is that you need to write the pilot first before writing the whole show. I won't insult you, but if the gags flop, I'll tell you so. If I can see where you want to go, but you have not quite got there, I can always throw in a few suggestions. Tiska and Elliot would probably kill me for suggesting this, but The Professional Program in Screenwriting at UCLA is fantastic. And I think they run a similar program in TV writing. But heck, maybe you are good enough not to need that kind of bouncing ideas off each others' heads along with a mentor, maybe you are there already. I honestly don't know, because it boils down to - I have not read your work.

    I hope some of this helps.

  4. Whilst I concur with David that Life of Brian remains one of the shining beacons of religion related comedy, there is also the much lesser know Father Ted TV series whose success in the US I am not sure of now. But I am more interested in your observation about viewer fragmentation and what that means for you as an emerging writer, even though the case studies you mention are pretty adult and could hardly be classified as family viewing, and likewise the religious background to your project woud benefit from being developed for a well defined audience. Indeed uniting audiences is getting harder and Pixar has been widely celebrated for getting this right on the big screen. I am sure you can learn something from that, and their procedures that are quite well documented.

    I wonder if anybody tried to use one story world but tell different stories /pov's for different devices / platforms, so people have to watch them all, or talk to each other to find out what happened on the other strand?

  5. Hi Lorraine,
    RE: Writing of a TV series.
    From your examples, I think you're looking at very elite company.
    As much as some of these shows have pushed and even broken boundaries I think their success and continued relevance even after completing their run is their narrative (how they tell their stories) and commentary (what they said about those boundaries and other issues). I think that Carl's mention regarding Pixar is especially interesting. I recently read an article where the writer was listing relatively valid, general criticisms about Pixar movies, he accepted that they have made some of the most profound and entertaining movies for all generations. One of his explanations for this is that Pixar is all story and moments with limited character development and layering. This maybe an angle that you can practically look at within your MA as well, especially since it seems you`ll be looking at potentially pushing boundaries. Would you be more successful at doing that because the story`s so engrossing, the audience tends to ignore/forgive any controversy (Mad Men). Or are you better served by deep characters that audiences are so invested with they'll accept whatever they're opinionated about (House of Lies, Dexter).

    RE: Touching Nerve Points
    My opinion on how far you can push boundaries is based on the premise that you draw your viewers in and the unwritten contract that's made between you and your audience. I think that House of Cards is a great example of this. Within the first 5 minutes, Kevin Spacey's character and the extent of where the show would be willing to take you is pretty much summed up by his monologue while standing over the dog and carried out at the end of the season.

    So how would you draw in your audience?
    And how will you establish your contract, before beginning to push boundaries.
    And maybe at what point do you break that contract by pushing to far?

    The last one makes me think of Game of Thrones. I read the books and was somewhat horrified. I should have known better knowing George R.R. Martin's other works, but had set myself up for enjoying a fantasy story filled with heroism, not the bloodbath that ensued. So, I never had much interest in watching the TV show, but gave it a chance due to its popularity. I had felt that the violence and horror was largely minimalized compared to what I read in the books. Beyond the still high threshold for TV sex and horror in the show, I think the general audience were largely captured by the Lord of the Ring -esque fantasy, and medieval pageantry. Then came the very recent and controversial "Red Wedding" episode. Not surprising to me because it was faithful to the book, reviews everywhere spoke of how the episode left people "stunned, numb, nauseous, and traumatized". It pushed the boundary too far, and I think for many viewers it broke the contract like the books did for me. Whether that means they will lose viewership, time will tell, maybe another interesting case study for you.
    And, if they do lose viewership, will they promise to not go that far again in hopes of brining the audiences back?