Make it for TV?

Do you want your favorite book made into a television show or a movie?

I thought about this when I went to rasalvatore.com to discuss his latest novel. There is a sticky thread about turning his Drizzt novels into movies, which is something a lot of readers apparently want. I’m not so sure I do. The reason is something Salvatore said when he came to the Mall of America Barnes & Noble in 2008. Once a story is put on screen and you watch it, he said, your imagination can never recover. He used Tolkien as an example. Anyone who watches Peter Jackson’s movies first will never have the experience of imagining Middle Earth for the first time through Tolkien’s writing.

That is exactly what I experienced when I read Lord of the Rings for the first time in 2009. My imagination could only see the characters as they appeared in the movies, and it did feel like I wasn’t getting the full LOTR experience because of it. My mind was also always on alert for any time the book deviated from the movies. I definitely feel like I robbed myself and my imagination. After that I stopped watching the movies every winter in an attempt to clear it from my mind. I’ve since read the book a second time and enjoyed it much more. Hopefully with a few more years’ time I will be able to read it again and get closer to a true imagination experience.

When I take that experience back to Salvatore’s point about his own books, I am not sure I ever want to see an actor cast as Drizzt Do’Urden. I have 23 books in my imagination. Stories, characters and settings all there to be recalled at the drop of a name or a word on a page. No one else pictures Menzoberranzan the same way I do. Isn’t that the magic of reading? Everyone’s experience is different because our imaginations draw words in a different way.

I recently read the book 666 Park Avenue. It, allegedly, sparked the failed television show of the same name but could not have been more divergent from what appeared on screen. Other than the names and being set in New York City, the two had nothing in common. Being so wildly different helped get past having already seen the book on television. I’m not sure if that makes it worth it or not. If your favorite fictional character came to the screen in name only, wouldn’t that still disrupt how you picture it in your own mind?

I don’t think Salvatore fans have to worry. The Drizzt story has grown beyond what a movie can portray. Our imaginations are safe.

Lost in The West Wing

Lost. The West Wing. We were treated to 13 seasons of great television between The West Wing’s debut in 1999 and Lost’s finale in 2010. Two shows with fabulous brilliance that can’t be truly compared, but can’t be separated either. 

The West Wing was an artful show. The dialogue with perfect timing and delivery gave it a rhythmic feel as if the characters were dancing their lines instead of speaking them. A lesser show could tip easily into ridicule. But The West Wing was so brilliant we accepted it, it actually made the show better. 

Its art played into our romantic notions of what the White House might be like; what a president might be like if he eschewed the fears that hem in our real life leaders. Jed Bartlet led from his heart in the way we hope all presidents do.  

These two things are what reached out from the rest of the show to bind it to viewers. There will always be movies and television shows set to the White House, but never one so endearing. 

The West Wing had a clear lead character in Jed Bartlet, which is what you would expect from a show about the presidency. Every other character’s actions were influenced by their proximity to him whether they intended them to or not. People in politics like to joke about how it is really nothing like The West Wing made it out to be, but in this one regard I think it did it right. You can’t escape from under the way working in politics will frame your life.  

They couldn’t escape it because of where the show put them: The White House. They did White House things and we saw how their personalities influenced their handling of those things and their decisions. The decision-making process is what revealed the characters. There is the source of drama — how are those decisions made? How does making them affect the people who do? How do their unique experiences influence their contributions? That was West Wing.

Lost was raw, a plane crash cutting a vein in its character’s lives that they had no choice but to stem. This was its White House. How they reacted, interacted and then reacted to their interactions. Who are these people? What life stories do they bring to this island? How will those stories affect the choices they make on this island? Their character was revealed through these interactions.

There was no balance or art to the dialogue between characters. It was drawn from within the characters in a way that The West Wing’s really wasn’t. You could take a lot of scenes from West Wing, shift the lines among characters and come out with the same scene, the same story and the characters would not be terribly disrupted. You could not switch Sawyer’s lines with John Locke’s. Sawyer didn’t seek destiny. He mocked destiny, denied it outright. Lost’s dialogue came from some place much deeper than The West Wing’s. 

We knew West Wing was going to be a show about the presidency and the people supporting it. Lost took our assumptions that it would be a show about escaping a deserted island and threw ’em away. It was not about that at all.

Lost was about characters. Deep, complex characters. Characters that change as they take a journey. None of them ended the show the same as they began it. They traveled toward something. Each had to come to a realization or find redemption, and they all did. No major character died or left the island without doing so. 

There was no dominant Jed Bartlet. Different characters rose and fell to drive the story from episode to episode. Using that structure allowed the writers to build each character such a deep background. If you try to think about Lost written in the format The West Wing was, you can’t see a way that it works. Lost needed four separate timelines to hold up its story. It becomes a pretty remarkable body of work when you think about it that way.  

