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Don’t Mess With What Works

There’s something I cannot understand to save my life. And when I get stumped by something, I tend to put it out there, to see what sort of thoughts the “thing” might prompt in others, what ideas they might have to maybe wrap some perspective around it. In this case, I’m afraid I know the answer all too well…but I’ll put it out there anyway.

Now, my focus here primarily isn’t fan fiction, although that’s the world I’ve dabbled in most when it comes to writing. No, this stems from television…specifically, the writing on a current television show which shall remain nameless, to protect me from hate-spam. (No, friends, it’s not my beloved Thunderbirds…that’s not current. *grin*)

Think of it: you start a brand-new show with stellar writing. You make it shine, tip-top above everything else, with an epic mix of everything that makes a show great, from the writing to the casting. The show goes like gangbusters for a season and then you decide hey, let’s completely and totally fuck up what’s working by making the writing go so completely south we end up in the Southern Hemisphere, and alienate half our fans in the process.

That sounds normal, right?

Er…wait, what? No? Well, let’s back out of TV shows and into something we might all be a little more familiar with. How about….McDonald’s. Sure, why not? We all know who they are, right? Huge fast food chain, home of the Big Mac, etcetera, etcetera.

Think of it: you start a brand-new restaurant with stellar food. You make that food something everyone loves, craves, with just the right taste to make them keep coming back for more, from the ingredients you use to the service your staff provides. The restaurant takes off like gangbusters for a year and then you decide hey, let’s completely and totally fuck up what’s working by changing McDonald’s from a hamburger-and-fries-and-Coke joint into a hot-dog-and-cabbage-and-water joint.

What do you think happens if McDonald’s stops selling hamburgers…or starts using tofu burgers instead of whatever kind it is they use now? What do you think happens if they stop selling french fries and only sell cabbage as a side? Or if they completely nix Coke products and only sell water? I’ll tell you what happens: they go out of business. Why? Because they took away what their customers loved about them the most, the thing that made them work, made them successful, and replaced it with something that makes no sense to their customer base.

Okay, now pedal backwards to the first thing I talked about: the show that started out with stellar writing. Can someone please tell me how it is that a TV show that’s doing everything right, that’s on top, and that develops a nearly instantaneous fan base (which is rabid and loyal and a marketer’s dream for all the social media-ing they do), decides it’s okay to change their “product” mid-stream when, in the world of business, any successful businessman would tell you such a move is a death sentence?

Good question, huh?

Now to tie this back to writing, I will dive into what about this particular show-that-shan’t-be-named went south and oh, look at that…it was the writing. You don’t need to know what show I’m on about to get the basic tenants of what my point will be. And what IS the point, you ask?

Don’t mess with what works.

What you have, if you are successful, is what put you on top. It’s what made you get fans to begin with, and only by keeping it intact are you going to keep those fans. Slacking off on writing just because you get too comfortable in your own leather desk chair is a discredit to the characters you created, and to the fans you have essentially made a promise to, when you get them hooked on a really good premise with really good characters.

I suppose I can tie this back to fanfic writing very easily, and be very much in line with my previous article about writing existing characters IN character, vs. twisting them into what you want them to be. And I’ll use Thunderbirds as my example.

Why do you think that little tiny marionette show still has die-hard fans this many years later? Because what they did, worked. Yes, some of it is outdated now…after all, the mid-60s were quite different than 2013. But as I will expound upon until the day I die, the characters at the core of that show are what made it work. They’re what got fans’ attention, and held it right through to today’s day and age, where you can mention it anywhere in England and they’ll know what you’re talking about. This is a show where there exists a thriving fandom that produces fanfic for a show continuing to live on in so many hearts.

That means what, exactly, to us fanfic writers? Oh, my God, it means exactly the same thing: Don’t mess with what works.

