Life in Hollywood, below-the-line

Life in Hollywood, below-the-line
Work gloves at the end of the 2006/2007 television season (photo by Richard Blair)

Friday, February 22, 2008

And I've got... nothing...

No post this Sunday. I’ve been consumed in helping with the care and feeding of my nonagenarian parents all week, and will be fighting my way back to LA on Sunday through what the weatherman promises will be a hellacious storm. A post-surgical appointment with Dr. Sawbones looms, and I've had no time/energy to compose a decent post.

But all is not lost -- in fact, you're in very good hands, since Tim Goodman put out three terrific columns this week in the San Francisco Chronicle, each covering a different aspect of our ever-changing Industry. Click here:

http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/search/columnists.cgi?waisdbname=/chronicle/&byline=Tim+Goodman

to read these:

TV is better than movies - except this year,

NBC acknowledges reality with 52-week season,

'John Adams' all the way to Gary Coleman

All three are vintage Goodman -- which is to say, excellent -- but I urge you to pay particular attention to the last one, “John Adams: all the way to Gary Coleman" – one of those wonderfully hallucinatory “Everything we know we learned from television” columns I was raving about a couple of weeks ago. You've simply got to read that one...

Please, go, read, and enjoy. I’ll do my best to post something worth reading next weekend.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Industry Romance

                        The one that got away: the girl, that is, not the dog...


While heading to the studio one morning last Spring, I was roused from my drive-time, pre-work torpor by a radio report of a freeway accident involving a bull, a cow, and a big rig. My mind reeled. This sounded like some High Concept package dreamed up by one of those fresh-from-Harvard wunderkinds so popular in above-the-line suites a few years back: “We’ve got ‘Sense and Sensibility’ meets ‘Over the Fence’ meets ‘Terminator.’ Emma Thompson does The Cow, John Goodman is The Bull, and Schwarzenegger plays the Big Rig. We’re talking gold here!”

Such a news report might not raise eyebrows in Iowa (or even Bakersfield), but it isn't the sort of thing you hear in the urban dystopia of Los Angeles. Did this bovine iteration of the age-old battle between the sexes -- the yes/no, push/pull, stop-don’t/don’t-stop, male vs. female tango -- culminate in the hopeless despair of blood on the pavement, or had it concluded with one satisfied bull, one relieved cow, and a truck driver just happy to have survived?

Having grown up in the sticks, where cows and other large mammals were as much part of the landscape as dogs and cats, dealing with escaped animals was part of the deal. The runaway would be detected during the daily dawn patrol to the barn, after which we’d follow the inevitable trail of “evidence” dropped by the cow as she meandered towards the salad bar of some distant (and hopefully still asleep) neighbor’s garden. With no freeways nearby, there was no real problem – we’d just lead her back to the barn and that was that. But you can’t go far in LA without running into a freeway: a concrete and asphalt corridor of death for any creature not safely tucked and belted inside a four-wheeled cocoon of steel, plastic, and glass.

So it was with a blend of curiosity and apprehension that I searched the pages of the LA Times the following morning for news of the outcome... and found nothing. Apparently the unlikely confluence of a single-minded bull, reluctant cow, and an eighteen-wheel semi didn’t strike the editors of the Times as a newsworthy item. Perhaps that’s just as well. Absent actual facts, I could assume a happy ending to that story, however unlikely or fleeting the happiness of such star-crossed bovine lovers might be.

Whatever you do an wherever you live – from Bangor, Maine to Hollywood, California -- the path of love can be rocky, even if you don’t happen to be Brad and Angelina. That said, anyone who works in the film/television industry can attest to how hard the biz is on long-term romantic relationships. This was made starkly clear to me on my first Industry job, as a greener-than-green production assistant working for lunch and gas money on an ultra-low budget feature. While chatting with the show’s gaffer -- an affable fellow then in his early thirties (call him “Bill”) -- I was stunned when he casually mentioned that he’d already acquired three ex-wives. A fourth scalp would be added to his belt of broken marriages a few years later.

Needless to say, Bill now lives alone in a trailer in the hot, barren deserts north of LA.

Much of this was his own doing, of course. Making mistakes and suffering the consequences is an unavoidable part of life (what I call “The Joe Frazier School of Higher Education”*), but the sheer scale of Bill’s scorched-earth connubial carnage remains impressive even by the notoriously loose standards of the film community. Given the forces arrayed against conjugal harmony in this business, it’s a wonder anyone toiling under the shadow of that big white Hollywood sign dares to walk upon the thin ice of matrimony in the first place. Lust precedes love, however, and the Darwinian Mandate -- distilled to it's pure adrenal essence by five hundred million years of evolution -- will not be denied. Still, I have to give Bill credit for his willingness to get up off the canvas after each knockdown and go another round. After four straight KO’s, though, he’s thrown in the matrimonial towel. His thoughts on the subject after that last divorce were blunt:

“To hell with marriage. Next time I’ll just find a woman I already hate and buy her a house. That’ll save us both the trouble of going through a divorce.”