There was no natural ending like what The West Wing ran into, not once Lost established that it was not a show about leaving an island. The drama came from what the characters did in this trying situation and the journey they took within it. The journey happened without the characters even realizing it as they faced one situation after another. Isn’t that what life is? We navigate thru the things that occupy our days and only when the journey is over do we have the wisdom to look back at where we were and know the end is where we belong. That is Lost. That is life. “This is the place you made together.” 

It’s no secret which show I like better but this isn’t about deciding between two shows. On the surface you would never think a show about politics and a show about castaways would be at all similar. Each’s greatness can be found there at the intersection of similar and different. 

Profiler: Before its time?

It must have been a strange feeling for Robert Davi when he made a guest appearance on the CBS crime drama Criminal Minds. Davi played the role of Detective Eric Kurz in the final episode of season five and the premiere of season six. It was only 10 years earlier that he closed the book on Agent Bailey Malone.

Agent Malone was Aaron Hotchner before there was Aaron Hotchner, just like Malone’s show Profiler was Criminal Minds before there was Criminal Minds. Starting in 1997, Profiler ran for four seasons on NBC’s Saturday night schedule. It followed the story of the FBI’s Violent Crimes Task Force and Dr. Samantha Waters, its profiler (Ally Walker). Malone, Detective John Grant (Nip/Tuck’s Julian McMahon), George Fraley (Peter Frechette) and Dr. Grace Alvarez (Roma Maffia) followed Waters’ profiling instinct across the country to track and stop violent killers.

The VCTF had its stern leader in Malone, detective muscle in Grant and even CBS’ patented computer wiz in Fraley. Dr. Alvarez filled the forensics role. Sound familiar? They were Hotchner’s Behavioral Analysis Unit by a different name. Each member of Profiler’s team kept its duties more specialized than Hotchner’s BAU where all the characters seem almost equally adept at all the skills they need to track their “unsubs.”

Profiler’s story had an additional serial element that Criminal Minds mostly avoids. Its week-to-week stories took place on top of Dr. Waters’ personal life marked by an extreme tragedy: The death of her husband at the hands of a serial killer known only as “Jack.” Sam is haunted by the continual torture-hold Jack keeps her in as he weaves in and out of the show’s first three seasons until the VCTF ultimately apprehends him. It would be as if Foyet haunted Hotch for the entirety of Minds. Walker then left the show and it floundered quickly, lasting only one more season. Interestingly enough, Walker’s replacement was played by Madison Riley, who had a guest appearance on Criminal Minds in 2013.

Had it aired today, Profiler may have enjoyed a more successful fate. Broadcast television is a different place now than it was in the late 1990s. A look at last season’s top ratings compared to those of 1997 shows how much things have changed.

2011-12 Total Viewership

  1. NCIS 19.2 million
  2. American Idol (Wed) 17.7 million
  3. Dancing with the Stars (fall perf) 17.6 million
  4. Dancing with the Stars (spring perf) 17 million
  5. American Idol (Thurs) 16.6 million
  6. NCIS: Los Angeles 15.5 million
  7. Dancing with the Stars (fall results) 15.4 million
  8. The Big Bang Theory 14.9 million
  9. Dancing with the Stars (spring results) 14.7 million
  10. Two and a Half Men 14.6 million

See the rest.

Now the top broadcast shows of the 1996-97 television season

  1. ER 20.6 million
  2. Seinfeld 19.9 million
  3. Suddenly Susan 16.5 million
  4. Friends 16.3 million
  5. The Naked Truth 16.3 million
  6. Fired Up 16.6 million
  7. Monday Night Football 15.5 million
  8. The Single Guy 13.7 million
  9. Home Improvement 13.6 million
  10. Touched by an Angel 12.9 million

See the next 20 here.

Most glaringly, six of last year’s top shows were of the reality genre, which didn’t exist in  1997. Sitcoms accounted for similar bulk in 1997 taking up 70 percent of the list.

How would Profiler have ranked? Its 1996-97 viewership of 7.4 million put it 82nd. The same viewership last year would have vaulted it 30 spots higher, near the likes of Glee, House, Revenge and Scandal – all of which survived. Nearby shows like Terra Nova, NYC 22 and Missing weren’t so lucky. Following seasons saw Profiler jump to 9-10 million viewers, on par with Undercover Boss, How I Met Your Mother, Greys Anatomy, CSI: NY and The Amazing Race. Those shows survive easily.

Criminal Minds is a more mature show than Profiler. That could be due to CBS having perfected the criminal drama format. It turns out these shows like suburban model homes,  and that’s not a knock on the shows or suburban model homes. Okay maybe a little bit. This Business Insider piece from two years ago explains how they do it (even though it was prompted by a Minds spinoff that didn’t last the season). Each show benefits from the others’ successes, and Profiler never had that benefit on the NBC of the late 1990s. Not to say it would have lasted longer if it had, just that it existed on more of an island than Criminal Minds does today.

