Television writers – on strike, but off-base


The writers’ strike is reaching at the one week point. Since my last post, an 11th hour negotiating session led the writers’ to inexplicably cave on one of their chief demands, doubling the DVD residuals. Ken Levine offers the explanation – the studios had suggested that pulling DVDs from the table would yield a new media proposal, but then they pulled the football out from the writers’ Charlie Brown. When will Charlie ever learn…

Keep abreast of the strike news from the writers’ side at United Hollywood. For a great brief overview of the issues, watch this:

For the producers’ perspective, watch TV news – the issue is barely covered at all.

Fans are trying to figure out how best to react. One problem with television is that there’s no easy way to register consumer displeasure, as the vast of majority of viewers are unmeasured by the industry. If you’re a Nielsen family, boycotting TV seems potentially useful, but only in mass numbers accompanied by an organized complaint. If you’re not counted in the ratings, embargoing the purchase of DVDs, legal downloads, and online streaming is a good first step. I’d also recommend The Fan Union, a forum for fan activism – their first campaign is to send the AMPTP little 99 cent rollerskate charms. Cheap skates. Get it?

Generally, I think the writers have been doing a good job promoting their cause & rallying fans to their side, using blogs, YouTube, and other media they don’t get paid to write for. I was mixed about Damon Lindelof’s editorial for the New York Times this morning. I appreciated that he framed the strike as part of contemporary media transformations, requiring us to rethink the boundaries between television and the internet. But his strategy of garnering sympathy by highlighting his own lost (and Lost) salary strikes a wrong note – the reason why residuals matter is not for the showrunners who are indeed becoming rich on hit programs, but for the staff writers who hop between jobs and find it increasingly difficult to work the older they get. It would have been nice for Lindelof to highlight the lost income of his staff, not himself.

But the week’s prize for most off-base writer goes to Lindelof’s good friend, Tim Kring. I’ve previously griped about Kring’s lack of understanding of his own show Heroes. But this week he apologized in Entertainment Weekly for the way season 2 has crashed and burned. This season has been really awful – I found the new character Maya’s power of bleeding-from-the-eyes to be an apt metaphor for my own viewing! – for reasons that were predictable given the faults of the first season: inconsistent pacing, too much time spent with weak characters slowly realizing their powers, a disdain for storyworld consistency, and a tendency toward obvious on-the-nose dialog. Kring’s apology essentially says, “wow, this season’s episodes do suck!” and takes responsibility for missing the boat. But the only rationale he makes is that they thought they were mimicking the strengths of season 1, when in fact they were mimicking its flaws. The apology furthers my argument about Kring’s lack of self-awareness, with the only hope that the strike will force him and his writers to rethink their own show before it completely falls apart.

So here’s the question to leave you with – I’m attending a conference at MIT this week where Heroes producer Jesse Alexander will be presenting. What should I ask him that will shed light on these issues, beyond the non-productive “what the hell was Kring thinking?” Can anyone offer a more productive line of inquiry?

UPDATE: In my haste to gripe about Heroes, I forgot to link to the week’s most on-base TV writer. Shawn Ryan, producer/creator of The Shield and The Unit, a Middlebury alum, and a super-nice guy, wrote an open letter to WGA members explaining why he’s striking all of his showrunner duties. This letter seems to have been quite influential in uniting the showrunners around a position of refusing to do production work until the AMPTP returns to negotiations, a much harder-line position than most had anticipated and one that will probably end up in court. Go Shawn!

13 Responses to “Television writers – on strike, but off-base”

  1. Jason: I too was dissatisfied with Lindelov’s piece in the Times. His take on digital delivery technology’s impact on TV broadcasting seems oddly behind the times — it’s as though he just discovered the concept of convergence, and is slowly working his way toward Henry’s “black box fallacy.” I also thought the essay was loose in its logical connections, jumping back and forth between the “what happened to good ol’ TV” argument and the “writers deserve a bigger slice of the pie” argument. In its way the piece was as binarily dislocated/ing as your average episode of Lost …

    Re: Heroes, count me in the camp who’s enjoying the second season, primarily because the inept start worked to lower expectations. The show was always a bigger hit than it needed to be; under the skin it’s a cult sensibility, and the spotlight doesn’t suit it. That said, aren’t you being too hard on Kring? He admitted he made a mistake — more than most showrunners ever do — and aims to fix it. He listens to the fans — for which he should be commended, IMO, despite his errors in judgment.

  2. 2 Nikki

    Bob, I completely agree. Sorry Jason, but I’m definitely enjoying Heroes Season 2. It seems as though everyone expected this season to be greater than God or something…and yeah, then I can see how you’d be disappointed. Whatever happened to being satisfied with a couple of fun plot twists each episode and just plain entertaining television? Tim Kring just seems to be human. Kinda nice to see a guy in Hollywood admit that, and even keep that quality.