The basic structure of the Film Industry presents a unique set of challenges to long-term relationships, forcing a mutually smitten couple to swim upstream against a swift, relentless current. Serving at the director’s whim -- and a shooting schedule that is often wildly optimistic – film crews work long hours until every every scene on the call sheet is in the can. Although there’s usually a method to the madness, each day’s journey remains a trek through a minefield, where any misstep can blow the schedule to all hell. Technical problems can crop up with the cameras, generator, lights, or sound equipment – problems that take precious time to fix. A location that was quiet as a library during the location scout might find a DWP crew outside ripping up the sidewalk out front with jackhammers on shoot day. An equipment truck can have an accident or suffer mechanical breakdown on the way to work. An actor might suddenly be unable to remember or properly deliver his/her lines, while a particularly fussy and insecure director can drive everyone crazy with his yes-no-I-don’t-know indecision. There’s no end to the foul-ups with the potential to turn a well-ordered march through the call sheet into a 16 hour day that throws the whole shooting schedule out of whack.

Any manufacturing industry can suffer unexpected interruptions to the production flow, but most factories still send their workers home after an eight hour day. Not so the film industry, where the 12 hour day is standard in features and episodic television, while the cable networks enjoy "sweetheart deals" allowing a full 14 hour work day (not including meal breaks) before the hammer of double-time usually puts an end to their particular brand of stupidity -- and that’s assuming everything goes as planned. Smooth, trouble-free days do happen from time to time, but are rare enough that if the terms SNAFU and FUBAR hadn’t already been invented to describe life in the military, they’d surely have emerged from the film industry. Fuck-ups are pretty much a way of life in Hollywood.

With no firm timeline for each day’s work, the best a crew member can do is offer a hopeful estimate to his/her spouse as to when they’ll be coming home. This inevitably creates friction, particularly with a non-industry mate. Civilians have a hard time understanding or accepting that barring an emergency, the job comes first, and the work will continue until done. Eventually, a civilian spouse may come to suspect that he or she is not being told the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth – that the eternally tardy husband/wife might not be working late after all, but carrying on a torrid affair with some floozy/hunk, as the case may be. Thus begins the long emotional skid that so often culminates in the smoldering wreckage of divorce.

One way around this is to find a mate within the biz, which is how grips and cameramen come to marry script girls and make-up artists. An Industry couple understands the ground rules, and is thus better equipped to handle the inevitable dislocations as they occur. But there’s trouble in every Paradise, and Industry marriages face their own set of problems. Unless a couple can find a way to work on the same projects – theoretically possible, but hard to arrange in reality -- both partners will find themselves working separate, grueling, and equally unpredictable schedules. When things get busy, the loving couple may as well be single again for all they’ll see of each other. One might be working nights or split shifts while the other rises at 4:30 every morning to make a 7:00 call. This is tough on children, pets, and any real sense of togetherness, even if the work happens to be close to home. Should one spouse land a job on a feature film heading out on location, all bets are off. The old phrase “it’s a location, not a vacation” is true enough: a crew on location typically works six days a week, with each of those days often stretching well past 12 hours, including meals and travel time. Working that kind of schedule is like falling into a Black Hole: everything outside The Movie vanishes, as the show itself becomes your life. Human nature ensures that when thrown together on a distant location in such difficult conditions, a crew of strangers will quickly bond into a tribe. The hotel bar or other convenient watering hole soon becomes that tribe's unofficial social club, where temptation hangs in the air like a thick, invisible fog. Far from home and living in a state of perpetual fatigue, those with less-than-solid marriages can lose their sense of equilibrium and drift back into a more primitive, pre-marital state of mind. Furtive romances quietly bloom like wildflowers after a spring rain, some of the hit-and-run variety, others lasting the duration of the shoot or longer. It’s simply another permutation of the ancient human equation: stress + opportunity + alcohol = trouble.

For male crew members on location, local women are the low-hanging fruit, ripe for the plucking. Most have never seen a movie being made, and are intoxicated by the confusing but intensely purposeful process, drawn like giddy little moths to flutter around the incandescent flame of the Hollywood traveling circus. Their main focus is first on the actors, who can pick and choose from the cream of local beauties. This is a dangerous game, though. Actors – particularly well-known, married actors -- must be very careful in these days of cell phone cameras, the internet, and the insatiable appetite of tabloids to link famous faces with the slightest hint of scandal. A casual dalliance on location can morph into a life-changing, marriage-wrecking, bank account-busting conflagration overnight. Unmarried actors romp on a much longer leash, but thanks to increasingly easy access to DNA testing and subsequent paternity suits, they too can suffer long term consequences from an impulsive roll in the hay. The double-edged sword of fame cuts both ways.

