Posted tagged ‘writing for TV versus movies’

TV or not TV, that is the question…

February 12, 2015

Lately, I’ve been hearing advice from script consultants, agents and managers, who say screenwriters should put their spec sale dreams aside and focus on creating original TV series material. The theory is there are more opportunities for unproduced writers in that venue, which extends to cable channels and alternative viewing platforms such as Netflix.

Makes sense. I’ve been shopping around my television series pitch for years, and got some nibbles, but no bites. It was called Rehab, and it was based on my time spent in an addiction treatment center many moons ago before I got clean and sober, and began writing again.

What I always loved about the idea of writing for TV was that you had latitude and time (provided the series stayed on the air) to explore multiple story lines and incorporate different themes that might be related to a wide variety of things I was personally interested in. For me, Rehab was an opportunity to delve into the nature of addiction and recovery — the physical, psychological, and spiritual elements of a condition that reflects American consumerism. We’re a nation addicted to instant gratification. And yet our need to experience new sensations in search of an altered state of consciousness dates back to the first primates who got tipsy on fermented rotten fruit.

Thanks to the miracle of DVR, I’m able to record dozens of programs and series that span the gamut from PBS documentaries to guilty pleasures like the new Empire series on Fox. One reason I tuned in was I saw Brian Grazer’s name was listed as a producer, and it was about a fictional African-American drug dealer-turned-rap/hip-hop music mogul. An old friend of mine who moved from Hawaii to L.A. to pursue a career in music wound up living with one of the Pointer Sisters in her Beverly Hills mansion, then was hired by Eddie Murphy to be his personal assistant. He pitched me his own ideas for a TV series centered around the music biz, years ago. He told me Grazer used to visit Eddie a lot, but I don’t know if my friend ever had a chance to chat with them about his TV premise.

Anyhow, early in the first episode, we learn the father is dying and intends to leave his Empire music biz to one of his three sons. Which son, he hasn’t decided yet, but he makes it clear who he favors. If that sounds familiar, you’re probably also watching the Shakespeare Uncovered series on PBS and recognize what the smartest son says as a tip of the hat to its source of inspiration: “What is this, King Lear?!” Yep, it sort of is. Which is cool — the vast majority of the audience that will be tuned into Empire are more interested in seeing his ex-wife Cookie, just released from prison for doing time on a drugs charge, throwing her shoe at the King and slapping her sons around. Yet these viewers are being unwittingly introduced to classic Shakespearean themes at the same time!

As much as I respect the Bard, the truth is I’ve always had a difficult time reading or listening to his plays unless someone puts the words and story in context for me. The beauty of DVR is I can go from watching Empire and hearing the reference to King Lear, then follow that episode with the King Lear dissection on Shakespeare Uncovered. Once I had a better understanding of the play, I resumed watching the next installment of Empire with renewed interest in Cookie’s role — was she based on the Fool, or some other character in Lear’s world?

Then I went from the urban street language and hip-hop music of Empire to the very proper English accents and manners of Downton Abbey. The juxtaposition of these two worlds amused me, and reminded me that at the heart of both are themes about family ties and the desire to hold on to power in societies where the haves and have nots are clearly delineated. While I’m not sure if Downton Abbey was inspired in any way by the Bard’s work, I did notice Hugh Bonneville — who plays the patriarch of the family — was the host of A Midsummer Night’s Dream episode of Shakespeare Uncovered. It turns out his first big acting break was a role in that comedy.

It makes me wonder. If Shakespeare were alive today, would he prefer writing for film or TV? Would he create something like Empire or Breaking Bad? I know this much: he sure as hell wouldn’t write something as bad as Fresh Off The Boat, the ABC sitcom that was supposed to be a groundbreaking TV series for Asian-Americans like myself. Ugh. Please put that show out of its misery.