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Posts tagged as “Guest Post”

Lost Finale Thoughts: Artificiality at its best (and worst)

One word can describe the Lost series finale: Artificiality.
Don’t get me wrong, it was not easy to be Darlton while writing the series finale of, arguably, the most-talked about TV series since the creation of the Internet. But summarizing that the show would be satisfying only for “believers”, a.k.a. viewers that wouldn’t obsess over mythological answers given in the finale, is ultimately a very cynical way of saying “if you don’t like that your version of the show living in your head is not the story we want to tell, that’s YOUR problem”.

I’d like to point out that however, it wouldn’t be fair stomping on the series finale for the lack of answers or mythology galore. It is a point that has been stressed by Darlton ever since the beginning of Season 6, that it would be all about the characters. I accept it as such, and will focus my criticism for what it is: essentially a character-driven series finale.

With its final twist, “Lost” has once again pulled the rug from under the feet of its devoted fans, except maybe those who were paralyzed by the emotion of characters they followed during six years leaving their screens forever. What Darlton didn’t realize is that there’s nothing wrong with being a little predictable, even more so during your endgame.
In fact, this is the second time viewers are proven completely wrong. After Season 4, everything pointed to a war between Benjamin Linus and Charles Widmore for control of the Island as the endgame of the show. It was rooted in characters, and the mythological knowledge of both those men would prove fertile territory for a decent endgame, as far as answers were concerned. There’s little doubt sacrifices would be made, Monsters would be used, alliances would be forged. Not unlike what we’ve seen in season 6. Except that both were made irrelevant by the introduction of Jacob and what we now know as the Man In Black, divine incarnations of the protector of the Island, and the Evil who’s trying to escape and be unleashed upon the World — or so we’re led to believe.

This was the endgame of “Lost”, and I’m ready to accept it. However, the big mystery of the season was the nature of the “flash-sideways”, where it appeared that all the survivors and characters live in a world where the Island sunk many years ago. They also remember little by little the events of their life on the Island, and they’re all led to meet each other. The emotional impact of the final scene left some viewers wrecked, and it would have been powerful…

…had it not been the Purgatory created by them after they died to come to grips with their issues, in a perpetual happy ending.

The “alternative timeline” was, to me, the more satisfying resolution, that would have implied they all died on the Island and were “projected” in Flight 815 by Jacob, who would give them back their free will, and a better set of choices for some characters. So, seeing all the cast fading into the white light to Heaven while Jack closed his eyes on the Island, with Vincent next to him, felt corny instead of powerful.

Yes, I actually laughed at the reveal made by the ultimate deus ex machina: Christian Shepard. Having this kind of sentimentality kicking off was just a cheap way of ignoring the fact that it could have gone another way. Having all these characters, almost, uniting at the Driveshaft concert, would have been as satisfying and emotional as what we got instead. Having them “projected” as a reward for preventing MIB from being unleashed upon the world was great, it also made them all heroes in the most noble sense. It reminds us of another HBO show I won’t name for those who don’t know how it ends, but that dealt with them better. Revealing that half of the final season was actually the characters evolving in a Disneyworld afterlife timeline, where everything would turn out “fine” in the end, far from the hassles of Craphole Island, was really more artificial, and also the worst way to end the show right behind “it was all a dream”. It’s also kind of sacrilegious to think that Darlton devoted a season showing characters in a Purgatory where they got what they were looking for, after debunking the Purgatory theories for the Island during the ENTIRE run. But it would have been predictable, and therefore the showrunners would feel like hacks just following the direction the fans thought they would go into.

Another amazing fact, not to be overlooked, is that we witnessed the Island losing its “specialness” during the finale. It actually should have relieved Ben and Hurley to know that they now have a desert island all to themselves, with no dangerous electromagnetism, Others, or angry deities to take care of. Really, having some characters escaping Craphole Island in the plane that was there all along without the potentiality of finding themselves in an electromagnetic cloud of danger was….convenient. This is also why Jack smiles while seeing a plane passing by: never will other people live what the survivors lived again. Pretty definitive ending for a show that’s supposed to be like “Star Trek” for ABC Studios.