  3. I’m with Jason re: Heroes this year. It’s become soap-ish in its sluggish pace. This isn’t a criticism of soaps, but they play daily, so if it takes 5 episodes for a conversation to finish, that’s just 5 days; when your show is weekly, though, it’s just painful to wait 5 weeks for some plot movement. Jason’s Maya metaphor is spot-on (or maybe we could say Tim Kring has unknowingly become the Nightmare Man, stranding us in a room trying to struggle to get our way out of it). They also seem to be struggling with how to use the varying talents of their actors — Claire and her dad are good, as are Mica and the TV-learner-woman, though they’ve all been stuck in tepid spincycle plots. Peter’s ok, though his new sidekick complete with bad accent, and the Samantha Who? remake plot, have been tiresome, meaning he’s been asked to furrow his brow and do not much more since the season began. Only Matt and Suresh seem to have been given things to do in the present day world, yet both are so bad at their angry faces that they remind me of Steve from Beverly Hills 90210, and just render the thing comic.

    I dunno if I’ll be able to join you at the Heroes thing in Cambridge, Jason, but my suggested question would be something along the lines of what they’ve learned about the dangers (and/or rewards) of having a large cast with multiple storylines, many of which don’t intersect. My above analogy of the soap is perhaps worth pursuing, since it shows what can happen when you transfer that model to a weekly show

  4. Oh, J & J, listen to you grumps complain. Does Kring really earn so little credit for acknowledging the show stumbled in season two, and promising to reform it in what remains? Sometimes I feel he and his show are being punished for being (A) geeky and (B) popular: daring to take cult pleasures and put them in the mainstream. For me, Heroes remains a prized mutation — as absurdly silly and exhilirating as any of its key players — in the primetime spotlight.

  5. I begrudge neither geekiness nor popularity – I just find Heroes’ inconsistency maddening. When a show varies so much between episodes and storylines, I’m forced to wonder whether it’s a good show with bad moments, or a bad show with good moments. One way to evaluate & contextualize is by trying to understand what the creators are trying to accomplish. In many other programs, I can forgive inconsistency or a downturn through sustained faith in the creators. But when Kring has twice now publicly talked about his show in a way that makes me feel that he has little clue what he’s doing, my faith evaporates. I think the response to Kring’s mea culpa depends on your general attitude toward the series – if you love it like Bob & Nikki, you’ll cut slack & renew faith; if you’re skeptical like Jonathan & me, it serves as another lingering question mark pointing toward the show going off the rails.

    Having just watched this week’s episode, “Four Months Earlier,” I find myself still skeptical. I appreciate the gap-filling & clearing up some ambiguities, but many of the questions it answered were not at all vital – did we really need to learn about Maya & Miguel’s origins? Does anyone care about Niki & her still uncomprehensible “power”? And the retcon moment of Peter telling Nathan why he couldn’t fly felt forced as a moment of Kring saying “hey, I listen to fans!” If he really listened to fans, Niki would be gone and Mohinder would not be allowed anywhere near a soundbooth to record those insipid voiceovers.

  6. Points taken, Jason. I agree in particular with your statement that “the response to Kring’s mea culpa depends on your general attitude toward the series” — in a kind of pop-culture homologue of the deeply polarized U.S. electorate, Heroes definitely evokes the love-it-or-hate-it stance, with little dialogue or circulation between the extremes. We’re all buttoned down in our camps, eyeing the smoke from each others’ fires with suspicion.

    I’d add only that, in my view, the serial natural of television often makes it hard to decide with finality whether a show is overarchingly “good” or “bad”; in any flow of episodes there is variation. Heroes’ very messiness and inconsistency is, IMO, part of its shaggy, goofy charm, just as The X-Files often shifted maddeningly in focus and tone. And the Trek franchise — for me the pinnacle of cult TV — certainly runs the gamut of quality. But again, this could be the self-justifying logic of a fan who simply wants to continue venerating his chosen object.

    I do still feel you’re being a bit harsh in knocking Kring for “twice now publicly talk[ing] about his show in a way that makes me feel that he has little clue what he’s doing.” Shouldn’t we allow him, or anyone, their due of searching, playing, exploring possibilities? If the measure of a TV author-god’s quality is that he or she knows in advance *everything that’s going to happen,* and remains committed to those outcomes regardless of how audiences, critics, and academics react, then all we’ll get — all we deserve to get, really — is unyielding Master Plans set down in stone. (Hard not to think of George W. Bush’s Iraq strategy here …) I find far friendlier a dynamic, ongoing, interlocutory view of TV authorship as well as reception, a sense that the showrunner listens, weighs, and responds to our voices. For me, Kring’s public mea culpas should be praised rather than condemned; indeed, I’d love to see more such courageous owning-up among the pantheon of TV’s creators.

  7. Quick P.S. — I *like* Mohinder’s voice-overs — though I realize I’m quite alone in this!

  8. Bob – I might say that you liking Mohinder’s voice-overs automatically disqualifies your opinions as an outlier from the radical fringe. 😉

    What I find interesting in your comments is characterizing Heroes as possessing a “shaggy, goofy charm.” I find the show almost entirely anti-goofy, taking itself and its characters seriously to a fault. Only Hiro has a sense of levity about him, although that’s been missing for the most part thus far in season 2. The Bennett clan sometimes feels almost parodic in its tone toward the nuclear family, and HRG can embrace a light-hearted villainy. But the vast majority of moments seem to insist that this is a Serious Drama about Extraordinary People Finding Their Way in a Dangerous World (cue Mohinder). I want it to be fun, but more often than not, I find that it doesn’t deliver.

