Thursday, January 08, 2009

Genre, give up your secrets!

(UPDATE: contains mild spoilers for Battlestar Galactica Series Three. Also, casual reference to Indian bansuri flutes)

ANOTHER UPDATE: James Moran's comments added at the bottom of this post.


I've been trying to work out why I've been left so cold by most of the genre stuff on british telly at the moment (and by 'genre' I mean specifically SF/fantasy, which is how a lot of people in television refer to it, which shows how much they know). It's a truism to point out that it's simply not as good as most of the American stuff, but it's harder to work out exactly why that is.

A large part of the problem, I suspect, is that over here, smart geeks are rarely in control of the production process. In the States, writers work their way up the ladder from humble staff writer, to head writer, to all those weird job titles that are basically avoiding saying 'still a writer but now with a lot more money' ('story editor' and 'co-executive producer' being just two examples - and for more on the Byzantine ins and outs of American television production, you could do worse than subscribe to Rob Long's excellent Martini Shot Podcast).

In this country there's often been an invisible dividing line between writers and producers: partly because of the corporate set-up of the large broadcasters, and partly because... culturally, that's just the way things have been. And I just don't think people with innately geeky tendencies, the kind of obsessiveness that leads them to spend years at a time tracking every last issue of an obscure indie comic book, or finding weird Scandinavian electro bands have the required skillset that allows them to rise high in the world of production, a career that requires the finely honed social skills of a blindfolded Borgia at a 'bring your own dagger' party. And yet in the States, writer/producers are the norm. Once they've proved themselves by bringing in flipping great wodges of cash, these pale feeble nerdlynerds are actually allowed to step back from the typing and start making decisions about shows, and have a 'vision', and bring in other typists to make that vision come true without having to do any of the dull writing business themselves. AKA 'The Writer's Dream'.

Amusingly, many a British television producer (who only got into television in the first place because publishing is too poorly-paid, and the career in the City didn't work out) has gone over to the States to acclaim and backslapping, only for the Americans to suddenly realise said producer is basically just a suit, with no writing experience at all. Brit Producer is then cold-shouldered, and in extreme cases, made to sit next to Eric Idle at the canteen.

(At some point, of course, I'm going to have to write a blog post about the producers I know, and have worked with, who are charming, erudite, know their onions and a few other vegetables aside, and are frankly a little bit gorgeous. Because they do exist, and to pretend all producers are engaged in some conspiracy of mediocracy is a) untrue, and b) letting way too many lazy writers, myself included, off the hook. But that will have to wait for another time).

However, as the more astute reader will already have realised, writer/producers are becoming increasingly common over here. Russell T. Davies began as a writer, then got sufficient clout to work on whichever show he wanted. Except everyone in power at the BBC at the time thought Doctor Who was a load of old nonsense, and doomed, so told him 'no'. Until he refused to consider doing anything else for them at all, ever, at which point they gave up and let him have his way, as head writer, and producer for the show. Stephen Moffat, of course, is taking over in the same capacity. And since New Who and Life On Mars both got the double, with astonishing ratings and outstanding reviews, genre telly has become very much in. Hurrah.

So why is so much of it just rubbish? Well, even with new writer/producers at some of the helms, most of these shows are being aimed at Who's audience, which means teatime family viewing. Which means slick visuals, diddly-diddly-whee background music to tell you what emotion you should be feeling at any given time, subject matter that's never too controversial and a general sense that if said show looks reasonably close to a DVD spin-off of a Hollywood movie, the job's a good 'un. And if you think I'm exaggerating, I've worked on one UK show with fantasy elements, where I have been specifically told to "avoid nuance and detail', and that supporting characters absolutely had to be two-dimensional, because that's how fantasy works.

*shudders*

Added to which, what a lot of Brit writer/producers often don't have is the knowledge of the genre possessed by the writers/producers of really good American stuff, like Buffy, or Battlestar Galactica, or Dead Like Me, coupled with the ruthless application of one astonishing fact: zombies, demons, vampires, plagues, spaceships, robots and goblins are not inherently interesting.

