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Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Why TV Fails to Tell Good Stories, and How to Fix It

TV fails to tell long-form and complex stories correctly time and time again. That's a problem for me, because these are my favorite type of stories (Heroes, Battlestar Galactica, Babylon Five, etc.). Unfortunately, it's not a problem that is likely to go away soon. There are three simple reasons for this failure:

1. Television actors are unreliable.
2. Television writers are both lazy and unreliable.
3. Television executives are stupid.

Now that I've offended everyone in the television industry, I want to push even more buttons, and say that there are a few simple solutions to this problem.

But first, let me explain a little more about what I mean when I write about those "long-form" TV show mistakes. Here are three examples from the recent past:

1. Heroes season one was pretty great (not perfect), and it captured my attention like few shows can. However, season two is filled with blunders. To name just one, some random loser shoots the character DL in the beginning of the season, because the actor could not get along with the actress playing his wife (or vice versa), and she was the bigger star. This was a failure of an unreliable actor and actress, and it did nothing for the plot. Maybe Tim Kring, the writer, could have written him out better, but really, he's not the one to blame in this instance.

2. Up until season three, Battlestar Galactica was also amazing. However, season three bogged down like crazy with lots of unnecessary "drama" that failed to move the story forward. Now, this did not bother me, but it bothered a lot of other people. What did bother me was the final episode of the season, which revealed four of the Cylon sleeper cell bad guys. I thought the episode was great, except for the one problem that seriously damaged the series: Ron Moore, the writer, had not decided who among the major cast of good guys were sleeper Cylons until season three began (he admitted as much in an interview). This is writer laziness in the extreme! How can you hope to write a good, coherent story, with appropriate foreshadowing and characterization clues if you don't know how it's going to end?!? If there's one thing that annoys me more than anything else about long-form TV shows, it's writers who make the story up as they go along.

3. Babylon 5 was one of the pioneers of the long-form sci-fi TV show. However, you can easily see its screw-ups at the end of season four, and through all of season five. James Michael Straczynski (JMS), the writer, thought he only had four seasons to wrap up his plot, so he wound it down in season four. Altogether, I thought he did a good job with this. However, at the last minute, after the cast had been let go, Babylon 5 was renewed for a fifth season. JMS should have just said, "Hey, you told me I had four seasons, so the story finished up in four seasons." Instead, he went ahead with a bad season five, with poor replacements for some of the main cast that had disappeared. This is mainly a case of the execs causing disaster, although the writer could have prevented it.

Here's how the TV industry can fix mistakes like the above, and more:

Solution 1: Fire Real Actors, Create Digital Actors.

Real actors have egos that clash and get bruised (see above). They demand more money (like Bitty Schram, who played Sharona from Monk), or get bored, or fear they might become typecast (like Christopher Eccleston, the previous Doctor Who). They get sick, die, get thrown in jail, embarrass the show, or decide to quit acting and spend more time with their families. And you can't just replace them with another actor to play the same role, because audiences don't like that. Well, Doctor Who is an exception, but that's cheating, and has some consequences besides. Even with cartoon characters, it's difficult (though much easier) to replace a voice actor.

The answer is to completely digitalize actors, separating image and voice from the problematic individual. We're getting there already with the Pixar films, Final Fantasy movies, Shrek movies, and films like The Polar Express and Beowulf (even though some of these suffer pretty badly from the problems of the Uncanny Valley). Voice digitalization is still a big problem, but all-in-all, we're getting there.

After voice and image can be disconnected from individual actors, these actors become regular, replaceable employees. Sure, motion capture and acting talent will still be necessary, but the motion capture allows the actors to be in the background, providing data that can be provided by anyone with ability. Also, actors may have different styles, but the look of the character will persist, and I'm sure there will be software to digitally correct small behavioral inconsistencies, as well as actors good enough to adapt to the established character's personality.

Solution 2: Fire TV Writers, Hire Book Writers

Authors of books write better long-form stories than TV writers. This is largely because an author writes an entire book before the publisher publishes it. It also helps that there is an editor to read it all over before publication as well. When the author reveals that Susie is the murderer in chapter ten, and finds that Susie's homicidal streak is not credible because there were subtle indicators of it in previous chapters, he goes back and fixes those chapters. He cannot just make things up as he goes along and hope that the reader does not notice. Publishers and readers want more than that.

Now, not all the TV writers need to be fired, if they can just finish their scripts, or at least the outline with major plot points and secrets, before the airing of the first show. It would also help if they created plots that were a set length, say two, three, or four seasons, and let the story run its course.

There is a large pool of good writers out there just waiting to be tapped. Of course, there are writers who make the same mistakes TV writers make, but these mistakes don't usually show up in a single book. Rather, they tend to show up when the author writes a series of books, possibly trying to milk a proven set of characters for more money. To get around this problem, I'd say that the talent pool is large enough that these people could be avoided.

