The main reason my pilots were bad was that I wrote them badly.
This is not to say that executives are geniuses and writers are stupid. Although most of the high-level execs I met are sharp and went to great colleges, the writers were always smarter. Much, much smarter. It’s important that I’m clear on that because my health coverage comes from the Writers Guild.
It’s just that hearing pitches and reading scripts is infinitely easier than coming up with premises and writing dialogue. It just requires saying either “your main character needs to be more proactive,” “we need to clarify the character’s motivation throughout his journey” or “let’s cast Heather Locklear.”
When execs get it in their heads to come up with shows on their own, it’s almost always painful.
This year, ABC actually told writers it was looking for a soap opera based on King Lear. This, undoubtedly, made them feel smart. But King Lear isn’t great because of the plot, it’s great because Shakespeare wrote it. No one wants to see a show about two bad sisters, one good sister and a guy who yanks his eyes out.
Unless of course, that guy happens to be a cop.
Played by Heather Locklear.
It’s hard to write anything good. The majority of the tiny percentage of novels that get published are still horrible. You just don’t know that because you don’t spend every night using your remote to flip through all the latest books.
In fact, to prove that execs are useful, try this experiment: Spend 8 until 11 every night going to see new plays. By Day 6 of hearing overeducated upper-class people argue about precisely why invading Iraq was a bad idea, you’ll start begging for a remake of Hello Larry.
Yes, networks turned down The Sopranos. But executives don’t make art. Their job is to create mass entertainment, and as the ratings for Sopranos repeats on A&E prove, it isn’t mass entertainment; watching Paula Abdul drool on herself is.
When executives basically tell you that all the time, you tend to think they’re ruining television. But they’re actually helping to make the best drooling Paula Abdul shows they can.
This isn’t to say that networks don’t give their overcautious law departments and “standards and practices” offices way too much power to whittle shows down to blandness. Or that execs don’t avoid risk out of fear.
But when Steve McPherson, ABC president of prime-time entertainment, told me that an actor I cast in a pilot wouldn’t be “an engine of comedy,” he proved to be right. Two friends of mine recently fought their studio and network to cast a really funny, weird, unpandering actor as their lead. They won, and every person in the focus groups said the show was ruined by the funny, weird, unlikable lead actor.
And although I still can’t admit it after four years of trying, the networks must be right that no one wants to see a sitcom set in a rehab clinic.
Frustrated writers, working in an increasingly skittish, fractured medium that kills their shows without giving them a chance, have invented this myth of the idiot exec. But the truth is, they don’t ruin television.
At least not the way newspaper editors ruin columns.
Joel Stein writes for the Los Angeles Times ( email@example.com).