Why did you start writing fanfic for the show? Because you fell in love with some aspect of it, whether the characters or the machinery. You loved how the characters were portrayed, and you’ve decided you want to write about their further adventures since no one else is doing it (at least, not well, they’re not). The Spy Kids rip-off they tried to call Thunderbirds a few years back was an epic fail, why? Because they tried to mess with what worked. The recent novels are an epic fail (sales numbers don’t lie, people), why? Because the author just did not capture the spirit of what worked all those years ago. And the project that’s underway to do a new show where they’ve completely removed the patriarch of the family from the equation and made a secondary male character into a woman that’ll be in every episode, and where they’re going to make all the 21+ years main characters teenagers? Well, that’ll be an epic fail too, sorry. Why? Because rather than doing the REAL Thunderbirds…rather than sticking with what worked, and what made us continue to love them all these years later, they’re changing everything.

And I have no earthly idea why. You wouldn’t do that if you were McDonald’s. Or Best Buy. You wouldn’t do that if you were Wal-Mart or Costco. Up in Canada, you wouldn’t do that if you were Real Canadian Superstore or Tim Horton’s. Would you?

What if Paris took down the Eiffel Tower and burned the Louvre to the ground?

What if Egypt leveled its pyramids?

What if Hollywood relocated to Vancouver, British Columbia?

Those would all be very bad business decisions…the first two for tourism, the third for the entire economy of Southern California, including tourism.

Bad business decisions seem so obvious to us as consumers. Similarly, bad decisions in writing TV shows often seem so obvious to consumers, but the people who run the show are, somehow, completely oblivious. In spite of instant feedback via social media, showrunners are hiring hacks, or friends of friends, or members of whatever their inner in-bred clique are, to write for their productions, rather than hiring people who can string an actual story together that makes sense.

Sadly, this million-dollar OOPS they’re doing in Hollywood is recreated every damn day in places like fanfiction.net, where you go to find a good yarn to read about your favorite show, and wind up wading through stories that are labeled as being about that show, but whose characters you don’t recognize at all. Instead of writing what worked – the characters as they were created – people seem to want to twist them all to hell in the fanfic world, just like they tend to do in the TV world as well.

What a parallel, right? Life imitating art imitating life…

Oh, wait, we have too much testosterone in here, we need a hot, leggy female thrown in the mix, so let’s just ruin what we created by shoehorning one in there and pissing all our fans off when we get rid of a core character to do it. Oh, wait, there isn’t enough wrong with the character to give me enough angst to get high on, well, I’ll write him with such an out-of-character characteristic that it makes absolutely no sense with the way we’ve known him for the past season, just because I want a certain end game. Wait, this isn’t about gay men, we have to give them all girlfriends and wives and babies just to hit the audience over the head with the fact that no, they’re NOT gay.

*sigh*

The list goes on.

Why is it that when you write a book to be professionally published, your publisher won’t let it see the light of day unless it holds together as a real story that’s well-written…but that in the billion-dollar Hollywood industry, the most god-awful writing that rivals the worst crap on fanfiction.net is not only allowed through the gates, but encouraged, with those writers going on to get job after job after job, even when they’ve proven they couldn’t write their way out of a paper bag?

No, it’s not sour grapes on my end, so my detractors can stop right there if that’s what they want to say. I do not ever want to write for TV shows, no way no how do I want to become part of the cynical Hollywood machine. I’ve been on the inside (many moons ago) and it’s not nearly pretty enough to lure me back. I like the independence of being able to tell a good story the right way. I don’t want to be forced to write drek because the bosses say so. I’m perfectly happy to write and sell my screenplays and write and sell my books and keep control of what I’m writing, thanks much. At least that way if it DOES suck, it’s my responsibility and my fault, and not because my name was slapped on something that was forced on me, something so embarrassingly bad that my 13-year old son could’ve done a better job.