With the actors occupied or sequestered from the fray, the local girls will find all they can handle in a crew made up largely of young men who are willing, able, and always ready. Opportunity varies from location to location – shooting a movie in a densely populated urban area offers vastly more prospects for romantic encounters than filming in a tiny remote fishing village -- but the general rule holds: if you’re interested, interesting things can happen.

While working as the Best Boy Electric on a low-budget feature filming in and around a college town in the Deep South, my three man crew of juicers burned through the local girls like Sherman’s army marching on Atlanta. It was early Spring, sunny and warm, with the Red Bud trees all in flowery bloom, and a vast flock of lovely sorority girls working as extras in the crowd scenes: fertile soil indeed to nurture budding romance. After the first couple of weeks, one of my juicers – a skinny, pimply-faced kid from the San Fernando Valley – came to me with a dreamy smile on his face.

“I don’t know what’s goin’ on here,” he said, shaking his head in wonder. “I’ve been to bed with four different girls already this week. Nothin’ like this ever happened to me before.”

I watched the fun and games from the sidelines -- not that many college coeds would be interested in a late-thirties geezer anyway, with so many randy young Hollywood studs on the loose -- but I stayed on the bench in the quaint conviction that I should be faithful to a wardrobe assistant I’d met the previous Fall while filming a movie on location in Vermont. Things heated up on our return to LA, to the point where I thought we might have that certain Special Something going on... but the Curse of the Industry Couple struck again when she landed a movie shooting in Montana at the same time I took that film heading down south. Trying to maintain the bond, I sent her postcards and flowers from deep in Dixie, and called every Sunday, our only day off. But there was no return mail from Montana, where her telephone rang and rang without even an answering machine or voice mail on which to leave a message. This continued for five long, ever-more depressing weeks. It didn’t take a genius to figure out what that meant, but being a complete sap, I kept giving her the benefit of the doubt and hoping for the best until that fateful sixth Sunday, when she finally did answer the phone. Her voice was as cool and distant as train whistle deep in the night. She’d met someone else, of course – after all, that’s how she and I got together in the first place, meeting on location. Confronted with what a fool I’d been, my resistance crumbled, and I surrendered to the charms of a doe-eyed Kappa Alpha Theta who’d been batting her big dark eyes at me the previous couple of weeks. That’s how it goes on location.

Given the nature of the biz, it’s no surprise the ranks of the Industry are rife with so many bruised and bitter souls whose joi de vivre has been bled dry by the endless grind of work and a trail of broken relationships. At a certain point, the last traces of youthful enthusiasm and idealism concerning the movie business in general -- and relationships in particular -- have long since burned off into the smoggy haze above Los Angeles. Not that the misery is limited to those who sweat and suffer below-the-line: actors, writers, directors, and producers also walk barefoot across the flaming coals of romantic travail, but they make a lot more money with which to fix things. When a guy’s making millions, it’s not such a big deal that the newly ex-wife gets the house in the Palisades, the Mercedes, and fifty grand a month in alimony/child support -- he’s still sitting relatively pretty after the lawyers finish mopping up the mess.

Not that money will buy happiness, of course, but it does buy just about everything else. As Humphrey Bogart remarked while popping a bottle of champagne in the film classic “Casablanca” -- “This sure takes the sting out of being occupied.”

There’s little such sting-relief below the line, where most of us live much closer to the bone. I knew of one very successful gaffer who strayed from the marital fold, suffered through the subsequent divorce, and was then saddled with a staggering load of alimony, house, and car payments. He’d made the classic blunder of bending his marital vows while working a hot streak and making very good money – good enough that the judge felt justified in awarding the ex-wife eight thousand dollars a month to keep her happily ensconced in the manner to which she’d become accustomed. That meant the poor slob had to gross close to thirty-five hundred dollars a week just to pay her off, and even more to maintain his own suddenly-miserable existence. Breaking even was the very best he could hope for – climbing out of the hole or getting ahead was out of the question. Being a well-connected gaffer working for an in-demand Director of Photography (and owning a truck full of lighting equipment he rented to every production he worked on) enabled him to pull this off, but it meant working flat out, week-in-and-week-out, month after bloody month, just to keep pace. In effect, he was a prisoner strapped to a high-speed treadmill forcing him to run as long and hard as possible. That kind of rat-race can grind a man down in a hurry -- a high price to pay for a fleeting moment of pleasure a long way from home.