You could feel that Darlton didn’t know when or how to make the characters die. In a way, I expected everyone to be dead, since they would be alive on “the other side” (which turned out to be just that). Maybe it was that two disappointing seasons made it feel easier to let go, for me at least. But faking the Jack death in the cave of Light so that he could die where he woke up, and thus obtain the iconic shot to close the series with, was laughable at best, ridiculous at worst.
Seeing the Jack/Locke scenes in the last few episodes also made me realize how much making Locke die in the season 4 finale was wrong, especially since that was to make way for the Man In Black, who turned out to be the least interesting baddie/foe on the show. (Unite the three baddies of the show in “What They Died For”, see who steals the spotlight.) There should have been a way to keep this iconic character as is for the remainder of the series, since the long con of MIB as John Locke for the latter part of Season 5 wasn’t very convincing to me. (It did provide humorous moments with Ben Linus, former most intriguing character on the show who is dumbfounded by the resurrected Locke, that gets him to do whatever he wants.) But if you replaced John Locke by Titus Welliver in those episodes, I don’t think the shock and mystery would have been that different.

This post is getting long, so I’ll get to my point. There’s nothing wrong, for a show that has been very unpredictable for the last six years, to be predictable with its finale. Giving a sense of alternate reality as opposed to an alternate afterlife would have worked. And I strongly feel that the sense of “letting go”, “moving on” with their issues, didn’t have to be translated through death. Especially since this alternate world gives them the keys to move on to every character, with largely better circumstances. So, stopping the sideways at the Driveshaft concert as opposed to the church would have felt satisfying to me. Same with everybody dying on the Island, at the same time, so that MIB dies with them and can’t escape. This is the time where the “version of the ending living in my head” makes more sense, and is more satisfying, since it basically boils down to the same thing. Since these characters’ most important moments are on the Island, projecting their bodies would have given them the unique opportunity to live a life with their loved ones outside of the Island, without all the trauma and death. That would have been as powerful an ending. But, like I said, that ending would have been predictable. I guess Darlton couldn’t accept to get away with that.

What’s it gonna take to bring your bubble show back?

It’s that time of the season again. Many shows are on the verge of being cancelled by the big Five networks, and several cable channels, and hopes are dimming for a few of them. So, let me get this out of the way: yes, ratings are a key factor, along with DVR showings, etc. It depends also on the level of the development season, and the will of the networks to balance scripted and unscripted shows, or to launch new scripted blocks. That’s what’s expected for ABC and NBC, at the very least, since they renewed the totality of their 2-hour comedy blocks, save for ABC’s “Hank”, but still ordered a dozen comedy pilots for next season.

All of that is obvious, and has been repeated in many stories all over the specialized sites. But lately, due to the financial crisis, both studios and networks have been creative in trying to find ways to bring shows back. So, stop trying to aggregate for “Save Show” campaigns or sending gifts to executives, and…

(That one takes us back, doesn’t it?)

International sales?
A very interesting story has emerged from the “New York Times” last week. It came on the heels of Sony negotiating with premium channel DirecTV to bring a fourth season of “Damages” to air. Sure, “Damages” garners critical acclaim and Emmys for Glenn Close, but this season the ratings have been disappointing to the FX brass.

This quote in particular is interesting:

The formula for making the cable drama business pay is changing, but, as Zack Van Amburg, president of programming and production for Sony Pictures Television, said, so is the world.
“International is critical for these shows,” he said. “Five years ago broadcast shows were more valuable. They were thought of as better-produced and of higher quality. Now cable shows have gone out and performed well.”
Sony’s “Damages” attracts about 1.4 million viewers an episode, barely survival ratings on FX (though Mr. Landgraf jokingly said it does very well “among viewers with I.Q.’s over 140”). But Sony has sold the show to international outlets for a total of about $2 million an episode.