As I stated at the beginning, I think that what it all boils down to in Hollywood isn’t just what everything boils down to, which is money. It’s that, certainly, but when it comes to people who write on television shows, it’s all about who you know, not how well you write. Nepotism is alive and well there, and it’s sad when you start seeing shows tank because of the same reasons some of us complain about pieces of fanfic being awful: because of people not taking the time to a) write a GOOD story that makes sense, and b) write the characters the way that people fell in love with them.

I certainly cannot change what bigshot TV producers and moviemakers do, even if I find it really telling that a core fan base for a current TV show tells me I write much better stories than the show does (how sad is that, when I’m not even paid to do it?). And I can’t stop people who write for reasons other than to pay homage to good characters and a good show. But there’s one thing I can do: try to write whatever it is I write with integrity, rather than being sucked down the rabbit hole of popularity. If I am true to myself, and if I write my characters (whether someone else’s or my own original ones) by staying true to them, then I can be proud of what I do, even if I’m not getting a huge paycheck with a bunch of zeroes at the end.

I once had a discussion with a good friend of mine who wrote for a television comedy series back in the nineties. I loved his scripts, loved the episodes that were ones he got the credit for writing. And when I asked him, how do you do it? How do you become a writer like that on a show? His answer to me was, “I’m not a writer, I’m just a comedian. You’re the real writer.”

I’ve carried that with me ever since, and have talked to others “in the business” over the years only to find out he was right. Sometimes, writers on TV shows really are good writers. And sometimes, they’re nothing close to good writers. In the ensuing years I’ve mourned when television shows that started off so promisingly, seemed to somehow lose “real writing” and fall down the rabbit hole of “eh, it’s good enough to get by, we’ll just add more explosions or boobs so no one will notice.”

I’ve also mourned when a fandom’s fanfic went so off-the-rails that it was nearly impossible to find anything recognizable from the world that I’d loved of that long-gone show, that I could sit down and enjoy with a cup of coffee.

I just wish that everyone, showrunners included, understood that the reason good TV shows are good, is for multiple reasons…and at the base of all those multiple reasons, at the bottom of the pyramid it’s all standing on, is the writing. You can have the best actors in the world, but if the scripts you give them suck, they aren’t going to be able to save it in the end. If you alter their characters to get rid of the things that made everyone love your show to begin with, whatever your reasons are, then you’re going to lose your fan base.

And for those of us who write both original and fan fiction, remember that while it may be all fun and games and Barbie dolls and playing house to you, it’s not that way for all people. I won’t “kill” a character’s personality for the sake of a story. And I won’t write a story that makes no sense or has a lame-ass conclusion, and try to cover it up with a bunch of fanfare so nobody notices how bad it really is.

Maybe one of these days, instead of trying to resurrect things that worked 50 years ago and remaking them because they’ve run out of well-written new ideas, Hollywood will return to what made plays in the theater good…and made older TV shows good: the writing. Until then, I’m hopeful that fanfic writers will pick up the slack that the paid writers are just skating along on and patting themselves on the back for.

To the characters and the show that are getting tanked by these guys, I would like to offer my sincerest apologies. You deserve to be written well, not reshaped like you’re a can of Play-Doh being stuffed through a spaghetti-maker. No, I’m not saying what show, because the wrath of those who just want to drool over the actors isn’t worth outing its name. But if that show goes off the air because the ratings drop too much, you won’t have them to drool over anymore, anyway. At least, not as those characters.

Maybe, in the end, that’s actually for the best.

The Actors Aren’t to Blame

My publisher, who used to be a publicist with NBC a few years back, warned me this was coming. She saw the writing on the wall when I shared certain tweets and posts with her.

Sadly, she was right.

Back in my post entitled “So Much Lip Service – Part 2,”I mentioned that there have been cases where soap opera actors who portrayed villains have literally had fans of the show come up and spit in their faces because of something their character did to another, beloved, ‘good-guy’ character.

