After I’d temporarily neglected my Netflix queue, two unexpected discs recently showed up in my mailbox: one, the first four episodes of a highly recommended television show; one a ten-year-old movie that I’m still not sure exactly how it made its way onto my list at all.
The TV show was “Friday Night Lights,” and after ignoring it for several days, I finally popped in the pilot, and was utterly transfixed by a near-perfect composition of beauty, drama, pathos, and representation of the human spirit unfolding on my screen.
The movie, something called Lovelife, was significantly lower in quality. I’m guessing that it caught my attention thanks to the presence of Peter Krause; but the part he played was brief and thin, a one-dimensional sidekick to one of the six central characters. Certainly nothing comparable to the work he’s done on “Sports Night,” “Six Feet Under,” or “Dirty, Sexy Money.” If I weren’t writing about this film, it would fade completely from my memory within a short period of time, and even devoting this additional focus to it, I wouldn’t be surprised if it still does. It wasn’t that the movie was bad, it was just average.
Lovelife takes place in a graduate English program, and one of the characters, a professor with overblown literary pretensions, demeans the TV writing course his girlfriend wants to take. “You may as well take welding,” he sniffs, expressing the common disdain that writers in other genres –- film most definitely included –- display toward their counterparts who write for television.
I couldn’t help but keep this line of dialogue in mind as I compared this trifling movie with the highly superiority of the “Friday Night Lights” pilot (or the next three episodes, which I obsessively devoured with just as much enthusiasm). Now, I realize that comparing a critically adored 2006 show to a minor throwaway flick from 1997 is unfair, but it underscores an undeniable point: the best writing in Hollywood is happening on the small screen, not the large.
Think about it: sure, the networks clog their schedules with the inane broad comedy and the formulaic procedural, but sprinkled among all the “Criminal Law Investigation Units” and the “She May Be Hot, I May Be Fat, but I Still Despise My Wife,” are smart, funny, thought-provoking television shows that deliver season-long, multi-character arcs while still satisfying on a weekly basis.
A movie script must only keep our attention for two hours, while the average drama series has to carry momentum for approximately twenty-four, in most cases cobbling together a seamless storyline from the work of several voices, and doing so under strict time constraints. Even the soapiest shows on television -– “Gossip Girl,” “Private Practice,” Desperate Housewives” –- are well-written, bringing sharp humor, human pathos, and biting social commentary on a weekly basis to a harsh and judgmental audience.
When we complain about the off seasons of our favorite television shows, it’s only because those same shows have raised the bar so high. We’ve seen what “Heroes” and “24” and “The Office” and “Lost” and “Nip/Tuck” and countless others can be at their best: focused, dramatic, imaginative, and shockingly real all at once.
Over the past several years, as frequent readers of my columns know, my dance with television product has become close to obsessive. And as the number of shows on my TiVo season pass has grown, my movie attendance has likewise waned. I cannot even tell you the last film I saw in a theatre. (It may have been the latest Pirate movie, or the Ocean one.) I’m looking forward to exactly two movies this Oscar-rich season, one because it’s based on a book I loved; the other because I heard the writing is exceptional. Even my Netflix queue is dominated by scripted television (“Farscape,” “Dexter,” the next five discs of “Friday Night Lights,”), as the number of movies I feel as if I missed has shrunk.
I watch “Ugly Betty” because the writers of that show have somehow mastered the mix between catty and sweet, sharp and sensitive; they can produce outrageous humor like no one else and then the soundtrack changes and suddenly we’re immersed in deep, heavy drama. I watch “Heroes” for the same reason I watch “Lost:” because both those shows makes you care about a dozen characters, wraps a narrative chain around them and pulls them through an overarching mystery while, at their best, still delivering enough storyline each week to keep me intrigued. I watch “Supernatural” because once a week, I like getting the crap scared out of me. I watch “Brothers and Sisters” and “Private Practice” because twice a week, I like to cry about people in situations that are utterly fictional, and no one can manipulate family pathos like Greg Berlanti or medical drama like Shonda Rhimes. And when it returns in 2008, I’ll watch “Battlestar Galactica” for the same reason I watched “Buffy” and “Veronica Mars” -– because by relishing the perfect blend of character and plot, by appreciating the way a dramatic flashback enhances storyline, by understanding how an extraordinary script can inspire passion and emotion makes me a better fiction writer.