It's mind-blowing stuff isn't it? Took me ages to get the concept into my head, but eventually, somewhere around Resident Evil Three, it stuck. Zombies are not enough. What the better American shows did was to use genre as a thumping great metaphor engine. Every demon on Buffy, every supernatural occurrence, everything that happened in Sunnydale because of the Hellmouth, they all served as metaphors about growing up as an American teenager in the closing years of the twentieth century and the start of the twenty-first: Xander being possessed by a hyena demon that led him to temporarily prey on the weak, those bitchy high school girls that really would rip your throat out given half the chance - all metaphors for late 20th/early 21st C. adolescence brought to life. And because Joss Whedon knows genre like other people breathe air, he was able to twist all the cliches we'd seen before: right at the start the trembling female student who gets talked into sneaking onto school property for illicit afterschool romance by the bad boy turns out to be the vampiric aggressor. Buffy herself is of course a subversion of the cliché of "the little blonde girl who goes into a dark alley and gets killed in every horror movie." The working title for Buffy was, at one point, 'Rhonda the Immortal Waitress', a title I just can't see any British television producer going for in a million years.

Battlestar Galactica, of course, is a whole series of metaphors, one huge allegory that doesn't just ask the big questions like 'what are laws for', 'what is mercy' 'why should civilian goverment retain power in a time of war' and 'am I who I think I am, really?', but also tries to make America, and by extension the West take a really hard look at itself. For me, the finest moment in Battlestar Galactica wasn't the gruelling Iraq parallel of Cyclon-occupied Caprica 2, or the two-part space battle that ended up being seen almost entirely from the point of view of one pilot floating in space after ejecting from his spaceship and slowly running out of air, but the moment on the soundtrack when the Galactica's sister ship, the Pegasus, began to reveal itself as an even darker version of the central vessel, with its captain unafraid to use murder and unthinkable torture in the name of a just war. Galactica's soundtrack theme, arranged by the incredibly talented Bear McCreary, has always had a distinctly Eastern influence: Indian bansuri flute, Armenian woodwind, Chinese violins, Turkish lute, Japanese taiko drums to name but a few. But the theme for the Pegasus? A steel slide guitar. The baddies' theme was the most archetypally American, cowboyish instrument you could possibly imagine. Just one tiny element in a fantastic couple of episodes, but one where an already brave show truly showed its mettle.

So, bearing this in mind, what are the current crop of Brit SF shows actually about? Demons, Merlin, Primeval, Survivors, Spooks Code 9, bloody Bonekickers... where are the metaphors? Where are the big questions? What are they trying to say? Because I'm buggered if I know. This doesn't make them bad shows, of course (although some of them are, obviously), but it makes them rather disappointing ones speaking as a viewer, and frustrating ones from the point of view of a writer, as I've spent years trying to get to the point I can pitch for my own genre show, only for the schedules to be so clotted with monsters and CGI shiny objects it's become incredibly hard to come up with an idea that doesn't on first glance sound like three other shows either on the screen now, or already in development.

So I'm working on pitches for a new cop show instead. Tragically, my first attempt, 'PC Aragorn Investigates' has received the thumbs-down.

:(




JAMES 'Fires of Pompeii' MORAN comments (and he's probably writing for more British genre shows than anyone else right now, so he knows his stuff):

"So why is so much of it just rubbish?

"I'll tell you for why, sir. The reason is the same as it ever was: people who don't understand genre are making some of the new genre shows. Some of them are jumping on the bandwagon, without knowing or even *liking* genre. Which staggers me.

Here's how it goes down: RTD, who thoroughly understands and loves genre, makes a genre show (DW). Genre show is a huge success. Everyone else thinks, ah, genre is the thing now, they make money, let's make genre shows. They then hire writers/producers/directors who have a track record to make those shows.

