The lessons of The TV Set

For a behind-the-scenes geek like me, The TV Set is a fun movie about the process of making television … and sucking the creative spirit out of a show before it gets to air.

As the opening credits state, networks commission hundreds of scripts each year, only a small fraction of which are produced as pilots. Of that small fraction, only a quarter are picked up for the fall season. The TV Set is the story of one such pilot.

Written and directed by Jake Kasdan (Orange County), it’s executive produced by his dad Lawrence Kasdan (The Big Chill) as well as Judd Apatow (Freaks and Geeks, Undeclared, Knocked Up), a man who knows something about the struggle to make quality television.

David Duchovny plays Mike Klein, the writer of what I presume is supposed to be a drama with comedic overtones. In his original script, a young man and woman reconnect when he returns home for the funeral of his brother, who committed suicide. The network head, a deliciously horrible Sigourney Weaver, whose favoured child is the reality show Slut Wars, pushes for a broadly comedic lead actor, fears the audience will think suicide is depressing, and complains the character’s mother comes across as too sad. About her dead son.

Klein finds his soul and his show chipped away at bit by bit, as he moans “I’m making the world more mediocre” to his very pregnant wife (Justine Bateman), who is supportive with limits. Her bulging belly makes him acutely aware that taking a bold creative stand won’t support his family. Judy Greer, Ioan Gruffudd, and Lucy Davis are among the other familiar faces in the cast.

The TV Set is the fictional story of one script’s journey through the pilot process, and I happened to see it just as we’re seeing the successes and failures — mostly failures, it looks like — of the current crop of pilots-become-series, and just as I’ve become aware of the first news about pilots for the next television season.

One such announcement shocks me as much as it thrills me. John Doyle of the Globe and Mail breaks the news that Intelligence is being remade as a pilot for FOX, co-produced by Canada’s own Haddock Entertainment and John Wells Productions (yes, the John Wells who broke my beloved West Wing, but even I can’t deny his track record).

Since Intelligence was a surprise second-season renewal after suffering from low ratings even for a CBC series, and is more akin to The Wire, a critically acclaimed show that hasn’t been a ratings blockbuster for Showtime, than to 24, I would never have guessed Kevin Reilly would see it the potential for success on his network. But since it will have to be retooled drastically for an American viewpoint anyway, I’m sure it will end up bearing little resemblance to The Wire and more to, say, a John Wells production. And all 17 Canadians who watched Intelligence here can feel superior that we embraced the original, more intelligent version.

However, bearing in mind the lesson of The TV Set, the fact that a pilot has been ordered is a far different thing from a guarantee that the show will wind up on the FOX schedule.

The second announcement should probably make me happier than it does. It seems the USA network is turning Thank You For Smoking into a series. According to the annoyingly written Variety:

TV take — which will likely go by a different title — will pick up where the 2006 feature left off. Nick Naylor, having kicked some of his more evil lobbyist habits, will use his rhetorical skills to help people more deserving of aid. … “He’ll live somewhere between the morally ambiguous character of the movie and Robin Hood,” said USA programming chief Jeff Wachtel.

I loved Thank You For Smoking, but it was a brilliantly complete film, I thought. A lesson I learned from my childhood obsession with Anne of Green Gables is that a great work is not improved on by going back to the well over and over again, and by the time you get to Rilla of Ingleside, the magic has been sucked out.

More importantly, I don’t want to see Nick Naylor as Robin Hood. And after watching The TV Set, it’s hard to have faith that the show will end up being faithful to the vision of the original creator. That is, if the idea makes it to script, and then to pilot, and then to series, so it’s a little early to be worrying about it now.

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One Response to The lessons of The TV Set

  1. Anonymous says:

    Hi Diane, Make that 17 Canadians and 2 Seattlites who watch Intelligence. 🙂 It’s a great show. My wife and I watched the pilot when it first aired two years ago and we’ve watched every episode of the series. It’s a shame it’s not getting better ratings.

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