All this is not to discourage any of my fellow Industry brethren from ascending to the sunlit temple of marital bliss. Successful, happy, and lasting marriages do happen in Hollywood. Near the end of that feature in Dixie, the dazed and giddy young Lothario on my crew ended up meeting a cute little blonde who happened to be a Computer Science major with a very good head on her shoulders. Eventually, they got married and moved to Chicago, where I lost track of them. I don’t know if their marriage has since stood the test of time, but simply getting away from Hollywood had to improve their chances. I know other resilient couples in it for the long haul throughout the Industry, but in some ways, they remain the proverbial exceptions who underline the rule. Like it or not, the most durable marriage many Industry workers will ever have is to the biz itself: for better and worse, in sickness and health, ‘til death...

Well, you know.


* Joe Frazier, aka: Smokin’ Joe, was a legendary heavyweight boxer known for his relentless attack, lethal left hook, and a willingness to take three punches so long as he could deliver one. Joe Frasier dealt Muhammad Ali -- "The Greatest" himself -- his first professional loss in 1971. Any fighter who made a mistake in the ring with Joe Frazier paid the price – but in boxing, as in life, there’s always another lesson waiting to be learned. Smokin' Joe's turn came in 1973, when he was knocked down six times in the first two rounds by a younger, bigger, and much stronger George Foreman. Thus, “The Joe Frazier School of Higher Education,” where the learning never stops -- and it always hurts.


Tuesday, February 12, 2008

New Links on the List

There's a new link heading the list of recommended reading over on the right -- "BTL" -- definitely not a sandwich, but rather a blog called "Life Below the Line: tales from the bottom of the film business." I stumbled across it while reading the latest entry in "Script Goddess," another recent and most-excellent addition to the list 'o links.

The author of "BTL" is a sound mixer out of New York, who remains anonymous to protect herself from retribution in this loose-lips-sink-ships Industry of ours -- as does "Script Goddess," a script supervisor working here in LA.

These are excellent Industry blogs, featuring stories of location and stage work from their own unique perspective -- stories that are funny, thoughtful, and well-written . Both have lots of good archives to plumb, too. Do yourself a favor and check 'em out.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

The Goodman Archives

All the TV-watching I’ve done during the last few weeks got me to thinking about television criticism. Not the usual Joe Sixpack bleat that “there’s nuthin’ on TV” -- but reasoned, learned, passionate analysis of the medium itself. Those who appreciate thoughtful criticism are blessed with a wide spectrum of talent these days, but for my money, one stands head and shoulders above the rest: Tim Goodman, writing for the San Francisco Chronicle. Tim covers all aspects of the Television Industry relevant to those who bask in the pale glow of the Cathode Ray Gun -- the viewers. He also writes a blog on the Chronicle’s website, but according to Tim (no relation to the justly-doomed sit-com of a remarkably similar name), his tight-fisted Chronicle taskmasters do not (and will not) kick anything more into the pot for his trouble. Which means he writes the blog for free. This tells you something about the man’s passion for his work, a passion that spills from every column and post like blood dripping off the page. He’s as smart as they come, and cares more about television -- good television -- than can possibly be healthy. He's also an absolutely terrific writer. When sensing rot in the floorboards of a show, he bores in without mercy (but with considerable humor), examining and explaining exactly why that particular show sucks The Big One. Indeed, he bills himself a specialist in “failure analysis,” and that’s no lie – watching him methodically deconstruct a poorly conceived or sloppily executed show is like witnessing one of those controlled-explosive demolitions of an abandoned building. Having been inside a couple of those imploded shows, I can attest to the accuracy and power of his attack. But unlike some keyboard assassins-for-hire, Goodman does not seek-and-destroy out of malice, but rather out of love, albeit an exceedingly tough brand of love. He has an abiding respect – almost a reverence – for truly good television. When he finds a neglected gem of a show, no writer, producer, or actor could hope to find a more passionate advocate. But if you’re a hack just trying to make a quick buck shoveling a dumb show down the open maw of an unsuspecting public, look out: you will find yourself on the sharp end of Tim Goodman's lethal pen.

That said, I came rather late to the party. Long a fan of Tim’s predecessor at the Chron, John Carman – who eviscerated lame television with the deft precision of a world-class fencer -- I was very disappointed to read Carman’s final column on March 11, 2002, announcing that he’d accepted the Chronicle’s offer of early retirement. After merging with The Examiner (San Francisco’s other daily paper), Chronicle management cut costs by offering early retirement to anyone over a certain age and pay grade. And after twenty-five years of beating television about the head and neck (sixteen of those years in the service of the Chron), John Carman was interested.

