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Fun Joel's Screenwriting Blog


-- On Screenwriting and Related Topics

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Location: Los Angeles, CA

I moved from NYC to LA in October, 2003. And though I still think NYC is the greatest city in the world, I'm truly loving life here in the City of Angels. I'm a writer, reader, and occasional picture-taker.

Friday, January 26, 2007

Unsustainable Premises?

I've said it before (recently, in fact), and I'll say it again: I know nothing about TV. An example I like to give as proof is that I was convinced that CSI was going to bomb! Shows you what I don't know. But actually, it is the specific reason that I thought it would bomb that is the subject of this post.

How or why do producers create TV series in which the very premise of the show is unsustainable? Okay, with CSI I didn't exactly think it was unsustainable, so that isn't really the best example. I just thought to myself, "Are people really going to want to come back week after week just to see this?" Apparently, yes. My bad!

But what got me thinking about this recently was the new show Rules of Engagement. For those who are unfamiliar, the concept is that one guy is married, one is a swinging single, and one is engaged. Potentially rewarding concept. Good cast overall too. So I think to myself, okay, not bad. But how do you keep the middle guy perpetually engaged?

I mean sure, it is easy to keep the married guy married and the single guy single. But how long does "engaged man" stay engaged before he ceases to be, well... engaging?

There was a sitcom some time ago called The Single Guy. That, at least, was a concept that was sustainable in theory, but in practice people got bored as well. It also narrows the scope to being about relationships only. But even that concept was somewhat better than this one. I ask again, how does the engaged guy stay that way without becoming either unrealistic, or just annoying as hell?

So I think, well, maybe they start to swap places. I guess that is theoretically possible, but probably an unlikely place to take the characters as they are set up. Thus, I think it will be interesting to see how long this show lasts, and if it lasts for a long time, it will be interesting to see how they sustain it. But I really just have one question: why?!

I mentioned this to someone recently, and they mentioned Prison Break back to me. Now on the one hand, I hear it. How long can you sustain the concept of a single prison break without boring your audience? But then again, I also think they've found a good way to extend it. I have never watched the show, but from the promos I've been seeing during football games, it seems as if they have gotten out and are now being chased or something. So now it is somewhat more sustainable. Anyone remember, er, ever hear of a show called The Fugitive?

Still, the difference between that show and my naive understanding of Prison Break (not having seen it) is that firstly there was both an underlying mystery/desire driving The Fugitive and a framework for him to do unique things in each town along the way. I don't think those are in Prison Break, though correct me if I'm wrong. More importantly, The Fugitive had a name that specifically focused on the running man, whereas Prison Break is titled based on the story's beginning and initial driving force. Once that has been completed (as the promos seem to indicate it has), the name begins to be more irrelevant. Are its days numbered as well?

What about Lost? Sure, we've got a mystery, and little bits being revealed steadily. But how long can you keep throwing weird stuff at people, yanking their chains to make them think they are getting anything, but still not really revealing much? For Twin Peaks it was two seasons. Lost is past that point, right? But how far can it actually go?

Still, with all these examples, most of them fall closer to CSI, in that I just don't know how you get people coming back week after week, but those are the thoughts of the guy who (all together now) knows nothing about television. But I don't think Rules of Engagement falls into the same category. We'll see, I guess. If the show sucks, we won't even need to wait and see what they have planned!

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Blogger wcmartell said...

The way a show like LOST *needs to be* (but isn't) is to have an *episode mystery* that is solved by the end of the episode - and that solution brings us closer to the over-all solution. That way we feel as if we are making progress every week - we are getting closer to figuring it out.

Ages ago I was asked to pitch my take on TERMINATOR TV ("I'll be back... after this commercial message!") - my idea was to have Sara Conners and a 5 year old John on the run from teh Terminator... and they go to a new town each week and try to get the givernment to believe them (or find evidence of other Terminator attacks) - but become involved with an issue in that town that threatens to expose them - so they help resolve it... then the Terminator shows up and they're on the run again. The idea was to have Sara teach her son wht it means to be human (the most important lesson if you are to be the leader of the human race). I modeled this on THE FUGATIVE - each episode has a self contained story PLUS it is an episode in the larger story.

Haven't seen RULES but I would have single guy lure engaged guy to the darkside... breaking up the relationship... and now he has to put it back together again.

The problem with many of these shows is that they really don't know where they are going. There was an interview with the 24 guys in Script several years ago (season 2, I think) where they said they were just making it up as they went along - and it showed with all of those cougar attacks and psycho of the weeks and episodes that ended where they began. The writers were *proud of this*! They though it created unpredictable shows... but the shows were more predictable in season 2 than an episode of freakin' LAW & ORDER. I suspect the same is true with LOST - they really don't know where they are going... and it shows.

I'm sure at the end of LOST it will be that dude Bob from TWIN PEAKS behind everything....

- Bill

12:58 AM  
Blogger Emily Blake said...

There is an underlying mystery to Prison Break - why was Link framed for murder and what's the end game of the government conspiracy?

This reminds me of Knights of Prosperity. They changed the title from Let's Rob Mic Jagger. That way in case they ever do rob Mic Jagger they can still move on with the show and not be hog tied by a catchy title with limited growth potential.

9:26 PM  
Blogger James said...

I had the same thoughts about PRISON BREAK, especially since the promos heavily foreshadowed a break attempt at the end of Season 1.

I think LOST gets by on having a rather large cast, as well as the island itself being a little mysterious. Oh, and flashbacks. You can do anything with the way they use the flashback.

I'm trying to think of a television show that turned away or evolved beyond its original premise and was still successful. Nothing is coming to mind, but I'd guess there are a couple out there.

8:19 AM  
Blogger Spanish Prisoner said...

JJ Abrams recently said in an interview that Lost probably will last only 4 Seasons. It doesn't make any sense to make it a longer show. So I think they are smart enough to understand where they are going.

2:56 PM  
Blogger Bill Cunningham said...

PB is still about "the break" even though they are out of prison...

Season 1 - get out of prison.
Season 2 - on the run toward freedom with multiple obstacles and twists.
Season 3 - Can't get to freedom, so solve the mystery that put you behind bars in the first place.
Season 4 - Expose the villains, who counterstrike with information or threats of their own. Realize you can't stop them so you go on the run again.

You have to think of each season of shows like Lost or PB as a chapter in a novel. Each chapter is different but contributes to the overall story you're moving toward concluding. What's good (and bad) about each is that there are multiple characters to follow and learn about along the way.

9:22 PM  
Blogger Fun Joel said...

Alright, well there still has been very little (other than Bill M's idea) to speculate on how Rules will maintain their premise. I guess time will tell if they are able to sustain it. Not sure if I agree with Boll M's idea -- more dramatic, and not very sitcom-like. That could be in ONE episode, but I doubt we could see it go far beyond that.

3:32 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi! Just thinking about the sustainability - attention spans aren't quite what they used to be, and there's so much competition - maybe the people making these shows don't EXPECT it to survive long enough to be worrying about how long it will last. Or maybe this is the modern incarnation of the 80's mini-series boom - only they're not *calling* them a mini-series, per se. Perhaps they're simply proposing a beginning and a potential end-of-series, and a rough plotting of middle, and they are milking it for all it's worth until it's not viable numbers-wise. And, if they're lucky, they'll have enough advance notice of cancellation to gracefully approach whatever end-of-series closure they want. If not, well...NEXT!

Aargh - I have no idea whether this makes sense - more coffee needed. Just had a gut reaction to the post and felt behooved to comment. Take care!

5:23 PM  

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