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Home » Archives » October 2007 » Tough Talk About The Deficit
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10/28/2007: Tough Talk About The Deficit

I'm back in Los Angeles where it's warm. So let's get on with the bloggin', shall we?

I find here a letter from Alexandra in Culver City, who points out that I was very unclear in my entry for Sept. 23rd of this year in which I talked about reconceptualizing one-hour spec pilots as half-hour spec pilots. I didn't mean to suggest that anyone should actually write half-hour versions of Ugly Betty. I just meant to use Ugly Betty as an example of the kind of comedic-toned show that could've had its pilot script whittled down by its original author into a charming half-hour pilot if they'd chosen to do so. I hope that clears things up!

On a different topic, Alexandra also asks, "...does it ever happen that you actually get staffed on a show that you don't know in its entirety? If so, do you 'bluff' your way in the writers' room on the first few weeks of the job, or are you open about how much you love or don't love the show, or how much you know about all the characters...?"

Great question, Al! (Can I call you Al?) The answer to the question is "Yes, it happens all the time." In fact, even a rabid fan comes into the writers' room of an established show suffering from a distinct information deficit. They might know the characters, but they don't know about all the story lines that were considered and then dropped, or the foibles of the actors that limit what the characters can do, or the preferences of the network for a certain kind of episode, or the plans that the show runner has for the future arc of the show. Everyone expects the new guy at the very least to be uninformed and curious on these points. And usually, of course, the deficit is even larger. You can be a fan of a show and still forget big chunks of established back-story, or have failed to observe some quirk of one of the characters. No one expects you to know everything. I make mistakes all the time in the Battlestar writers' room -- forgetting some occurrence in a past episode or (repeatedly) mixing up which ships are Raptors and which are Raiders, or suggesting some character act in a way counter-indicated by everything else they've ever done. Shrug. I note the error and move on. I've done this in every room I've ever been in, and, to varying degrees, so does everyone else.

And what if you're barely aware of anything about the show? It happens. A lot. There's no need to hide it. You'll have done as much quick research as you can, of course, starting from when you heard you had an interview, but you might still show up feeling generally unfamiliar with the show. It's fine. You will be given disks, on your first work day, of all the shows to date. If you aren't given them, ask for them. Ask questions in the room if you can do so without derailing the process, or corner higher-level producers in the hall or over lunch with your questions. I myself sat down and reread all the Television Without Pity recaps of Battlestar when I got my current job, to make sure I hadn't just seen the episodes, but had checked my perceptions of what was going on against someone else's reactions. I remember hearing that a high-level producer at Star Trek: The Next Generation, was hired without having seen any of the show, or even of original Trek, and that they spent their first weeks watching endless tapes to immerse themselves in a culture entirely foreign to them. And that's certainly not an isolated or unusual case. The other writers will generally be eager to help, to discuss, to bring you up to date.

In other words, Don't Bluff. Except... well... it's not bluffing, exactly, but... you asked if you should be honest about how much you "love or don't love" the show. Don't love the show? Oh, no, you love the show. Seriously, you LOVE the show. Even if the other writers are downplaying it, find something you love about it. This show is someone's brainchild, someone loves it very much, and hundreds of people are devoting their time to try to make it the best it can be. If you don't at least try to wrap your arms around it, you will have a bad time and you won't do your best work, and you might just get a reputation as a negative presence. It's far better, I believe, to have a few grumpy-pens question your taste, than it is to have a show-runner question your love of the craft and/or devotion to her project.

Besides, they hired you, right? What's not to love?

Lunch: the "protein scramble" at Factor's Deli -- egg whites and ground chicken with grilled tomato slices.


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