As a follower of the “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” school of philosophy, I considered this a terrible mistake, yet more evidence that the world was going to hell in the proverbial hand basket. I remained sullen for a long time, begrudgingly reading the columns of the brash young kid who took Carman’s place, but unwilling to cut him (or his patented “cranky pants”) any slack. Like water working on stone, however, time has a way of wearing down the stiffest resistance. Slowly – and in spite of myself -- I began to come around. At this point, my own long and winding road through the labyrinth of Hollywood had led me into the world of television, finally working on actual TV shows after twenty years of doing commercials, music videos, and the occasional feature film. Reading about television now took on a new relevance. Then came the column that finally won me all the way over, a piece describing the kick-off of the 2003 Television Critics Association press tour in Los Angeles, wherein the nation’s snarkiest critics collide head-on with the producers and actors of shows scheduled to debut on the new Fall season. This affair, it seems, is a three week, booze-soaked bacchanal, a non-stop, expense-account driven rolling party dubbed by one sharp critic the “Death March with Cocktails.” Many have written about it, but nobody quite like Tim Goodman.
Here is that seminal column:

The TV Tour: three weeks, 200 critics, countless series from network and cable channels. It's like a Death March with Cocktails.

Tim Goodman

Tuesday, July 8, 2003

Hollywood

If Lorna is your new stage name and you're heading west from Missouri on Highway 66 in a tightly packed U-Haul, floating unaware on your starlet dreams and Show Me State idealism, you may have missed the memo: Hollywood is a stinking pit. It's littered with hookers and drug dealers and cheap T-shirt shops and fat, pasty tourists. In front of Mann's Chinese Theatre, there's a guy who dresses up like Yoda, and you can get a picture with him for $1. His sweatshirt is dirty. Next to him is Superman, but he doesn't look too super in his blue cotton sweats.

This is a bleak town.

And yet, in a span of three weeks, every TV network or cable channel that matters will be launching dreams from here, little trial balloons sent through a thicket of 200 television critics from the United States and Canada, in hopes that critical buzz will turn a newbie TV show in September into a monster, ratings-dominant, advertising-laden hit by the end of May.

Never mind that history says the public -- that would be you -- has a hard time deciphering what to make of 39 new series presented almost simultaneously and that such confusion results in a failure rate of roughly 84 percent for new shows. And that's not even counting cable.

But television executives and the gigantic media corporations they work for haven't learned much from their own failure analysis, so they turn instead to the very people who, in effect, help ratchet up that 84 percent figure: television critics.

And so here were are, on the biennial Television Critics Association press tour, offering guidance. Having forsaken a chunk of sunny summer to stay indoors and watch Whoopi Goldberg and a horde of others mug for laughs or yet another cop race down an alley trying to clean up Philadelphia or whatever city it will be this season, we are in a position to offer help.

We have seen the shows poised at the September starting gate. Now it's time to talk to the executives, the stars, the producers, the writers, one another, maybe even Yoda, and make some sense of it. Along the way we will be spun in ways the Maytag repair people couldn't fathom. For 20 days we will sit in rooms with the air conditioner cranked up so we don't fall asleep (remember, we've seen Whoopi's show). There will be wining. And dining. And whining.

But this event, this Death March With Cocktails, as Tom Jicha, the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel critic is credited with calling it, is not a "junket," that derisive soft-ball-centric sort of affair generally associated with the movie industry. The Television Critics Association is a professional group with bylaws and an ethics policy. The core members are by and large print journalists with a healthy dose of jadedness who feel no hesitancy to flay stars or executives. Many times things turn aggressive and ugly. Sadly, every now and then there are moments of embarrassment for the doings of the less professional or credible in the ranks.

And there will be, predictably, some dismissive flatulence from the likes of the Los Angeles Times, which doesn't like getting its entertainment head handed to it from out-of-towners. There will be one or two old-guard emperors who don't come out for the event but manage to disparage its usefulness, forgetting in the process that they have outlived their sell-by dates as effective TV critics and are now essentially pulling it out of their backsides and/or mailing it in.

Here's the bottom line: The press tour is what you make it. There are news and information to be had here like nowhere else. No other industry makes its leaders answer for their failures in a public setting two times each year. Maybe if Detroit had such a thing, we'd have better cars. But then again, after all of this, do you, as the viewer, have better television shows?

Well, it's easier to make a car than it is to make a hit comedy, let's leave it at that.

In the next three weeks, our goal is to give you some information, some insight, criticism and rambling analysis about the fall season -- even a sense of how television gets made: what goes on behind the scenes, from critical decisions to drunken revelations.

Television is the most powerful medium on the planet -- that can't be said enough. Even people who say they don't watch, watch. Television is the shared experience of our country, a free (or mostly free) technology that bonds us together, the blue light flickering in living rooms and bedrooms from coast to coast.