Solution 3: Tell TV Executives to Butt Out

Television executives have a big problem with micromanagement. They see something they don't like in a series, and they want it yanked. Or they decide that a series makes them good money, so they milk that cow for all it's worth, dragging it into season after season and squeezing the life out of any plot that once existed. To fix this problem, they need to butt out of artistic decisions, and let the plot play out as it was originally planned. They may not see the big picture of the story, or they may not realize that a risk in the plot or characterization may make the story unique, or have unforeseen rewards. They are not the artists, and they should remember that (and they might even make more money if they followed this advice).

Solution 4: Keep What Works

There are a few pieces of the television equation that work right now. For instance, if a TV story is not compelling, audience feedback can help a writer correct the problems mid-stream. Heroes shows us a great example of this. With season two, Tim Kring set up some lame subplots, mostly revolving around some boring and unconvincing romantic scenes. The audience complained online, and Tim Kring changed the direction of the show to make it better (he has stated so publicly). This is good, because improving something is always better than not improving it. Of course, the writer should use his judgment with this approach, because the viewers may not always have good opinions.

TV shows also often perform single episode pacing well. Audiences need hooks that pull them along from episode to episode, and the occasional cliffhanger or surprise revelation to build excitement. Many shows do this well. It's probably one thing that TV writers are better trained to do than fiction writers.

Lastly, there's the humor aspect of TV. Authors are good at dry humor, because that's what works in books. However, this does not necessarily translate as well to the small screen. TV writers have experience with the format, so this is another good reason to keep some around.


There's a lot wrong with the current state of long-form TV drama, but the problems are solvable. Some solutions await in the future, beckoning lucratively, and some are just common sense. Most of the changes would shake up the industry dramatically, and anger many people, but that is the way of progress. I'm all for progress, especially if it gives me the wonderful, evocative, compelling stories that television has the potential to provide.


Alex Epstein said...

TV writers are "lazy and unreliable"? Do you have ANY idea how hard TV writers work? 16 hour days? 6 day weeks?

TV writers would LOVE to write their shows in advance. Try getting a network to pay for it.

As far as book writers go... I've seen scripts by book writers. They don't know a THING about creating visual drama.

Billy Goat said...

Thanks for the comment!

My article was meant to be provocative, but not to offend. I apologize if I came off as offensive. :)

I think your point about visual drama is a good one, too. It is one of those skills, like show pacing, that screenwriters have that book writers do not.

As for your comment about writing shows in advance, we've seen some noble efforts (BSG, Heroes, and B5 all did good things, with B5 probably doing the best job), so it can be done. It just needs to be done better more consistently. And the network won't pay for it? It should be an integral part of the process, rolled in, and therefore paid for.

Any thoughts? Am I way off base here? :)

Peter said...

Hate to say it, but you're way off base.

On the surface they're all good suggestions (though the lazy and unreliable comments are going a bit far), but they show a lack of understanding of how television is made.

Television is responsive, always evolving and changing based on audience reaction and developments on the creative end (an actor takes a marginal character and makes him "pop", thus encouraging the writers to create a larger role for this case I'm talking about Battlestar's Chief Tyrol, who was never meant to have such a large role).

Novels, on the other hand, exist in a vacuum. They're brought forth into the world and that's that.

To give you some specific responses:

1. Actors. Losing human actors is a risky idea. Sure you might save yourself the hassle of working with a diva, but you're also going to lose out on some talented people bringing that little something extra to the table (e.g. my Chief Tyrol example from above).

You're also going to lose some of the empathy your audience feels for your characters (technology's come a long way, but those people still look fake and creepy to a lot of us). Would a show like "Dexter" work if Michael C. Hall was replaced with a CGI version of himself? I have my doubts...

2. Book vs TV Writers. I don't know what else to say but 'No' to that. Screenwriting is a very different skill set compared to novel writing. Screenwriters have to write visually, they have to be economical with their words, dialogue spoken on screen is quite different from dialogue on the page. It's like assuming that Hemingway would be a great Technical writer. Could he write manuals for Windows Vista? Sure! Would they be the greatest manuals ever? Probably not.

As for writing scripts for an entire season before going into production, it comes down largely to economics. Last I checked (which was quite a while ago) WGA scale for an hour long episode of television came in around $43K. Multiply that by 23, and we get just under a 1 million. Say a studio were to do that, and then find out that something wasn't working. Audiences didn't respond to a previously integral character (think Mandy on The West Wing). If you'd found that out 6 episodes in, you can incorporate the information into the rest of the season. With 23 scripts in the can you now have to pay someone to rewrite the last 17 scripts. Not exactly the most economical way of doing things...

3. Getting Executives to butt out. Yes, executives of all stripes have a problem with micromanagement. It's a consequence of having a crap load of money on the line (Bionic Woman, the biggest flop this year, was probably running a couple mil an episode), and the fact that one high profile flop is enough to cost you your job. A book deal is an extremely low risk proposition in comparison. Nosy Execs aren't going anywhere though, it's all about learning how to deal with them...

