Wednesday, March 16, 2005

Wednesday Dweebing Trois - TV


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'West Wing' returns; 'Watch' cloudy
"The West Wing" is coming back for a seventh term on NBC, sources said.EDITOR’S NOTE: YIPPY SKIPPY!!!! The fate of another NBC drama from the John Wells Prods./Warner Bros. TV stable, "Third Watch," is less certain as the network heads into the homestretch of pilot development for the 2005-06 season. Sources said the show is considered a long shot to be renewed, but the decision will hinge on how many new shows NBC picks up in the spring for its fall lineup. Reps for NBC and Warner Bros. declined comment on "West Wing" and "Third Watch."

Now that NBC has exercised its option to pick up another 22 episodes of "West Wing," the Emmy-winning White House drama is poised to undergo a regime change after centering on Martin Sheen as President Josiah Bartlet since its debut in 1999. Much of the story line this season has centered on the campaigning between two powerful lawmakers -- played by Alan Alda and Jimmy Smits -- one of whom will presumably win the election by season's end. EDITOR’S NOTE: I KNOW PURISTS DISMISS ANY EPISODES POST-AARON SORKIN, BUT I LOVE THIS CAMPAIGN SEASON SEASON. AND JIMMY SMITS IS WONDERFUL. (SUE ME; I’M NOT DEEP, BUT I’M CUTE?)

Hollywood bug bites cable news nets
A new crop of cable news shows is going Hollywood. MSNBC recently launched two weekend programs, "MSNBC at the Movies" and the "MSNBC Entertainment Hot List." CNN Headline News will debut a daily one-hour show called "Showbiz Tonigh” that is a centerpiece of the channel's primetime makeover. And in August, ESPN2 will spend a half-hour daily exploring the connections between the entertainment and sports world. EDITOR’S NOTE: MORE STUFF I DON’T HAVE TIME TO WATCH. GOODY.

Anxious to See How It Ends? So Are the Writers.
A few weeks ago, over eggs and turkey sausage on Sunset Boulevard, two young television writers talked shop about their network hits, until a phone call from the Hawaiian set of "Lost" demanded Damon Lindelof's attention. Josh Schwartz, the creator of "The O.C.," could guess the problem.

"To myself, I'm thinking, 'Script supervisor calling, actor doesn't want to say a line,' " Mr. Schwartz said, comparing Mr. Lindelof's call to the chaos in his life one year earlier. Back then, an actor on "The O.C." insisted he could no longer appear villainous, throwing a hastily written finale into disrepair. "And Damon answers the phone and goes: 'Hello? Unhh! What line won't he say?' " Mr. Schwartz recalled. EDITOR’S NOTE: ACTORS! (CAN’T THEY BEAT THEM WITH STICKS OR SOMETHING?)

"Lost" and "The O.C.," along with "24" and "Desperate Housewives," are high-profile serials with substantial, devoted audiences, but no one - not writers, not network executives and not viewers - knows exactly how they will end their seasons. Their writers, like others in Hollywood, are trying to devise the perfect season finale - with little time to spare.

According to interviews with writers from all four shows, their finales are unshot, and mostly unwritten.

"The monster of production is at your back; you're writing closer and closer to deadline," said Mr. Lindelof, the "Lost" writer, who compared his mind-set to that of a marathoner who learns at Mile 15 that the race has been extended by two miles.

Mr. Lindelof listed his show's many leaps into the unknown: a locked hatch on the jungle floor, a marauding polar bear, an man-eating monster and more survivors from a previous plane crash.

As adept as the writers, led by Mr. Lindelof and the "Alias" creator J. J. Abrams, have been at adding new mysteries, they now must subtract some. There's a hard-to-quantify moment when an audience stops feeling tantalized and starts feeling manipulated. EDITOR'S NOTE: AND I'M NOT ANY WHERE NEAR THERE YET!