And so the 2003-04 television season is about to be presented in this city where staid New Englanders bump heads, literally, with crack hos looking to get a glimpse of Johnny Carson's star in the sidewalk. Against that backdrop, maybe anything is possible. Maybe you'll get 10 first-rate comedies and a dozen can't-miss dramas. Perhaps a symbolic flower of hope will rise from the for-effect fake cracks in the formulaic sidewalk. Step on the red carpet -- let's dream together.

Yeah, and maybe that dirty, unconvincing Yoda will get to work the next kids' party at George Lucas' place.

No, no and no. What the next three weeks amounts to is a professional assassin (hello) taking out the hope the networks raised in May when they presented their fall goods to the advertising community in New York. If that moment was all about optimism -- every premise looking great on paper, every scheduling decision reeking of brilliance -- the television critics press tour is about reality.

Lorna, turn around and get out of this town. It's not big enough for you and all the networks and cable channels and critics. Somebody's bound to get hurt, and things are likely to go sideways.


Nice, huh? You’re welcome.

As a champion of quality television, Goodman has excellent sources deep within The Machine -- he hears much of what goes on upstairs in the executive suites -- and when relevant to a particular column, will share the inside dope with his readers. His opinion packs a punch, too: there’s reason to believe his unflagging and extremely vocal support for “Arrested Development” helped that wonderfully quirky single-camera comedy survive on Fox for three very unlikely and highly enjoyable seasons.

Although there’s no shortage of quality television criticism in the media these days, there aren’t very many important television critics anywhere. Tim Goodman is one of those few. You can find his latest column (and tap into his archives) at: http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/search/columnists.cgi?waisdbname=/chronicle/&byline=Tim+Goodman
All are worth reading, but some are truly great – and you can’t go wrong with any of the columns appearing under the recurring subtitle “Everything we know we learned from television.”

“The Bastard Machine,” his Chronicle blog, can be reached here (http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/blogs/sfgate/indexn?blogid=24), or through the link under my list of “Recommended Reading” over on the right. There, he riffs on whatever’s going on in the television world at the moment – always with the viewer in mind – and maintains a growing compendium of podcast interviews with television luminaries such as Stephen Colbert and Ken Burns (among many others), along with links to past posts and his Chronicle archives. If nothing else, do yourself a favor on some slow, rainy day, and take a long stroll through those archives – and keep your eyes peeled for any columns concerning the Death March with Cocktails. You won't be sorry.

Tim’s personal blog (http://timgoodman.blogspot.com/) features deconstructions of favorite shows such as the current season’s “The Wire,” among others. Warning: this can be dangerous if you haven’t seen those shows yet -- the working assumption is that you’re there because you’ve seen and want to read about/discuss the show in question. Consider this a spoiler alert.

If the prospect of reading about television doesn’t interest you – or if for some reason, you didn’t like the sample column above – all I can say is de gustibus non est disputandum. There really is no accounting for taste. In that case, no harm, no foul – go ahead, turn on the TV and watch Jerry Springer and Maury Povich perform their own special brand of magic in the dying light of the afternoon.

All I can do is try to share the wealth. Here’s the water. Now drink...

Saturday, February 9, 2008

What's Next?

Having returned to my home planet, far from the dark shadow of the Hollywood sign, I find myself peering back through the telescope at what might just be the end of the WGA strike. It appears that the plucky WGA rebels really are on the verge of signing a peace treaty with the AMPTP (aka: The Evil Empire, or as Nikki Fink calls them, “The Moguls”), which could bring picket lines down as soon as next week. All this is depends, of course, on cooler heads in both organizations muzzling any further outbursts from their more emotional comrades -- those whose flair for incendiary, my-way-or-the-highway rhetoric helped sabotage previous efforts to reach agreement. One must never underestimate the ability of either the WGA or the AMPTP to snatch defeat from the jaws of compromise.

In other words: hold your breath while keeping all available fingers crossed.

Although generally loathe to stray from the time-tested, believe-it-when-I-see-it philosophy of life, I remain cautiously optimistic. And if as appears likely, this strike really is over, then what’s next? Work, that’s what. Not for me (being locked in the cell of recovery for at least another three months), but for the rest of below-the-line Hollywood. Not that Happy Days are Here Again – because truth be told, things weren’t all that great before the strike. Something’s better than nothing, though, and most of us would be happy to see that situation return. Whether that will come about remains an open question. Damage has been done, bridges burned, deals cancelled. A number of surviving-but-not-thriving shows were already on the bubble before the strike, and are likely gone for good, meaning all those crews will be looking for new jobs.