So, the international sales, especially for a drama coming with a “prestige” stamp like “Damages”, have been instrumental in getting the talks going to finance more seasons. (However, it looks like that wasn’t enough, since Sony doesn’t want a substantial license fee reduction, so it might be dead after the Season 3 finale, according to Variety.)
Shows drawing an international audience can be saved from the bubble, like “Alias” in its time, or “Heroes” now. That’s the prime reason a final season, though short, can be ordered by NBC, since otherwise the show has nothing going for it.

Other networks?
Granted, that’s a rare case of networks jumping in, and usually it doesn’t take place until after the bubble show has been cancelled in the upfronts. (There are exceptions of course, “Friday Night Lights” on DirecTV being one.) But, lately, it has not been unusual: “Medium” jumped from NBC (poor marketing, consistently great ratings) to CBS (Friday Night Slot of Death, but great promotion); “Scrubs” ended its run on ABC after 7 seasons, including one aborted, on NBC. But “SAVE OUR SHOW” aficionados, don’t jump to conclusions that quick or try to play Armchair Executive too soon. That will happen if the parties willing to order more seasons have a personal stake in the show: “Medium” is produced by CBS Paramount TV (keyword: CBS. Sister arm of production), so Les Moonves had interest in promoting a new season. Plus, Glenn Gordon Caron already produced the late, great “Now and Again” for CBS back in 2000. Same case with “Scrubs”: not only is it produced by ABC Studios, but Steve McPherson himself developed the show, back when he was the head of Touchstone Television.

DVD sales?
This one is less realistic. Sales of a cancelled show on DVD, if significant, might help the network reconsider more seasons. Sadly, this has only happened for two animated shows: “Futurama” and “Family Guy”, both produced by 20th Century Fox. As far as I’m aware, selling 2 million copies of, say, “The Forgotten” season 1 won’t make Steve McPherson reconsider bringing Christian Slater back on the air. (Especially since Slater has already jumped ship on another pilot. And no, no one really wants to see new episodes of “The Forgotten”.)

A producer mogul with beaucoup clout?
The times where you could get a TV show made based on the sake of your name are now long gone. On network TV, that is. After all, David Milch got “John From Cincinnatti” ordered without HBO executives blinking once. But a few of those moguls subsist: that’s how John Wells, Executive Producer Extraordinaire, responsible for “China Beach” and especially “ER”, took the filmed episodes of season 2 of “Southland” to TNT. The first season, aired right after the end of “ER”, in the slot of Thursdays at 10, was already a sign of goodwill from NBC execs, who gave the keys to a late-season run to an eager Wells, that wanted to keep the real estate and momentum. But fall came, Leno at 10 too, so “Southland” was supposed to air on Fridays (gasp) at 9 pm (ugh). The rest is history: NBC chickened out, Wells got pissed and terminated his contract. But the 6 unaired episodes of “Southland”, broadcast after reruns of season 1, didn’t attract many eyeballs. So, specialists wonder if TNT made the right move by believing in the show. And among the bubble shows, save for “Cold Case” and “The Forgotten” produced by Jerry Bruckheimer, none of them are produced by a bigtime producer.

Many shows won’t get a second chance to come back next month. Some won’t even see the light of day on DVD, such as aforementioned “Cold Case”, held up ever since its premiere for music license rights. So, at the end of the day, it depends on the will of the studio and the network to find avenues to bring the show back and recoup the money well beyond the ad revenue.