4. Keeping what works. Honestly, this season aside, long form TV's better off now than it's ever been. Rome, Deadwood, The Sopranos, The Wire, Battlestar Galactica, Jekyll, Lost, etc. Serialized television is here in a big way. Do these shows stumble at times? Absolutely. But so do great authors...

As someone whose had a peak at the innerworkings of the television industry I have to agree with Alex and say that you're way off base...

Billy Goat said...

Peter - thanks for the great post. I found it to be very insightful and interesting.

I agree with you about the nature of television versus novels. However, I want to see the medium move forward and find ways to reduce its inherent risks. I think it would improve the current state of the industry to try to move screenwriting closer to novel writing in some ways. Basically, I want to see the industry keep its ability to capitalize on its adaptability, but remove some of the unpredictability.

You mentioned Chief Tyrol, and I think it's great that they gave him a bigger role. I felt the same way about the Noah Bennet character on Heroes.

Also, after seeing responses, and talking to some readers I know, I think I need to clarify a couple of points. The first is that I don't think that anyone should really be "fired" or that any particular group of people is actually "lazy" or "stupid" as a block, etc. I had hoped that came across in the main text of the article, but I guess I was not clear enough. These statements were attempts to hook readers in, and be provocative (each is an inarguably absurd and insane statement on its face). To some degree, it has worked - this is the most substantive discussion we've had on the blog to date.

Next clarification point: I don't think actors should be taken out of the loop entirely. Doing so is infeasible for the near future. I think we need a human component in there for the reasons you state. However, technology is advancing every day, and since the first cartoons we've had a way to separate image from actor. The computer-generated images we use today are inspired and modeled on actors doing their thing, and this works. And all I'm saying is that it makes the actor more easily replaced (although there are still some problems to work out). As this technology approaches photorealism, it may be able to be used in shows that are not purely rendered.

As a follow-up to this point, I'm happy to see actors replace other actors in key roles. For instance, replacing the Dumbledore actor in the Harry Potter movies worked just fine for me (although I find the new actor's interpretation to take a few too many liberties). I just hate to see plots get damaged unnecessarily.

On your number 2 point: Good writers need to also be economical with their words. I agree that there are different skill sets for the two types, but I believe each can learn something from the other.

Point 3 makes a lot of sense. Getting fired over a failed risk is too bad.

Point 4 - I really like BSG, and I've liked what I've seen of Deadwood and heard about the Sopranos (the analyses of the last episode really got my attention). I agree that there's lots of great stuff out there to watch. I'm just looking for ideas to make it even better.

Mister Troll said...

Just checking in, late to the party, as usual...

I gotta say that I thought the post was meant tongue-in-cheek. When I read that Billy Goat's solution to the problems on TV involved firing everyone, I had to laugh out loud.

Anyway, there's much that is interesting about BG's suggestions. Digital actors are not far in the horizon, and definitely could impact TV, particularly since the resolution of the image is not so great (even HDTV isn't anything like cinema... at least, I think?). Sure, you might lose some of the sparkle of the great actors, but it's a very intriguing possibility for the future. And animators have been showing for decades that they create amazing and wonderful personalities

I'm with BG on the upfront investment. Of course it's not possible - no one will take that kind of risk. Tough. You'd get better shows if you could plan them out ahead of time (and stick to the plan...). You'd also get worse shows that never got fixed. I vote for taking risks. Let's see some creative vision, not re-hashed, please-the-fans crap.

Example: the X-Files was still cool when the aliens episodes were sporadic and neat. Eventually it consumed the show because the fans hungered for more. Result: X-Files sucked. I tuned out, but I'm sure it still made a boat load of money by feeding the masses what they clamored for.

Keep up the good work, BG!

(Full disclosure for commenters not familiar with our blog: I am co-poster here as well...)

Mister Troll said...

One more point for me - I agree with the commenters, and disagree with BG, regarding hiring novelists to write TV shows. It's definitely a different skill; I want to see the writers plan the show from start to finish. No, it's not practical; no, that's not how it works in the industry; yes, that's what I want.

But again, I'm *pretty* sure it was meant tongue-in-cheek...

chrisd said...

This was a thought provoking discussion, BG.

I think you brought up something very important. That writer who wrote for 4 seasons--they should have stopped the show at 4 seasons. OR they should have committed to 2 years and wrote a show accordingly.

I feel that's what happened to X-files. They seemed to be going along and it was meant to reach a conclusion LONG before it did.

By that same token, I think that there are other shows out there that should be given more of a chance than one month during "sweeps."

Hill Street Blues had a terrible rating but a smart executive took a chance on it and it became very popular.

The networks bottom line is to make money. Quality belongs on PBS; and besides Dr. Who, what other speculative fiction have they done?