SLEDGEHAMMER AND WHORE
So I'm at a meeting with a producer the other day and he's pitching me a tv idea. As way of emphasizing why I need him and his idea, he brings forth a piece of paper. On it, my credits. He doesn't actually hand it over to me but he says this:
PRODUCER: I've been looking over your credits, pretty impressive.
ME: Thanks, we try.
PRODUCER: Seems to me you're just missing one thing from these credits. And I'm gonna tell you what it is.
ME: Please do.
At which point he turns the piece of paper towards me and I see he's written in bold black marker near the top, pointing to the list: BIG FUCKING HIT TV SHOW.
ME: Well, yes, I am missing that. Very true. I think about that a lot.
PRODUCER: That's all right. Because I'm here to change all that.
At which point he launches into his pitch for what may or not be "my big fucking hit tv show."
Now, I leave it to you to debate whether pointing out my shortcomings is a good or bad sales strategy (it rarely works for my dad but often for my wife), and I'll leave it to me to decide whether or not the idea he pitched me was the answer to my problems.
I will say this about the idea, however: IT WAS ENORMOUS. The concept, the scope, the budget, it was resolutely and irresponsibly EPIC and for that I was totally grateful. Because if I'd been pitched one more aspirational character-driven procedural you were going to have to peel me off the Barham asphalt.
Not that I don't understand the impulse for procedurals. They're the golden retrievers of television. They're cheap. They're endearing. Not too hard to understand. And they won't cost 3.5 million per ep, pull in a 1.4 rating, and pee on your favorite tauntaun sleeping bag.
On the other hand, there's been a lot of recent attempts at "event" television and almost all have been utter failures. Even some of the ones still on the air stagger around like a drunk who woke up with a Season 2 and have no idea who drove them there or how to get home (I'm looking at you, V.).
With the death of Lost and 24, we find ourselves looking for the next bit of pop culture big-fucking-dealness that we can get ourselves all worked up for. And when I say "we" I'm referring to Fans of TV with a capital F and not simply those for whom TV is the thing that occupies the space between dinner and the sleep apnea machine. We Fans of TV want that Big Sexy Going Down the Rabbit Hole Feeling and no matter how much my mother loves Simon Baker, The Mentalist just isn't going to do it for us.
The Mentalist, is, however, going to make a shitload of money for all involved. It's easy on the eyes and is habit-forming much in the same way two glasses of red wine a night is: you'll get a nice, warm buzz but you're not gonna get really wasted and wake up with Cobb's malevolent freight train blasting through your cortex. The Mentalist isn't the best sex you've ever had, but it's also not likely to leave you to finish yourself off while your partner falls asleep to reruns of "Cheaters".
The Character-driven Procedural works for a number of reasons, but the biggest and the best of them is this: they almost never get picked up to series without a Serious Asswhipping Actor in the lead. Simon Baker. Hugh Laurie. Tony Shaloub. Kyra Sedgwick. Angie Harmon. These are legitimate cleanup hitters in any TV lineup. They might not be the favorites of the genre crowd. You might not stand in line for their autograph. And you are not going to see them down at Comic-Con doing funny panels with Jeff "Doc" Jensen. Why? Because they are too busy making the other twenty million people who watch tv every night love them.
"Event" television, on the other hand (and here we can probably insert the word "genre" or "science fiction"), usually demands a big canvas, a big cast of characters, and a large concept that often dominates. It's ideas first, characters second, and that, dear friends, is often a recipe for tv disaster. FlashForward tried to balance a lot of character work on the big bouncing back of their elephantine idea but the show never found a proper stride and a lot of people were knocked off into the pachyderm shit. Warehouse 13 works for SyFy because it's what X-Files would be if Mulder and Scully took Ecstasy and dry-humped their way through a Freak of the Week. Which is to say, a quirky procedural.
Aaah, but what about Lost, you say? Explain Lost, or at the very least, explain Lost's success? Big ideas, lots of characters, no big alpha stars, lots of story, lots of...lots?
I'm not the first to say this, but Lost is a freak show that will never be repeated. It's the Michael Jackson of television. No one should try to deconstruct the Lost phenomenon ever again. There is nothing to be gained from studying Lost's success. It's a Black Swan, or an Outlier, or one of many other books on my Kindle I'll never read now because, let's be honest, it's on my Kindle.
You can't construct a phenomenon from the outside-in. You can't will a show into the public's consciousness. Both of this year's breakout hits, Glee and Modern Family, had big buzz coming into the season. But that's because people who'd seen them knew they were good. They didn't just decide they needed them to be good and then set out to market them so, they actually KNEW they were. Both shows also have very strong creators who know television, know their own minds, and know what show they're making. These are not shows that could've been created by anybody--and that's not something you can say about most television. They are also decidedly NOT procedurals.
