The Anti Hero Era: Walt & Dexter

Walter White (Bryan Cranston) and Dexter Morgan (Michael C. Hall)

Walter White (Bryan Cranston) and Dexter Morgan (Michael C. Hall)

Television waved farewell to two of its iconic anti-heroes over the past week: Walter White and Dexter Morgan. Although these characters were worlds apart in style and execution, at their core they both embodied the essential oppositions of the anti-hero. After eight seasons each, they will be missed, albeit for different reasons.

The anti-hero is a compelling character type within fiction.  On one level, he or she is a subversion of the traditional hero, devoid of the typically heroic qualities of loyalty, morality, nobility, physical strength and beauty, athletic skills, intelligence or confidence.  The anti-hero is flawed — often fatally — and answers only to him or herself, and their internal values (which may not be values in the truest sense of the word). The anti-hero is the Jungian shadow of the hero, the dark untrammeled self, the cautionary tale of what happens when an individual steps outside the light.

Nonetheless, the anti-hero still gets stuff done, often in the form of revenge or payback, or vigilante justice. Unfettered by a moral framework, the anti-hero can work outside social and legal restrictions, free to act as he or she chooses.  The anti-hero represents a seductive ‘What If…’ for audiences. What if you could make your own decisions? Enforce your own justice? What if nothing else mattered but gratifying your desire for vengeance? Continue reading

Q: Who Runs TV?

A: Showrunners.

Showrunners are the writer-producers who come up with the concept for a TV show, create a pilot, sell it to the network, staff and cast it, cheerlead it through pick-up and then guide the increasingly complex plot lines from season to season. It’s a tough job. Only an elite few are trusted by the networks to do that job, and, at this time of year, they’re busy bringing their Fall 2013 ideas to the negotiating table.

The Hollywood Reporter’s latest issue is dedicated to showrunners and all aspects of what they do with their 5th annual list of the Top TV Showrunners.

THR’s Top 50 Showrunners 2012TV’s most influential writer-producers come clean about the credits they’d like scrubbed from their résumés, their most absurd notes from execs, their television mentors and the ways they cure writer’s block.


Posted in TV

No more ‘Toddlers and Tiaras’. Please.

The test of the morality of a society is what it does for its children.
~Dietrich Bonhoeffer

For five seasons, TLC’s Toddlers and Tiaras has been inviting viewers to ogle at little girls parading in inappropriate costumes, and encouraging the pageant Moms to exploit their daughters even more for behind-the-scenes exposure. The latest scandal involves a clip showing a three year old strutting her stuff in hooker boots, dressed as Vivian from Pretty Woman.

Is it time to call time on the show? One blog, Pigtailpals, called for its cancellation back in January:

“Toddlers & Tiaras” is a petri dish of sexualization. Little girls are taught, often times forced by their domineering mothers, to act coquettishly, learn suggestive dance routines, wear sexualized costumes and bathing suits, endure hours of hair and make-up, and are even put on restrictive diets in order to lose weight for competition. This is perverse. While TLC continues to air “Toddlers & Tiaras”, the network becomes an agent of this sexualization.

Open Letter to TLC: Cancel Toddlers & Tiaras –

Reality TV has always thrived on the exploitation of its subjects, creating artificial conflict between friends, asking individuals to adopt a “villain” persona, re-editing situations so they fit producers’ proposed storylines. However, the reality format is now well into its second decade, and any adult who signs a release form for one of these shows should be aware of what they’re getting into. It’s a trade off, public exposure for cash. It’s a choice adults make.

Reality shows that revolve around non-consenting minors are a different matter. It’s bad enough that these two and three year olds are forced into the pageants in the first place (no one is giving any kind of informed consent at that age). However, a child beauty pageant used to be a one-off, ticketed event, with stage performances only committed to Mommy’s video camera, and some kind of oversight given to the people watching in the audience. Single men playing pocket billiards? Not welcome. A TV show is an entirely different matter, broadcasting these little girls into living rooms (1.3 million an episode), their sexualized performances preserved for all time in YouTube clips.