Well, I’m seeing this happen (virtually, not physically) right now to someone. She’s being ‘hated on’ for no other reason than because she’s trying to do the job she was hired to do, and it hurts to watch it happen. It hurts because I’ve known actors…lots of ‘em in days gone by…and it’s unfair of fans to rail against them for something they have zero control over.

Actors are people just like the rest of us. They have emotions. They have morals, scruples, quirks, kinks, faults and things they’re really good at. So to see someone get bashed, to the point where they feel like they have to apologize to fans? It’s just not right.

Maybe some of the fans don’t understand how things work. Maybe some of them do, but they’re just taking out their frustrations on the most obvious target – the actor who’s bringing something to the screen that those fan just don’t want to see.

For the benefit of those who don’t know, I’d like to point out that there are an awful lot of things that happen before what you see on the screen in a movie or on an episode of your favorite TV show. Things that the actor has absolutely nothing to do with (unless they happen to have written the script or directed the episode themselves).

Control is an illusion!

Those in control of the show – everyone from people at whatever network or cable channel it’s on all the way to the Executive Producers and Producers – are at the top of the food chain. Sometimes even EPs can’t do 100% of what they want if the network/cable channel says “No.” Sometimes the network/cable channel even makes them do things they don’t want to do, in a (sometimes misguided) attempt to steer the show in the direction they think it should go in.

Then you have the screenwriters. The people who write the scripts. In television, unless that screenwriter is also the Executive Producer who runs the show, the scripts are written to order. Like the EPs, the writers don’t get to do 100% of what they want to do.  And even while scenes are being filmed, scripts can change. Often dramatically. I’ve seen entire scenes completely thrown out in the middle of being filmed because the director said, “No, doesn’t work at all.” Which, of course, sends the writers scrambling to figure out what to do.

So an actor gets a script. And then revisions. And then more revisions. And then even more, sometimes on-the-spot.

Then there are the directors. The actor may try to do what they think is right for their character, whether it’s applying certain facial expressions or body language…figuring out the best way to deliver a line…interacting with those around them within the context of the scene…playing off the previous line or setting up for the next one. There’s a lot an actor can and does do to make a character their own, but there aren’t very many cases where they’re actually allowed to make it all up on their own without being told what to say by the writers, and how to execute it by the directors. Ad-libbing? Maybe, if the director’s generous. But not writing entire story arcs, entire seasons or – unless they happened to write one – whole episodes.

After all the scenes are shot, it goes to editing. Is it too long? What scenes aren’t crucial to the story the producers, directors and/or writers want told? Did the scene with these two characters not work very well? Does a scene not advance the story at all in the precious few minutes lurking inside of an hour that they have to tell it? There are so many decisions an editor has to make to splice together a bunch of scenes shot out-of-sequence into an episode of a television series.

And then music’s added, and anything else they think is needed. Sound effects, getting actors to come into the studio to re-record dialogue because maybe it got muffled or in the end they couldn’t find a recorded way a line was delivered that satisfied the director, producer and editor.

Eventually, an episode gets put together and shipped off to the studio to be aired.

It’s a complex process made up of a plethora of people behind-the-scenes. All fans really get to see – unless the show’s people are willing to expose behind-the-scenes action – is the finished product.

And unless an actor actually wrote and directed and produced and everything else’d on their own without anyone else’s input, you cannot rip them a new one simply because you don’t like a character, or a story arc, or the way something on a show is being handled.

It’s not the actor’s fault.

Let me repeat that.

It is not the actor’s fault.

This is another thing I have referenced in previous posts that I’ve really started to see becoming hurtful: people’s ability in recent years to immediately post everything they’re thinking and feeling on the internet without any sort of filter or time lag.

Back in the 80s – which was my favorite time period  for television shows until recently, when the new Hawaii Five-0 reboot appeared – if there was something I didn’t like on a television show and I had felt compelled to complain about it, I would have had to hunt down the network’s mailing address, spend time handwriting (or typing) a letter, find a postage stamp and an envelope, and mail it off.

