It is my opinion as well as my personal observation that all writers work hard and all writers do the best they can. That’s why, in my imagined Emmy Award acceptance speech, I announced that it is stupid for writers to compete against each other. (I added, however, that if they were going to give out awards, you might as well win one. You would have loved that speech. Unfortunately, it is only accessible in my head, which is not open to the public. Though there are occasional selected invitees.)
I simultaneously, however – and arguably contradictorily – maintain that some shows, due primarily though not exclusively to the writing, are qualitatively better than other shows. An inconsistency, perhaps, but that’s what makes me the fascinating blogger that I am.
Even on the middle level of dramatic entertainment, where Emmys are rarely – make that never – distributed, there are, I humbly though unequivocally assert, gradations of quality. I argued yesterday, for example, that Law & Order is better than another “police procedural” series called Blue Bloods.
(By the way, it is equally the case that some TV critics are qualitatively better than other TV critics. I recommend Emily Nussbaum, who writes for The New Yorker with such delicious incisiveness she makes me want to watch the shows she’s reviewing that, for various personal reasons, I don’t. Emily Nussbaum seems to “get” these shows so intuitively you can easily imagine her writing successfully for any of them.)
Anyway, back to Blue Bloods. Critiqued by yours truly.
Though I was obviously not present at the time to hear it, Blue Bloods appears to be a “bulletproof” idea pitch.
“The show revolves around an extended Irish family – so it’s a “family show.”
“We’ll buy it.”
“But more than a “family show”, it is also a “police procedural.”
“We’ll buy it.”
“The lead character – and Tom Selleck is definitely interested…”
“We’ll buy it.”
“… is a man, who, after a laudable career in law enforcement is now the New York police commissioner, following directly in the footsteps of his still living father. The now widower commissioner – meaning he’s available for relationships – had four children, one of whom, an FBI agent, was killed in the line of duty, and of the surviving three – one’s a detective, another’s a beat cop and the third one, a tough but idealistic female, works in the District Attorney’s office.”
“Stop talking. We’ll buy it.”
And why wouldn’t you? A “family police procedural”, starring an “available” Tom Selleck? The idea could have been manufactured by a computer. If the network had allowed them to continue instead of validating their parking and sending them merrily on their way, they’d have heard about the family’s traditional “Family Dinner”, in which the family’s four generations come together to share a meal, and to debate that episode’s issue from their various perspectives – old versus young, male versus female, cops versus the D.A.’s office, and the institutionally insulated “Comish” versus the rank-and-file personnel working daily in the trenches.
The series coasts breezily along on its savvily calculated, commercial concept.
Which is the first problem I shall mention.
As a writer friend of mine observed, a show’s intentional “high concept” may be a blessing as a selling device, but it is a weekly challenge in its execution, as you are required constantly to “service the concept”, to the ultimate detriment – not necessarily but quite often – of the episode.
By contrast, Law & Order – and its subsidiaries – depend for their audience’s engagement on whatever story comes thorough the door, as the series’ “regulars”, though perhaps a “family” at work, are not encumbered by “familial obligations”, complicating the narrative. They are simply, overall though not always, grappling with the crime.)
So there’s that – a high concept that must be dutifully serviced. And besides that – I mean, I know it’s just middle-level entertainment, but still – Blue Bloods consequently reeks – not necessarily in a “stinky” way but there is an omnipresent aroma – of contrivance. (What about a Mafia kingpin who visits a psychiatrist, you may ask? At least, before Billy Crystal got his hands on it, that was an original contrivance.)
A contrived series premise – Good for selling. Less so for respectability. Not watchability. I’m watching it. But I also regularly eat wine gums – English “gummy” candy – and nobody’s calling them “The Nutritional Super-food.”
Let me just tick off a few other evaluational elements, so this will not get excruciatingly long.
A familiar lead actor – an advantageous, often obligatory, selling tool. You’ve got a “name.”
The good news: The audience has seen him before. The less exciting news: The audience has seen him before. Engendering the possibility of viewer “burn-out.” Or, “I liked him better in the other thing.”
The creativity of the casting: Less familiar and wonderful – Mariska Hargitay – versus marketable, but you are suppressing a yawn.
By the way, in this conversation, the “creativity” distinction will come up a lot. For example in: “What is the episode about?”
Blue Bloods did an inevitable story about the “Blue Wall”, wherein the police adhere to an unwritten code not to squeal on each other. The storyline derives specifically from an issue “torn directly from the headlines”: The excessive use of force while apprehending a suspect, which is fine, though hardly virgin territory.
This leads me to another “gradation of creativity” element – dialogue. Here is Blue Bloods’ “police brutality” episodes’ climactic “Payoff Line”, sonorously intoned by Selleck’s Commissioner character:
“”You do not have to be strong to use force.”
Everyone – all together now…
“You have to be strong not to.”
For that line alone, Selleck deserved an Emmy in the category: “Best Delivery Of A Predictable Cliché.”
(To be fair, I also experienced an exhilarating snippet of Blue Bloods dialogue. When the Commissioner learns that his middle-aged, aide-de-camp was being scammed by a sexy woman who lured him into a one-night stand and is now blackmailing him for his indiscretion, Selleck ruefully inquires,
“Did you not notice that you were punching above you weight and that all of your punches were landing?”
That’s a wonderful line. The trouble is, there are not enough of them.
So: Blue Bloods’ casting, story ideas and dialogue – creative “B-minuses”, at best. Including the show’s title (“Hey, they’re “blue” and they’re “blood” – What else are you gonna call them?”) Oh, by the way – and if you’re scoring at home, that was my third “by the way” in this blog post – an Irish family where all its members are in law enforcement? “Corned beef and cabbage, Batman! They should be arrested for stereotyping!”
My final point on this matter.
I have this image of carpet installers using this special device for kneeing wall-to-wall carpeting super-snugly into the corners of the room. There is a counterpart to that in writing. You do more than the minimum, taking the time, the effort and the energy to work your way through the story methodically, addressing the loopholes and incongruities and covering all of the bases, and the final product receives a rightfully earned – though invariably unconscious – appreciative “Ahhhh.”
My reaction to a show’s quality is substantially visceral. Today, I have tried to articulate the underpinnings of that reaction.
There is probably more to it.
But for the moment, it is the best I can do.