The trouble is, they hire people with a track record on *non-genre* shows. Said people haven't seen much genre, and have decided that it is silly and rubbish. *Their* genre show is going to be much better, deeper, more relevant, they say. But they have never seen an episode of Buffy, or The Twilight Zone, or The Prisoner, etc etc. So they come up with stuff that's been done a million times before, or that's just not interesting.

Rinse and repeat. Replace "show" with "movie", and you get the same result. This has been a blight on horror movies for a few years now - "ooh, horror makes money, I know, I'll do a horror movie, it'll be easy, I've seen one or two, and I'll make loads of money, besides, horror is stupid, it's just gore and tits, I can write it in five minutes, job done." No, it's not easy, unless you want to make a shit movie, then mission accomplished. I have been in more than one meeting where the person is being patronising about genre, while attempting to get his genre-based project off the ground. Obviously it's not the case for all shows, most producers are lovely and brilliant, etc etc, but this is how it happens a lot of the time, and why genre was a dirty word on TV for many, many years.

However. It will get better. More people who understand genre are being trusted to create it. It's not difficult, the answer has been staring everyone in the face for years. Successful genre shows are created by people who know and love genre. It's fairly simple, and they'll catch up soon enough."


Thanks James, and yeah, I ended up concentrating on the bad in this post, whereas there is some cracking stuff out there as well - every third episode of Who, and Charlie Brooker's Dead Set are solid proof, I think, that people who know their genres are really capable of turning out the goods. There are also a lot of execs who've been keeping their geeky lights under a geeky bushel for too long, and might finally get a chance to turn out the sort of television they want to see, rather than they're told people want to watch, which could only be a good thing.

25 comments:

laurence timms said...

Basically, we're f*cked. Is that what you're saying?

jill said...

Oh, dear lord yes. I want so badly for things like Primeval to be good - but instead, I get to throw things and yell stuff at the TV like, "It's NOT ABOUT THE DINOSAURS."

Extrapolating from the evidence, as an outsider to the TV industry, I think there's also a fair amount of people who don't like "genre," don't get it, and don't want to. However, these people understand that there are many people who enjoy these entertainments and money is to be made. So they confuse the vehicle for the ride, and we get stories that are about dinosaurs, instead of stories about people being people when confronted by dinosaurs. The former is always dull, whereas the latter has the potential to be interesting.

(Also, apologies for my comment to your last post - for some reason I really thought you were talking about Buffy itself, which only shows I can't be trusted with basic tasks such as tying my own shoes.)

James Moran said...

So why is so much of it just rubbish?

I'll tell you for why, sir. The reason is the same as it ever was: people who don't understand genre are making some of the new genre shows. Some of them are jumping on the bandwagon, without knowing or even *liking* genre. Which staggers me.

Here's how it goes down: RTD, who thoroughly understands and loves genre, makes a genre show (DW). Genre show is a huge success. Everyone else thinks, ah, genre is the thing now, they make money, let's make genre shows. They then hire writers/producers/directors who have a track record to make those shows.

The trouble is, they hire people with a track record on *non-genre* shows. Said people haven't seen much genre, and have decided that it is silly and rubbish. *Their* genre show is going to be much better, deeper, more relevant, they say. But they have never seen an episode of Buffy, or The Twilight Zone, or The Prisoner, etc etc. So they come up with stuff that's been done a million times before, or that's just not interesting.

Rinse and repeat. Replace "show" with "movie", and you get the same result. This has been a blight on horror movies for a few years now - "ooh, horror makes money, I know, I'll do a horror movie, it'll be easy, I've seen one or two, and I'll make loads of money, besides, horror is stupid, it's just gore and tits, I can write it in five minutes, job done." No, it's not easy, unless you want to make a shit movie, then mission accomplished. I have been in more than one meeting where the person is being patronising about genre, while attempting to get his genre-based project off the ground. Obviously it's not the case for all shows, most producers are lovely and brilliant, etc etc, but this is how it happens a lot of the time, and why genre was a dirty word on TV for many, many years.

