Sunday, August 17, 2008

Who put the ass in classic?

I just got feedback on a spec from a well known prodco. Please bear in mind the following is in no way a reflection on the prodco. They are doing what needs to be done.

So they loved the script, but didn't feel they could do anything with it as thanks to Life On Mars [meant ironically] the Broadcasters were only looking at classic genres if they had a massive L.O.M type twist.

Nothing wrong with that. Well, okay one major thing wrong with that. Apparently the perceived wisdom percolating down from the broadcasters is that they will 'only' look at classic genres if they have a massive Life On Mars type twist. That 'only' is the rub.

Now, whether that perception is erroneous or not, it is still there. And if that perception is true, then the Broadcasters are just plain wrong. I'm in no way suggesting my spec is shatteringly brilliant and these fools can't see it, by the way. Way too long in the tooth for that kind of thought process. And I know the person at the prodco enough to know that if my script sucked they would tell me. It's the reasoning that irks.

A huge twist is simply a bait and switch trick. A non recurring phenomenon. You can't build a drama schedule on it. Life On Mars worked, even though the concept of 'is it real or is he in a coma' is a hoary old drama chestnut. It just hadn't been seen on TV for a while and certainly not in series format.
But that was then, and this is now, and if you keep trying to emulate the success of something you end up with a load of pale imitations. The big twist series works if used sparingly. If not you get with what I call the 'Brookside'

A well loved soap garnered a few column inches and ratings with a sensational plotline. Instead of letting it rest, it was decided to try and emulate it in ever more frequent bizarre stories. As a result the audience grew tired as the characters they tuned in for were subjected to more and more unbelievable scenarios. Ratings began to dive and the soap was cancelled. Entertainment is a fickle son'bitch. The audience can smell a stinker quicker than you can write it.

Take a look at 3 of the biggest rating shows on TV. New Tricks, Foyle's War and Doc Martin. None have huge twists. Okay Foyle's War is [was] set in the Forties, but a twist on a classic genre in the vein of Life On Mars? Hardly. High Concept doesn't mean huge twist. New Tricks, Foyle's War and Doc Martin all have High Concepts.

But equally as important, they are well written, well acted dramas. And that is why they are and were ratings hits. Like Inspector Morse or Traffic. The 'let's have the same as the last hit but different' mentality may be okay for the film producer huckster out to make a quick buck. But TV has to be in it for the long term and that 'different and that's it' dog don't hunt with the mainstream TV audience.

It's also telling that a 3 year old series is being referenced as the bar to aim for. That mentality clearly hasn't produced much of note in the intervening years.

But hey, I remember when torture porn was the flavour of the month. This will pass, same as that did. Meanwhile it's hunker down and write. Hopefully what YOU like rather than just what you think MIGHT sell. Chasing an audience rarely works. Chasing what a Broadcaster says it wants is generally even less fruitful.

The spec has just gone to a few more prodcos. It'll be interesting to hear their take.


English Dave said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Good Dog said...

I watched Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy over the weekend and Edge of Darkness the weekend before because, with those long programmes with wanky presenters being snarky about the Chinese are filling the schedules.

Actually, I think even if The Olympics weren't on I'd still have watched them because most of the stuff today is pretty crap.

There are still a few dramas with twists in the tail. Cock Knockers was supposed to be a decent drama but turned out to be mainly shit, which was probably a big surprise to almost everyone.

If twist in the tail stuff is all they want, maybe they should look over the box office returns of M. Night Whatshisface's films. After The Sixth Sense hit big they've pretty much been in decline. And audiences that still go to see them go looking to work out what the big switcheroo reveal is going to be. And that kind of distracts from the story. It's stoopid.

It sounds like the BBC's Drama Traitor is becoming a bigger idjit as the days go by. Why not look for something new and different rather than rest on the laurels of a three year-old drama.

Shame Derek and Clive aren't around today. They'd probably give the best advice, which would be to kick her right in the *cough*.

Stephen Gallagher said...

If you sit by the river for long enough, the body of the latest drama commissioner will float by.

DavidM said...

You would have thought the awfulness of Ashes to Ashes would have put them off seeking a Life-on-Mars-but-not.

Michael said...

I've just had a very similar experience, of the 'it's-good-but-it's not-like-this [insert name of hit show]'. It's *very* frustrating!

English Dave said...

GD - two great series. Both having stories that unfolded with character rather than force fed plot points. I don't think it's a case of 'the good old days' The BEEB weren't chasing ratings then, just concentrating on quality. If they did that a little more now then I think the quality AND ratings would return.

Stephen- Yup, of course the trick is not to starve on the riverbank lol

David - I didn't watch it so can't comment on the programme.

Michael - I recall a story of a famous Hollywood director being subjected to pitching to a new and lowly exec at a studio. Exec opened up with '' So what have you done?'' Director countered with 'You first'

I look at lots of 'execs' and think 'What have you done?' especially after a perusal of the schedules.

But that's the frustration of the biz. And this is how I vent lol
. Stephen's advice is sound. When it's your time it's your time, all you can do is keep doing it.

Anonymous said...

'I don't think it's a case of 'the good old days' The BEEB weren't chasing ratings then, just concentrating on quality. If they did that a little more now then I think the quality AND ratings would return.'

Well said ED.

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