Friday, March 28, 2014

"High Concept - Bye, Concept"

Scribbled on a scrap of paper was an idea for a future blog post that said:

“Sometimes it is easier to sell a show than to make a show.”

What did I mean by that?

Well, a lot of times, looking at it later, I can no longer remember what I meant by what I scribbled down and I end up throwing those scraps of paper away. Though not without lingering regrets. 

Just ‘cause I wrote down some indecipherable reminder does not mean that that indecipherable reminder would not have made a commendable blog post.  (And judging by yesterday’s train wreck, blog post ideas of a superior caliber come along less often than one might hope.) 

“Sometimes it is easier to sell a show than to make a show” – I remember.  I even recall the idea’s genesis.  It derived from a new sitcom, whose “promo” I was watching during a break in an SVU episode in which a pair colluding lovers turned out to be brother and sister.  (TO BE SUNG:  “That’s en-ter-tainment!”)

During the current TV season, there have been, by my count, three series that were – I mean I wasn’t there but they appeared to be – comparatively easy to sell:

The Michael J. Fox Show – because it stars the once and probably still popular Michael J. Fox, and is premised on the uniquely high concept of a family in which the father has Parkinson’s disease.

Sean Saves The World – because it stars Sean Hayes the lovable co-star from the previously successful Will & Grace, and is premised on the somewhat less unique but still provocative high concept of a family (a single Dad this time) in which the father is gay.

And somewhat more difficultly, “more difficultly” because the star is the comparatively less famous J. K. Simmons (unless you’re a fan of the Farmers’ Insurance commercials – yes, I know he did other things, like Juno and the semi-regular psychologist on the original Law & Order, but even his agent will tell you he’s no Sean Hayes or Michael J. Fox…

Growing Up Fisher – premised – perhaps the highest concept of them all – on a family (this time a separated one) in which the father is blind.  The most recently arriving of the three, that was the show whose “promo” I was watching when this blog post idea came to mind:




NETWORK EXECUTIVE:  You got a deal!

Selling such shows, as my scribbled notation observes, is the easy part.  The problem is,

“What’s do you do then?”

Here’s the key to the conundrum:

The networks dread letters.  By which I mean critical letters.  (Why would they dread letters of praise?  On the other hand, who takes the time to write a letter of praise to a network?  “Keep up the uninspiring work.  I like an even keel in my entertainment.”)

Who writes letters at all anymore?  So I shall include the networks’ dread of receiving e-mails.  By which I mean critical e-mails.  (Who takes the time to write an e-mail of praise to a network?  “Although I use the Internet, I remain old-fashioned in my viewing habits.  Do not do anything new, and you’ve got me for life!”)

The issue is simple.  You have three neophyte series whose premises involve a lead character who is “different.”  And then, in order not to appear prejudiced, offensive or discriminatory, you almost immediately neutralize that “difference.” 


Because if you don’t…

You’ll get letters.  (NOTE:  I’m not saying the lead characters in these series are “different.”  The people selling the shows are.  So no letters, okay?)

The problem then becomes – TVQ ratings aside (TVQ ratings measure the popularity of the actor) – if you do not exploit the “difference” in any meaningfully comedic manner…

What’s the show?

Either the “difference” is a distinguishing issue, or it isn’t.  If the “uber-message” of your series (sorry, my computer does not include an umlaut) is that, in the overall scheme of things, that “difference”, in the long run, “doesn’t really matter”, then you are abandoning the high concept that originally sold the show.  On the other hand, if you write the series, reflecting that that “difference” does really matter, and it matters in a way more than being “amusingly inconvenient”…

You’ll get letters.

This issue did not come up in the old days – by which I mean before me, if you can imagine such a time – when the high concept “difference” was that the lead character in the series was a monster (The Munsters), or a genie (I Dream of Jeannie) or a Martian (My Favorite Martian.)  Why was that not a problem?  Because no network fears receiving offended letters from monsters, genies and Martians. 

“Your show infantilizes the Martian People in a manner that is deleterious to the self-image of our children!   And by the way, why isn’t a Martian actor playing the Martian?”

It was only when the “differences” entered the realm of actual reality that the difficulties began.  Irate Parkinson’s sufferers write letters.  You can barely read them, but… Sorry, I thought I'd throw in a little comedy "Rorschach Test."

“Black comedy” is not America’s style.  If we want “morbid and tasteless”, we watch British comedies.  Apparently, comedy has a broader spectrum when your Empire is a memory.

Between our political correctness and our nation’s mythology of overcoming everything, the show creators have pitched a series they cannot deliver, and the show they can deliver, emerges toothless and, in no significant way, different.

A show about a newly separated father who’s blind is essentially a show about a newly separated father.  With a “smattering of blind.”

And that “smattering” (or the “Parkinson’s” smattering, or the “gay” smattering) is not nearly enough to keep you around.


Wendy M. Grossman said...

I don't know if it was sold as a high concept show, but one example of this I actually really liked was the early 1990s drama REASONABLE DOUBT, which starred Mark Harmon and Marlee Matlin. I found it fascinating to watch Matlin's character navigate the difficulties of being deaf and working as a public prosecutor. She had genuine problems to surmount (Harmon was cast as a cop with a deaf parent who had taught him to sign and who therefore could be assigned to her even though, of course, at the beginning they didn't like each other much).


Canda said...

Since Michael J. Fox's show has to be shot without an audience, because of his condition, it is difficult for him to be as funny or the show to have as much energy as his previous two sitcoms.