Friday, July 25, 2014

"Postscript On A Dubious Experiment"

I was entirely covered, as I invariably am on those atypical occasions when I submit myself to a risk.  Before I begin what I am concerned will be a calamitous undertaking, I like to have a ready litany of excuses…um, explanations… for why I fell short.  This makes for a softer landing.  (“Of course I failed.  Look what I was up against!”) 

Having not quite enough stress in my life – Read:  Virtually none whatsoever – I decided to inject some pressure of my own by volunteering to upgrade a scene from a Major Dad episode written twenty-five years ago.  Doesn’t everybody do that? 

(SHAKESPEARE:  “Not me.  I get it right the first time.  Whoever I am.”)

But first, as is my way of things, I protectively leveraged my bet.

Before I dove into the rewrite, I had determined that I would write a follow-up post mortem, rationalizing why the experiment had been an anti-climactical stink bomb, and exonerating myself from as much responsibility as possible.  

That title you see up there?  I had already thought of it.  Hence the word “dubious” before “experiment”, rather than say, “triumphant” (which I had considerable doubts it would be.) 

Explanation Number One:  I had not written in this (the sitcom) format for ten years, a reminder that a man using a near seventy year-old brain who was I was a decade-long stranger to “Writing on Demand” – was also demonstrably rusty.

Explanation Number Two:  I was engaging in an archaic form of sitcom writing, whose predictable rhythms made it easily dismissible. 

Explanation Number Three:  The scene’s subject matter – spanking – was inherently unfunny, rendering the most competent version of the scene problematic as a “laugh inducer.”

Explanation Number Four:  The scene concerned an unbalanced controversy, as today – and most likely in 1989 when the scene was originally written as well – it is challenging to say the least to produce a sympathetic argument favoring spanking.   

To those four excuses, I mean “explanations”, in order to make myself courageous enough to take a shot, I appended a correspondingly insulating rationale:  “What did I have to lose?”  My rewritten scene would not appear on network TV.  Or even on YouTube.  Only here.  Making the risk akin to what Bill Cosby once explained when he asked me to read a part during a Cosby Show “Table Reading”, and I said, “What if I mess it up?”:

“Bases loaded.  Two outs.  Bottom of the ‘First.’”   

Having satisfied myself that I had stacked up enough self-justificatory mattresses to sufficiently break my ignominious fall, I took a deep breath and I intrepidly dove in.  (Though not, I must report, without feeling the accompanying gnawing brick in my abdomen I inevitably experience before leaping into the literary void.  This does not happens with blog writing.  But it did yesterday, because I wasn’t writing a blog post; I was rewriting a scene.)

The actual effort, which I had sidestepped for three days, writing what I at the time insisted were necessary preambles and preliminarities…well, when I finally got down to it, it turns out it was the proverbial “riding a bicycle.”  After all these years, I had not forgotten how to do it.  

Yes, it was difficult getting started.  But that wasn’t “cobwebs.”  It was always difficult getting started.

But after the predictable rocky beginning, it was smooth sailing straight to the “Finish Line.”  (It was difficult finding an ending.  Which was also predictable.  It was always difficult finding an ending.)

I could feel myself having fun, tapping away in a format I sincerely believed I would never revisit.  I was “Back in the saddle again.”  I sensed the jangly excitement of creativity.  But underneath, it was all “rocking chair and slippers” – warmingly familiar and eminently doable.

My unexpected “peak moment”?

When writing these posts, I do not rewrite directly onto the screen.  (Unless I have no access to a printer, in which case I do.)  Instead, I print up the draft, and I rewrite on paper.  I guess that’s an “age” thing.  I am unable to establish a “flow” when I am reading off a screen.

So I finish my First Draft of the scene, I press “Save”, and then press “Print.”  To my startled surprise, as I see the completed pages rolling out of the printer, I find myself breaking – spontaneously – into my most delighted (work related) smile of the post-millennial era.

There it is!  Pages emerging from the printer in the recognizable sitcom format of yesteryear – the “double spacing” between the character and the dialogue, the “double-spacing” within the dialogue, the “single-spacing-All-Caps” of the stage directions. 

It was “Turn Back The Clock Day” on the old blogeroo – a celebratory “Retro Party” on unlined paper.  And it gave me a thrill.

(Blogger’s Note:  For some reason beyond my technological understanding – and, “Full Disclosure”, what isn’t? – I was unable to reproduce that format when I published the scene on the blog, the blog’s format insisting on a “single-spacing” of the dialogue or it splattered the words unintelligibly across the page.  I am truly sorry about that.  Paraphrasing that cheap suit emporium, you would have liked the way it looked.)

My unbiased evaluation of my rewrite?

You know what? 

It’s summer.  Go outside.

And I will tell you about that on Monday.

Keep busy.  It will mitigate the suspense.


Wendy M. Grossman said...

What go outside? It's RAINING!


Bon Odori said...

It's a gorgeous day in my cell block. I'll be out there soon.

Suggestion, & it's a reach. Hold an on-line, live streaming reunion w/as many of the Major Dad cast that you would want to be around.

Wendy M. Grossman said...

I've now seen the original, and I have some thoughts about why I think that although your newer effort may be (I think is) a better *scene* I'm not convinced it would have served the *show* better.

The main thing is the mom's part in all this. Reading your replacement scene out of context, I imagined a blank in the place of the mother (maybe she was out). Seeing her tell Major to go for it changes things: there is no way, particularly in 2014, not to be appalled at her telling him to go for it UNLESS she *knows* in some deep-rooted way that he's not going to be able to hit her child - not just postpone it, but comprehensively unable to think about doing it (and find new ways to impose discipline). The show is about a family being fused out of apparently incompatible elements, and the resolution has to serve *all* of the interlocking relationships, not just the one between Major and Casey. It's the first season of the show, so I'm guessing the marriage is a fairly new one, and I think the problem of the mother's consent to the punishment is a really serious one that has only grown with time. I decided at 14 (in 1968) that, unlike my mother, I don't hit children - not so common then, *very* common now, so much so that corporal punishment is outlawed in Sweden and several other European countries.

In other words, in the intervening decades, IMO the original resolution has gotten much stronger because the actress playing the mom plays it as knowing Major and his developing love for her children better than he knows himself. Lacking that, she's a monster to modern eyes, particularly given how physically small Casey is compared to him. And I'm not sure that her scene as written would play as well following your new version - and it would be very, very hard to tweak without having the audience turn against one or both of them.

Another thought occurs that undercuts the severity of the original offense a bit: medals can be replaced. Yes, it's not the same physical object as your father held in his hands, but medals get lost for all sorts of reasons, and (I see in a quick search), the government replaces them at no cost: (This is also my problem with "The Gift of the Magi": hair grows back.)

You did not have the Internet available when this show was on the air, but a modern-day Casey could be found (either on her own or being taught) in the living room on the family computer anxiously researching whether and how to replace the medal, etc. That would not provide a satisfying resolution to the characters' dilemma, however.