Saturday, September 17, 2011

Lightning In A Bottle

In the course of my work, I'm sometimes able to attend advance screenings of unreleased films, or view screening copies of TV pilots before they are.  It's a great luxury to see some of the new pilots over the summer, because it alleviates some of the pressure in the fall to View All The Shows -- wth luck, you already know which ones you don't like and don't need to TiVo.

(And even after years in this business, I still get a little thrill from the validation that comes with any "insider" invitation.)

I recently sat down to view a selection of pilots for shows that are either not picked up, or not picked up until midseason.  2 of them Canadian-made, so I was interested in checking out the look and feel in the likelihood that I run in to cast and crew around town -- it's always nice to be familiar with people's recent work.  During production, of course, there's very little time to keep up with current releases, much less advance releases, so it's nice over hiatus to catch up on favorite shows, friends' shows, and upcoming trends.

The thing that struck me in viewing a selection of this year's crop was how cinematic 3 out of the 4 selections were.  Not just in the camerawork and acting style, but in the premises -- I kept seeing stories that seemed perfect fodder for a gripping 2-hour feature, but was hard-pressed to imagine how they were planning to continue for 13 or 22 weeks, much less 5 years  

Of course *every* year's crop of pilots serve as a stark reminder of how hard it is to make good television, and how easy a few missteps can make what must have seemed like a good idea at the time into an unwatchable mess.  No one sets out to make lame or cheesy shows, and people work just as hard -- and are likely just as excited about -- the losers as the winners

What makes the difference?  What's the ligtning in a bottle that makes one show grab you from the first week and make you eager to shout "More show!  More show!"  ?  I'm convinced that one key element is casting -- the wrong leads will tank a clever idea, and the right leads will put butts in seats.  But that's only one of so many elements.  Messing up even one can drag all the rest down.

Can this things be solved by analysis?  Or is this a case where you need to get zen and do the best you can, and then see where the cards land?

In case you haven't noticed, I'm not very good at just watching TV with my feet up.  Even when it's not supposed o be work, it turns into grist for the mill.


Cathy Astolfo said...

Gillian, what if your "lightning in a bottle" TV show (and that of many of your friends) turns out to be something the silent majority loves, but the surveyed minority doesn't. Is there anything viewers can do to avoid your favorite show's cancellation? (case in point: Prime Suspect - my friends and I LOVE it)

GH said...

Well, we have to operate under the belief that the surveyed minority statistically represents the rest. Believe me, I know how frustrating it is to adore a niche show that doesn't find a large enough audience to stay on the air. (They stopped making my favorite shampoo because it didn't have enough buyers, and I still miss it, but I'm not campaigning for it...) The good news is that new technologies and new delivery methods mean that some shows can find a small audience that is enough to sustain them -- gone are the days when you needed 20 million viewers to stay on the air. But there's always a minimum threshhold of viewers any show needs to stay on, and if your favorite isn't making that number, pleading can't save it. It has to bring in enough eyeballs to pay its bills. The only thing you can do as a viewer is watch live and legally, and urge others to do the same.