The Hungry Hippos: New Outlets for Scripted Fare

Feeling a little down with the network TV landscape? Perhaps you are a writer with a terrific cable show written in spec, but for some reason, you feel that the cable channels can’t host such a daring vision? Well, fear not: since the TV landscape has gotten viciously competitive over the past few years, cable shows have gnawed on the ratings’ pie of the networks. It started in the summer, now it’s year-round. Sons of Anarchy besting the networks, the premiere of SyFy’s Stargate Universe crushing FOX’s Dollhouse….really, you name your example.

Success stories have duplicated for cable networks, who have thrived thanks to critically-loved scripted programming: FX, AMC, TNT, USA… And cable execs used this excellent track record to take bigger responsibilities (I’m looking at you, Kevin Reilly, formerly at FX, then at NBC and FOX).  So, we’re now gonna take a look at four of those fierce new guys in town, who have aggressively developped their dramas and comedies in the past 2 years. They are…

Cable’s Hungry Hippos

And we’re starting with the most recent newcomer:

Now, it’s a very recent premium channe that only has carriage deals with four cable operators so far: Verizon, Cox Communications, Mediacom and Charter Communications. Moreover, the official launch was last October, the day before Halloween. That didn’t prevent Mark Greenberg, formerly at Showtime and appointed president of the new venture, that unites Paramount, Lionsgate and MGM, from scaring up the competition early (see what I did there? You’d rather have not? Oh, OK.) through a development slate that already counts three intriguing projects.

Tough Trade takes place in Nashville, Tennessee, and centers on a family…rather, a dynasty of artists that are left on the verge of bankruptcy after decades of excess. Their only saving grace is the black sheep of the family, a former country artist turned alt-rock crooner (a la Chris Cornell maybe?). Lead role goes to Sam Shepard (The Pledge, Black Hawk Down), and True Blood writer Chris Offutt penned the pilot, which will be shepherded by Jenji Kohan from Weeds fame (and probably a favorite of Greenberg, we guess).

Second project was announced this week. This time, it’s shock jock extraordinaire Larry Charles (Borat, Brüno) who will direct and exec produce a half-hour comedy pilot called iCon. It will center on a scheming Silicon Valley titan that may (or may not….oh, who am I kidding) be loosely based on the life and career of Apple CEO Steve Jobs. Here, the writer hired is unlikely, as it’s Dan Lyons, a Newsweek editor that has created a fake Steve Jobs blog and has even made a satirical book lampooning Jobs. Coincidentally, iCon is also the name of a bio book chronicling the rise of Jobs. According to Mike Fleming of Deadline, “Jobs and other titans will certainly inspire iCON at its inception, but the show will lampoon the larger hi-tech world”. iSkeptic.

The third one just was announced. It’s a miniseries based on Ayn Rand’s 1952 epic 750-page novel The Fountainhead. It is centered on the rivalry between two architects and the reporter that chronicles it in a thriving newspaper industry.

Belly prognosis: Great. The three projects developed show great originality: Tough Trade may show a behind-the-scenes look at the heart of country music, and the casting of Sam Shepard is intriguing. iCon has the potential on paper to be a meaner, nerdier The Office. Jury’s still out on The Fountainhead. But, being the direct lovechild of Hollywood studios, as opposed to its premium-cable opponents, Epix will rely on its limitless catalogue in case of failure.

Let’s switch to basic cable, and take a look at…

Owned in equal shares by Hearst and Disney, with a little NBC-Universal thrown into the mix, A&E has been developing dramas and scripted programming of its own for two years. It was, and still is, usually home to a lot of reality TV (Growing up Gotti, Intervention, Criss Angel Mindfreak, Dog the Bounty Hunter). The two first dramas on the air were The Cleaner, kind of a scripted version of Intervention, starring Benjamin Bratt and showrunned by Jonathan Prince (American Dreams). It lasted two seasons, but was cancelled at the end of its sophomore run. Ditto with The Beast, marketed as The Shield meets Wiseguy, and starring Patrick Swayze in his final performance. Due to his untimely cancer and death, the show was cancelled at the end of its first run.

