INTERVIEW WITH CHRIS ABBOTT, PART ONEComplications Ensue
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Tuesday, May 03, 2005

Chris Abbott is promoting her new, very helpful book Ten Minutes to the Pitch. I called her in Utah to interview her about her long experience as a TV writer and showrunner. I'll be running my interview with her in this blog for the next few days. In a few places, I've marked (laughs), but you should really imagine a hearty laugh coming after just about every strong statement... and she's got a lot to say.


AE: What TV shows are you watching these days? Do you watch only shows you enjoy, or shows you think are well-done that may not be your cup of tea, or interestingly flawed shows...?

CA: I'm one of those people who rarely watched TV when I was writing it and kinda less now. I love Everybody Loves Raymond. I can't stand reality shows. Which has left me not a lot to watch. I'm not a huge Law and Order fan. There's no characters. I watch CSI, but not because it's a good show, because it's interesting. I'm sort of cranky those two have taken over the airwaves. I keep meaning to tune into Desperate Housewives.

I'm kind of cranky that Law and Order and CSI have taken over the networks, because it leaves only one show you can watch on each network. I don't understand that. I don't particularly like these two shows because they're so plot driven. I really prefer character driven shows. I keep meaning to tune into Desperate Housewives but I haven't yet. I have enjoyed watching "Revelations."

I've been away from the mainstream for a couple of years. But I think hourlong is coming back. I've been watching — what's that new hospital show? House. And the main character isn't very likable.

And that's my big complaint endlessly — I don't think there is a need to make characters likable. You need to make them interesting. Executives feel they need to be part of a process, and there's two things they can say. "This doesn't make sense" and "this character isn't likable enough." I wrote a pilot once, the central character was an unlikable guy but brilliant and he drove the show and was the engine for the whole family. But they couldn't get past that he was unlikable. There are too many people involved in creative decisions that shouldn't be. The cable shows were doing so much better, not because of sex or violence which I can do without, but they could widen out the literary field and bring us people who weren't necessarily likable.

I wrote another pilot, sort of The Talented Mr. Ripley — he was really incredibly likable but he would do whatever he had to do to get along ... he had no moral compunction but he was really likable.

AE: You mean charming?

CA: Charming and also that he cared deeply about other people.

AE: The ones he wasn't murdering.

CA: Well he didn't like those people. He cared deeply about the the ones he liked and didn't kill. And even HBO said ... we've got to understand why we're rooting for him. Maybe it would be okay if everyone around him is stranger than he is. But the thing is, the premise is he's an ordinary guy but a psychopath. He's hurting people, but not anyone we care about. I thought that was an interesting idea. But even HBO backed off. Tony Soprano can be unlikable because he's mafia and we love mafia.

AE: Or The L Word, because they know they have an audience, so they don't need to make the characters likable.

CA: The L Word the same way. Look at Rosanne when she came on — not a likable family. I think the real "L word" is "likable," and let's get rid of that.

AE: What techniques do you use for coming up with great springboards? What tools do you use when inspiration doesn't strike?

CA: Oh, I'm always thinking this'd be a great idea, that'd be a great idea. But okay, when I'm running a show and you have to come up with 22 episodes ... I almost hate to say it but I'll always go back to classic novels or classic movies. What is the element of conflict, what is the area of conflict and what is the hero's flaw, what does he need to learn. Take basic concepts. Don't take the plot, otherwise you're just coloring in the lines. And some people call it plagiarizing.

AE: I like to call it "stealing."

CA (Laughs): We used to call it "homage."

AE: So steal plot elements but not the story itself.

CA: Yes. You can always go back to Shakespeare. Read a lot, watch a lot... it's important to watch TV to learn the craft. But also go to plays, go to movies, go to opera ... see the world. Because if all you're doing is watching TV and movies, you just recycle old ideas. And if you actually have a life you can write about things that are actually happening.

More from my interview with Chris Abbott tomorrow!

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2 Comments:

A fantastic start to the Chris Abbott interview, Alex. I totally agree with her about making characters severely flawed, selfish, even psychopathic. The Sopranos, Nip/Tuck and The Sheild immediately come to mind. All great characters who are tragically flawed and unlikeable, and yet I can still relate to them, root for them, even when they do bad things.

I very much look forward to reading part two of your interview with Chris.

By Anonymous Kelly J. Compeau, at 1:39 PM  

Sorry -- don't normally do this in comments, but... a ways back I wrote an article about why Americans love the very murderous, very unsympathetic mafia characters in pop culture. Talk about unlikable.

I rarely get a chance to refer anyone to it, so I'll do so now. You can find it here, at PopPolitics.com.

Thanks, Alex. Awesome interview.

By Anonymous Kristen, at 5:36 PM  

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