That Nameless Fear

The anxiety begins as a buzz nearly indistinguishable from the effects of a couple glasses of wine. Its source is somewhere inside your chest, possibly your heart, whose beat is currently cycling between the thrum of a hummingbird’s wings and the slow clop of a Clydesdale. The buzzing slowly fans out, up and through your clavicle and into your shoulders, down into your arms and finally into the fingers, moving restlessly, compulsively pressing the buttons on your phone. It snakes into your belly and wriggles like a living thing, your stomach churning with all the acid in the world. It crosses the blood-brain barrier and settles in your amygdala, activating the very worst of all the fears nested therein: You are unlovable, you are unwanted, now and forever. And all at once the buzzing turns to burning, a raging river of fire slicked with oil. The corrosive metallic taste in the back of your throat will not be relieved by any liquid, nature-made or not.

There is something wrong with you.

Set Ways

A couple months ago, I had the good fortune of being invited onto the Justified set. I got several stories out of it for my employer, but haven’t been able to really express what I got out of the experience. This was what I wrote on the plane ride from LA to Chicago (with a few minor edits and additions from subsequent interviews), basically a straight account of my day so I wouldn’t forget anything, but it approximates what I wanted to get out there.

The mountains aren’t quite right for the “deep dark hills of Eastern Kentucky”

The Antihero’s Algorithm

There are a couple of pieces that have been making their way to me lately about the state of the Antihero on TV. I’d been thinking about this for a while, and I think those pieces have finally helped me crystallize my thoughts on the concept of the Antihero in general.

The stuff I’ve seen is a good foundation, but slightly flawed (sort of like several characters I’ve seen branded as “antiheroes”). For me, Hero and Antihero operate much as matter and antimatter do: the latter merely has the opposite characteristics of the former. Physicists figured out a while ago what those characteristics are, though, so there’s no real debate between what constitutes a quark vs. an antiquark. But there’s lots of potential debate about what makes a hero a Hero, especially in this day and age. And there are a few characters out there in the pop culture landscape that seem to straddle the line. So I’ve developed my own algorithm for deciding if you’ve got an Antihero on your hands:

1. Is he/she a Protagonist, or an Antagonist?

Antagonist: Not an Antihero. The antagonist has a supporting role; he/she spurs action and conflict, but, in a well-told story, never eclipses the protagonist. There are plenty of examples of stories out there where you end up rooting for the villain or wishing he/she had a bigger part in the text. Or really great actors who steal whatever scene they’re in, despite being antagonists, so they take on an antiheroic sheen. However, it’s just that: a sheen that masks the character’s fundamental relationship to the story. Justified‘s Boyd Crowder springs to mind first, and while the show rightfully places a lot of focus on the Boyd-Raylan relationship and Boyd’s journey, it’s very clearly Raylan’s show. Boyd is a supporting character, however magnetic Walton Goggins may be.

Protagonist: Let’s move on to number 2.

2. Does he/she have flaws that go deeper than “I wouldn’t like this person because he’s mildly abrasive or kind of strange”?

No: You’ve got yourself a genuine hero. Congratulations. This is where you’ll find The Hunger Games‘ Katniss, Harry Potter, Sabriel from Garth Nix’s Abhorsen trilogy, Justified‘s Raylan Givens, etc.

Yes: We’re talking alcoholism, legitimately sociopathic behavior, deep-seated racism or misogyny that’s been acted upon (rape, domestic violence), etc., right? If so, down to 3 we go. If not, you’re probably thinking of someone like Dr. House on House, who, yes, was a bit of a twat, and did some shitty things, but (for reasons that will become even clearer later on in the algorithm) he’s not really an Antihero. He’s the network version of an Antihero, which is a Flawed Hero.

3. Is the protagonist aware of these flaws and the effects they have on loved ones?

Yes, and he/she is trying to change: Flawed Hero. Not having seen the vast majority of NYPD Blue, I can’t authoritatively state Andy Sipowicz belongs here, but if Wikipedia is right, this seems the best place for someone like him.

No OR Yes, and he/she doesn’t give a shit: Come on down to 4!