    So maybe I’m just watching the show the wrong way – is it supposed to be a self-parody? Is the acting supposed to be clunky, and the dialog obvious & overwrought? (And to be clear, I don’t hate the show – I just think it should be much better than it is. And there were far better series last year that were canceled, such as Kidnapped, so I’m a little bitter that some people regard the show as the pinnacle of network TV.)

  9. This is a good question — it’s forcing me to put my finger on what exactly does appeal to me about Heroes, something I’ve struggled to articulate in a recent email exchange with Martyn Pedler (who mentioned you wanted in on the fight!). I agree that the show has a relentlessly self-important tone — at times operatic, other times just purple-prose — and that, yes, this is one of its key pleasures for me. Why? Well, first, I tend to distrust outright whimsy when it’s offered up on a platter with a side order of cute and a garnish of wink-wink. It’s why I can’t abide Desperate Housewives or Chuck, and have been slow to warm to Pushing Daisies (whose plummy voice-overs and constant musical stings are at least as bad as any of Mohinder’s incatations).

    So (A) I prefer shows that come at me straightfaced, a la Heroes and Battlestar Galactica and (certainly) 24, even when — *especially* when — the essential silliness of the premise stands in contrast to that gravity. (B), Heroes adopts the portentousness of much superhero comic-book storytelling, along with its large and unruly cast, frequent cutaways and flashbacks and flashforwards, and “captioning” (Mohinder’s VOs again) — I recently spent some time working through Chris Claremont’s work on X-Men in the late 70s and early 80s, and find Heroes almost dead-on its replication of that book’s clenched-jaw yet sensationalistic tone. Finally, (C), I cling to my sense that Heroes is supposed to be kind of bad — that its essential nature is a show moldering in the backwaters of Friday night on some neglected VHF channel, struggling to find viewers, not thrust into the spotlight of NBC’s flagship lineup. I don’t mind its vicissitudes and extremes because, like many cult favorites, wild unevenness and miscalculations add to the fun of discovering and putting up with it. Again I return to my sense that Heroes is the right show happening at the wrong time, or vice-versa, and the disconnect between its central location and its marginal essence is what causes critical radars to go haywire around it.

  10. Bob, I’m not sure whether I begrudge Kring’s mea culpa, just to be clear. Part of me wants to (and does?) admire it as honest reflection on how he’s messed up, something of which, as you point out, few television writers seem capable. Part of me thinks it might be a cynical move to try and keep audiences like myself who are defecting (last night was the first time i missed it without an excuse), kind of like how ER’s promos seem to suggest that every episode is “the one episode everyone will be talking about for 300 years!” But part of me also agrees with Jason, in that it worries me — it suggests that his writing process involves throwing a whole bunch of things at the audience and seeing what sticks.

    Like Jason, I want some kind of evidence that the writer isn’t just playing a Choose Your Own Adventure, yet cheating by flipping back to the decision page and just wildly choosing another outcome when the first one didn’t work. To work with your analogy, I don’t want Bush, but there’s a distinction to be made — Bush is stupid and resolved, so the problem isn’t simply his unwillingness to listen to others, it’s also his stupidity. I want a writer with a little more resolution but who is smart. So, while it’s kind of nice that he’s listening to audiences, or at least saying he is, given that he could go through about 6 writing decisions and basically say, “haha. oops. sure, let’s change that,” makes me wonder if Season One was just kind of flukey

  11. This is interesting – where I find flaws, Bob finds pleasure. I’m not at all convinced that the show is aiming for comic book camp, especially given Kring’s denial of comic knowledge, but I have little time for shows taking themselves seriously but embracing lowbrow aesthetics – as a comparison, X-Files rarely did this, and consistently made fun of itself (always my fave episodes). My own taste embraces clever & self-deprecating fun and whimsy much more than archness – even Lost, which is not a ‘light’ show, seems to revel in the ridiculousness of much of the DHARMA mythology and is quick to undercut heavy-handedness with Sawyer/Hurley bits. The question of intended quality/tone is a good one to ask at the Heroes event tomorrow…

    But this is good group aesthetic therapy – talking about how tastes are structured & directed really helps understand how programs work to appeal to ranges of audiences.

  12. Jon, just to follow up, I do see your point; there’s a difference between a creator who’s sincerely experimenting/exploring options, and someone carelessly slapping plot points together. I tend to give Kring a huge benefit of the doubt because, in the words of another cult show near to my heart, “I want to believe!” But my patience is by no means infinite. The moment Kring introduces an animated talking dog with a cocky attitude and a computer wristwatch, I’m outta there.

  1. 1 Rethinking Heroes and Mea Culpas « Just TV

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