The stories I love often involve world-building. But most people working in the tv business are terrified of building worlds. They want shows that are relatable and recognizable. They want real worlds with real people that will under no condition make viewers uncomfortable or remind them of anything remotely strange and unknown. No Ordinary Family is a perfect example of this: the family is Absolutely Ordinary until they're NOT. And when they're NOT, they respond to that very NOT-ness just as any other Ordinary Family would.
But much of our most successful and daring television is, if looked at broadly, Fantastic with a capital F. Ryan Murphy is a world-builder, Matt Weiner is a world-builder, Vince Gilligan is an 800 lb world builder. Breaking Bad exists in a strange Albuquerque Dream State that is at once the most surreal and also the most achingly real drama I've ever watched. These are "genre" shows, maybe not exactly science fiction, but certainly not traditional "dramas", either. They are as weird and off-putting and daring and out there as any "space ship show" that the networks refuse to put on every year. And that was even before mother and daughter sang "Poker Face" to each other across a grand piano.
But I digress.
This is a story of a Procedural. Specifically, mine.
Last Sunday night the wife and I were sound asleep at 1145pm after a night of Entourage, True Blood and Schadenfreude. Because I have the iPhone4 and thus cannot use it as a phone, I had forwarded my cell phone to our home phone. At approximately 11:47:52, the phone rings and my wife answers it. Here is the call as has been best reconstructed:
WIFE: Hello...Who is this?
WOMAN: I need to speak to Josh.
WIFE: What? Why? Who is this?
WOMAN: Let me speak to Josh. He owes me money.
WIFE: Money? Call back in the morning.
WOMAN: I need to talk to him now. I'm in his office. He owes me money.
WIFE: (to me, handing over the phone) It's for you.
WOMAN: Josh? I need my money. I'm in your office.
ME: I don't know what the fuck you are talking about. What office?
WOMAN: Your office. In Larchmont. I'm there.
ME: You're in my office? At midnight. On Sunday? Describe my office.
At which point the woman gives me a very detailed description of my writing office--a second floor one room/one bathroom space that I rent because as much as I love my family...well, The Shining.
ME: Okay, fine, you're in my office. Why? And again, who are you?
WOMAN: You know why I'm in your office, Josh. You've been here with me for the last three or four hours.
ME: Lady, I don't know who you've been with in my office, but I haven't been there for two weeks. I mean that's a problem itself, my lack of motivation, but lets get back to what you're doing there?
WOMAN: Well...I met someone claiming to be you on the internet and he paid me to come to your office and have sex with him. Only he didn't pay me. He left. And now I've wasted my whole fucking night.
At which point I write the word "hooker" on the bottom of the envelope I'm using to take notes and hold it up for the wife. Now, it is perhaps a testimony or a condemnation to the way that I've lived my life that at no point during my conversation with this hooker calling me from my office and asking for payment does my wife for EVEN AN INSTANT think that perhaps, yes, she should be concerned that a hooker is calling her husband at home asking for payment.
Now I don't know about the rest of you, but this is a first for me, and my mind is racing. What to do? What information do I need? How do I go about getting it? I'm proud of myself for writing "hooker" on the envelope but I know I've got to do better than that. What pops into my head is: WHAT WOULD THE MENTALIST DO?
So I begin asking questions, trying to extract as much information from her as I can. Eventually I convince her that I am Not the John She is Looking For. At which point she says:
WOMAN: Well, now I'm feeling creeped out. Someone in here was pretending to be you. I think I'm gonna leave and go to my car.
ME: Great idea!
I ask her for the description of the guy:
WOMAN: Six two, white, clean cut, good haircut, nice jeans, cool Adidas sneakers, purple with green stripes, like the African soccer team. And by the way...can I say...I'm not proud of of what I do, but I'm not ashamed, either. I'm in school, single mom, two kids. I do what I've gotta do.
ME: I understand.
(Holy shit, really? Could she really have a heart of gold?)
ME: Could I have your full name and your phone number. In case the police need to talk to you?
At which point she gives me HER FULL NAME AND HER PHONE NUMBER. My God. The woman really does have a heart of gold. But I can imagine the network notes:
NETWORK NOTES: We don't find the prostitute character believable. She's so helpful and well-adjusted. I don't think any prostitutes act like that. And the kid thing is so cliche. Shouldn't our cop have to earn that phone number with a little more detective work?
ME: First of all, the guy's not a cop. He's a quirky amateur who's also the victim in this case.
NETWORK NOTES: Feels a little premise-y. I thought we weren't doing a premise pilot.
ME: Second, go fuck yourself.
Finally I hang up with the plucky hooker and call the LAPD, pumped up by my amateur detective skills and excited to HAND THEM A FULLY MADE CASE.
What follows is fifteen of the most Kafka-esque minutes I've ever spent on the phone:
ME: A hooker and a john pretending to be me had sex in my office tonight. I need a patrol car to go to my office.
COP: How do you know?
ME: The hooker called me and told me.
COP: How does she have your number?
ME: I don't know. She's spent four hours in my office with a guy pretending to be me.
COP: You need to go to your office and see if anything's been taken. See if a crime has been committed. Then call us and we'll come out there.