However. It will get better. More people who understand genre are being trusted to create it. It's not difficult, the answer has been staring everyone in the face for years. Successful genre shows are created by people who know and love genre. It's fairly simple, and they'll catch up soon enough.

laurence timms said...

james: isn't there a real chance that the money will walk away from genre before the people know understand genre get the chance to make it?

Neil said...

It's so true. I've thought it for ages now. The fact is - Brit TV doesnt take anything sci-fi/fantasy/horror seriously. They have to do it tongue in cheak, cos they feel the Brit audience won't be able to cope and believe it if it's taken seriously. So without the seriousness, there are no messages. You see??

Well said my friend!

james henry said...

Ooh cool comments people, ta. Jill, I liked the 'vehicle is mistaken for the ride' metaphor, very useful.

Laurence, no I don't think we're fucked at all. In fact, I suspect a lot of these shows aren't going to last the distance, which means people will stop jumping on the bandwagon, which might lead to fewer, better genre shows. Fingers crossed.

Paul Campbell said...

"it's become incredibly hard to come up with an idea that doesn't on first glance sound like three other shows either on the screen now, or already in development."

Tell me about it!

Every time I come up with a new idea, I come back to it a few days later and realise it will be rejected as "X meets Y".

Or, perhaps worse, it will be accepted as "X meets Y" and not judged on its own merits.

OK, being accepted might not be that bad. Quite good actually.

james henry said...

Yeah, I'm quite happy to pitch things as 'X meets Y' really, it's sort of useful shorthand that allows execs to fill the gaps themselves. In fact, I care less and less what the setting is for the things I'm pitching, these days, as characters are far more important. Which is a shame really, as development execs tend to prefer things the other way around. Not because they're soulless monsters, but because they have to work out whether the show has enough legs for more than one series (or in some cases, more than one episode).

Karen's Mouth said...

YES. You're so right. I feel relieved frankly. Thank you. In the face of a load of stuff that I'd been really excited about seeing and then been all 'meh' about, much of which you mentioned, I really thought I was just getting old and miserable and would have to do something drastic like stop watching the telly.

james henry said...

I think I could forive a lot of the above shows if they weren't so blimmin' pleased with themselves, making out their ideas were going to BLOW YOU AWAY, whereas in fact, if you'd read a few SF novels, or watched much quality US telly, there was just a massive sense of 'seen it'.

Bingethink said...

What's it all about?

Of the shows you mention:

Primeval is about Success (the success of Doctor Who)

Demons is about Misunderstanding (misunderstanding the point of Buffy, as you deftly point out)

Spooks Code 9 is about Politics (BBC internal politics and the need to have some yoof-targeted drama output)

Survivors is about Recycling (write yer own gag).

Bonekickers is about Trust (and what happens when you trust TV writers to do what they want to do. I bet the Producers Guild were watching every wretched episode with glee...)

Merlin is about... Actually Merlin is the only one of the crop that has a genuine subtext, albeit it's the subtext of the X-Men. But the dynamic of the series at least allow them the possibility of exploring bigotry, persecution, adolescent sexual confusion. They don't always write every close to that (and it looks like they have that 2D secondary character rulein place, as well), but Merlin looks to me like the one series amongst these that could run and run, because it's been built carefully with characters who stand for conflicting things occupying the centre stage. The dialogue and narrative are as vanilla as they come, but I'd say the series has got good "bones".

james henry said...

Hmm, interesting stuff, ta.

I kind of feel bad about Bonekickers, because I spend most of my time whinging that broadcasters don't just let successful writers do whatever they want. Then when they take a chance, they get hammered for it. Although I did hear that the earlier version of Bonekickers was much more full-on, with more overtly supernatural stuff going on, only for them to bottle it at the last minute.

