My previous posting -- FILM'S KNOW-NOTHINGS -- prompted loyal reader "mrn" to remind me of a story that will illustrate why today's television programming remains pretty much a "vast wasteland." While the big screen provides very few decent offerings per year, the tally with the telly is even more dismal. And, as I will illustrate below, the reasons are quite similar.
First a little background...
One of my good friends in the television industry is Michael Norell. Michael's credits date back to the mid-1970's when he wrote for long-running, highly successful programs such as EMERGENCY and THE LOVE BOAT. Over the course of Michael's storied career he has written hundreds of prime time network programming hours, receiving an Emmy nomination and being the recipient of many industry accolades including the Edgar Allen Poe Award, the Christopher and the WGA's top award for the best movie of the week in 1991 -- THE INCIDENT. Michael has seen it all and done it all -- almost...
In 1996, actor Don Johnson and his Colorado neighbor, Hunter S. Thompson, wrote a feature-length movie script which did not sell. However, CBS purchased the story rights and they turned to some relatively inexperienced hot-shot television writers/producers to adapt the two main characters in the script to serve as the basis for a new TV series -- NASH BRIDGES. These young guns were thrilled to have this opportunity handed to them, and the only onerous condition they were subjected to was that CBS required a seasoned, network approved writer be brought in to assist in the process.
Enter my buddy, Mike Norell.
As Mike tells it, the very first story meeting for the pilot episode went something like this:
"Here's an idea, let's have our detectives investigate a family that's being stalked by some bad guy. You know, like in CAPE FEAR."
"Yeah, and the husband could also be having to deal with some real bitch he once had an affair with."
"What's your frame of reference?"
"That's a great idea."
"And our stalker could be like...like a preacher!"
"That's good also. What's your frame of reference?"
"The Robert Duvall character in THE APOSTLE."
And so it went -- every character, every plot twist and turn, every element of the pilot episode was derived from a film or TV show these guys had previously seen. Nothing original -- everything was brazenly lifted from something already produced and which each could relate to since they all shared a common "frame of reference."
Satisfied they had concocted a spectacular pilot episode, the group of self-righteous neophytes turned to Michael who hadn't said a single word.
"So, Mr. Norell, what do you think?"
Michael simply replied by outlining in great detail an entire storyline -- everything totally original and completely different from what he had just heard. The room fell silent, the young guns looked at each other. Finally, one spoke out:
"Geez, I don't think I have ever seen any of that before. What's your frame of reference?"
Michael's reply: "There isn't any 'frame of reference.' I'm a writer. I FUCKIN' MADE IT UP!"
What a concept...
Mike was proposing a television program that's totally fresh, authentic, genuinely inventive; not some hackneyed rehash of a dozen other shows or films we've all seen before. Of course, such audacity made his stint with NASH BRIDGES short and not-so-sweet.
The end result -- NASH BRIDGES went on to be a show where the only thing worth watching, the only thing with any pizzazz was a 1970 Plymouth Barracuda.
A postscript --
I recently ran across the following Don Johnson quote:
"I'm better than De Niro. I'm better than Pacino. I've got the talent, they've got the material."
I'm not sure about the talent part, but he may be right about the material -- especially NASH BRIDGES.