Part five in my interview with Tom Fontana, creator or co-creator of OZ, THE JURY, TATTINGER'S, THE BEAT, and THE BEDFORD DIARIES...
CRAFTY TV: Do you believe in show bibles?
TF: I believe in show bibles after the episodes have aired. I like to keep a bible of everything that's come before, so that the people who are going to write the next season can see what has been done, or what's the background. I don't believe in bibles before a show starts because it's too restrictive. You can make up a lot of stuff in your head and invariably you discover in the second season that a plot point doesn't work. Maybe he doesn't have a brother, he has a sister, because a story where a sister comes in would be more interesting. Or, someone says, we can get you Julianna Margulies if you change it to a woman. That's better than doing the story with Murray Schwartz.
CRAFTY TV: Really have it in for Murray Schwartz, don't you?
TF: Yeah, poor Murray. So you could get too stuck in your bible. Having said that, once I've established something about the character, once the audience knows a fact about the character, that's sacrosanct, it has to remain true to that character. Once it's aired, you can't go back and rewrite history.
CRAFTY TV: I've heard that networks sometimes look only at the pilot before they greenlight. Is that your experience, and do you know of anyone who's painted themselves into a corner with a great pilot that doesn't make an easy show to write?
TF: I would say the David Lynch show TWIN PEAKS, which was brilliant, but also had nowhere to go. Not that they discovered that after the pilot ... they finally realized that at the end of the first season. And there was a show I worked on with Bruce Paltrow, TATTINGER'S, immediately after ST. ELSEWHERE. We had an idea for the pilot, we shot the pilot, and then we spent the next 13 episodes trying to figure out what the series was. One week it was a serious drama, next week it was a screwball comedy. From the writing point of view it was a lot of fun, but it totally confused the audience. You can experiment with the form, but you have to earn that right. On ST. ELSEWHERE and HOMICIDE, we experimented, we went off in crazy ways. But that was only after we'd established the template for the show. Or the masterful example is M*A*S*H. That show was consistently excellent, and then years into it it, they started to screw around with the format. You'd have episodes with completely different points of view, tone... it was thrilling to watch and not know what to expect. But first they established what the basic show was.
CRAFTY TV: Some shows have been described as hybrid genre, e.g. DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES has been explained as a drama, a comedy, a mystery and a farce, and LOST has been described as science fiction or mystery or straight drama. Do you worry about whether a show you're creating is in a recognizable genre? Do you think the audience cares? Did, for example, FIREFLY fail for genre reasons, or for other reasons?
TF: I think that part of the weight that hour dramas carry with them now is that, with all these reality shows, what was acceptable drama ten years ago seems wimpy and quiet. There's an expectation now that all drama shows have to be amped up to a certain extent. Which is probably why a show like THE WEST WING declined in popularity. It certainly didn't decline in quality. They didn't get wacky, they stayed the course. And that kind of drama is almost too tame. You can watch a reality show and see things get hopped up. It makes sense that LOST and GREY'S ANATOMY and DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES are popular now. Because they're beyond reality television. They go a step beyond reality. Look at CSI, a show that has nothing to do with reality - that's not a criticism, it's an observation, there is nothing in those shows that is anything like the way a real crime is handled. I don't know if you could do a drama series in a real way these days.