The American Psychological Association’s 2007 report on the Sexualization of Girls (here) always makes sobering reading. Sexualization is different to healthy sexuality, and occurs when

  • a person’s value comes only from his or her sexual appeal or behavior, to the exclusion of other characteristics;
  • a person is held to a standard that equates physical attractiveness (narrowly defined) with being sexy;
  • a person is sexually objectified—that is, made into a thing for others’ sexual use, rather than seen as a person with the capacity for independent action and decision making;
  • and/orsexuality is inappropriately imposed upon a person.

The APA’s research suggests the consequences of sexualization in girls include

  • poor grades (“thinking about the body and comparing it to sexualized cultural ideals disrupted mental capacity”)
  • depression (“sexualization and objectification undermine confidence in and comfort with one’s own body, leading to a host of negative emotional consequences, such as shame, anxiety, and even self-disgust.”)
  • eating disorders

All this contributes to a cycle of low self-esteem where a girl values herself solely in terms of appearance and physical attractiveness, but, because she holds herself up to impossible and narrow ideals of attractiveness, she’s doomed to self-hatred. And it will only get worse as she ages.

The fact that child beauty pageants are even allowed to happen, let alone be the subject of primetime broadcasts on The Learning Channel, speaks to the morality of modern America. If this is how little girls are treated, and if this is how TV companies make money off them, think of the delights that are in store for them once they hit puberty and beyond.

How Does A TV Pilot Get Picked To Go To Series?

It’s pilot pick-ups week! As various bright ideas (A Wonder Woman reboot, anyone?) bite the dust, the WSJ has all the answers about the rather arcane pilot development process used by the US Networks.

The nuts and bolts are simple:

The development process starts with writers making pitches in early summer, submitting first drafts in the fall and revisions at Christmastime. In January, writers hear if the network has ordered up a pilot. If a pilot is picked up in May, there is a mad dash to hire writers, build sets and write additional episodes before a show airs in the fall.

Simple, but expensive, with individual pilot episodes costing millions of dollars to produce. And, if the show is not ordered to go to season, there is no way to re-coup the loss. Even if a show is picked up in May, it can be cancelled by October. Networks have to guarantee a certain number of viewers to advertisers prepared to take a punt on a new show, and if the show doesn’t reach the specified audience, it gets cancelled.

All kinds of things can turn a promising idea into a flop. Casting may not click. A story line that made for a compelling pilot can’t hold an audience’s interest for 22 episodes a season, a fate that befell ABC’s “FlashForward.” Overly acquiescing to focus groups can lead to a bland finished product, producers say. Last season didn’t lead to a single breakout success.

It’s a very hit-and-miss process: throw stuff at the wall (of viewers) and see what sticks. But all facets of the entertainment industry take this approach, according to David Madden, president of Fox TV.

Executives say any artistic pursuit comes with long odds. “Most movies fail, most books fail, and most albums aren’t that good, whether they’re by committee or solo practitioners”.

According to the LA Times, this year will be more competitive than ever, with only 5 of the 22 selected new series expected to run into a second season. TV Dramas have to find their narrative footing – and their audience – with lightning speed if they are to go the distance.

Part of the problem, explain producers, is that digital-age audiences don’t just focus solely on their screens these days. Like traffic cops dealing with distracted drivers who text and blab on the phone while sailing down the freeway, networks executives are facing viewers who are often fiddling with their computers, phones or iPads.

“Most people are watching TV with a laptop on their legs,” said Laurie Zaks, executive producer of the ABC mystery “Castle.” “If you don’t capture the audience in the first two episodes, you don’t have a chance.”

So for all the writers, directors, actors and crew attached to shows that got rejected, the wait and anxiety is over. For those whose livelihoods depend on their show being a success in schedules in the autumn, the nail-biting is just beginning.

The Math of A Hit TV Show– Wall Street Journal
TV Dramas Are Losing Favor With Busy Viewers – LA Times

Posted in TV

American Remakes of British TV

Maria Bello was announced this week as the star who will fill Helen Mirren’s shoes in the U.S. remake of Prime Suspect. Given that American TV drama seems to be full of fresh ideas and talent right now, it seems odd that NBC would even consider rebooting a UK show that is almost twenty years old. However, Prime Suspect has long been seen as the gold standard for both female leads and gritty police procedurals, and will garner eager viewers on the name alone. The Closer has often claimed to be the US version of Prime Suspect, but the only similarity really is the female lead. examines the structural and commercial reasons why a remake of Prime Suspect is unlikely to capture even the faintest of flavours of the original: The British have a completely different approach to making TV Drama to the Americans.