4. What is the protagonist’s raison d’être? Why do they get up in the morning? And, more importantly: Is it a goal we want them to achieve?

Yes: This can be a little complicated, though mostly this means you don’t have an Antihero. A lot of cops, doctors, government operatives, etc. end up here. If they’re saving people’s lives on a regular basis, they’re probably not an Antihero. They’re just Flawed.

In the case of, say, Revenge‘s Emily Thorne, it comes down to a matter of taste. If you believe the ends (ruining the people who ruined/killed her father) justify the means (blackmail, violence, etc.), you’re more likely to view her as a Heroine. If you’re a “turn the other cheek” sort, you might cluck a little and tell your kids not to be like her.

Some people might have gotten down here with Dexter, who also muddies the waters a bit. On the one hand, he’s a serial killer and, at the beginning of the series, a literal sociopath. So: Antihero. On the other hand, he only kills bad people (mostly other killers), has a code, and understands how his actions affect the innocents around him and sometimes takes steps to shield them; he’s also grown more human as the series has progressed. This one comes down to taste as well, though I bet most people would end up slapping the Antihero label on him.

Then you have someone like Travis Bickell from Taxi Driver, who raises the same question, though ultimately feels like he falls in the Antihero category, possibly just because Scorsese and DeNiro do such a bang-up job at selling how completely unstable the guy is; the lurking danger in every glance and mutter.

No: Antihero. Here’s where you have your Walter Whites, your Tony Sopranos and Nuckys and Humbert Humberts. These people are not contributing to society in the way an audience expects a Hero to; there’s something rotting at their core so that, however much we might be charmed by them or even root for them at the beginning, by the end of their story we want to see their uppance come, whether through death or some other kind of ruin. Their karmic debt is too damn high for an audience to allow them to slink away unscathed.

The best example I can think of to illustrate the real dichotomy of the protagonist is Homeland, where we have both a Hero and an Antihero in play. (Spoilers ahoy for those who haven’t seen all of season one.) Carrie Mathison, one of our protagonists, is a deeply flawed woman. She makes some pretty weighty decisions that we’re not entirely on-board with, at least in theory: secretly surveiling Brody, starting an affair with him, concealing her condition from everyone but her sister. But despite these choices, we understand that she is trying to do good: She wants to stop a terrorist attack. Her aim is sympathetic, and intent carries a lot of weight in the Hero vs. Antihero pathway.

Brody is our other protagonist– and he is a protagonist; the show is asking us to follow his journey just as much as Carrie’s, and to sympathize with him to a degree we’re seldom asked to do with plain antagonists. It’s why Alex Gansa and Howard Gordon felt the need to whack us over the head with the story of Issa. But Brody is almost an exact inversion of Carrie: a good man warped by years of torture and an unspeakably horrible act. It was an outside force that inspired his thirst for what he might think is justice but is perhaps more selfish than that. There’s a deep-seated self-destructive impulse in Brody (which was probably what drew him to Carrie in the first place, if only subconsciously); why else go for the bomb vest instead of some more remote method? By blowing himself up as well he gets to finally rest, consequence-free. At any rate, we understand his motivations, and even better, he’s portrayed as being conflicted about his mission, but we certainly don’t want him to fulfill his aim. Were the show not asking us to get inside his head, giving him as much screen time and separate plotlines as Carrie, he would be the villain of the piece.

I realize, going through all the potential examples, that the Antiheroes are overwhelmingly male, but that’s perhaps a post for another time. For now, let’s see if this thing can be broken by a character whose heroicness or lack thereof isn’t a question of taste. Takers?

Two Poles, No Waiting

Everyone needs to read Jace Lacob’s amazing piece on Showtime’s stellar portrayal of bipolar disorder through two different lenses– self, and family. It’s bang-on, and has some really fascinating insights from the Homeland and Shameless writers.

I’ve yet to watch Shameless (it’s on my list), but there’s a reason everyone’s still raving about Claire Danes as Carrie Mathison in Homeland, and it’s because the character is written and portrayed as brutally, guttingly real. Carrie is a tragic figure, but there’s more to her than tragedy. For people like me to finally see ourselves on a screen, not as a murderer or degenerate or a collection of symptoms, but as a person, is truly remarkable.