But did those faux pas stop our Hungry Hippo Bob DiBitetto, president of A&E Networks? Hell no! If you took a look at the press release recapping their scripted development slate, last May, it was a catalogue of prestigious names. Kevin Costner! Jerry Bruckheimer! Anthony LaPaglia! Shawn Ryan!

10 months later, all those projects are dead and buried. It came down to two dramas: The Quickening, about, and I quote: “A bi-polar LAPD detective must wrestle with the fact that the medication she has been prescribed makes her “normal” but her disorder, with all the paranoia and risks it comes with, makes her extraordinary.” It was written by Jennifer Salt, formerly on the staff of Nip/Tuck. The other one was Sugarloaf, written by Clifton Campbell (formerly of Profiler and White Collar) and starring Matt Passmore (lead in season 2 of Australian mob drama Underbelly) and Kiele Sanchez (Nikki from Lost….was that a mean credit reminder?). This one is about a homicide cop wrongfully accused of having an affair with his Captain’s wife…and transferred to a small town in Florida. Crime-solver reluctantly transferred to the Sunshine State….sounds eerily similar to Burn Notice? Yep, and that’s also the one show who got picked up for 13 episodes this summer. Other than that? Nothing in sight.

Belly prognosis: Mild, or weak, depending on your optimism. The disappointing visibility in the ratings and the media of their dramas freezed the enthusiasm of our Hungry Hippo. After a flamboyant upfront in 2009, with many established names and interesting subjects, they apparently want to put a light Burn Notice-like on air and it appears they got rid of the rest of contenders. For the channel whose slogan is “Real Life. Drama.”, the speculation for the next May upfront might be a change of slogan: “Real Life. That’s enough.”

The premium pay-per-view channel has begun his development slate with a whisper. It was a series based on the Academy Award-winning drama Crash. The thing is, Dennis Hopper didn’t have enough star power, and was met with critical despise during the course of its two seasons. It changed showrunners, passing from Glen “The Shield” Mazzara to Ira Steven “The 4400” Behr, but no dice. Cancelled without even a soul to care. It’s not alone, either: barely anyone has heard of comedy Head Case, recently cancelled after 3 seasons.

But this misstep was corrected with fresh comedy series Party Down. Carried by a head writer coming off the heels of critical darling Veronica Mars, Rob Thomas, and a talented cast of comedians (Lizzy Caplan, Jane Lynch, Ken Marino, Adam Scott), it posted good reviews (66 score on Metacritic, among other things), and the network liked it well enough to give another 10-episode season — I couldn’t find any info about the ratings, FYI. And it seems that Starz has found its first hit with Spartacus: Blood and Sand, the period drama starring Lucy Lawless, who averages between 850,000 and 1 million viewers every Friday. Plus, the full-frontal nudity and geysers of blood 300-style made it controversial, if not in the USA, at least in the UK, where a lobby of puritan media watchers, Media Watch UK, was trying to block it from airing. (It failed: British Bravo bought it, and has all the intentions of airing it.)

But it needed a seasoned exec, just like Epix, to take it to the next level. Enter Chris Albrecht, the fiery former HBO executive unceremoniously dumped from the pay-per-view giant after a dark story involving booze and affairs. From its first public appearence after his nomination late last year, at TCA, he understands that Starz needs to stand out from the crowd: “This is alchemy and we’re putting together our chemical formula so I’m a fan of all [Starz original] shows and they are distinct from other shows that are on other networks and they’re distinct from each other as well,” he said in this article. The development slate looks hectic, with another historical drama based on the legend of King Arthur, Camelot, slated to premiere mid-2011. Not to mention the Ridley Scott-produced Pillars of The Earth, a miniseries bought by Starz but independently financed and shot, and slated to premiere in July. It stars Ian McShane, Rufus Sewell and Allison Pill, all of whom had recent significant roles in past American TV shows: Kings, Eleventh Hour and In Treatment, respectively.

