Friday, July 20, 2007

John From Cincinnati...What Have We Learned?

When people say they don’t understand what the show means, or ask what it means, I’ve never understood why that’s an obligation that art has—to be understood.

Going back to that Newsweek interview with creator David Milch, I was struck by how many times he referred to himself as an artist, or his work as art. Can television be art? Does art belong in television? I suppose there's an artistic element in everything that qualifies as a creative endeavor, but "F*** art, let's shoot..." was what I always heard when it came to making TV.

And I realize it's HBO, so it doesn't really count (as in it's not the TV normal), but I asked myself: what can new television writers (or experienced TV writers for that matter) learn from or try to emulate from JFC.

And my answer is...not much.

It's a special treat --- a wonderful and unique viewing experience...but it's doesn't follow any of the rules and requirements of most network drama, or even cable drama for that matter. And its obtuse serialized story arc makes it damn near impossible to parachute in to sample the show and have any idea what is going on --- a problem that generally leads to early cancellation.

So what can you take to write quirky yet complex characters? How to pen cryptic yet colourful dialogue? Theme over plot as driving force? Perhaps...but can you use that knowledge in crafting your new spec of Numbers or Criminal Minds or Bones? In your original pilot maybe, but keeping in mind how noncommercial JFC is, I'd be cautious about how much to to use it as any sort of template.

JFC also appears to be a limited series (10 episodes I think), though I keep hearing it is waiting to find out if it will get picked up for more. But if it is limited (and it does seem 'limited' in that once we find out who John is and what his mission is, the hook is no more...much like who killed Laura Palmer), this is another reason to avoid using it as a model if you're looking to create a long-running series.

Jill at Running With My Eyes Closed likes to analyze TV pilots, and she made this comment about the UK series 'Jekyl':

For that reason it's quite different than many of the other pilots I've posted about. No, it doesn't apply to what most Canadian writers are doing to respond to the demand (?) from our broadcasters. Our marketplace wants stand alone episodes of unarced series. Miniseries are out of fashion here.

But maybe this is what we should be doing. Maybe an intense six part series is exactly what we should be doing. It seems to me that our audience could commit to a whole six hours of programming. And it's certainly the kind of event television that would fulfill cultural mandates (if those still exist under the current government); drawing the audience into a shared experience.

Sort of like Durham County? Or perhaps Across The River To Motor City? These limited series have aired or are about to air here in Canada, and Durham certainly received an enthusiastic reception. But they're both on Movie Central/Movie Network, and aren't targeting the masses. As good as they are (or will be), they either weren't designed or didn't have the premise to support a long successful run.

I'm not advocating creating simplistic twaddle, but network and cable TV series need to be accessible and have legs. Intelligence or The Best Years (or the upcoming The Border) seem more practical and realistic Canadian TV one hour series models to be studying and emulating.

Anyway, I'd be curious to see what Jill has to say about Milch's series (apparently she's working up a post).

John From to watch, wouldn't suggest writing it.

And on a sort of related (but not exactly) note, Lisa Klink at What It's Like took my comment that nobody sets out to make a bad tv show and ran with it. Go. Read. She's good.


greg said...

Milch is his own guy.

I had a friend who worked on Deadwood and said that Milch wrote everything. And is a notorious procrastinator - delivering the script the day of shooting. He said he would break down the locations and give an idea of what the episode was about so that they could get things ready - but that the actual stuff never arrived till the middle of the night the day before shooting.

It doesn't at all surprise me that he doesn't know where the show is going. And that actually is what makes it so fresh and exciting.

It sure as hell won't be for everybody - but that's the purpose of places like HBO. To give a voice to those people that want something different.

I'm still not 100% sold on the show. There's some pretty stiff performances, Rebecca is a bit over the top - but I love the random-ness of it. I don't know whats next either.

And that makes for fun TV.

DMc said...

I have to admire you simply for writing about John, Will. For my money I'm watching, that last ep blew my head off, but other than that I have NO idea what to say about it.

As for the limited stuff...Across the River to Motor city wasn't necessarily conceived to be six eps and out. That's a function of the money that was available to do it. We started developing for a 13 ep first season, then an eight hour, then finally six. It was really annoying.

Both Durham County and Across the River... were structured in such a way that they had seasonal arcs with conclusions, but also somewhere else to go -- major plot points were revealed, but also new mysteries hinted at. Things weren't tied up in a bow.

Sort of like the British CRACKER used to be.

wcdixon said...

I'm just talking outloud...have no idea to what end.

Milch sounds like he'd drive production nuts. And those limited's were designed to be longer...interesting.

Cunningham said...

Learning this about Milch is interesting as you can see how this would work (production headaches and all):

-- Sets are all there in one location - contained no matter what you do inside or out.

-- If he follows the outline closely, then production would know where there's a gunfight or somesuch stunt work.

But that's got to be a dumpload on the actors to recite Milch's dialogue style only after receiving the script on day one of shooting instead of pre-production day X.