American television, in contrast, has more of a factory mentality. They’re making product to sell into syndication, where the magic number is 100 episodes — enough to fill a daily Monday-to-Friday schedule for 20-plus weeks. Speed and efficiency are of the essence because the networks want to squeeze out 100 episodes and hit that syndication jackpot as soon as possible. All the products have to be made in-house using existing tools and processes, stamped out and rolled onto the showroom floor at the same time each year — otherwise sponsors get restless, and Americans bred to expect instant gratifaction grow surly and betrayed. (It’s September. Where’s my show? I want it NOW!)

This approach does suit the production of law-and-order procedurals, and that means boom time for that special group of background artists (or extras) who play corpses. The Wall St Journal (behind a paywall) reports that seven out of ten of the top TV shows require a steady supply of ‘corpse actors’. It’s cheaper to make up a real human being than produce a corpse mannequin, and there’s always plenty of work. However, a certain skill set is required. “According to New York casting director Jonathan Strauss, however, not everyone can carry off the short breaths required on camera.”

The Problem with American remakes of British shows –
Corpse Duty: Keeping A Career on Life Support by Playing Dead – WSJ via Hollywood Wiretap

Glee: The Brand

Fox – who had already reinvented the making-money-off-a-TV-show paradigm with American Idol – now see Glee as their next fatted calf, as per this insightful feature from The Hollywood Reporter.  It’s not just a show about some high school kids who like to sing and dance any more.  It’s a cross-platform marketing juggernaut:

“Just one look around the table at the Gleekly meeting reveals the scope of how mammoth, complicated and promising the show is. In fact, to call it a mere show seems a misnomer. For Glee, gone is the old TV model of making money only off ads (nearly $300,000 per 30-second spot and rising) and syndication. Glee is a brand that, through its inventive packaging of music and the mall-ready charisma of its stars, has redefined how big a TV business can be. Among the participants at the table: the head of consumer products, playing show and tell with the new line of Glee-branded Sephora nail polish; a representative from home entertainment, passing around a Target circular featuring the Season 2, Vol. 1 DVD (the chain accounts for 25% of Glee’s entertainment sales); and vps from publicity, digital (Glee has the No. 1 iPad app) and international, touting the latest numbers out of the U.K., which make Glee the country’s most-watched U.S. series, outperforming Desperate Housewives, Lost and CSI (good news, considering the Glee tour is headed to London’s O2 arena in the summer and promoter Live Nation anticipates successive sellouts). Also on tap: a June reality show on Oxygen awarding a Glee guest role.”

Glee has had a huge cultural impact, on everything from sales of Journey’s back catalogue to attitudes towards gay teens. It’s also caused a lot of controversy for its depictions of teen sexuality – a major consideration given that a big proportion of the audience is under 13. Given the fiscal pressures (Fox is now spending $3.2 to $3.8 million per episode), that means its creators have had to reconsider the responsibilities they have towards their audience (and their potentially angry parents). The last thing they want is a Parents Television Council-led backlash like the one against the MTV version of Skins. Says Ryan Murphy:”“From now on, I will sweat every single word and how we’re presenting it.”

Oh, and Murphy’s reaction to that GQ cover? “It wasn’t great for the brand”.

Inside the Hot Business of ‘Glee’ – The Hollywood Reporter

Posted in TV

Dynasty: The Movie

Encouraged by the recent rash of TV-to-movie adaptations (The A Team, Charlie’s Angels, Starsky & Hutch, The Dukes of Hazzard and now 21 Jump Street) that have breathed new life (and residuals) into 70s and 80s ‘classics’, it seems the creators of Dynasty want their turn at the trough of gold.

Dynasty, fondly remembered for its big hair, larger-than-life characters and labyrinthine melodrama, ran on ABC in the US from 1981 to 1989.  Originally conceived as a show about a family who ‘lived and sinned in a forty-eight room mansion’, Dynasty was a direct rival to CBS’s primetime hit, Dallas.  The first season followed the Dallas template of oil tycoon shenanigans, but the introduction of Alexis Colby (Joan Collins) at the top of season two saw it find its unique selling point, and shot it to the top of the ratings.