Belly prognosis: Great. Albrecht’s track record on HBO is unparallelled, and so far they have a strong interest in historical dramas based on key hero figures, but with a more violent and provocative twist. (Camelot is produced by the guys behind The Tudors, light on historical accuracy, but heavy on murders and humping.) On the comedy side, they can go with dark/existential comedy fairly well, since Gravity features characters that made suicide attempts, and still live to talk about it. But while pitching your show, don’t expect HBO-slick production values. For instance, Spartacus was critically mocked for his visual blood geysers, aping 300.

Part of the basic cable channels owned by Turner Entertainment, TBS has focused on off-network  comedy reruns and reality TV shows. But it has recently ramped up its original scripted development, and has a bonafide hit with Tyler Perry’s House Of Payne, and Meet The Browns, with more than 3 million viewers each week. It also broadcast 10 Items Or Less, now cancelled, and Friends-like comedy My Boys, that will be back for a fourth season this summer.

But it is featured there for its hourlong drama development, a novelty since its sister channel TNT has only hourlong dramas, and that was one of the ways you could differentiate their programming. (It also had Men Of A Certain Age, which you could classify as dramedy.) So far, four projects are in development.

Franklin and Bash stars Mark-Paul Gosselaar (fresh off the cancellation of Raising the Bar for TNT) and Breckin Meyer as lawyers who win a case against an established law firm, and effectively take them down. They are then hired by the firm’s patriarch, played by Malcolm McDowell. Glory Daze can be described as Greek set in the 1980s, where a socially inept campus freshman (Kelly Blatz, coming from the Disney series Aaron Stone, where he played the lead character) joins the wildest fraternity on the campus. SNL alum Tim Meadows has been cast, along with Julianna Guill, who made an…um…appeareance in the latest Friday the 13th remake.

In Security centers on two sisters who manage a private security company previously run by their father, while, of course, balancing their problems in their family and personal life. Journeywoman of comedy Constance Zimmer has been cast in the project, who comes from Ric Swartzlander, writer on Gary Unmarried and previously on ABC comedy Rodney, and Peter Segal, director of the third Naked Gun movie and Get Smart. It’s also counting Chris Albrecht among its producers.

Finally, from the creator of Monk, Andy Brockman, comes Uncle Nigel, about a Philadelphia cop (Gary Cole) who constantly clashes with his nephew, a rookie in the same police department who never misses an occasion to screw up (role not-yet-cast).

Belly prognosis: Kind of bright, actually. TNT has an excellent track record of developing hit dramas, and the lack of significant original hits make this Hippo hungry. And also likely to give a lot of marketing push to its new dramas, who will be lighter than what you can find on TNT. The development slate looks diverse, with just about something for everybody, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Steve Koonin, head of Turner channels, announces a new “drama” block on TBS for the fall.

Digestive thoughts: We’re looking at cable channels with very different backgrounds, so the chances of them succeeding in launching hit shows are very different. Epix looks the hungriest of them all, having everything to prove, but they also can raise awareness of their brand with their first projects. A&E apparently bit more than he could chew with its stillborn scripted development, and cancellations of its two dramas on-air. Unless next upfront looks as busy as last year drama-wise, I wouldn’t see a lot of future in bringing shows over to them, since they seem to do fine with reality/alternative programming anyway. Starz already has a controversial hit on their hands with Spartacus, but seems to struggle with bringing viewers to its comedies. The arrival of Chris Albrecht can bring the pay-per-view channel the prestige it needs, with many historical dramas to start. Oh, and it will please stockholders too. TBS has a very diverse development slate, but one that counts proven talent (Tim Meadows, Constance Zimmer, Gary Cole, and Andy Brockman on the producing side). A channel to be counted with if you have light, “escapist” entertainment in mind, in the everlasting words of Ben Silverman.

Do you think: why would he finish an epic story with a Ben Silverman quote? I answer: why not?