Mr. Lindelof committed to killing off a series regular by season's end; also by that point, the raft that some castaways have been building will have set sail, he said. But just who will live or die has always been a problem for this writing staff. "In the original pilot, Matthew Fox's character died halfway through," Mr. Lindelof explained. "We made him a real living, breathing, three-dimensional guy, so that his death would be shocking. And what happened was people, ourselves included as writers, said, 'Wow, I kind of don't want to kill this guy off anymore.' " The writers enjoyed the options for this character, Jack Shepherd, a doctor who could treat fellow castaways.

Then, as "Lost" writers created glimpses each of 14 characters' pre-crash histories, other survivors won immunity. "Over the year, there were plans to kill off more characters that were abandoned," Mr. Lindelof said. EDITOR’S NOTE: I DON’T WANT TO LOSE ANY OF THEM. SNIFFLE. (AND I WANT THE OLD BLACK LADY BACK. I MISS HER!)

Another serialized drama, "24," helped make audiences comfortable with such unconventional storytelling. But unlike the nonlinear format of "Lost," "24" is fastidiously linear, with each episode detailing an hour in a very eventful day of an antiterrorism agent. That poses unusual writing problems, which demand extra time and brainpower to solve. "On any other show on TV and any other movie, you put a guy on a plane in Los Angeles and you want to get him to New York, you can have him in New York in the next scene," said Robert Cochran, one of the show's creators. "On our show, he's on that plane for five episodes." EDITOR'S NOTE: IT'S A GOOD THING THEY NEVER GOT SMELL-O-VISION OFF THE GROUND, SINCE THOSE "24" FOLKS ARE IN THE SAME CLOTHES FOR 24 EPS!

With the structure of "24" bound by time restrictions on paper, Mr. Cochran wanted fewer such restrictions in the real world. After the network ordered the first full season of "24," the writers presented a huge map of the entire first season. The blueprint, however, didn't endure.

"We used to obsess over that in Year 1," Mr. Cochran said. "You know, Oh, God, let's story out as many episodes as we can. We always got in a lot of trouble with that because if you try it, you end up locking yourselves into things that don't really work and it gets really contrived." EDITOR’S NOTE: IF IT WEREN’T FOR CONTRIVANCE, “24” WOULD ONLY HAVE BEEN ONE HOUR LONG.

After his four seasons of "24," Mr. Cochran endorses the same approach: save big decisions till the end of the season. The writers and the audience, he insists, will then enjoy the benefits of a looser process. "At the beginning of the season, we certainly don't know," he said. "Halfway through, we certainly don't know. As we're writing episode 16 or 17, we start thinking in a very general sort of way, where we'd like to end the season."

Gail Berman, president of Fox Entertainment, said: "You have some idea of what's going to happen, but you just don't know exactly. And sometimes a character will pop and that will take things in a new direction, or a storyline will pop and that takes things in another direction."

Ms. Berman and her counterpart at ABC, Steve McPherson, each demand some sense of the show's arcs, which are often presented in packages of six or eight episodes that forecast a character's fate or a mystery's resolution. But both executives have learned to "respect the creative process," as the buzz-phrase goes, trusting that writerly intuition will flourish with looser deadlines and less intrusion. EDITOR’S NOTE: WOW. WHAT A CONCEPT, EH?

Pressed by reporters in January, Mr. McPherson admitted he didn't know how Mr. Abrams, a co-creator for "Lost," would end the season, nor did he care if the season's conclusion, at that point, was murky even to the writer himself. "I think it would be fun if he didn't know," Mr. McPherson said. EDITOR’S NOTE: HE MIGHT NOT KNOW THE ENDING, BUT HE SURE SEEMS TO KNOW THE INTRICACIES OF THE MIDDLE. SO VERY MANY THINGS ARE LINKED ALREADY, THERE MUST BE SOME SORT OF GUIDING PLAN.

Mr. McPherson's embrace of the unknown is brave. ABC and Fox are neck-and-neck in a race for No. 2 in the ratings, behind CBS, and the outcome could turn on the handful of dramas, including "Lost" and "Desperate Housewives," that are the seismic hits of the season.