With pilot season looming, this wouldn’t ordinarily pose a huge problem, but these are not ordinary times. In the wake of the strike, Jeff Zucker -- the grinning, goggle-eyed homunculus at the helm of NBC -- declared his network will no longer indulge in their annual springtime orgy of 15 to 18 pilots, instead putting all their chips down on five or six carefully chosen for their potential to make the fall lineup. This translates to ten or twelve fewer pilots from NBC alone, and with each pilot representing sixty to eighty below-the-line jobs, that’s a huge hit. If the other networks follow Zucker’s little munchkin footsteps, the avalanche of lost work could leave many of us buried for a long time to come.

That said, I’m not among those doom-and-gloomers who think the way the Industry has done business will radically change from this day on. Yes, the ’08 pilot season could be something of a disaster (for that matter, 2008 as a whole will probably suck), but when little Jeff and his fellow network heads watch 90% of their “carefully chosen” pilots go down in flames next Fall, they’ll be in a terminal panic to stop the bleeding – and the only way to do that is with new shows. They could turn to the quick-fix of reality programming in the short run, but there’s only one “American Idol” (thank God), and although the networks do make money on most reality programming, it’s nothing like the sustained tsunami of green that comes with a long running hit. By next Christmas, scripted shows like “Friends” and “Will and Grace” might be looking awfully good to NBC, and at some point -- one way or another-- they’ll have to get back in the game. Making a hit show is an art, not a science, and a poorly understood art at that. Until hit-making becomes a predictable, repeatable endeavor (and pigs will fly over the frozen pits of Hell on that bright and shiny day), the networks will have to fall back on what they actually know how to do, what they’ve always done: try a host of different ideas – and that means lots of pilots. If so, 2009 could end up a pretty good year. Compared to the unfolding disaster of 2008, of course, anything would look like a good year, but I’m thinking (read: hoping) that after a few more dark and ugly months on the bottom, things just might start looking up.

Will Hollywood return to the glory days when sit-coms ruled the earth? No. Will things even get back to the way it was -- good and bad -- before the strike? Not for a while, if ever. Change has been happening for a while now, and will keep on coming -- evolutionary change that invariably brings trouble for the old and opportunity for the young. The only thing I’m reasonably sure of is that the great “paradigm shift” so many have been shouting about won’t come overnight. Whether the shows that arise from the ashes of the WGA strike are destined for broadcast or the Internet, they still have to be made: and we’re the people who make them. I harbor no illusions that life below-the-line will actually get better -- we’ve been on a downward slide for a long time now, and there’s no reason to expect that situation to improve. But there will be work, at least, and after the last three months we’ve all endured, that’s a good thing.

The road back starts with the writers giving the nod to the deal their leadership hammered out over the last two weeks – and that’s assuming SAG manages to cut an early deal rather than go to the mattresses come June 30, when their contract is up. But that will be then, and this is now.

Get it done, writers. It’s time.

Sunday, February 3, 2008

Magic on the Boulevard? "The Real Hustle"

"The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun."
Ecclesiastes 1:9-10


Before I go all biblical on you (relax, Comrade Blog-Reader, I am only with the joke-making), allow me the indulgence of a brief rant. Many years ago, the LA Times came up with an incredibly irritating advertising slogan lauding itself as a “Great Newspaper! Great Use-Paper!” How many times did I sit in a darkened movie theater, waiting for the feature attraction while enduring yet another seemingly endless commercial for the LA Times -- a commercial that invariably ended with that idiotic phrase? Dozens, hundreds, countless times...

There have been some terrific writers on the Times’ staff over the years, but whoever wrote that steaming pile of doggerel should have been fired.

Still, it stuck in my brain -- and at the time, might even have been true. Back then, the LA Times was working hard to achieve the journalistic clout sufficient to give the New York Times – the “Gray Lady” herself -- a run for her money. If they fell short of this noble goal, I have to give them credit for trying. Unfortunately, such shoot-for-the-stars ambition is a thing of the past. Now owned and managed by the Chicago Tribune, the Times staff has endured round after round of cost-cutting measures, the latest of which resulted in the disappearance of the weekly TV listings that had long been hidden amidst the five pounds of print advertising that comes with the Sunday paper. Those of us who refuse to buy TV Guide (more or less on principle) are now forced to consult the daily paper in the morning to find out what will be on that night. This is easy enough at the moment, thanks to the strike, but when production resumes, most of us will once again be getting up too damned early to read the morning paper, then come home too late to watch anything anyway. VCR’s and TIVO will resume control of our viewing on weekends and off days. Given the shape-shifting nature of modern scheduling -- with networks shuffling shows from one night to another, or one time slot to the next at the most capricious of whims -- it’s not so longer so easy to program our digital devices to reliably record the desired programming during the week ahead.

