I'll never forget the first time I heard the expression - it was about ten years ago during my first stint on staff of a tv series...a series where we had to produce 44, count 'em... FORTY FOUR half hours in the first season. We prepped two and then shot two at a time - every seven days another two scripts were needed...it was mental. Insane mental. Not to mention it was a show still figuring itself out....there were major power struggles going on at the top amongst executive producers...it had stunts and special effects... the story department was terribly understaffed (the first time I begged for another story editor I remember being told "...but the shows, they write themselves, right?"). Uh, right.
Eventually I got two more writers on board and we still barely made it. Thank god it went to only 22 hour long stories the following season. Only? I think if I'd had any idea of what I/we were going to be in for, I'd have never taken the gig. But I did. And it will go down as the most intense, crazy, nutty, stress-filled, laugh-filled, year in my life (the twins were also born midway through it all). The stories the stories the stories I could tell. Here's a small taste.
We're talking a scifi/paranormal series here - sort of the poor man's 'X Files', and with that many scripts needed, we had a fair number of freelancers writing episodes. Some were good writers, some were friends of the exec producers, and then there were the bodyguards or girlfriends of 'the stars'...that kind of thing.
Early in production, one 'bodyguard' story was just laying there, and in desperation to make it amount to something, I added a lot of the syndicated action/adventure tv staples you tend to fall back on - stunts, chases, special f/x, etc.. I'd got it to a point where there seemed to be enough bells and whistles to jam it down the throat of the machine...but then it was time to sit down with the line producer and go through it in detail - generally to cut cut cut to keep costs down. The Line Producer (LP) was great in this case because even though he was the money guy, he also knew story and would justify his cuts and spends with story in mind.
Sidebar: this line producer is one of the best in the biz here in Canada, and has become one of my dearest friends. But our first meeting was less than pretty. I'd just delievered a draft of what was being considered as the template episode as it were - some execs had read it, consensus seemed to be that it was in the ballpark. So I did another quick draft and I was called in to discuss it. I'm standing out in the corridor with one of the execs waiting to go into a bigger meeting, and this line producer comes striding up holding my script in his hand...he and I had never met...and the exec tells LP that a new draft of said episode was here and did he want to see it? LP sighs and begins just slapping the script against his thigh almost violently and mutters: 'Well, it can't be any worse than this piece of shit.'
Exec introduces me as the writer...some hums and haws and then it comes out LP was referring to the first draft and didn't see any way to shoot it for the budget he was being given...'that's' what he meant by piece of shit - or at least that's what he told me. It's probably b.s. but what else was he gonna say with me standing right there. Anyway, we got past it and got through it and laugh about it to this day...
So back to the walk-thru of the dud script in question - and the LP's feet (cowboy boots) go up on the desk and the arms cross as he reclines back in his chair...
"So...I hear we're still gonna shoot this turkey?"
I stare at the floor like a kid being punished - "Uh yes...we start prep tomorrow and I ain't got nuthin' else in the hopper." (weak smile)
More silence, then LP sighs and sits up and says quite quickly: "Well if we shoot it as is it will put us half a mil over budget, so lose this this and this - I'll give you the gag on the airplane and let you see the alien at the end but only the end, and I think we can make it happen."
Thank you thank you I say - but then realize I've lost half the story and have got to find something to fill the holes...how about a big explo --- No! -- he cuts me off - its got to be story stuff...
Story stuff - hmmm - so I threw out some ideas, inexpensive ideas I hoped, got some 'nope's' got some 'eennngh, maybe's', but I felt progress was being made...and that's when he uttered those infamous words: "Look, just go do what needs to be done and keep it cheap, because at the end of the day, you're just polishing a turd."
Talk about being punched in the gut. There it was, in all its glorious truth...what I deep down already knew...no matter what I did, I was still only polishing a turd. Where on earth do you find the energy and get excited about a fairly extensive rewrite for something needed the next day when it still will be, after all is said and done, a big steaming pile of poop.
It's a very difficult thing to go and write with enthusiasm while those words are clanging around your brain. But I did and in series tv, you just do.
In the course of a tv season, you will have some turds. How the hell does it happen? I don't know...a cool idea or premise was essentially flawed and just doesn't play out in a satisfying or entertaining way...a writer is sent off to write prematurely because you're swamped and overwhelmed and 'think' it will come together.... or the bodyguard or girlfriend of the star insist they will make it gold and to 'trust them' (I grew so wary of those words) - and you don't want to argue because if their relationship to 'the star'... And not to play all high and mighty - I'm sure I've laid a few turd eggs on some desks over the years.
Like I've said - I don't think anyone sets out to make a bad tv episode...it just happens. Big ugly curlie-fried shit happens...and you've still got to polish it.
The trick seems to be to catch the turds before they land in and end up stinking up your lap(top). Easier said than done.
I think I need a shower.
p.s. sorry about the edits but I'd been trying all day to upload that picture and deposit it in the post. Also, Greg at Web of Lies and Deceit has a great blog and a nice post inspired by this one.