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The writers of "Desperate Housewives" are creating their highly anticipated finale only now because they have already used ideas they meant to save for later. The entire series began with a death, the suicide of the show's narrator, Mary Alice, and her motivation for killing herself became the series' driving mystery. Right away, the show's creator, Marc Cherry, proved unafraid to spill even more blood. Martha Huber, Wisteria Lane's nosey blackmailing neighbor, was murdered in the seventh episode in a twist that couldn't wait.

Now the writers of "Desperate Housewives" are proving slaves to their own demanding invention: their fast-paced script format includes about 60 scenes of 2 pages each per episode. Other hourlong dramas average 35 scenes or so of 5-page scenes, according to Tom Spezialy, one of the series' executive producers.

The show's concept blends so many genres - romantic comedy, family drama, murder mystery, soap opera - Mr. Cherry and his nine other writers "must feed the beast," in Mr. Spezialy's words.

Mr. McPherson publicly teased Mr. Cherry that his publicity demands were officially over in late January; the writer had pages to produce. Each morning before noon, he confines himself to a bungalow on a Universal Studios lot and produces six new pages in six hours, before turning to rewrites and reshoots. Mr. Spezialy removed the phone from Mr. Cherry's bungalow.EDITOR’S NOTE: FOR SOME, A PRISON. BUT FOR A WRITER, IT MUST SEEM LIKE HEAVEN.

The end-of-season "lockdown" means living more in the life of the characters than in one's own life, according to many writers. And when Mr. Lindelof ran into Mr. Cherry in the ABC offices, they commiserated on having had one day off in seven weeks. To Mr. Spezialy, it had seemed even longer. "Really we've been here since last May," he said.

Describing his own freshman season's final months, Mr. Schwartz of "The O.C." replayed his internal monologue as he was struggling to write dialogue. "How did I get here? How am I ever going to sustain this? This is all going to go down in flames. The whole thing's riding on me," he recalled. "You know, that sort of wired exhaustion."

This year, for "The O.C.'s" second season, he did not worry as much; he figured out what will happen in his Southern California "soapedy," as he called it, after having written half the season's 24 episodes. But he recognized the anxious determination he saw in a newcomer like Mr. Lindelof. "It's just that constant feeling of like, well, we can't ever do any more stories than that? Oh, but we have to, O.K.!" Mr. Schwartz recalled.

Queer Eye for Straight TV

They're gay. But these writers are producing some of today's most compelling, and popular, series about heterosexuals


This is a tale of two elections.

In November, 11 states considered ballot measures banning gay marriage. All 11 passed. There was also an election, of sorts, in January: the Golden Globe Awards. The TV awards for Best Comedy and Best Drama went, respectively, to ABC's suburban mystery Desperate Housewives and FX's plastic-surgery saga Nip/Tuck. The former is the highest-rated new series of the TV season; the latter, one of the highest-rated dramas on basic cable. Both are water-cooler shows about love, sex, fidelity and lies, mainly among heterosexual men and women.

And both were created by gay men.

A curious thing is going on in the U.S. Even as the nation is writing gays out of the definition of its most exalted relationship, gay writers--like Housewives creator Marc Cherry and Nip/Tuck creator Ryan Murphy--are behind the TV shows that are most provocatively defining straight relationships. HBO's Six Feet Under, the multilayered story of the lives and loves of a family that runs a funeral home, sprang from the mind of gay screenwriter Alan Ball (American Beauty). Before it, HBO's Sex and the City, which set the standard for frank talk about women and love, was created by Darren Star and later run by Michael Patrick King, both gay. (Later this year, King debuts The Comeback, an HBO sitcom starring Lisa Kudrow as an actress trying to revive her career.)

Is all this coincidence? Gay TV writers will tell you that relationships are universal. (If they talk at all. King, Murphy and Star declined to be interviewed for this article.) They have good reasons for saying so. Gay writers run the risk of being labeled as, well, gay writers, and the idea of a gay sensibility conjures a monolithic image of campy queens quoting from What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?