“People like me,” yes. I’ve alluded to it in the past, but there’s no real point in being coy anymore: I’ve suffered from bipolar disorder for almost as long as I can remember. The toll it’s taken on my life is real, and every day brings with it another battle, but much like those poor souls still stuck in the closet, I’ve been unable to express any of these feelings, not to the people who matter. There’s an intrinsic fear of mental illness (a term I despise) in our society, an ironic nameless something in the back of our mind that whispers to us, “There but for the grace of God….” And so I kept this secret mostly locked inside, not wanting to unduly burden my loved ones. But coming up with excuses or thinly veiled falsehoods for friends (“Oh, I’ve got a bit of a cold, you go on without me”), or having to find a way to put feelings like “I am burning, with a thousand thousand hummingbirds flooding my veins” into normal, non-alarming parlance (“jittery”) wears on you, after a while. You begin to feel alienated, or alienating, even less capable of normalcy than usual. It’s easy to end up in a self-destructive tailspin, where all you can think is, But they can’t know.

So I smiled in sad recognition upon seeing the lengths Carrie goes to to hide her condition. And I felt the familiar clutch of panic in my gut as she descended into a hell where suddenly everything made sense but no one else could see. The strange, frightening joy of utter loneliness, drunk on the power of insight, with one small dark thought gnawing at you: It won’t last. The sudden crack as your mind crashes into the bedrock of reality, and you must once again find a way to gather the pieces. The Homeland writers genuinely understand that there is a certain strength that can come from this condition, and that the accompanying weaknesses are not to be trivialized. Carrie’s coping mechanisms aren’t so different from mine, either: She buries herself in work; I cocoon myself in my writing. We have specific music that must be listened to at certain times (for her it’s jazz; for me, Wilco’s very good at righting a listing ship). Sometimes, we don’t cope at all.

Of course, I doubt I’ll ever be able to share everything that goes on in this strange mass of misfiring neurons. It’s dark stuff, and scary, and that fear of abandonment or being a burden isn’t something that can truly be erased. For now, it is simply enough to say that this is who I am; that, like Carrie, I have my moments of brilliance and darkness, though seldom in equal measure; and that, most importantly, I am more than just a tragedy.

A Brief Fictional Account of the NYT Editorial Meeting Yesterday

NYT Editor 1: I’m worried our slide into total irrelevancy is slowing down.
NYT Editor 2: Me too. It’s been, like, weeks since we’ve said something hilariously, grossly wrong about popular culture.
NYT Editor 1: So, what’s our target tomorrow?
Neil Genzlinger: How about I shit all over the fantasy genre, like Ginia did?
NYT Editor 2: Just try not to complain too much about all the boobs. Maybe dial back the complete misinterpretation of the show’s themes. The “interwebs” got kind of upset last time.
NYT Editor 1 looks at him askance.
NYT Editor 2: It’s cool, I was saying “interwebs” ironically, because that joke is still totally fresh.
Joel Stein: I could dash off a quick, half-formed opinion about an entire genre beloved by millions and populated by some truly exceptional books. But I won’t actually read any YA novels. Instead, I’ll just call everyone who reads YA a baby. Literally.
NYT Editor 1: Eh, not quite insulting enough.
Joel Stein: I can add some not-so-subtle misogyny?
NYT Editors 1 and 2: Sold!

Everyone chortles, clinks glasses.

In which I run NBC

Humpty NBC

Sad Peacock

NBC hasn’t been considered a network for a while now. Instead, it’s a problem; a textbook exercise for TV writers to pore over and attempt solve.

Honestly, you can’t blame real writers for flocking to the topic. It’s a network worth saving, for one, and secondly, it’s pretty fun to discuss where exactly it all went wrong and possible paths out of the wilderness.

One of the best NBC zingers on 30 Rock was in last season’s “Mrs. Donaghy” episode, where Jack says one of the network’s strategies is to “make it 1997 again, through science or magic.” These were the days when Seinfeld was somehow pulling in 21 million people a week, when a George Clooney-powered ER was Godzillaing through the ratings.

