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September 21, 2003

  • The Writer As Character
  • imageThe week after the Emmy awards is the time I perform the most sacred of activities: the programming of the Burk household VCR. My VCR timer’s settings is a sacrosanct text that pretty much determines what I will definitely watch on TV over the next eight months. If it’s in my timer’s settings, it will be taped and watched; if it’s not in the settings, then it may never reach my attention.

    As there are only eight available slots in my timer’s settings, it’s a highly competitive process. There is, occasionally, much agonizing: Fridays at 10, do I tape Boomtown, my favourite new show from last year, or The Handler which is produced by DaVinci’s Inquest maestro Chris Haddock? That’s a hard question, let me tell you.

    My VCR timer’s settings provide one of the most credible barometers of my personal taste. I’m ruthless with it. If I’m not enjoying a program anymore, it’s cut from the rota faster than a baseball player being sent back to the minor leagues. The Practice vanished this time last year. Boston Public was eviscerated last winter sometime between the stunt-casting of the girl from American Idol and the stuntcasting of the little person from Austin Powers. This year I’ve decided that I actually prefer Ed and sent Enterprise packing.

    As I set up my timer’s settings for this year, I find myself incredibly trepidous about one program and sad about another. And strangely, the two shows have more in common than you’d think.

    This Wednesday, The West Wing begins life after Aaron Sorkin. Now, I’ll be watching it because it had the best season finale I’ve seen since Picard became Locutus of Borg. I re-watched it last week and found myself still saying “Holy shit! It’s John Goodman!” And I think that Executive Producer (and new “show-runner”) John Wells is a pretty good writer (he’s done some of my favourite episodes of ER), so I’m sure the season opener will do much with the drama established in last season’s finale.

    But what happens after that?

    This actually brings me to the program I’m sad about. This year’s VCR timer settings is the first time ever NYPD Blue isn’t on it. For years, NYPD Blue was my favourite program on television. Even before I had a VCR I made sure I watched every episode. This wasn’t because it was a particularly groundbreaking show—the sex and nudity had been in most PG movies for decades—NYPD Blue was simply an updating of the sort of cop shows you’d see in the 60’s and 70’s where the Detectives solve a case the same day it was perpetrated. And yet writer/producer David Milch recognised the dramatic power inherent in a seemingly conventional formula. The interrogation room and the precinct house become a crucible as the best and worst aspects of humanity were explored week after week. As drama it was unmatched in its power and intensity. It had incredible, vivid, fascinating characters. Everything oozed with sexual tension. And everyone talked in an unmistakable patter that only came from the voice of a single writer.

    And then one day David Milch went away.

    There are eerie, downright troubling, similarities between NYPD Blue when David Milch left and The West Wing when Aaron Sorkin left. Rather like Aaron Sorkin and The West Wing it’s not clear whether Milch was pushed or jumped. Both writers were blamed for escalating costs on the series due to delays because both wrote and/or polished every script. They even share substance abuse problems.

    There are some who say NYPD Blue jumped the shark long before Milch left. I’m not one of them. I thought Milch’s final season was amazing and after a bumpy transition, the cast was coming together (Rick Shroeder was stunning and deserved Emmy nominations). But make no mistake, the day after Milch left, it was a rocket-assisted ride over the shark tank.

    The past three seasons have been a ride from bad, to worse, to even worse than you can imagine. Gone was the unmistakable patter. Gone were the crucible-like dramas. Gone were the amazing character moments. Instead what we got was an updating of the sort of cop shows you’d see in the 60’s and 70’s where the Detectives solve a case the same day it was perpetrated. In came plots with ‘twists’. The incredible, vivid, fascinating characters had all their edges filed off (Rick Schoeder went from having one of the most fascinating characters on television to being a Jimmy Smits knock-off to being a character not even worthy of a decent writing out). Sexual tension was dismissed in favour of increasingly unlikely pairings, culminating in last season’s so called ‘relationship’ between Dennis Franz and Charlotte Ross. If Milch had written it, Sipowicz and Connie would have been partners with just an interesting frission of tension. Lesser hands have given us a relationship where there is no sign of actual sexual chemistry. It demeans the skills of two talented actors.

    This year, I’ve given up. I’ve put Law and Order: Special Victims Unit in my VCR’s timer settings for Tuesdays at 10.

    NYPD Blue is a cautionary tale about what happens when a series shepherded by one writer with a dominant voice gets moved to the usual assembly line that is American television. It’s not pretty.

    If I were producing The West Wing I’d start getting worried. But if I was producing The West Wing I might have done things a bit differently.

    Here’s what I would have done. I would have gone to David Mamet’s house with a briefcase full of money. I would give the brief case to Mr. Mamet and say, “I’ll give you this if you become head writer of The West Wing. Oh, by the way, there’s a dump truck with even more money coming by in about five minutes.” Okay, I might not actually use David Mamet, but I would basically seek out a similar shit-hot dramatist from theatre or cinema and pay them a lot of money to write and polish most of the episodes like Sorkin did. They wouldn’t be there to ape Sorkin, but rather to write the series with their own distinct voice.

    The logic goes something like this: In series like NYPD Blue and The West Wing, the writing is as much a character in the show as the characters themselves. What I would have done therefore is to treat the loss of the main writer the same way you treat the loss of a main actor. You lose Rob Lowe, you get Josh Malina. Plays a different character, serves a slightly different role, but still is unmistakably watchable. You do the same with replacing Aaron Sorkin. No one can replace Sorkin anymore than you can replace Rob Lowe. The best you can do, and the best way to ensure a product that is as dramatically strong, is to get a replacement of a similar calibre, give them all the toys and let them at it.

    We know that John Wells didn’t do that. In the next few weeks we’ll find out if The West Wing can survive the assembly line, or if it’s destined to go off my VCR’s timer settings like NYPD Blue.


    Posted by graeme | (0) Comments | Permalink

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