In fact, these series represent a wide range of voices (as do more overtly gay-themed shows, from NBC's Will & Grace to Showtime's The L Word and Queer as Folk). Housewives is cartoony and parodic, Nip/Tuck slick and urbane, Six Feet Under moody and cerebral.

"I don't think you could say they were all told from a specific perspective that comes from being gay," says ABC prime-time-entertainment president Stephen McPherson. "But if being gay makes you that talented, I'm going gay." EDITOR’S NOTE: YES, AND IT WILL IMPROVE YOUR WARDROBE AND FRESHEN UP YOUR SKIN, TOO! (???)

In art, one could argue, sexual orientation shouldn't matter. EDITOR’S NOTE: LET ME GO OUT ON A LIMB HERE AND SUGGEST THAT IT PROBABLY SHOULDN’T MATTER IN LIFE, EITHER?

In life, though, it does. EDITOR’S NOTE: WHOOPS. GOT AHEAD OF THE ARTICLE. (See those November results, above.) If these gay writers are inclined to think creatively about love and identity, maybe it's because they didn't have the option of accepting the standard assumptions. Growing up gay, says Six Feet Under creator Alan Ball, "you have a pretty deeply ingrained sense of being an outsider. You don't swallow the mythology of pop culture hook, line and sinker because you know it's not true, for you, anyway." EDITOR’S NOTE: KINDA LIKE BEING A DWEEB IN A DWEEB-DEMEANING WORLD. (WELL…KINDA…..)

Among the Fisher family members on Six Feet Under, which returns for its fifth season this summer, only one, David (Michael C. Hall), is gay. (College-age Claire, played by Lauren Ambrose, has had flings with men and women.) But all, in a way, have been engaged in coming out. The funeral business they run is about the tidy management of emotions, and the repressed Fishers are continually struggling to open up to the people closest to them. Likewise, Housewives is rooted in mystery and enough lies to fill a three-car garage. "I certainly understand the nature of secrets," says Cherry. "If you grow up gay, you meet people and go on dates and find out the men are married. I'm conservative enough to be appalled. Secrets upon secrets upon secrets."

Truth and lies are unavoidable themes in the lives of gays, say Will & Grace co-creators Max Mutchnick and David Kohan. "The first 'real' moment for a gay man is when he comes out of the closet," says Mutchnick, who is gay. He says gays may have a special sensitivity to these issues "because in order to move forward, you have to live and tell the truth."

Bound up with lies and truth is a sensitivity to ambiguity in a world of black-and-white dualities: boy and girl, straight and gay. Nip/Tuck is literally about the idea that the flesh can tell lies, that identity is malleable, that a person is more than what is written on his or her anatomy. It also has an uncanny sensitivity for the stormy, complex relationship--like a platonic marriage--between the straight-male leads Christian (Julian McMahon) and Sean (Dylan Walsh). When Sean discovers, for instance, that Christian had an affair with Sean's wife and is the real father of his son, he tells his friend, heartbroken, "I loved you the most."

Ball's, Cherry's and Murphy's dramas are often compared to soap operas, which can often be code for "too girly." Says Cherry, whose writing staff has five gays and six straights: "We push the boundaries in our lives by being gay. When we write, we are perfectly willing to write extreme behavior." Ilene Chaiken, the lesbian writer and creator of The L Word, theorizes that gay men and women inevitably experience love as heightened drama. "One of the things that always make for a great love story is the obstacles," she says. "These writers are bringing to these stories not only their experiences of illicit love but enough illicitness to make the stories more exciting and infuse them with passion and intensity."

