Life in Hollywood, below-the-line

Life in Hollywood, below-the-line
Work gloves at the end of the 2006/2007 television season (photo by Richard Blair)

Sunday, November 9, 2014

The View from Europe

                            "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times."
                            A Tale of Two Cities, by Charles Dickens

A reader who goes by the moniker "McFrog" recently left a comment with the provocative heading, "Post this if you dare…"  

It's not my habit to respond to dares, but I thought the rest of you might be interested in what McFrog had to say. If you manage to plow through his post -- and my response --  feel free to toss your two cents into the comment pot. 

"As a European subjected to a daily onslaught of American entertainment output I have a few observations. While much of American output is good and ground breaking far too much of it is afflicted with some or all of the following traits:

The voices. Predominantly young women with high, strangled voices speaking too quickly. The words get chewed up somewhere between the larynx and the nasal passages making them sound unpleasant and unintelligible. Listen to the greats like Bette Davis, Helen Hunt, Meryl Streep and learn how to speak. It’s not difficult.

The scriptwriting. Lazy, unresearched and formulaic. The word ‘need’ constantly misused. You don’t ‘need’ this or that or the other. You would like, want, desire but not ‘need’ everything. Cars do not go out of control when the brakes fail. Take the foot off the accelerator, pull on the parking brake and you will stop – not go faster. Basic physics.

The Irish Catholic. Always a favourite. Catholics make up fewer than 24% of the American population so how come in almost every film and television programme we get treated to the priest and a lot of people crossing themselves? Lazy scriptwriting.

And now for the biggy: every conflict, every situation is resolved by violence. Guns or better yet, an enormous black gun, is the problem solver. Mr. Freud might have a word or two to say on that subject. Is this how life really is in America? No. So why show it like that? Lazy scriptwriting with bad grammar, bad English and just plain old bad writing. And just so you lazy, unintelligent scriptwriters understand it, a human cannot outrun a bullet – ever. And, bullets do pass through car doors. Please stop writing this drivel.

Look at ‘House’, ‘As Good As It Gets’, ‘House of Cards’ and dozens of other products. Excellent examples of good scriptwriting, good production and great talent. It can be done.

What causes these ailments? American colleges and acting schools are failing the students of these schools. The training is poor in some areas and clearly woefully inadequate in others leaving students ill equipped to do the job. But worse, the decision makers are afraid of the money men. Whatever is fast, easy and cheap is the order of the day. Is that really how such an important part of the U.S. economy should be run?

America, before it is too late, get-your-house-in-order and stop the drivel. Please."

Oh, McFrog, where to begin?  You'd best settle into a nice comfortable chair, because this could take a while.
Yours is a howl of pain from the television wasteland.  Although I can’t speak to the vocal deficiencies of American actresses (I haven’t noticed a preponderance of “high strangled voices,” but apparently we’re not watching the same shows), I do have some thoughts on the other issues you raise.
That doesn’t mean I’m right about any of what follows, mind you, but trying to parse right from wrong is pointless when it comes to matters of opinion, because opinions really are like assholes: we’ve all got one. These are just my personal views -- your mileage may vary.

First, remember the old maxim that "90% of everything is crap." This holds true in much of life, and certainly describes the output of the American film and television industry. If anything, the percentage of crap is higher when it comes to Hollywood.
I have no idea what’s being piped into Europe from the New World these days, but I’ll bet the bulk of what appears on our televisions in the U.S. is considerably worse in all the aspects you mention... unless, of course, you too are subjected to crap like “Duck Dynasty,” “Storage Wars,” or anything involving the odious Kardashian clan. And that's in primetime -- daytime television in America has always been a barren desert devoid of intelligent life. 

American television suffers from the curse of the broadcast networks, which are owned lock, stock, and barrel by huge, soulless corporations that labor under tighter content restrictions than their more nimble free-range cable competition. Broadcast networks produce a vast quantity of mediocre programming designed to appeal to the widest possible viewer base, and thus maximize their advertising revenue. For that reason alone, expecting a broadcast network to produce something as brilliant as “Breaking Bad,” "The Wire," or "The Sopranos" is an exercise in futility.  

You may as pray for a chicken to give birth to a live elephant. 