And it is exactly because television writing has become such a valuable commodity that the current Writers Guild of America strike is so troubling. Movies are so long in production, any fallout from the lack of product coming from film writers won’t be experienced for several months, even years. But with primetime dramas and comedies, the audience will experience the effects of the strike almost immediately: most of the shows on the networks’ fall lineup have between 2-6 episodes filmed, and then after that, we’re back to watching Meredith sink back down into depression and Hiro wander around feudal Japan. (We’ve already begun to see the rerun effect dominate the late-night talk shows and sketch comedies; Jon Stewart and Jay Leno are among the many hosts who won’t film without their writers, while this week "Saturday Night Live" shelved the Rock for yet another repeat from a season that’s so far been slim, both in number of episodes made and level of actual comedy produced.)
There’s a stable of writers I’ve followed from show to show, and it pisses me off to no end to think that Diane Ruggerio, Jane Espenson, Rebecca Kirshner, Drew Goddard, Rina Mimoun, John Enbom, and Phil Klemmer, just to name a few, are not doing what they do best, which is deliver high-quality writing, because the fat cats in Hollywood won’t sacrifice two-thirds of a cent from the profits of work that originally sprang from their laptops. I’m not saying that either side handled the negotiations leading up to the strike well, and you’d think an organization representing writers would have a better PR department and some skill at getting their points across to the press. But the bottom line is, the Hollywood writers aren’t asking for anything drastic, or anything bound to make the slightest difference financially to the major conglomerates who profit off our culture’s willingness to devote a chunk of our income to entertainment.
The writers of the scripted works we consume certainly deserve a small share of that pie. And if the moneymakers don’t concede that point, the television landscape is about to get a whole lot darker.
Originally from Boston, Michelle is a writer, editor, instructor, obsessive sports fan, loud talker, quick laugher, new mom, and chances are, she watches more television than you do. Follow her on Twitter at michellevoneuw
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11.12.07 @ 6:23a
Ah, but isn't this the way of most "creative" professions? People who don't understand the process or, worse, used to be part of the process themselves, are put into positions of management and greed takes over.
Yes, it may be entertainment, but the thousands of people employed by the industry are just as reliant on their jobs as an auto worker, or an energy company. So the strike hurts them, too.
11.12.07 @ 12:47p
Here in Southern California the PRA machine, plus support by SAG and other unions, is getting the message across to the public. Most of the people I talk to (and they are outside of the entertainment industry) are on the writers' side of the disagreement.
One of my friends is a former child and teen actor. He is very sympathetic. He commented that he is still getting residuals on things he performed in 50-60 years ago and that includes residuals from videotape and DVD sales. He can't understand why the writers don't get the same consideration from the industry.
Everyone here hopes that the strike ends quickly because not only is there an impact on TV shows, the whole economy in So Cal is taking a hit. There's a ripple effect that is puttting actors and craft people out of work and reducing their buying power overall during the busy holiday season. Nonetheless, most people wish the writers well.
11.12.07 @ 12:54p
As a TV addict, I'm right there with you. I support the writers, but my DVR's gonna get lonely.
I do have to add that as someone who has to watch TV and write goofy multiple-choice questions every time Homer mentions or shows a product, I'm thrilled that there will be more reruns soon. Though my paychek may take a hit, it's been really nice, already, not having to stay late for Leno.
And I'm reminded of a joke I recently read:
How can you tell the dumbest actress on a movie set?
She's the one sleeping with the writer.
11.13.07 @ 9:30p
I'm not much of a TV person. Or wait... I do watch it, only I prefer to watch it on DVD, which lets me miss these strikes and their effects altogether.
As an aspiring writer, however, I feel that writers should get their dues, because if it weren't for them, there would be no shows on TV, or DVD! So...
I signed this petition, and hope you guys will, too... if you haven't already, of course.
11.14.07 @ 11:40p
I'm guessing the greed of those who get the biggest chunk from DVDs will cause them to eventually give and give the writers a cent or two more, but in return they will raise the price of the DVDs so they don't lose a penny of their profit.