That passion, curiously, is expressed in each show through strong women. A gay man, says Ball, can see men through a straight woman's eyes--"We understand how weird men are"--but he believes he can also view women with greater detachment. "Once you remove the illusory screen of romantic projection, there is a person," he says, "and it's easier for a gay man to see the person in a female character." EDITOR’S NOTE: YEAH, MAYBE. BUT THERE IS ALSO A TENDENCY TO BOTH OBJECTIFY ON THE ONE HAND, AND DEMEAN ON THE OTHER. (SOMETIMES). I DON’T THINK BEING GAY IPSO-FACTO GIVES ANY GREATER INSIGHT INTO WOMEN, AND THERE IS ALWAYS A DANGER WHEN THE GAY MAN THINKS IT DOES.

And, says Showtime entertainment president Robert Greenblatt, gay writers are more inclined to think about gender roles and stereotypes. "Straight men don't think about gender," he says. "Why should they? They're in the dominant position." (Of course, it's worth noting that the male perspective, straight or gay, is much more common on TV than that of women, who still create far fewer prime-time shows.) EDITOR’S NOTE: PERHAPS OF FAR GREATER SIGNIFICANCE THAN THE GAY VS. STRAIGHT ISSUE. (IMHO…..)

Housewives' suburban hotties, like Sex and the City's urban ones, are unabashed straight stereotypes: the frazzled mom, the girl next door, the spicy Latina, the uptight homemaker. But, notes Paul Colichman, co-founder and CEO of Here! TV, a gay and lesbian premium channel, "Gay men have always loved sexy, ultrafeminine, exaggerated women like Marilyn Monroe. The women in Desperate Housewives are caricatures and larger than life. That's why it works." EDITOR’S NOTE: THEY ARE BORDERLINE DRAG QUEENS, AREN’T THEY?

There's an old tradition of gay writers (not to mention actors) expressing themselves through straight characters. Gay audiences saw themselves reflected in vivid women like Blanche DuBois in Tennessee Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire. TV and movie writers created themes and characters that were palatable to straight audiences but tripped the gaydar of knowing viewers--say, Paul Lynde's queeny Uncle Arthur on Bewitched. (In advertising, such dual signals are called gay vague.) Even Sex and the City, with its witty, sexually assertive women, was reminiscent of the old maxim "Write gay, cast straight." EDITOR’S NOTE: NOEL COWARD, ANYONE?

Shows like Cherry's, Murphy's and Ball's are not about sending coded messages from the closet to the living room. Yes, there are still barriers to gays on TV--Survivor last fall edited a kiss between two women. EDITOR’S NOTE: EATING BUGS AND BEING VILE TO OTHER PEOPLE IS OK, BUT A GAY KISS IS NOT? OH JEEZ…..But Ball and Murphy work in cable, where they could create gay characters--and have. Even on network TV, Housewives recently had Susan (Teri Hatcher) stumbling across the teenage son of Bree (Marcia Cross) smooching another guy at a pool party. When he comes out to Bree in a later episode, she says, "Well, I'd love you even if you were a murderer"--the precise response, Cherry says, that his mother gave when he came out at age 31.

Mostly, though, these writers are asserting their right to be gay yet to write straight. Which raises the question, Couldn't straight men or women have created these shows? Probably. But they didn't. Instead, these writers have taken the idea of a gay sensibility beyond the old campy, fey stereotypes. Their shows have the subtler sensibility defined by gay film historian Vito Russo in The Celluloid Closet, his study of the influence of gays on the movies: "A natural conviction that difference exists but doesn't matter, that there's no such thing as normal even when a majority of people think so." EDITOR’S NOTE: WHICH IS QUITE COMFORTING TO ALL OF US, I THINK. (ESPECIALLY DWEEBS!)

This is a conviction you don't have to be gay to share. Whether set in an operating room or a funeral home, a leafy suburb or glittery Manhattan, these shows question our easy ideas of normality. They argue that knowing yourself can take a lifetime. And they tell us that truth is an essential part of life and art--but one that cannot always be told straight. EDITOR'S NOTE: SO...BOTTOM LINE, WE WANT GOOD TV AND WE DON'T CARE WHO WRITES IT!


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