Tag Archives: showrunners

Gruesome TV: dumb culture returns?

screenshotThe thing that strikes you about The Frankenstein Chronicles is how gruesome it is.

This was true too of The Alienist.

In both cases, the series begins with a child who has been tortured and murdered.

The Frankenstein Chronicles is especially grim. The child is pieced together out of other dead children.

I think this is a case of TV struggling to find its way, and, in this case, failing. This might be a sign that dumb TV is once more in the works.

The TV revolution broke the old rules of TV.

Here are five of these rules:

1. bad things must not happen to good people
2. a TV scene must never require a second look
3. if you have to choose between a beautiful actor and a talented one, choose the former.
4. TV must be modulated, not raw (i.e., the showrunner must pull her punches)
5. TV must be convention bound, not free (i.e., when there is a genre convention, you must use it)

The Frankenstine Chronicles and The Alienist appear to be exploring yet another rule.

6. There are some non combatants in TV story-telling, especially the weak, the defenseless, and children.

And now TV goes even there.

This has been some of the excitement of the new TV, looking to see what happens when you break the Aaron Spelling rules of entertainment and make TV more like literary fiction and less like pulp fiction.

When TV breaks a taboo, every showrunner has something new to work with, a new dramatic wheel to add to their narrative clockwork.

And for awhile, the new convention is raw and remarkable. But eventually the new and unruly gets domesticated. It’s gets ruly.

The expressive world of TV is bigger. The experience of TV is less predictable and laborious. But things are settling down.

But the anti-gruesome rule isn’t like this. Dead children will never be tolerable. We will never get used to them. We will never go, “Oh, ok, I get how this works dramatically.” We will never what to go there.

Sometimes, rules exist for a reason. Sometimes, nothing is gained by breaking them. In this case, the art of TV doesn’t get bigger. Sometimes, the medium is diminished.

Here’s what I worry about. Showrunners are now engaged in an arms race. They are now going to want to break even the rules that should be left alone. There are only so many viewers. And at some point, a new level of competition forces a new level of gruesomeness.

I happened to like Penny Dreadful. But this too seemed to exhibit an inflationary pressure. One monster was not enough. No, the writers ransacked every Victorian imagination for every monster.

Showrunners, here’s the thing about the new TV. You have vast new creative territories at your disposal. You have at least two generations of fantastically alert and thoughtful viewers. Perhaps most important you have access to a very larger community of gifted actors. They can do much more with much less.

Showrunners, heal thyself. Stow the gruesome effects. Scale down the canvas. Work small, delicate and subtle. Take that actors out of their Dracula make-up and see what they can do with story telling that’s taut, disciplined and thoughtful.

Gruesome TV is in some ways a return to the old TV. It feels like a daring bid for something unprecedented. But really, and let’s be honest, it’s just lazy showrunning. As if someone said, “Dead child made up of other dead children? This has to get their attention!”

I leave to others this question: why is Victorian London the place where showrunners like to go for horror?

Narrative captivity: Losing Orphan Black for want of a half-fan

18706-orphan-black-s2-dvd-new_mediumI am a long standing fan of Orphan Black but this season they lost me.  I tuned in for the opening episode of the new season, and it wasn’t long before my eyes had crossed.

In the new season, it feels as if Orphan Black is being made to labor under the weight of its own complexities.  And with all the clones in motion, these complexities are formidable. And with two seasons in place, there are many additional plot points and precedents to honor.

Tedium, thy name is consistency.

Showrunners Graeme Manson, Ivan Schneeberg and David Fortier must of course honor the story.  Fans, especially, are ferocious in their defense of its integrity.  But the rest of us really are not engaged in narrative book-keeping in any kind.  We love the actress, her clones, and the broad story lines that give her an opportunity to dazzle us with her virtuosity, lend some urgency to the story at hand, identify the goodies and the baddies, and that’s enough for us.

We want some sense of narrative development.  We want our heroine to mature or at least change (or at least clone) as pluckily she survives.  But give us the big picture, not what feel like pages of gawky exposition in which good actors are brought low by the need to belabor plot points.  These moments almost feel like writers and directors clarifying story complexities for their own sake, and when this happens we know that undue complexity has hijacked the show. Narrative captivity, it’s a terrible thing.

