Monday, November 19, 2007

Dexter and the Writers' Strike
Think of the writers’ strike as pennies from heaven. If nothing else, it’s spared us from the hype of the November sweeps. Consequently, there are no “very special episodes” of The Big Bang Theory or The Bionic Woman competing for our limited attention spans. On the downside, Deal or No Deal and Are You Smarter than a 5th Grader? are suddenly elevated to requisite viewing status.

Truth to tell, it’s been a lackluster season thus far. Not one new series can be considered a hit, and returning series are either stumbling or retreading familiar ground. That’s understandable when you’re dealing with something like the CSI franchise, but Heroes can ill afford to get lazy after one season. The high hopes I had back in September are all but dashed at this point. I eagerly anticipated Cane, only to see it disintegrate into a terminally boring soap opera by its third episode. I liked the unlikely premise of Life, but it’s degenerating into a procedural crime drama.

As grim as all that may sound, there is a silver lining. Series that were largely overlooked or ignored have a shot at finding an audience. Pushing Daisies and Moonlight, for instance, have a cult following of sorts already, and with reruns across the board, they’re in a position to reach a wider audience. On the other hand, serial-based programs like Desperate Housewives and Journeyman don’t play well in reruns, and may fall by the wayside.

However it shakes out, network television has to rethink its strategies. It’s not going to be enough to rerun shows via the Internet for a few pennies more ad revenue. The networks are pinning a lot of their hopes on so-called “new media” without thinking through its implications. That’s the main bone of contention the Writer’s Guild has with producers now. It’s not that the writers (without whom there would be no series) are opposed to exploring new media—they merely want to be compensated fairly for work they’ve already produced.

Admittedly, the finished product on the small screen has been largely lacking this season, but much of that can be blamed on “the art by committee” mindset that’s always permeated Hollywood. After all the meetings and rewrites and more meetings, what’s eventually seen on the tube has little resemblance to the original script. It’s all about compromise and getting product before the consumer. If it doesn’t play well on mainstream networks, no matter--there’s always basic cable. And if the Sci-Fi Channel or USA can’t move it, the Internet is a tertiary market. It ain’t art. It’s a commodity. And you’d be well advised to remember that. The networks exist to sell advertising. Anything beyond that is happenstance.

If it’s any semblance of art you’re looking for, you’re going to have to turn to PBS, or shell out a few pesos for premium cable. It’s indisputable that HBO pioneered the concept of bringing high quality drama, unfettered by commercial interests, to television. After the conclusion of The Sopranos, however, the network has laid relatively low, with Entourage probably their biggest original draw at this point.

Showtime has wasted no time picking up the slack left by HBO. Four original series airing on Showtime—specifically, Dexter, Brotherhood, Weeds and Californication—not only offer a refuge from the mainstream networks’ mediocrity, they may signal a revolution in television storytelling. At their core, all four of these programs are rooted in the mainstay of television themes: the trials and tribulations of familial relationships. If, as Shakespeare said, there are only seven basic plots, then it’s ultimately up to the writer to spin those plots into innumerable variations.

The writers on these programs have done exactly that, taking that basic theme of family and propelling it into regions rarely explored in cinema, much less television. On the surface, Dexter may be about a vigilante serial killer on the surface, but on a deeper level, it’s more about balancing secrets with relationships. Brotherhood explores the workings of the Irish mob and political machinations, but it can’t escape its meddling mom core. Weeds is much more aligned to the plight of single mothers providing for their family than it is with dealing drugs. Conversely, Californication isn’t about a reprobate writer—it’s more concerned with a dispossessed father attempting to reconnect with his family.

Admittedly, these shows were unaffected by the writers’ strike, since they had wrapped season’s production beforehand. More importantly, though, they demonstrate there is no dearth of writing talent in Hollywood. And I’m by no means saying that everything on the TV screen should be geared to adults—Dora the Explorer is a case in point. By and large, however, network television, through no fault of the creative process, takes the path of least resistance. Rather than finance ventures that might challenge, or even educate the viewer, the studio execs continue down the timeworn path of the lowest common denominator. An engaging story is secondary—how well it will move product is paramount.
If Internet revenue will move product, the execs and producers reason, it bodes well for the industry, and adds another source of revenue that ensures television will flourish in the face of new media. After all, if the programs are already produced, there’s really no sound business reason to further compensate work for hire writers. It’s much more fiscally sound to put that unknown profit into corporate coffers.

That’s their reasoning, anyway. The fallacy is that were it not for the writers, they wouldn’t have product to tool around new media in the first place. But, they say on one hand, the Internet and downloads may only account for a tiny percentage of revenue. Privately, they’re predicting unbridled growth in its untapped potential. It’s revenue they don’t want to share with writers. Directors and producers have secured their deals in the face of all this, and writers are at the bottom of the food chain when considering film.

While it may be considered a director’s medium, one fact remains. Everything we see on the screen, whether it’s an action-packed thriller a yuppie- friendly comedy or a WWII documentary, began as a thought in a writer’s brain. Without writers sharing their thoughts, however outlandish or mundane they may be, we’d all be watching white noise.

With the exception of premium cable, I can’t escape the feeling I already am.