(No, I never did that, by the way. I was between the ages of 8 and 18 inthe 80s, and while I loved to watch the TV shows of that decade, I never felt the urge to brain anyone over anything they did on them.)

Nowadays, you can tell the entire world in the space of a few seconds how much you don’t like something or someone, without any sort of brain-to-fingers filter required.

Actors take it personally, just like writers.

This one is important. Even if you’re careful to say you hate the character, the actor portraying that character tends to take that personally. Just like writers take it personally when you say you hate the stories or the books they write, even though writers themselves obviously aren’t their creative works.  If you think about it, pretty much any worker would take it personally when someone tells them they suck, especially if that worker’s just doing what their boss told them to.

The job an actor is hired to do, is bring a character to life. A character created by someone else. The actor can’t help it that the people who are in charge are having that character do or say things that the fans don’t care for.

Should I say it again? Yeah, I should.

It is not the actor’s fault.

Hate is a very harsh word.

It’s also sad that so many fans will actually come out and say they “hate” a character or “hate” an actor. Hate is such a strong word, and you’ll only ever see me use it loosely when referring to phrases like I did in a previous post. (I will always always hate the phrase ‘team player’ – too many years spent in cubicle farms! But that phrase can’t get its feelings hurt like a human being can.)

The bottom line is this: If you do not like something that’s happening on a TV show, send a well thought-out email to the network, for starters. Explain what it is you don’t like rationally and intelligently. Spitting out things like “We hate X!” or “Y is horrible!” or “Go home, X!” really doesn’t help anyone. Those types of comments are too vague and personal in nature to explain what your problem with the whole thing is.

Second, if you have a way to contact the production company – either by snail mail or email – do the same thing. Write the letter rationally and intelligently, and explain your grievances like a grown-up. Not like a six year-old who’s throwing a tantrum because they’re not getting their way.

Third, if you have access to the show’s producers, especially the Executive Producers, do the same thing again. Explain yourself. Tell them what you don’t like about the story, or the character(s) you have problems with. Above all, tell them why. And for crying out loud, don’t threaten them! (I can’t believe I actually have to say that, but it’s already happened in this case. WTF?)

You also have to remember that there’s an unfortunate side effect of publicly establishing yourself, via tweets or other methods, as favoring one of the actors, or a particular real or potential pairing in a show.  Those in charge will then dismiss your quickly tweeted “hate hate hate” messages not just because they sound infantile, but because they figure, “Oh, he or she is just not happy because I’m not giving their favorite character or actor more screen time/doing it the way they want me to.” That’s why it’s really important to state your case logically, rationally and intelligently.

I know I keep repeating those words. But I kind of have to, because a lot of people seem to have lost their common sense. But that’s a rant for another day.

Give them a chance to fix it, already!

Just as you are able to instantaneously tell the people in charge of a show that you don’t like something, you have to remember that dozens, maybe even hundreds of other unhappy viewers may be doing exactly the same thing. Therefore, the show runners may very well be thinking, “Oh, oops, my bad. Shouldn’t have done that, shit!”

But here’s the problem. The actual filming of a show is usually four, five or six episodes ahead of the one that you’re sitting there watching. So even if the producers or the networks want to “fix” whatever they’ve done that the fans are screaming about, the fact is that you won’t actually see those “fixes” until maybe four, five or six (or more!) weeks down the road. There’s nothing anyone can do about that.

Breathe. Give it time. Express yourself kindly by making your points without attacking. Then sit back and wait to see if you were listened to.

And please try to remember, in the spirit of the television show that actually got me interested in television shows again, that ohana means family. No matter what, we shouldn’t be hurting each other like this.

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    The book series "Takers," the screenplays contained on the "Screenplays" page and the screenplays discussed and contained on this website are copyright Chris Davis. Novels are published by Plotfish Press, and screenplays are registered with the Writers Guild of America (WGA) West.
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    Came Online: August 13, 2011

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