Levi-Strauss would have had a field day: for the next seven years, the raven-haired, Machiavellian Alexis grappled (often quite literally, the show was famous for its physical fights between female characters) with silvery-blonde Krystle, for love, money, property, and sometimes just for kicks.  The writers toned down the business (i.e. male-driven) story lines in favor of the female stuff, and fed the characters a constant flow of illegitimate children, half-siblings, serial husbands, murder trials, arson attacks and reversals of fortune so sudden and vicious  that it was never sure whether Krystle and the forces of good would triumph over Alexis and her minions.  Women definitely ruled this world.  And viewers lapped it up – the ‘Moldovian Massacre’ cliffhanger episode in 1985 was watched by sixty million people.

Esther and Richard Shapiro are the original creators, and, rather than trying to return to the prime-time glory of the 80s, want the movie to be a prequel, explaining how the characters originally met, and how the battle lines came to be drawn.  They envisage a ‘Mad Men-era’ setting for the young Blake Carrington to meet Alexis, his future wife and nemesis, and plan to take a much more cinematic approach:

“In a way, these characters were prisoners in television,” added Richard Shapiro. “We were always constrained by the smaller budget of a TV series, and all the standards and practices that governed the content of the show. In the movie, if we want to have some James Bond style action, we can afford to do that. If we want to have a steamy love scene, we can do that. If we want to go a few steps beyond what they would allow on 1980s TV, we can move ahead those few steps, and then some.”

Gotta hope it’s awesome, and that it makes it to the big screen. The much-hyped Dallas movie is currently languishing in turnaround, as the studio decided not enough young people remembered the TV show to go and see a movie. However, with older, female-skewing audiences becoming more of a target, this could have legs.

The Wrap

Too Hot For The History Channel?

Kinnear/Holmes as the KennedysThe Katie Holmes/Greg Kinnear-starring miniseries about the Kennedy family has been shelved by the History Channel after a sustained protest campaign about the accuracy of the content. “We have concluded this dramatic interpretation is not a fit for the History brand”.

Liberal politicians and historians objected to what they said were major inaccuracies in the story-telling, and asserted that the miniseries was a vindictive attempt to smear the name and memory of the Kennedys. Broadcasting it on the History Channel would have implied that it was historically based, factual, rather than fictional drama. The miniseries may well be broadcast by another channel at some point, but it will have lost its stamp of authenticity.

True life stories are a legal and creative minefield for film and TV producers, especially when they are about controversial public figures like JFK. The First Amendment allows certain protections in the US when it comes to putting an interpretation of real life events and people on screen; it’s acknowledged that a certain amount of dramatic licence is needed to shape truth into a timely and engaging narrative. Reality can’t always be shoe-horned into a neat three act structure. Nonetheless, the First Amendment doesn’t stop a lot of individuals who have been unhappy at their depiction from bringing lawsuits against film and programme-makers, and the threat of costly litigation is a dangerous one. Now it looks like censorship – particularly of recent political history – is added to the mix. No one really minds when the Tudors are depicted as sex-crazed and Machiavellian, full of greed and vanity, but when it comes to showing more recent political players as being that way, it appears that a line has been crossed.

Audiences have spent ten years getting used to the ragged and chaotic story-telling of reality TV, and have a proven taste for “based on a true story” movies. The success this awards season of THE KING’S SPEECH, THE SOCIAL NETWORK, 127 HOURS, and THE FIGHTER (all based on real characters, real events) shows that there is a viable market for factual narratives. Mark Zuckerberg’s reportedly negative reaction to THE SOCIAL NETWORK has not resulted in a costly lawsuit, but instead generated huge amounts of publicity – for both the man and the movie, ending with Zuckerberg being declared Time’s Person of The Year 2010. Factual drama isn’t going to go away anytime soon. However, film and program makers need to be able to argue the case for their interpretation, both in meetings with networks and studios, and in court.

History Network Pulls Plug on Kennedy Project– AP
Stop Kennedy Smears – the website that won
From Real To Reel: In fact-based films, reality and story-telling collide – LA Times, December 27, 2010

RIP Pete Postlethwaite

As an actor, Postlethwaite added gravity and dignity to even the flimsiest of film roles. No matter what he was asked to do, he always elevated the material, and when the material matched his talent he set the screen alight.  He is far and away the best thing about so many of the movies listed by the Guardian in their tribute and the world is a poorer place this morning.