And that cheeky paraphrasing of George Santayana’s oft-referenced admonishment leads us into today’s topic, kiddies n’ pals…
Sometimes you’ll see books (or advice columns) about how to write great movies, hit movies, how to craft a great screenplay. But, you know, I’ve sometimes thought it might be interesting to write a book, not so much on the “Do”s of writing…so much as the “Don’t”s — how to avoid writing a bad script. I was thinking about this because of how often I’ll see bad movies (or TV series) — or not bad, but let’s just say commercially unsuccessful — that seem to repeat the same cliches as previous unsuccessful movies and TV series. Now there’s nothing wrong with that — there’s nothing wrong with seeing an idea or plot idea that hasn’t worked and saying, hey, I’m going to make it work this time, because I know what the others did wrong! (The Wright Brothers weren’t the first people to build an airplane — they were just the first to build it right) But a lot of the time I get the impression problematic ideas get recycled…simply because those using it now are completely ignorant that it didn’t work before. Hence why a book pointing out bad story points might be as useful as a book pointing out good ones.
These thoughts got churned up in my mind reading about the up-coming Canadian-made SF series called Continuum. Now I touched on Continuum a few postings back — back when its press releases announced it under the working title of “Out of Time“. And, yes, I’m still just looking at press releases (the series itself in production but still a few months away from a broadcast date). So why am I musing and reflecting upon a series I haven’t yet seen, you ask? Isn’t that unfair to it? Well, yes…and no. After all, the reason the producers are putting out press releases is because they are hoping to galvanize viewers, to stir up enthusiasm, prior to the show’s premiere. They want to get us thinking and talking about the show, sight unseen. So that’s what I’m doing.
I also like to look at it from a purely academic, abstract point of view. You see, I’m interested in the process of storytelling — the choices made (and not made), the archetypes and cliches that work…and those that don’t. I’ve watched a lot of TV and movies over the years (and read a lot of novels, etc.). And, I’m guessing, so have you. So any time a “new” show comes along…we all can’t help viewing it in the context of those that came before.
I’m rooting for Continuum — honest. But there are a few things, based simply on a few paragraphs in press releases, that kind of worry me, that kind of erode my fan-boy enthusiasm before they’ve finished the edit on the first episode.
The fact that Continuum has undergone a name change can maybe raise an eyebrow — but isn’t really as ominous as it sounds. Series undergo pre-production title changes all the time. It might make the producers seem a bit like flibbertigibbets, unable to even settle on a name…but it doesn’t necessarily reflect upon the quality of the production (it’s when something’s been released, and bombed, and then they re-name it that can you can see it as a bad sign).
In my earlier post where I referenced the series (when it was called Out of Time) I suggested the premise sounded problematic — simply because it had been done many times before, with limited success. The premise of the series is that a cop from the future has come to modern times to hunt down criminals from the future. There’s nothing wrong with idea — but the very tidiness of the premise might suggest it could get repetitious very quickly. More to the point, the idea of an otherworldly cop chasing otherworldly crooks in a (budget-saving) modern big city had been the inspiration for past series — Time Trax (most obviously), Tracker, Brimstone and others I referenced in my earlier post. Most lasting only a season or two before cancellation — if that. Now, just because a premise has been tried, and found unsuccessful, doesn’t mean a new creative team can’t find that twist, that fresh window into its creative core, that will make it work this time — but they kind of need to be aware of the pitfalls in order to avoid them. Hence my allusion to George Santayana.
Indeed, a new American series, Alcatraz, sounds like it’s another variation on the general premise.
(In my earlier post, I even mused about a variation on the premise that would allow them to keep the basic idea…but broaden the story possibilities).
Of course, times change, audience expectations — and the demographic needs of cable networks — can alter. I’ve seen series do well today that aren’t noticeably different, or an improvement, over older series that tanked. So maybe Continuum just needs to be the right series at the right time — nothing more.
But another plot point came up in the more recent press release — a more detailed description of the premise. And it struck me as funny — because it was a plot cliche I’d been thinking about even before I knew Continuum was going to use it. A plot device that, frankly, strikes me as problematic…and doomed to failure. A plot device that I had actually considered referencing maybe in an essay on the do-s and don’t-s of a TV series.
To whit: according to the press release, our heroine will be stuck in modern times…separated from her husband and child. So we can infer a running theme will be her pining for her lost family, always hoping someday they will be reunited.
Unfortunately, I’ve seen it before and (cue Mr. Santayana) it almost never works!