Then again, broadcast network television (BNT) rarely comes up with anything so vile as Here Comes Honey Boo Boo.  If the very best of American television comes from cable networks these days, so does the very worst.  Meanwhile, BNT walks the middle road, rarely approaching the giddy highs or bottom-of-the-barrel lows routinely reached by cable networks. 
1)  Lazy, badly-written, formulaic screenplays?  Check.
2)  Cars going out of control on screen when the brakes fail?  Check.
3)  Humans able to outrun and/or dodge bullets? Check.
4)  Car doors that stop all forms of deadly ordinance -- including machine-gun fire -- thus protecting the humans crouched behind them? Check.
I’ve got a few more for you. Nearly everyone on a BNT show is ridiculously attractive -- the women stunningly sexy babes, the men ruggedly handsome (yet sensitive) hunks -- with an occasional skinny tech-nerd or fat schlub thrown in for comic relief.  Even the bad guys look the part, gleaming with the dark burnished glow of evil. And how about cars and helicopters that invariably explode when they crash?  On one of the many shows I did that involved a helicopter, the pilot stood up at the morning crew safety meeting to explain that real life is not like the movies, and if his chopper were to fall from the sky, the likelihood of any explosion was remote.
I found it interesting that he had to remind a crew of Hollywood professionals of this, but maybe we're all prisoners of our collective assumptions.

Then there's the use of music in the typical BNT one-hour drama, where the soundtrack is almost invariably too loud, overly intrusive, and all too often telegraphs whatever is about to happen on screen -- or worse, strives to manipulate our emotions about what we're watching at the moment, because the writing, dialog, acting, and visuals aren't doing the job. Producers use music as lipstick on a pig in their effort to fool the viewers into thinking they're watching something decent.  It never works.

A prime example is NBC's popular The Blacklist.  After reading positive reviews by critics I respect, I tuned in the pilot episode, and although it exhibited fewer of the standard BNT maladies, the thundering, ham-fisted soundtrack killed the show for me. James Spader was good, as usual, and the story was serviceable, but all those too-beautiful people and the godawful music ruined it.  I didn't go back for more.

BNT comes at the viewer like a sledgehammer, offering very little subtlety, sophistication or respect for the intelligence of the audience.  

You're dead right about the excessive violence in the American media. The usual excuse  trotted out is that our nearly four hundred year national history is so steeped in violence that we've developed a collective cultural taste for it -- and we do have a bloody past.  Having killed vast numbers of Native Americans to steal their land, our ancestors then started a war with Mexico to "liberate" the southwest and west coast, vastly increasing the territorial reach of the United States.  We then entered into the American Civil War and slaughtered more than six hundred thousand of our fellow countrymen. The legends of the Old West subsequently emerged during a rough-and-tumble era when competing groups -- sheepherders vs. cattlemen, outlaws vs. settlers, miners vs. claim-jumpers -- settled their differences with six-guns in the absence of strong law enforcement.   

The long and bloody expanse of American history gave rise to the myths that formed our modern cultural foundation, and those myths still feed directly into the echo chamber of movies and television. Now we're caught in a self-perpetuating cycle where the more violence we see on screen (movies, television, and video games), the more we accept it as normal behavior.  

Or so the argument goes, anyway.  Whether it actually holds water, I have no idea, but I'm not sure the "why" of our violent media even matters anymore.  What counts is that violence sells, so it's no surprise to find so much of it in our popular entertainment. 

What puzzles me is that the history of Europe is vastly longer and considerably more blood-soaked, but your cinematic offerings don't celebrate violence with anything like the orgiastic glee of American movies and television. Why?

I can't explain it. You tell me, McFrog.

Anyway... back to your litany of cinematic ailments.  American colleges and acting schools aren't “failing the students” (our elementary and high schools are, but that's another story), but the decisions in Hollywood are made by committees of money men: corporate drones who run the film and television industry with no clue as to what constitutes a truly good movie or television show. Their only goal is to make money for the shareholders -- succeed at that, and the corporate hack gets to keep his job. Fail, and he's out the door. Given that the upper echelon of Hollywood is a fear-based culture, it’s no wonder the industry mainstream remains pathalogically averse to taking creative chances.  
The wrong people are in charge, that's all -- thus the endless parade of formulaic dreck on television, and comic book/super-hero/“Transformers” crap in theaters.  
Is this any way to run such “an important part of the US economy?”  Probably not, but don’t hold your breath hoping the situation will change anytime soon.  Some critics are convinced that broadcast television as we know it is doomed to crumble any day now, but the ramifications remain unclear.  There's no reason to assume that the fragmentation or collapse of what once was a monopoly for the Big Three founding-father networks will result in better television.
Remember the words of the legendary promoter P.T. Barnum:  “Nobody ever lost a dollar by underestimating the taste of the American Public.”  Proof of that can be found every night on the Toob in the form of "Reality Television."  Should the great ship of BNT hit the economic rocks and sink, don’t expect a sudden burst of cinematic creativity to bubble up from the wreckage.  Things could even get worse -- more live sports on the Toob, more “reality television,” more talk shows, and more garbage like “Big Brother.”  