Even with that help, I don’t think Criminal Minds is perfect. Minds is set up in a way that removes as much of a viewer’s need to think as it possibly can. Dr. Spencer Reid does most of the hand holding as the team member with an eidetic memory – basically he knows everything. That’s awfully convenient. Every development in the show is revealed through dialogue, usually as a series of questions, discussions and realizations by the BAU team. Very little is actually shown. You can close your eyes and listen to it for an entire episode without missing much of anything. Profiler was more artful than that. I’d love to see a breakdown between the average amount of time in each show without dialogue. My bet would be Profiler comes out on top. And that’s why it’s my favourite of the two. It could also be why it didn’t last half as long as Minds.

Davi appeared in two of what I think are Criminal Minds’ darkest episodes as a serial killer murdered families and left only one survivor to remember the horrors. As he looked around the set, I wonder if Davi saw Profiler as a show that came before its time?

What I’m watching

By day of the week and live/DVR status.

Sunday:
Revenge. Live.
Was watching 666 Park but that got canceled. DVR.

Monday:
The Following. DVR.
Revolution was Mondays but I dropped that.

Tuesday:
Nothing

Wednesday:
Nashville. DVR.
The Americans. Live.

Thursday:
Was watching Last Resort but it ended. Live.
Person if Interest. Live.
*Zero Hour will air on Thursdays, it’ll be iPad-only until it proves itself.

Friday:
Fringe but that’s over. Live.

Saturday:
Nothing.

Second Resort

I can save Last Resort.

My mildly-scathing take on why Last Resort won’t get a second season earned me a lot of criticism, particularly from fans who thought it was unfair to criticize the show for avoiding story lines when it ultimately had only one year to tell them. The reality is I wasn’t criticizing Last Resort for not resolving them, I was blasting the show for not pursuing them. We all understand a show is going to leave loose ends when it gets canceled in mid-season. Last Resort’s writers committed the mistake of not even creating loose ends.

This week’s penultimate episode rushed viewers to the mind-blowing end of the coup attempt in Washington that was supposed to clear the way for the Colorado’s friendly return to US shores. Shocking is the only word to describe the way the coup ended, and it shows that despite their storytelling failures the minds behind Last Resort know how to thrill an audience.

The big frustration I expressed in last week’s piece was the amount of dramatic material we weren’t seeing but had to be occurring in order to provide the plots we did see unfold. That frustration grew after Speaker Buell committed suicide on his rostrum. There’s no way the show can wrap up the Colorado’s fate and do justice to the story behind the man walking up to whisper in Buell’s ear. That’s too much for 42 minutes. I got to thinking how Last Resort really held two co-dependent dramas in one show. In one storyline, a United States submarine deals with the consequences of refusing a questionable order to launch a nuclear missile strike against Pakistan. In the other, a fight for control of the US government breaks out after the covert murder of a United Nations weapons inspector in Pakistan. Each plotline reacts to developments in the the other but can standing largel on its own. That’s when an idea hit me that could save the show.

“What if they brought Last Resort back, but the opposite?” What if, instead of episodes dominated by the Colorado, we get episodes – set concurrently with the season we already saw – focused entirely on what led to the mysterious fire order and the subsequent attempt to overthrow the president? Leading into the finale, we know that the US executed a weapons inspector in a plan to launch nuclear war on Pakistan, files on a cloaking technology are stolen to protect the knowledge of the Colorado’s location at the time of the order, a coup is planned and unravels at the last minute resulting in the confession and suicide of the man who would have been president. Most mysteriously, the suicide comes after a man in the appearance of a security agent interrupts the Speaker right before he declares himself the president.

See what I’m getting at here? Bring Last Resort back for a second season in which Marcus Chaplain and the Colorado are only relevant to the extent that their actions are necessary to explain what is happening in Washington. Make Last Resort into a political thriller (the likes of which ABC is already succeeding with in Scandal) about a corrupt president and the effort set out to depose him. Just like Chaplain and his crew had to decide between following orders and doing what they believed was right, Kylie Sinclair and Admiral Shepard can be shown in their crisis of conscience that leads them to go against their country’s government. The coup attempt obviously had a faction within it that doubted its course, just like the split that developed between Chaplain and the COB. Tell that story. There are enough similarities between the storylines to tell the second one in a completely different setting than season one but still maintain the core elements that let you know you’re watching Last Resort. And because it is happening at the same time as what we saw thus far, taking a season to tell the story won’t make us miss anything on the submarine. There may even be opportunities to add new material that boosts the Colorado’s story.

After the faux season plays out, the show would be ready to bring the two storylines back together in a third season. With a new audience and more practiced leadership, we could see the aftermath of whatever is set to happen in next week’s final episode.

Obviously, this is pure fantasy. Last Resort’s finale is in the can and set to air next Thursday. With all indications being that it will be a true ending, the show can’t be un-ended and re-launched. But maybe, juuuuuuust maybe, ABC will have a change of heart, pull the finale and give us a second Last Resort.