I mean, at first glance it seems like a good idea — rife with pathos and emotional drama, every week the hero(ine) looking longingly into space, wondering if they’ll ever be reunited –every…episode…week…after…fricking…week. (I think you see where I’m headed with this) It seems like an emotionally rich idea — but it’s a narrative dead end. It was a dead end when they used it in the recently cancelled The Cape (outlaw hero separated from his wife and child), or the one-season wonder that was The Crow (ghostly hero separated from his ghost girlfriend). It was such a dead end in The Beastmaster (hero searching for his kidnapped irreplaceable one true love) that they killed her off after a season (the hero discovering she wasn’t so irreplaceable after all, apparently). Heck, back in the 1960s, in The Silver Surfer comic books, they almost made it work, simply because writer Stan Lee and artist John Buscema invested the panels with such purple passion and hearts-on-their-sleeves emotiveness — but it too got real old, real fast.
The problem is, it can’t go anywhere.
A TV series (particularly today) is about movement, about narrative drive. Separated lovers can’t progress in their relationship, so you end up with scenes that are basically just the same repetitious scenes, week after week. Either of the characters separate, thinking about each other (which precludes really generating any chemistry between the characters so that we, the viewer, can be invested in the relationship) or maybe flashback scenes, as they remember better times…which also bog down the plot (since the scenes have no impact in the current story, and basically just exist as character scenes within a narrative vacuum). All with no real hope that plot line will go anywhere. And by giving the protagonist this lost love…it kind of hamstrings the possibility of romance in their current environment, often a big part of TV series — hence why the lost love is sometimes killed off as the writers realize it’s keeping them from exploring more viable story ideas. Now maybe in Continuum that’s the point — given the heroine is going to be teamed with a hunky guy cop, the lost hubby idea is simply to provide an obstacle to their burgeoning relationship (after all, in the will they/won’t they romantic tension used by many TV series, the hard thing is to come up with a some reason why consenting adults might be resisting their mutual attraction). But that still seems problematic to me — setting up this past relationship simply to be disposable.
I honestly can’t think of a series that used the “separated lovers” idea where it worked. Can you?
And then we get to the casting.
Again, in my earlier post, I suggested that I was looking forward to seeing who would be cast (the roles not assigned at the time of the earlier press release) — wondering if it would be some favourite actress of mine, or some unknown, or what. Well, casting has been announced and the lead, starring role has gone to — drum roll please! — Rachel Nichols. And I can feel a little deflated. Oh, I’m not saying anything against Ms. Nichols…indeed, I’ve never heard of her, nor to my knowledge have I seen her in anything (looking at some credits, I guess I have seen her in things…just not to identify her). She may be a fine performer. But she is an American. And as anyone knows who’s spent much time paying attention to the Canadian entertainment industry, reserving leading roles for American actors has long been a frustration in the Canadian entertainment biz.
It’s not as bad as it was. Indeed, quite a few “Canadian” series airing right now feature Canadian actors as the leads. But that hasn’t always been the case, and I’d hate to see the industry start back sliding so soon, like an alcoholic falling off the wagon when he’d only quit drinking a week before.
And it could well be that Ms. Nichols American status had nothing to do with her casting. It could be she really was the best person for the role, that the producers had scoured high and low through the Canadian talent pool and not found an actress who could embody the role as well. Fair enough. Certainly that’s what producers usually claim in such circumstances, and sometimes they’re telling the truth, and sometimes they’re lying, and sometimes…they’re lying to themselves (in that they did hold a few token Canadian casting calls…but never in their hearts seriously considered the Canadian actors).
I like American actors — I liked David Marciano in Due South. Richard Dean Anderson was a personable lead in StarGate: SG-1. And so on. But it can be frustrating when there are so few TV series made in Canada, and even fewer clearly aiming for (hoping for) an international distribution — and then when the roles do come along, the producers hang out a sign that says “No Canucks Need Apply”.
Actually, listed in the supporting cast is Canadian actress Lexa Doig — and, honestly, I could easily see Doig carrying a lead role in a series (plus Doig has a sci-fi recognition factor after 5 seasons of Andromeda). But I guess Ms. Doig had the misfortune to be born Canadian…and brown (oh, don’t get me started on that topic, or we’ll never be done).
(I should also point out that I’m labelling Rachel Nichols as “American” simply based on her birth place, and a list of credits at the IMDB that don’t seem to be Canadian. I know nothing about her otherwise. Maybe she does have some Canadian connection. Maybe she was raised in Canada, or spends her summers in a cottage in Canada. It’s problematic in an immigrant-heavy country like Canada to be too quick, or Draconian, in labelling people as “non-Canadian”. The definition of “Canadian” can be pretty broad — and I can be even looser, myself.)