Mind you, all the above should take into account the fact that I saw the first episode of the new Who (with Christopher Ecclestone), thought Christ, this is absolute rubbish and gave up after half an hour, assuming it was doomed to failure. Clearly in touch with what the public want there....

Karen's Mouth said...

Yup, totally. They give good trailer then don't follow through.

Jayne said...

i was going to write a detailed, thoughtful comment but am too tired.

PS many a British television producer...only got into television in the first place because publishing is too poorly-paid

true that.

Kevin said...

You've summed up a lot of the reasons I just don't dig the majority of British TV or film. I also find anytime a UK production attempts to appeal to the most people it becomes incredibly bland, thus any of TV show or movie that attempts to go all American with its production values and format and it becomes laughably shit.

jill said...

Glad you liked the metaphor - I was fond of it when I wrote it (enough that it made me suspicious and I almost killed it).

Another funny thing that has occurred to me is that, in general, we Yanks tend to think that British telly is the superior brand. Yes, we have our Buffy and our Battlestar (Mark II - for the most epic rubbish imaginable, you need only watch about a picosecond of the original BSG), but we also have stupid jerks at networks who pull the plug on shows like Firefly and Wonderfalls after only a few episodes, among other crimes (pardon the many-years-old baby blogger preciousness in the linked piece).

Our good genre shows are also usually relegated to third-tier cable channels which are packaged in all-or-nothing plans that cost extra for the viewer and thereby limit audiences to those who will pay for a great swathe of channels they will never watch (though, as they say, the Internet is changing that). These channels also have minuscule budgets compared to the bigger networks. So we end up with BSG going extinct because it's a hellishly expensive show to produce and the SciFi channel can't bear the cost any longer (even though it's the top rated show for the channel).

We also have our share of producers who don't "get" genre, yet produce it for the cash - e.g. shows like Tru Calling, New Amsterdam, The Ghost Whisperer - all rubbish, IMO, largely because they focus on the gimmicks and not on the people stories. Well, that, and the fact that their attempts at "witty" or "edgy" or "flippant" humor tend to trip over their own feet, only to raise their feeble heads and say, "Oh, okay - insert whatever Joss Whedon would have written here. That's what I was trying for anyway."

Anonymous said...

I could be wrong, but was this mini-debate prompted by 'Demons'?

That definitely made me feel the writers don't get the supernatural/horror genre - nor the knowing, witty subversions of it like Buffy. I watched it last night and went to bed a mass of conflicting opinions.

Mainly - 'It's rubbish!'

But then - 'No, give it time. It's Saturday afternoon entertainment aimed primarily at a younger audience. The kids will be down with it.'

Then - 'No! It's really rubbish!'

But then - 'No. It had a lot to set up in the first episode. It'll be better in when the characters have had time to settle in and develop. They'll stop saying "smite" soon.'

Then - 'No, it really is rubbish! If they can't set up the characters and premise without it being rubbish, then it's rubbish! And they'll be "smiting" each others asses off for the rest of the series!'

But then - 'No, you're being unfair. Think of the complexity of the backstory. It's not easy to explain that in less than an hour and keep people gripped.'

Then - No, it's rubbish! Buffy did it! They just ripped off Buffy and did it badly! it's a rubbish British Buffy with a boy!

I had no argument against myself at that point.

I was astonished by how shameless it was too. I was drinking a glass of wine at the time. When I put the glass down I saw sporadic 'impact' ripples in the liquid and thought - 'Wheedon's coming!'

I'll probably give it another go though. I did with Primeval, and now I love it - but then I like dinosaurs ;-)

Jim

Good Dog said...

Fella, an excellent post that really gets to the heart of the problem

I’m having great problems not just with watching UK dramas but with audiences that accept them without question. It’s like the emperor has been stark bollock naked for so long that I’m surprised he hasn’t died of hypothermia.

