Friday, January 25, 2008

Hollywood's greatest fear: truth?

My fiancee and I just got finished watching "The TV Set", written by Jake Kasdan. She put it in our Netflix queue because it looked funny, and because I'm toying with becoming a scriptwriter. We both thought that it was an interesting meditation on how a writer's idea for a t.v. series gets pecked to death by ducks, which in this case means that the network executives extract, piece by piece, as much originality and genuine humanity from a television series as they can. Perhaps the defining lines in the movie are uttered by Sigourney Weaver's character: "You can't be too original. Too original scares me." My memory's fading in my old age, so those may not be the exact quotes spoken or subtitled in the film, but the essence of the sentiment is clear: network executives only allow small doses of originality into their schedules.

In one sense, it's understandable, even traditional. Quite a lot of Hollywood's earliest films were based on classic theatrical plays (I don't know how many times Romeo & Juliet has been remade, but it's probably in the hundreds at the minimum... and that's only counting the versions in English...) for the very reason that everyone knew the stories. And even when television first came out, quite a lot of the early stuff was simple and unchallenging fare like comedy variety show acts or big-band shows. (I can't find quick answers to the question online right now; write in with your links and references!)

In another sense, however, it's a sad commentary on the entertainment industry and the audience. I'll not insult any special forces operatives or anyone on "the 100 richest people in the whole wide world" list, but I will say that I don't like to watch television shows about people whose lives are like mine. Worrying about whether to pay the rent or the utilities or the medical bills this month? Been there, done that. Forced to stick to a lousy job working as a subordinate to someone who couldn't find their... uh, coccyx with a map and a compass? Got the t-shirt. Utterly uninterested in attending a high school reunion? Yup. And yet, the vast majority of network television shows right now are built around those very questions.

"Hmmm, is that so?" I felt my cheeks tighten as I matched her gaze. "Let's consider that for a minute. You're afraid of originality outside of a fairly narrow yet poorly-defined comfort zone. Not enough originality and the network's ratings suffer. You're pretty much stuck between a rock and a hard place, aren't you? Your entire thought process focuses on advertising and moving product. You are not concerned with telling a story. You are only concerned with making sure that the viewers Don't Touch That Dial! Even though history clearly shows that original product holds the lion's share of box office profits throughout the lifespan of the movie industry. I'll tell you what: you let me worry about getting the story told and I'll let you worry about marketing it, okay?"

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