Tuesday, January 16, 2007

The TV Spec Script: 1

When you arrive in LA, the general assumption is that - if you're a writer - you are interested in only two things.

Movies - and - Television.

Of course, I'm interested in more - like theatre and advertising (am I schitzo or what?) - but, I still get the look from anyone and everyone who is just meeting me, or considering me for a job. It's a look that says, I know why you're really here - you want to be a famous well-paid writer of good movies and interesting tv shows.

The silent conversation between the eyeballs continues:

My eyes say: Um, well, yes, of course, who wouldn't?
Their eyes say: Yeah, yeah, you think you're a hot shot, don't you?
My eyes say: Not exactly, I'm just you know trying to learn.
Their eyes say: You're just like a million other people. And chances are you'll disappear just like them.
And my eyes say: You know, I'm just trying here. I'm really not copping an attitude. I just...

And so on.

Eventually actual words are spoken and those words are: Do you have a spec script?

My answer is: I have three movie scripts and no TV scripts.

There are several very logical reasons for this lopsideness.

The first is, I LOVE MOVIES. I mean, really, there is just nothing better than making a date of disappearing into a chair in the darkness with a few hundred other souls and giving it up for sound and light arranged to passionately tell a story.

The second is, when you write a spec movie script you might have to follow some formulas and formats but the characters and story are all yours: You're not beholden to anything before you in that way.

Not so for TV. Here the spec needs to demonstrate an understanding and mastery of the rules, a knowledge of all that's gone before, plus your own flair for writing.

The third is, I have never watched much TV.

Simply put, I've been a very active boy and really never made time for it. Why should I have? Frankly speaking, the television shows of my generation (DALLAS, MAGNUM PI, CHARLIES ANGELS, LOVE BOAT, CANNON, COLUMBO), well, they were never truthful about anything. Just contrived and fake, fake, fake all the way through. Consequently, they sucked. There were exceptions - I liked Star Trek for it's wooden directness, for instance. And the Roseanne Show. But I simply don't get the love people carry like a credential for most of the television programming of the 70s and 80s. Even the sitcoms I hated for their over-written-ness and their slavish schtickyness. Every once in a while Newhart had something - but it was in the pause, not the words. And then, the laugh tracks. Don't get me started...

It was not until the 90s that televsion began to look like anything interesting to me. I still recall seeing Law & Order for the first time and being fascinated with riding a story through the justice system's digestive track. I couldn't get enough.

My attraction to TV got another bump with The Sopranos, Deadwood and 6 Feet Under - and finally The Shield, The Wire and now Rome and Friday Night Lights (the best and most truthful drama on a network).

And so, being tired of saying that I don't have a TV spec - and knowing that TV by far employs more writers than movies do - I have decided to throw my hat into the ring.

To that end I have done two things. The first started when I got here: Regular visits to the WGA to read TV scripts.

And I have to say, I've been greatly relieved to find I LIKE READING THESE STUPID THINGS.

In fact, I only wish I'd started earlier. You see, a good TV script flies by like a good pulp novel. It's direct and informal at once. Always economical and has a tremendous sense of pacing.

My particular favorites have been episodes of HOUSE and MEDIUM. Both have very simple A/B story structures and crystal clear lead characters.

HOUSE is great and I've got a lot respect for its writers. I believe you actually have to know medicine to write it. To me, anyway, no episode has ever read as if the technical crap was just dressing. To the contrary, knowledge of it drives the action as much or more than the soap opera relationships happening around events.

MEDIUM, however, is a show I prefer because it is actually a show about the social change that has occured in the two income household throughout America. Allison Dubois has all the responsibilities usually associated with the male's role in the house. She has the star job. She protects her family. She provides leadership.

While her husband, a rocket scientist, is almost always a step behind. If not more.

Yet no one is dumb. And more to the point, despite the absurdity of the hook, the show balances the right amount of skepticism and evidence to be something you can swallow. (Most of the time.)

So which one am I going to try my hand at first?

MEDIUM, of course.

Plus Arquette looks eerie.

And eerie is always good.

NEXT: I take a UCLA extension course for Dramatic Writing and start an outline. OOOF.


Mark said...

Yeah, I've never gotten the excessive celebration for bad old television shows either. For years I never watched television at all, which is why I've been surprised to discover in recent years how many shows there are that I actually like.

It was Netflix that did it. I've never liked having to commit to watching a certain show at a certain time with mind-numbing commercials. But as people started to really talk about different shows, I gave them a try on disc and now enjoy making my way through entire series (currently, I'm working on Six Feet Under).

It's pretty shocking to me, actually, and I still feel somewhat weird about it.

malachy walsh said...

Seeing a whole season really is the way to do it.

What's particularly shocking to me is how good television has gotten as a result of The Sopranos - I mean, love it or hate it, it has completely changed the landscape and range of material available to writers for exploration.

Obviously, I love the HBO shows (The Wire, Rome, etc).

Then there's HUFF and DEXTER. Man.

The networks have a harder row to hoe since their audience is much larger and thus the shows have to please more people at once with less offense.

Still, among them is greatness: Friday Night Lights would be my arguement for for that - a drama with a huge social panorama to draw from and drill into with high stakes.

I like too that it isn't in a court of law or a hospital.

Heroes is very interesting as well. And as much as I hate to admit it, the first year of LOST is amazing.

That's what I think anyway.

joe said...

you know i love the MEDIUM. i can't help it. i just do.

and i love the idea of tv. i just wish that it was used to its fullest potential.

Jeff said...

Malachy, I totally agree that the TV shows of yore sucked hard (the Trek excepted, of course) compared to today's offerings. I love The Wire, Sopranos, Six Feet Under, even Entourage is pretty good. I'm also a big fan of Battlestar Galactica and I LOVED Firefly. Even reality TV has my attention with shows like Idol and Top Chef. I confess I have not watched Medium or Friday Night Lights. I'll have to check 'em out. Quick thought: could you combine your love of movies and their cleaner canvass with TV's lower barriers and write a pilot for a new series? For my money, the world is woefully short of good sci-fi, which seems absurd given technology's rise in our culture.

Malachy Walsh said...

Jeff -

I'd love to write a pilot - and I'm working up a few ideas now. But none of them are for sci-fi's. Though I read a lot of sci-fi when I was a kid, I didn't keep up with it when I got older...

Too bad. Those things seem to get made.