And if this is a harbinger of what might be coming to our television screens, prepare to run screaming into the night... 

Whatever happens, you can count on the drivel continuing to emerge from Hollywood into the foreseeable future.  There will be no getting our house in order.  The self-serving, myopic corporate roots of American TV will see to that.

But do not despair, McFrog. You can shield yourself from further viewing trauma by choosing with care.  When it comes to episodic dramas, keep an eye on the cable offerings and ignore anything produced by an American broadcast television network. There are occasional exceptions, but the last worthy broadcast network episodic I saw was a terrific LAPD drama called Southland.* Although NBC deserves kudos for green-lighting the show in the first place, then producing  a half-seasons worth of episodes before and after the WGA-strike shortened 2008 season, they freaked out and cancelled the show before it had a chance to win over an audience.**
But at least NBC had the good sense to sell the show cheap to TNT, which (operating on a much lower budget) kept the core cast together and completed a good run of five excellent seasons
It's possible BNT will come up with another decent show someday -- even a blind pig stumbles across an acorn from time to time --  but you can't go wrong sticking to cable networks when watching American dramas.***  And if for whatever reason you haven’t yet seen all of “The Wire,” “Deadwood,” “The Sopranos,” “Mad Men,” or “Breaking Bad,” you’re in for a treat.  Yes, big black guns will appear in those shows from time to time, but always for a reason. 

I’ll say it again:  90% of everything is crap, and there's no reason to expect that will ever change.  If you're continually disappointed in what's on in theaters or on the Toob, turn the damned thing off and pick up a book.

You’ll be a better man for it.

* For more on the story of Southland, click here.

** This was back during the Jeff Zucker years, when he was busy running NBC into a ditch. 

*** Comedies are something else altogether.  With occasional exceptions (Monty Python being a prime example), drama tends to translate across cultural borders more easily than comedy.


Anonymous said...

I once asked a studio executive why almost everything they put out is formulaic and his quick and simple response was "Because it works and we cannot afford to take chances."

It's the bottom line.

egee said...

I agree with your comments as well as "Anonymous". It always seems to be about money. However, I would like to point out that in this day of YouTube, Hulu, Netflix, DVDs that none of us are held hostage by NBT (and I have no adjectives negative enough to describe my opinion of RT). We now have opportunities to explore programming that we never would have had years ago. I have come across a number of excellent series and movies on YouTube (some old , some not so) that really provide good quality. To paraphrase Dickens, "it is the best of times and it is the worst of times."

Michael Taylor said...

Anonymous --

That quote pretty much sums up the ethos of broadcast network television. The only time BNT is willing to take a chance is when the tried-and-true approach fails. Then -- and only then -- will they dare to try something new. The BNT drones doubtless make a lot of money, but I really wouldn't want to be one...

Egee --

True, that. Although I don't have a data plan that allows me to watch much of anything on the web, Netflix DVDs keep me from falling too far behind the cultural eight-ball. And Dickens was right…which is why I put that same quote under the photo of the cracked television on this post.

Thanks for tuning in...

Anonymous said...

The violence thing is over the top in American movies and TV. However, new experiences / titillation absolutely sells. This could be violence or sex.

A major difference between Europe and the US (I'm dual citizen). In Europe, you can basically show a nude women or a women's breast or a guy in a movie / TV without it going R/XXX from a ratings standpoint, at least back when I was there. So violence need not be the only crutch to lean on to get the audience going. I found European media far more balanced as a result.

In the US you can put an INCREDIBLE amount of violence in a movie that is still PG13, even though I'd argue the level of violence is much less pro-social than just getting it on with someone, it certainly is more celebrated.

Michael Taylor said...

Anonymous --

Maybe it's because this country was started by the Puritans -- religious freaks so twisted in the head that there was no place for them in England -- whose "puritanical" fear and loathing of anything involving sex still runs deep through the American psyche.

Or not. I really don't know. But I do find it very strange indeed that nudity on American BNT is absolutely verboten while the graphic and bloody slaughter of human beings is totally fine. Somehow we got the notion that people (especially kids) will be harmed by seeing nudity and/or sex -- an act that creates life -- on television, but watching people shoot, stab, and beat each other to death in an extremely violent manner on the Toob does no harm at all.

Personally, I think that's bass-ackwards.

I don't advocate porn on prime-time television, but a more relaxed, realistic, and humanistic approach to sexual matters on television might be a lot healthier for our society than our current white-knuckled obsession with extreme violence.

But don't hold your breath waiting for that to happen…

Thanks for tuning in.