Yes, I know -- this is the most insignificantly infinitesimal of bleats, the tiny whine of a mosquito lost against the percussive jackhammer roar that is modern life. It doesn’t even rate the blink of an eye in a world besieged by the endless agony of Darfur, the whirlpool of death currently engulfing Kenya and the Congo, or the bloody mess engulfing Iraq, Afghanistan, Palestine – and South Central LA, for that matter – among the myriad vortices of misery that make up the modern human condition. The lack of a weekly television schedule in the Sunday paper will not spin the earth off its axis and plunge our little blue planet into the sun... but hey, I thought the LA Times was supposed to be a “Great newspaper! Great Use-Paper!”

I guess not.

We now we resume our regularly scheduled programming...

Attentive readers – those currently dis-employed by the WGA strike, or who otherwise enjoy enough unstructured time to wander the trackless expanse of cyber-space – might recall a recent post titled “A Little Magic on the Boulevard” (Jan 13, 2008) describing an encounter with a highly skilled sleight-of-hand artist. During that three-day job, I never once heard the name of the show we were promoting (I don’t even remember seeing a call sheet), and, truth be told, didn’t give it a thought. In the wonderfully terse phrasing of Peggy Archer (“Totally Unauthorized” -- see links list): “I work as a lighting technician on movie and television crews in Los Angeles, California. I very rarely see anything I work on, though.”

That’s pretty much the way it is – which is why I never figured to see the on-screen talent we’d filmed during that job again, much less the no-name show itself. Imagine my surprise, then, when I turned to the TV page in the Calendar section of the LA Times the other day (“Great Newspaper! Great Use-Paper!”) and found a photo under the heading “Today’s Highlights” featuring two of the three stars of that very show, called “The Real Hustle.” Standing in front of the Brooklyn Bridge was the young man who so deftly removed my watch that memorable night (Apollo Robins), with his lovely cohort Dani Marco. The third musketeer, a card-shark and fellow sleight-of-hand master named Ryan Somethingorother, was not pictured.

And so later that night, in the fuzzy mist of a Vicodin haze (this then-newly stitched shoulder was barking like my landlord’s dog), I warmed up the Cathode Ray Gun and tuned it to “truTV.” If you've never heard of “truTV,” neither had I -- and for good reason: until very recently, it was known as “Court TV.” Now called “truTV” (cool, trendy, hip, edgy spelling, no?), the very same people are attempting to re-brand their programming as “Actuality TV.”

Confused? Me too – but then I’m easily confused. I can only assume we’re supposed to think “Actuality TV” is somehow more real than “reality TV.” Maybe so, but that’s grading on a pretty low curve, given that there’s nothing remotely real about “reality TV” in the first place. Besides, it smacks of the much-too-cute semantic hair-splitting typically employed by slimeball politicians to enhance their own grinning image while making their opponents look like yesterday’s cold, dry meatloaf.

At any rate, there were the three young hustlers, Apollo, Dani, and Ryan, working a variety of short cons on unsuspecting civilians under the lenses of several hidden cameras. The basic scheme of the particular hustle was explained at the beginning of each segment, then put into action fleecing the hapless civilians before being fully dissected and demonstrated to the television audience. Once the humiliated victims were reunited with their cell phones/ PDA’s/cash/personal identity information, each of them – wiser now – vowed to be far less trusting of strangers in the future. So good luck if you’re ever lost in New York City and try asking any of these poor people for directions. As our infamously Feckless Leader once said; “Fool me once, shame on... shame on you. Fool me... you can’t get fooled again.”

Well, we know what he meant.

Really, this show is just a modern incarnation of “Candid Camera” hosted by three attractive, talented young people in place of that genial and rumpled old garden gnome, Alan Funt. It’s reasonably well done, and although they certainly cherry-picked the most gullible victims for broadcast, the skills of these three are formidable. It’s a good thing they’re utilizing their talents for fun and profit on the tube – and thus providing an eye-opening education for victims and audience alike – rather than taking advantage of a trusting and astonishingly vulnerable public. When wolves go after sheep, the sheep don’t come out of it so well. It’s rather sobering to ponder how many unscrupulous hustlers with the skills of Apollo, Dani, and Ryan might really be out there, eyeing the herd (that would be us), and licking their chops.

“The Real Hustle” is a breezy, fast-paced half hour. I’m no TV critic (although I’m often critical of TV), but there are probably worse ways to burn thirty minutes of a slow Tuesday night. If it won’t exactly rock your world or change your life (hey, it’s only tee-vee), neither will it depress the hell out of you like say, the evening news – and besides, you’ll get to see the guy who so deftly stole (then returned) my watch out there on Hollywood Boulevard, doing what he does best. Believe me, he’s good. Extremely good.

Then again, you just might learn something useful for down the road. If one fine day you should see these three young hustlers heading your way, you’ll know exactly what to do -- grab your cell phone, PDA, watch, and wallet/purse with both hands, then run like hell.