Monday, July 21, 2014

"Prelude To A Rewrite"

It is fascinating the way the mind works.

A quarter of a century after the fact, I am unexpectedly – and deeply gratifyingly – invited to the wedding of the eleven year-old actress I had cast to play the “smart and wryly humorous middle daughter” on Major Dad.  (See:  “A Nice Thing Happened” 7/10)

A few days later, a forgotten recollection is suddenly awoken in the dark and dormant recesses of my mind.


In the mysterious and magical way in which the brain invokes connections, I found myself thinking about a long-ago episode of Major Dad, featuring, not the now adult woman who had invited me to her wedding, but the sitcom family’s seven year-old youngest daughter, “Casey.”

Wikipedia reminds me that the episode in question was the thirteenth produced episode of Major Dad.  That means it was early in the adjustment process depicted in the series – Major Dad’s premise being “a career bachelor Marine marries a (widowed, Left-leaning) woman with three daughters” – making the story’s issue a “natural” for comedic exploitation, that issue, revealed in the title of the episode being,


Again, Wikipedia reminds me of the specifics of the storyline.  After being instructed not to go near it, little Casey loses one of the Major’s treasured medals, leading the Major to invoke the disciplinarial consequence of spanking.  

Well, as you can imagine, the Major’s permissive new “Lefty” wife – as well as the family’s other two daughters – adamantly oppose this method of punishment.  As do, it turns out, the women on the Major Dad writing staff, particularly a gifted and outspoken two-day-a-week Consulting Producer on the show, who to this day I remember exclaiming – with an appropriate though somewhat frightening intensity,

“I would never let anybody spank my child.”

Examined more closely, two issues are in the spotlight here.  One, is the issue of “corporal punishment”, which could play out in any family narrative, especially when the two parents hold diametrically opposing positions.

The second issue – which hit particularly close to home, as I was involved in a paralleling situation in real life – involved the rights and privileges of being a stepdad. 

Hearing the words, “I would never let anybody spank my child” – an admonition which could admittedly include biological fathers as well but in this case sounded directly targeted at non-“blood” pseudo-relatives – strikes a sensitive nerve, because it places front and center the question:

“What legitimately and acceptably is a stepfather permitted to do?” 

And by “permitted”, you are already acknowledging that outside permission to do that thing is obligatorily required.

Man!  I thought were just telling a (hopefully potentially humorous) story.  It became apparent, however, in the course of the rewrite process, that I had inadvertently stepped into a hornet’s nest.

In a family comedy undergirded, at least while I ran the show (the first season) by a liberal-conservative ideological tension, the arguments could be clearly delineated, one side advocating “spanking is never an acceptable alternative”, the other side believing that such mamby-pamby mollycoddling inhibits accountability among children, and a greater likelihood of their engaging in such egregious behavior, or something similar to it, again.

Skillful comedic exaggeration of these powerfully felt positions could, I believed, inject humor into this highly credible family conflict.  The trouble was, the writers, especially the female writers, particularly the female writers with daughters, and most particularly that outspoken Consulting Producer were not buying it.

You cannot have a conflict, comedic or otherwise, reflecting only one side.  That’s a plane with one wing; it inevitably tips over sideways and crashes and burns.  That was the problem with “Discipline” – in contemporary childrearing America, there appeared to be only one supportable point of view. 

I myself am an opponent of “corporal punishment”, having spanked my (then two-year-old) daughter only once, immediately regretting it and apologizing profusely, though she was unlikely to have heard me, being too busy wailing, and recording this (one time only!) transgression in her mind to bring up in future psychotherapy sessions down the line.

The thing was, the characters in the show were not the writers. They were the characters in the show, one of whom who maintained a strongly held position that, whether the writers in the Major Dad rewrite room agreed with it, that character, and a substantial portion of the viewing audience, making it a viable option for storytelling, did.

Well, we finally got through it – a number of us kicking and screaming – and the episode was completed.  I do not recall it being a standout episode.  Nor do I recall it stinking up the place.  It was a serviceable episode, professionally executed, which – no small accomplishment – carried us to the next episode (which we began with a “Table Reading” the following morning), which we hoped would be better.  Or at least less contentious.
“Discipline’s” climactic scene involved two characters:  The unbending Major, and the little girl, bravely prepared to take her medicine, all the time hoping for a last- minute reprieve.  At the last moment, the Major, in a close call, ultimately relents.
Not excusing the predictability, but somehow when you deliver what they at least unconsciously expect, the audience seems to enjoy it, relishing an oft-told Morality Play, unspooling – hopefully artfully – to its pre-determined conclusion.  Still, you want to get there in the most imaginative way possible.  And I am not certain we did.

Call it compulsive obsessiveness, or just a man with too much time on his hands, but since thoughts of that episode came to mind, it occurred to me that, after twenty-five years,

I might try writing that climactic scene again.

Tomorrow:  “Obstacles To The Challenge”

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