Monday, October 02, 2006

Monday: Prison Break, Vanished, Heroes 2, Studio 60 3

So I took a few days off (or was it a week? More? Losing track of time here) from the book, which I am beginning to hate, to write a short story. And quite frankly, it's a dud. I was on a tight deadline, and I had to work from a "story seed" which forced me to do some things with structure I didn't necessarily want to do, but in the end, those things don't really matter. I wrote a dud, a dud that thuds, and returning to the book yesterday did not have me all revved up and ready to go. My good stuff isn't selling, and I haven't produced any other good stuff in six months or more because I've been concentrating on this damn book, and even when I get a good short story idea lately, I either biff it in the attempt and write a dud or I just.... stall.

And I think I'm feeling kind of irritable because Monday is turning into my favorite night of television, even though half of the shows I watch (and maybe three-fourths, if Prison Break ever gets back into the conspiracy side of its plot) are actively trying to get me to stop watching. Prison Break's big villainous conspiracy is a plot between the President and Big Oil (sound familiar?) Vanished features a huge Masonic conspiracy of shadowy figures who are plotting to get a right-wing judge appointed to the Supreme Court, a judge who happens to be a big supporter of curtailing freedoms in the name of law and order (how DO they come up with these ideas?) The big conflict on the first two episodes of Studio 60 was standing up to right-wing Christians. This week, Danny gimmicks up a focus group question to prod Matt into taking more shots at Bush, cause God knows, there aren't enough of those on TV (which points up a bigger problem that I alluded to earlier and will discuss at greater length in a bit).

So tonight was the second episode of Heroes, and I really hope this show turns cool pretty soon. There are lots of hints at cool stuff. For instance, we discover that Heroin Boy, the addict who paints visions of his future, has been writing a comic book called 9th Wonders, of which at least one issue features the real-life adventures of Hiro (my favorite character in the pilot, who does not get nearly enough screen time this episode). That concept is decent, but here's what I'm looking for, though I don't see it happening: in the pilot, we see Genius Kid reading an issue of 9th Wonders. The cover of the issue (which is also Super Hiro's screensaver) is this gigantic blue monster, a big Godzilla-type deal. The heroes we've been introduced to so far are pretty blah, and their powers are boring (Super Hiro, Heroin Boy, the Flying Politician and his brother, Delusions-of-Grandeur Kid, The Indestructible Cheerleader and Split-Personality Stripper). But I'd love to see them try to take on a a giant Blue Godzilla. That would be cool.

Unfortunately, I think they're going to spend most of the first few episodes at least fleeing some big shadowy conspiracy, because there sure aren't enough of those on television.

Okay, so, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip.

If you asked me to name the single greatest book about show business that I've ever read, I couldn't do it, but if you asked me the top ten, or even the top five, William Goldman's Adventures in the Screen Trade would definitely be on the list. You should go read it now, or as soon as you finish reading this post. It's non-fiction, so I don't think I can spoil anything.

Anyway, one thing Goldman is known for is adapting novels into screenplays (including his own), and he spends a major portion of the book giving a little instructional lab on how to do it. He starts with a short story he wrote, titled "Da Vinci, " about a kid whose dad is a barber, and how the kid breaks his dad's heart by having his hair cut by a better barber. This other barber, see, he's like an artist with scissors, a true Da Vinci of cosmetology (or is it barberism?).

So he presents the story, and then he adapts it into a script, and then he hands that script out to several movie professionals in different fields (a production designer, a cinematographer, an editor, a composer), gets comments from them about what they would have to do to bring this script to life on screen, and finally, he gives it to George Roy Hill, Oscar-winning director of The Sting. And here is a bit of what George Roy Hill has to say about the script:

The first thing to say, the artist as a barber is a very tough visual thing to do. You have, in some of your more purple prose, described the effects of these haircuts...
In the story, you accept this, because you don't have to deal with the visuals, but in the screenplay, you run smack into them, and there's your director saying, "What the hell can I do?"...
Look at your opening page--"Pull back to reveal a schoolyard on an agonizingly beautiful spring day." Well, the studio executive reads that and says, "Oh, an agonizingly beautiful spring day, that's great." The director says, "When have I ever agonized over a spring day?" Then he says to his cameraman, "Get me an agonizingly beautiful spring day."
It's all hype--you write it, the executive reads it, and after I've shot it, everybody looks at it and says, "Wait a minute, that isn't agonizingly beautiful, why isn't it?"

Studio 60 is up against the same problem. The script keeps hyping Matt and Danny, as well as Harriet and Simon and Tom (the Big Three stars of the show-within-a-show) as these awesome talents. Matt is the author of "Crazy Christians," a sketch so incredibly controversial yet funny that Wes, the previous producer, has kept it in his desk drawer for four years, working up the courage to put it on the air. Matt spends all of episode two agonizing over his cold open while dispensing comedy advice like some Stand-Up Jedi (seventeen is funnier than twelve, don't ask for the laugh, ask for the butter). In episode three, we see them developing jokes for the fake newscast as well as a game show parody, and they keep telling us how incredibly smart and talented they are, and how incredibly funny the show is, and the amazing ratings they're pulling in.

Unfortunately, at some point, they've got to actually show the haircut, as it were, and in the bits we see, the show is thuddingly un-funny. We keep hearing the legend of "Crazy Christians," but never see a bit of it. The Gilbert & Sullivan parody is limp. The game show parody is "funny," in that smug, conceptual way of a bunch of college students sitting around getting high and making fun of all the folks they think they are better than ("Religious people are dumb!", "Tom Cruise is crazy!", "Rumsfeld is a dick!"), but it lacks any actual punch lines or laughs (although I must admit, the snippet of the performance is a little better than the rehearsal). There's a montage of the actual performance where we see little bits of skits we've been hearing about all episode, and there's not a big laugh in any of them.

There's a subplot about a particular joke they write for the newscast that offends Harriet, so she comes up with an alternate joke. Neither joke is funny when it's first presented. We're told, though, that the first one "killed" at dress rehearsal, and that Harriet will really be able to sell the second one with a vigorously funny performance, but we never see either one pay off. It's sort of a cowardly out, but it's also a smart one, because based on the evidence so far, the show is never going to be as funny as the characters keep telling us it is.

Which makes me sad.

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