But it isn’t 1997. It isn’t even 2007, which was the last year in which Hulu didn’t exist. Viewership is slipping at pretty much every network, even if NBC has borne the brunt of the assault. Thus, the first Piece of Advice That If You Don’t Follow, On Your Head Be It:

Accept that you’re basically a cable network.

Other people have said this, but it bears repeating. You even have a former head of a premium cable channel as your jefe now. This “really bad fall”? Is probably the new norm. And that’s okay.

The very type of shows you’re best known for, the shows we use to define your network, appeal to a demographic that no longer watches TV on Nielsen-approved devices. Advertisers are apparently as dumb as we’ve always thought, and are still content to use Nielsen numbers. What they don’t understand is how valuable it can be to know you’re reaching a very specific group of people. That’s what you have to do: Make advertisers understand the value of a smaller, far more focused audience. And if you can’t? Well…

It’s difficult to imagine a broadcast network moving away from the advertiser-supported model. And it’s doubtful we would ever actually see that happen. But there are other ways to monetize audiences.

A show like Community may only do a 1.7 (…or so) in the demo, but those people are probably the most passionate fans you’ll ever meet. They will do anything to keep that show in production, if not “on the air” in the most literal sense. We saw this phenomenon at work with Chuck and Subway. We’ve seen it without the middleman of an advertiser at all, in the case of Louis CK’s Great Online Distribution Experiment, or Arrested Development‘s recent return to active status. Those aren’t exact matches for this case, but it is encouraging to see what you can accomplish by tapping into the online community.

Maybe that’s the future for you: Make your low-rated shows available online or on-demand only. Strike a deal with Hulu or Netflix– your viewers will follow you. It can work. It’ll require some serious investment at first, especially given how awful your proprietary online player is. That’s where being owned by two of the largest corporations in America comes in handy. There will be failures. Your mindset still needs to change.

Like they showed us during the Dark Days of The Jay Leno Show, the affiliates probably won’t be too happy about this. They’ll need just as much convincing as advertisers, if not more. And don’t forget that the affiliates have to answer to viewers as well. Cultivate enough brand loyalty and viewers might even fight your battles for you.

Be better.

Accepting that you’re a niche player doesn’t mean you have to stop trying to attract viewers. After all, even cable shows can find pretty sizable audiences (see: Walking Dead, The). But over the last few seasons it’s looked like you haven’t been trying. Did anyone really think The Cape was going to come roaring out of the gate? Or even blossom into something respectable?

Picking up shows like Smash is a good start. In a season of dramatic duds– even the relative successes, like CBS’ Person of Interest, are just fucking boring —Smash is the kind of show that people are going to watch on TV. (Theoretically. I’ve only seen the pilot, so who knows what the future holds.) It’s colorful and has great production values, which is something people like to see on a screen bigger than an iPad. And since Glee has become unwatchable, people might be willing to turn elsewhere for a weekly musical fix.

NBC is still a killer brand at its core. Fox is mostly flash and little substance; CBS is staid and broadly appealing, with the exception of The Good Wife; ABC is where you go for melodrama and solid, occasionally great, comedies. But NBC was the home of Good Television, before cable came along. We still remember and talk about Cheers and Seinfeld and The West Wing. And even now, you’re as much the Network of Second Chances as the Network That Was. Anywhere else on broadcast, Community wouldn’t have lasted more than half a season before being relegated to burn-off status.

So give shows like Awake a chance. Give it a good timeslot– Thursdays at 10, maybe, if you don’t want to go with a 3-hour comedy block –and give Kyle Killen more than two episodes to work his magic. Odds are the ratings won’t be great, but it’ll show everyone you’re serious about putting quality shows on the air.