We see why this happens.  After a couple of seasons, the people who make the show have mastered the finest plot points better than the best Yeshiva student.  And fans!  Fans live and breathe the show and they often appoint themselves the guardians of the story line.  (“You want me on the wall. You need me on that wall.”)  And in a sense this is like any corporate culture, where the incumbents fall into a gravitational field and eventually can’t believe that everyone doesn’t live there too.

There are a couple of ways of fixing this.  One is to have an ethnographic panel of half-fans.  These are people who love the show but live in distant orbit around it. They know the characters and the major plot points, but they don’t know or care about the very fine details. Writers, directors and show runners can call them up from time to time and say, “So tell me about the show” and they can use this as a chance to recalibrate. It’s a question of optics.  We can hold up the half-fan’s view of the story and change the way we see the show. Or think of it as a time machine.  We can use the half fans knowledge of the show to recover the way we understood it in the first season.

Naturally, half fans, some of them anyhow, will evolve into full fans.  And it will be up to the person running the panel to replace them with more half fans.  In fact we should think of the panel as a bend in the river, a place where half fans slow for long enough for us to quiz them…before they run downstream to full fan status.

I don’t know who want to take this on.  And it would be presumptuous to suggest a name.  So I will.  Dee Dee Gordon could do this brilliantly.  What we need, Dee Dee, is a panel of half fans. As someone starts a new show, they will ask you to empanel this panel, and from time to time they will use it to see their shows (as many, most) others do.  In effect, the half fan panel (now, HFP, because that sounds way more official) is a rope that the showrunner wears around his/her waist while descending into the narrative mine shaft.  A couple of sharp tugs and they can return to the surface.


brand runners?

jw-joss-scifinowIf the brand is changing, how about branders?

I’ve been reading about “show runners” lately, and I thought, “hey, why not “brand runners?””

I’m not saying “let’s invent a new position.”  I’m saying, let’s ask marketing people to think about themselves in a new way.

So what is a show runner?

Scott Collins of the LA Times offers this definition.  He calls showrunners “hypenates:”

a curious hybrid of starry-eyed artists and tough-as-nails operational managers.  They’re not just writers; they’re not just producers. They hire and fire writers and crew members, develop story lines, write scripts, cast actors, mind budgets and run interference with studio and network bosses. It’s one of the most unusual and demanding, right-brain/left-brain job descriptions in the entertainment world….[S]how runners make – and often create – the shows, and now more than ever, shows are the only things that matter.

Also, see this illuminating clip from a documentary called Showrunners here.

I think a “brand runner” might look something like this.  Managing a brand is a task of fearsome complexity, keeping track of all the traditional brand meanings, auditioning all the new ones, speaking to many segments not just a couple, identifying and tracking all the coming trends (both the blue oceans and the black swans), making the brand bold and clear even as it becomes in places delicate and obscure, reaching out to a variety of meaning-makers and organizing and articulating their work, changing the brand architecture strategically, tuning the brand message in real time.  Brand running  could a lot like show running.

Most of all, the brand runner metaphor suggests that we would work with the brand in a constant but highly variable process.  Lots of big thinking.  Lots of fine tuning.  “Running a brand” seems somehow closer to the present truth than “managing” it.  The metaphor assumes that creativity is the first order of business.  Out goes the “business as usual” notion that brand management suggests.  Brand running would be less about business and more about creativity, and a constant, collaborative creativity at that.

At the Brand and Brand Relationship conference this week, we ended with a panel discussion lead by Susan Fournier and including Aaron Ahuvia, Eric Arnould, Anders Bengtsson, Markus Giesler, and Jonathan Schroeder and yours truly.  It’s wrong of me to speak for them….so I will.  I believe you could feel a certain pressure of speech or ideation in the room.   There were ideas waxing, threatening to overtake our trusted orthodoxies.  Or maybe not.  I love that moment when you can feel things “melting into air.”  And I think they were.

In any case, (new job description or no) perhaps we could think about the brand as something being constantly pitched, green lit, put into  production, crafted as an idea and a reality, with scenes, episodes and seasons, hammered out with producers, writers and actors with whom it is being thought and rethought, as it keeps melting into air and precipitating back into the life of the consumer.

For more metaphoric materials, see the Wikipedia entry for showrunners here.