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Monday, March 24, 2008

Q. I was curious about your thoughts on a new series on Fox: The Return of Jezebel James. The format seems off or just plain wrong. This very well could be me but it feels like a one camera show and not a sit-com with a laugh track. If it is a little awkward in its format would this be a creator issue or a network issue? Once a show is bought can it's whole format be made to change to fit into something else entirely?
I haven't seen the show, but there could be a genre problem like you're seeing. The creator could have conceived of it wrong, for creative reasons, or because a network exec asked for a sitcom. Or, the network could have asked him to turn a single camera comedy into a sitcom for budget reasons, or because of market research, or because of the mix of programming they're looking for.

Denis Leary's half hour series THE JOB failed. If you watch it, you can clearly see its similarities to the later, successful RESCUE ME. What didn't work in a half hour format worked very well in hour.

I've occasionally come in with a pitch that could go either half hour or hour. That way, if the exec "hears" a half hour show, it's a half hour show. If they hear an hour show, it's an hour. They tend to hear the kind of the show their network has room for. My preference is to do hour shows -- they're no more work to write than a half hour, but they pay twice as well. But I'd rather have a show than no show. Bear in mind, though, that Canada has half-hour dramas, a form that barely exists in the US.

It's good that you're thinking this way. Don't just tune out a show, "this sucks!" Think about why it sucks. The makers must have had something in mind. Where did they go wrong? Sometimes (COP ROCK) it's easy to figure out. Sometimes it's harder. I'm convinced that FIREFLY failed not because it was a space western, but because Joss Whedon's storytelling might have been a bit too surprising for the broadcast audience. You just never knew where an episode was going to end up. And on broacast, that's not necessarily a plus.

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I'm a huge Whedon fan, and was predisposed to love Firefly. But I didn't watch beyond the first *aired* episode until it was complete and someone suggested I try it out. Then, of course, I loved it.

For me, the biggest single problem was when FOX decided to start in situ with "The Train Job" and not air the pilot for another three months. The pilot set the universe, set the tone, and introduced the characters quickly and cleanly. Without that, I felt - and again, I'm a long-time Whedon fan and used to his style - completely lost.

It's one thing when stories don't always follow predictable paths; it's even worse when you don't even know who you're watching.

As for Jezebel James, it's a half-hour from Amy Sherman-Palladino and she's still writing as though it were Gilmore Girls. There's definitely an impedence mismatch that makes it nearly unwatchable.

By Blogger R.A. Porter, at 1:47 PM  

Now in terms of the audience knowing where the episode is going, was Northern Exposure a network or cable show? Because I definitely didn't know what was going to happen in those episodes.

By Blogger Jason Sanders, at 2:14 PM  

Look it up. NE was a network show. BUT it came before the explosion of cable. So you didn't have the divide you have now, between mainstream network viewers, and niche cable fans. You could get away with something like that.

Oh, and it had really lovely characters, which kept the show alive no matter what the scripts were.

By Blogger Alex Epstein, at 2:28 PM  

It may be heretical to ask this, but was Firefly really as good as you make out?

The show had its moments. But it also had some real flaws.

Many of the characters seemed to be recycled from earlier projects (a reliable redhead, good with computers, becomes a reliable redhead good with engines; the uptight librarian morphs into an uptight doctor; and a mystical Dawn gives way to a mystical River, and so on).

Some of the casting (imho) was off. The central romance between the hooker and the captain yielded no chemistry at all.

And the whole cowboys-in-space thing was interpreted so literally (guys walking round starships with Colt 45's strapped to their waists) that it became jarring.

I'n not saying it was a bad programme, but I wasn't shocked that it failed to find a mainstream audience.

By Blogger Jaded and Cynical, at 4:43 PM  

You mentioned that an hour show is no more work than a half hour show. How do you mean? Is it that once you're already rolling on a show idea, its easy to keep pumping out pages? Any other reasons?

I had some good results with half hour, and was interested in taking on an hour format.

By Blogger aldentre, at 5:40 PM  

Firefly is the only Whedon show I've seen, so I can't object to it for having characters that were similar to some previous show. I'm not even sure it's fair to count that as a knock against the show for people who have seen the previous show, unless those similar characters are also getting into similar story lines.

I think the show died because Fox didn't know what to make of it, not because the audience rejected it. I watched quite a few Fox shows, and saw tons of ads for other Fox shows, but my first awareness of Firefly was through online campaigns to rescue it. As r.a.porter wrote, they ran the pilot last, and instead started with an episode that had been made, from script idea to air time, in one week. They ran it in a deadly Friday night time slot.

Was it incompetence on Fox's part? Or did someone want to kill the show (because of its high production costs, maybe) but didn't have the guts or the clout to kill it by saying, "This costs too much"?

By Blogger Unknown, at 4:03 AM  

There have been endless discussions on Whedonesque (www.whedonesque.com) about the lack of promotion for Firefly. The one thing we can be sure of is that it wasn't underpromoted because no one at the network was willing to take the responsibility for killing it. Joss does not have that kind of clout, and network people pull the plug on shows every day. They didn't know what to make of it, they put it up there to see if it would catch fire, it didn't, they pulled the plug. C'est normale.

I think shows like FIREFLY will have more success if the networks dispense with the upfronts. If it had been the only new show out there, it would have got more attention and might have found its audience -- though it might also just not have had a big enough audience.

By Blogger Alex Epstein, at 8:51 AM  

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