And yeah, I know, the thing about quality shows, and especially dramas, is that they’re not cheap. Especially when you have to produce 22 episodes a year. So cut the standard full season for dramas down to 13 episodes. This not only divides the year neatly into quarters, it also reduces the risk of committing to a full season and having to unceremoniously eat some really expensive crow. You’ll be making it easier both for showrunners who like to tell highly serialized stories with little filler and those who prefer a more procedural method. Law & Order: UK‘s seasons are shorter than their Stateside counterparts’, to great effect. It’ll take a while to build up a good-sized drama stable, so that you have two or three good performers per quarter, but it’ll be worth the effort.

To aid in this effort, bring back The Miniseries. This format has been working in Britain for ages, and PBS is showing with Downton Abbey‘s stellar season two ratings that the time just might be right. Make these things event viewing.* No one’s holding Harry’s Law viewing parties. The upside is that if you find a show that really pops, you can order a second, possibly extended, season. Boom. Drama stable: expanded.

*Just don’t call it “Event Viewing,” because that might inadvertently remind people of The Event, and that would be counterproductive.

In the meantime, there’ll be a lot of programming holes to plug. Find some decent-quality reality shows. Work out a deal with your sister networks: Air a Top Chef special before the next season on Bravo, for some nice synergistic cross-promotion. Maybe show SyFy movies on dead Friday or Saturday nights, or reruns of USA shows. This is not the time to act like your siblings are beneath you. The results may not be earth-shattering, but these measures probably won’t hurt, and they might help with budgetary concerns.

Comedies are a different story, though they could also perhaps benefit from a season-shortening. You have the comedy thing on lockdown, Whitney and Are You There, Chelsea? aside. You have a great stable of talent to pull from, and that’s not going to change in the foreseeable future, not with Lorne Michaels still around. Keep cultivating stars like Tina Fey and Amy Poehler and Maya Rudolph. Even if you give them a little tether, like with Mindy Kaling, keeping the actual production in the family is a win for everyone. However:

Stop ordering shows from “name” comedians because they’re “name” comedians.* This goes back to the “It is not 1997” thing. You are not going to find another Seinfeld. It’s not going to happen. Especially not with… Dane Cook? Jesus, guys. That’s some CBS-like shit– except it won’t result in CBS-level ratings.

To impress upon you the seriousness of this point, let’s look at a couple of your failures over the last year: The Paul Reiser Show bombed. Whitney is fading fast, numbers-wise, aside from being critically reviled. Chelsea is in nearly the exact same situation. (The corollary to this: No more imports. Sure, The Office worked for a while, but do I need to remind you of Kath and Kim?)

*In fact, stop doing this with dramas, too. Learn from the failure of Undercovers and, more recently, Terra Nova on Fox. Trumpeting “Jaybrams!” or “Spielberg!” no longer signifies anything other than sound and vague disappointment, so maybe back off that marketing tactic for Smash.

You don’t need name recognition for a show to do well. People don’t watch 2 Broke Girls because Michael Patrick King is the showrunner or Beth Behrs is in it, they watch because it appeals to the lowest common denominator and doesn’t require the use of any brain cells. The Office wasn’t a hit because everyone at the time knew the British version or loved Steve Carell; it was something new and funny that people hadn’t really experienced before. 30 Rock got a boost from Tina Fey’s previous success on SNL, sure, but its success is due to more than just Fey’s presence. To go further afield, Louie works because Louis CK is an unparalleled talent, and his show defies all expectations of what a TV comedy should be.

In that vein:

Make yourself a network that creatives love to work with. You should be the go-to net for dynamite pitches from dynamite showrunners. John Landgraf has built FX into a powerhouse over the last several years, and yet it’s almost impossible to find someone to speak ill of him, because he gives his showrunners ample freedom and support. Even Terriers got to finish its entire season, despite ratings that made Community look like a juggernaut.

13-episode seasons for dramas should help begin to build this kind of reputation, and as we said above, you’re already known for being less quick on the draw than certain other networks. That’s not to say that you can afford to let sleeping turds lie, nor that you should. If a show is really, truly bad– Reiser, The Playboy Club –there’s no reason to shovel money onto the burning wreckage. But shows that are critically beloved deserve the benefit of the doubt. …For six episodes, at least. After that, you’ve done your duty.

And above all: Don’t give up, Bob. You can’t do any worse than Zucker. We’re all rooting for you.