None of them have the intelligence or even the wit of the best American dramas. None of them understand that drama comes from conflict between people not splattering the TV screen with whatever CGI novelties a facilities house has cobbled together. Such effects are like a flashy mobile hung above a cot and if that’s all there is, are the viewers expected to simply lie back and gurgle in delight before pooping themselves?

A few friends are apparently fans of television science fiction but don’t watch Battlestar Galactica. They haven’t seen Firefly. Instead they sit down and watch the blue box, old and new. To them science fiction is just the bells and whistles attached – idiotic scenes like the TARDIS pulling the planet back home to the solar system. When I tell them a particular story or element didn’t make any sense at all, there response is always: “It doesn’t matter, it’s science fiction!” (At which point I’m usually bashing my head against the bar in utter frustration).

But I think it’s not just the audience saying that. Those six words must be said in the production process. If not, then things are very, very wrong. Also there’s nobody in the mix to point out that various stories have already appeared in whatever book/TV series/movie already and done way much better. What’s the point of doing a cheap knock-off and doing it badly? Obviously there are schedules involved and everything is made against the clock, but doing the obvious isn’t something to be proud of.

The cheapest part of any production process is the blank piece of paper. Unless they want to make the kind of shows that, if they were shown on CBeebies, had the target audience wondering they were watching this piece of crap, producers should think about getting some form of writers room together where people can spitball ideas, shoot down the nonsense, and put something decent together. Because, really, it’s getting seriously embarrassing.

And thinking back to how utterly brilliant UK drama used to be, that’s a great shame.

Oli said...

It's a shame.

Ever latching onto one aspect of a successful show/film/whatever is dangerous and lazy, and all too common. The deluge of gangster movies that followed Lock Stock was painful, and because of The Dark Knight's success, suddenly all superhero movies have to be 'dark', which conveniently ignores that the movie did well because it was really really good, not because of any lighting deficiency.

Steve Dix said...

"So why is so much of it just rubbish?"

Because of Sturgeon's Law.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sturgeon's_law

What you have to realize is that every "movement" in music, film, TV or popular arts is basically two or three originators or leaders, and the rest are just jumping on the bandwagon, because this is what sells these days.

That's why, after the first Star Wars, we had a few years of some of the most awful "space epics" ever seen ("Starcrash", anyone? After seeing that, you can't blame the Hoff for becoming an alcoholic), and of course, in music, you basically get two or three core bands to a movement, and the rest are opportunists and mimics.

This post is brought to you by "tringle". Probably the best word verification word I've ever had. Beats WGWMFDRWMF any day.

Steve Dix said...

It also works for comedy as well.

ATM in Germany, the stages are heaving with Mario Barth soundalikes.

BTW, if you think Brit TV doesn't get Genre, you should see German TV.

Steve Dix said...

Oh, and I'm currently working on pre-production on my film "Making Movies", which can best be described as "Be Kind Rewind" meets "Shaun Of The Dead" meets "The Producers"...

Stephen Gallagher said...

The last straw for me came when I pitched two shows to the BBC in 2007 and was told, "No thanks, we're making BONEKICKERS." Which neither of them in any sense resembled.

I realised then that it wasn't a matter of concept clash or any other similarity. Just as there's only ever room for one TV magician or headlining black comedian, they reckon you only need one running-around-and-special-effects show at a time to service the man-children and femgeeks who inexplicably like that kind of thing.

james henry said...

Ooh blimey, hello Stephen!

Just had a similar thing, where my superhero treatment has been turned down, while two other much more experienced writers have had their very promising superhero scripts stacked in a holding pattern because 'Heroes has nailed the genre so well'.

Which, of course, it hasn't. And no-one ever said that because Inspector Morse was so successful, I'm afraid we can't have any more crime dramas for a few years' did they?

TC JAKOBSEN said...

Its a laugh to listen to you guys.

I work as a scriptwriter in Greece. I wish your problems were mine.

Apart from that couldn't agree more with your comments on the failings of understanding genre.

And might I add that most people in the business also fail to understand that 'reality' is a genre.