Co-starring in Continuum is Canadian actor Victor Webster. And, I’ll admit, again…not so much enthusiasm from me. Not that I’ve seen Webster in much — Mutant X, years ago, a recurring role on Castle, a few guest spots. There’s nothing wrong with him…but so far nothing that really excites my enthusiasm about how he tackles a scene or milks nuance from dialogue, either (granted, I’m not female, so less swayed by Webster’s chisled jaw and rock hard abs).
Still, both Nichols and Webster could easily win me over — the proof of the pudding will be in the tasting, obviously. I repeat — I’m just writing this as an exercise in visceral-ness. The producers release a press release, hoping to galvanize a reaction — and that’s what I’m giving them.
Continuum lists Jeff King as its show runner. And, again, going through his CV…King doesn’t exactly fire any enthusiasm. It isn’t that King hasn’t a long list of credits, he does. It isn’t that he hasn’t been involved in some decent shows — he has. But there’s little indication he’s got any particular Midas touch, that with Mr. King looking over everyone’s shoulders, we’re guaranteed a good production. A lot of one or two season misfires (with an American actor as lead), a lot of, well, competent mediocrity (to quote a line from a long ago Canadian movie). Granted, King is a professional — with that long list of credits he clearly knows how to get a production done. And, again, like with Webster (or Nichols) seeing his name in the credits shouldn’t make me (or you) run away — not at all. But if you’re someone who regards the history of Canadian TV with cynicism — King perhaps falls into the category of being one of the “usual suspects”.
One final point is that in the initial press release it was stated the series would be set in Vancouver. Yet the premise involved the criminals from the future escaping from Death Row — which (as I mentioned in my earlier post) is odd, given Canada doesn’t have the death penalty, kind of making one wonder how “Canadian” the series will be. Well in the most recent press release…there’s no reference to it being set in Vancouver. It will be filmed there…that doesn’t mean it will be set there. So it’ll be interesting to see the finished series to see if it clearly admits it’s set in Canada…or whether it drapes American flags from every window and pretends it’s set in the United States…or whether it will go the middle route of not really saying it isn’t set in Canada (and with Vancouverites able to recognize street corners and the like) while avoiding idiosyncratically Canadian references to Mounties, and Premiers, and Loonies, and Celsius.
So what’s my point? What’s the purpose of all this naysaying — this Eeyoring (as I called it in another post)?
Well, a few things. One, maybe by expressing my cynicism up front, I can clear it out of my system, so that when the series airs, it can’t help but exceed my expectations (as opposed to assuming it’ll be brilliant, and being disappointed). I’ve been cynical before…and pleasantly surprised with the final product.
Maybe by saying these things up front — divorced from any rancour or bias (since I haven’t seen the series) it will get people thinking about the underlining principles. Heck, maybe the makers of the series will stumble upon my blog and, after an initial screaming fit and declaring I’m a sad, pathetic, loser who can’t appreciate their genius…maybe they will calm down, think I raise some valid points, and tweak the series accordingly. Who knows?
But it all gets back to my initial point — and title of this post. Stories don’t exist in a vacuum. And it’s worth knowing your roots, knowing what came before, in order to avoid similar fates.
It’s not enough to assume you’re a genius, and therefore your series will inherently be better than the previous failed examples. You have to decide why they failed (if only to your own satisfaction) and make a plan to succeed. You might well be a genius — indeed, the difference between a “good” series and a “bad” series is often simply the execution, the dialogue, the pacing, the characterization, as much as any broad strokes idea or premise. But you can’t bank on being a genius, either. Just as the first sign of insanity is to not realize you’re insane…perhaps the first sign of NOT being a genius is to think you ARE a genius.
I mean, everyone thinks they’re a genius in the arts — they have to, because art is subjective. A brick layer knows he’s good at his job if the wall doesn’t fall down. The artist has no such criteria, so he has to believe in himself. But that can be a trap, too.
So I’m put in mind of a quote from the British sitcom, Yes, Minister, where an exasperated character tersely advises another character: “If you’re going to do this damn silly thing, don’t do it in this damn silly way!”
And I guess that would be my advice, in a sense.
If you want to make a series using the problematic cliches of a future cop after future criminals, pining for her separated lover — fine. If you want to hire an American actress ’cause the Canadians aren’t good enough — fine. If you want to Americanize it (with the death penalty) and hire a veteran executive producer with an uneven track record — fine and fine again. If you want to do all the things that those before you have done — fine.
Do it — just do it right this time!