Why the Golden Globe TV Nominations Actually Make Sense*

*Obviously there’s a giant asterisk for that headline. This is why the TV nods make sense given their source, rather than acknowledging they are valid in any way– the method to the HFPA’s madness, if you will.

No one really knows– or ever will know –who the HFPA members are, which is kind of fun. They’re the entertainment world’s equivalent of a middling college’s third-tier secret society: They throw a cool party, but god if they’re not the biggest bunch of clueless assholes you’ve ever met. And though you certainly don’t take them seriously, you do get very confused when confronted with their weird party-planning decisions and nevertheless feel the need to declaim very loudly that they are wrong and stupid.

So yes, initially the Golden Globe nominations confused the shit out of me, and I declaimed very loudly via the internet that this was all incredibly nonsensical. (I was also annoyed to see that once again Gary Oldman has been passed over, as though he’s painted his lintel with the blood of critics to stop the Angel of Awards Shows from coming for him, but that’s a whole ‘nother thing.) After some thought, though, it all actually began to make sense.

It's okay, Raylan. I still love you.

The first step to Understanding the HFPA comes from examining the enormous gulf between its TV choices and those of every other awards body, mostly the Emmys. Friday Night Lights, Justified, and Breaking Bad have all won at previous awards shows. On the comedy side, even Parks and Rec got some Emmy love in the form of nominations for Amy Poehler and the show itself. Clearly, these guys could not possibly care less about following in the Academy’s footsteps. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The Emmys (and SAG, oof) make a lot of mistakes as well, so to have one group act as a repository for wildcards would be a nice little set-up, something to shake those predictable awards-season blues.

Wait, no, wrong wildcards, HFPA. Wrong wildcards! Oh, for the love of…

For step two, look at the disparity between any American critic‘s 2011 Top Ten list and the GG noms.

Right? May the howls of outrage never cease!

But then look at what most of those Top Ten shows are about:

FNL, Justified, and Parks are all about sort of down-on-their-luck small towns, where people are occasionally cartoonish, but generally behave as people do in real life. For Breaking Bad and Community, substitute “family” and “community college” for “town,” and it works just as well. There’s an emotional and physical reality to these shows that’s grounded in their settings: They’re about how your home isn’t just where your heart is– it is your heart. And that heart is pretty unambiguously American. Not in a patriotic, “America! Fuck yeah!” way– just in a cultural sense. Walter White is about as American as you can get– obsessed with climbing the economic ladder, regardless of the cost. Old-school lawmen like Raylan Givens are a uniquely Stateside phenomenon, and when you add in the peculiar subculture found in Appalachia, well, good luck selling that to an audience that only knows a few vague stereotypes about that area. And it’s not too hard to see why the minutiae of a high-school football coach’s life doesn’t grab the HFPA’s attention. You can argue that good TV is good TV, regardless of where it’s set– and I’d agree with you in most cases. Most intelligent people would. But see above re: clueless assholes.

The acting noms follow the same pattern, basically. Flashy roles are referred to as such for a reason: They attract a lot of attention. There’s little else the HFPA likes more than something shiny. Thus: Kyle Chandler being left out in the cold; Jessica Lange and Eric Stonestreet cocooned in HFPA’s warm, boozy embrace.

The HFPA also seem to have a severely advanced, possibly terminal case of Murphytis. That’s the only real explanation for both American Horror Story and Glee appearing on this list. I drop in on AHS occasionally, to make sure I’m not guilty of crime number two on this list, and there is no reason for this show to be rewarded for anything. It is doing nothing that another show is not doing or has already tried, mostly to better effect. The thing about Ryan Murphy’s shows, though, is that they’re so unabashedly batshit that, to people who either don’t get enough of that sort of thing or feel it should be the status quo, it all seems like a rollicking good time, despite being mostly artless and not making one iota of sense. Lucky for him, there’s no need for shit to make sense in HFPAland.

Don’t misunderstand me: These nominations are still stupid and wrong, for the most part. It just makes one feel a little better, being able to ascribe some sort of reasoning to the idiocy. Which is perhaps why I gave up on Glee last season.