ME: People are fucking in my office. In the middle of the night. For money. Without my permission. Certainly there's a crime there. And it's a brand new Ikea leather couch. I would say the couch's innocence has been taken if nothing else.
COP: You need to go up there and see.
ME: I'm scared.
COP: It's Larchmont, sir. It's safe.
ME: I'm gonna beg to differ.
Eventually the officer and I come to an agreement: I will not go to my office by myself in the middle of the night and see if the mysterious woman on the phone was telling the truth about why she was in my office and he will absolutely not send a car over there to check it out.
NETWORK NOTES: We don't really like the cop here. He's not very sympathetic.
ME: Agreed. But that's the law. There's a shortage of cars and they can't be sending them all willy-nilly everywhere.
NETWORK NOTES: Well someone should say that somewhere. Have the cop say he would go but the regulations won't let him. It's the system.
ME: That's not what the story is about.
NETWORK NOTES: And, you come off as a real pussy.
ME: No argument there. I'll see what I can do.
The next morning in the warm light of day I decide to go to my office and investigate. It's 8:30 am, and I'm feeling much braver after a full night's sleep and a lumberjack's portion of Ativan. My office entrance is on the exterior of a two story building with an outside set of stairs, ostensibly the only way into my office, in case you wanted to break in and screw a hooker and then ditch her.
I turn the doorknob, it's open. I curse my favorite hooker for not locking up afterwards but I understand she was a little spooked when she left. As I step into the office, A MAN steps out of my bathroom.
This is the moment time freezes: he is across the room and I immediately do a tilt-pan from head to toe, like the third act of a thriller when the hero is confronting the murderer: Tall, white, good haircut, nice jeans...wait for it...purple and green Adidas sneakers!
He is certainly as unhappy about this encounter as I am, but as he's probably had more experience playing the bad guy then I have playing the quirky amateur detective, he speaks first:
MAN: Oh..hey..Sorry...my buddy said to wait for him in his office...Is this the wrong office...? Damn. Sorry...
Watching someone lie and hope to get away with it is a fascinating experience. You know the answers to the test that he's currently trying to bullshit his way through, but you want to give off the impression that maybe you're buying it so you don't let him know that the jig is completely up. Which, of course, it most certainly is.
But then he does something downright creepy: he edges his way to my desk, sits down at my computer, and begins clicking keys and closing windows.
ME: DUDE. Are you fucking kidding me? Get off my computer!
MAN: Sorry. I was just surfing while I was waiting for my friend--
ME: DUDE. Do you have ID on you? Name? Anything?
MAN: Yea, of course. Wallet...Hmmm...can't find it. Shit...
I know that at different times in this blog I've referred to myself as a fat, lazy fuck. But in truth...who am I kidding. That's exactly what I am. However, in the last year I've become a less fat, less lazy fuck. I've hired a trainer, mostly at the behest of my wife, who doesn't want me to die young and leave my child fatherless. My own motivation for working out is mostly to postpone my death at least until my wife is old enough that she can't remarry anyone that would sexually threaten me when I watch them fucking from Heaven.
For the last year I've only done one kind of exercise, three times a week: I'VE BOXED. And if my trainer is to be believed, and why wouldn't you believe a man who spent five years on British Gladiators and is nicknamed RHINO, I have a right hook like a SLEDGEHAMMER.
So as the tall man stands up from my computer, holding up his hands in a "no problem' kind of gesture, I'm thinking to myself: release the sledgehammer, Josh. Release the fucking sledgehammer. He doesn't know you're onto him, step in as if to shake his hand, pull him close and drop him like a rock...That's what any good hero of any decent show would do...release the fucking sledgehammer...
Here is also what is going on in my head: I'm gonna have to put my backpack down...but my iPad's in my backpack. What if he grabs that and swings it at me? What if he has a knife in those jeans of his, what if he guts me like a fish? For what? If I swing at him will my new iPhone fall out of my shorts pocket? It falls out all the time in the car, these shorts pockets are so shallow, I should've gotten the case for the phone, then it'd be less likely to fall out and break...if I had the case I probably would get better reception in my house and wouldn't have forwarded the call to the home phone...I never would've answered the phone last night...I wouldn't be here face to face with this guy...Bring the sledgehammer, Josh...
Here's what I said:
ME: Why don't we go outside and talk? I need to make a phone call.
At this point I notice he's got a skateboard leaning against the wall. He casually grabs it as we head outside, down the stairs and down the long driveway to the street. I'm hoping someone else will be out there so maybe I can grab him and a mob will form and help me hold him down, but no one's there...He keeps repeating one phrase over and over as he edges to the street:
MAN: I don't want any trouble, I don't want any trouble...
I finally snap, screaming: "IF YOU DON'T WANT ANY TROUBLE YOU SHOULD STOP FUCKING HOOKERS IN MY OFFICE AND NOT PAYING THEM!"
His eyes go wide and he stumbles onto his skateboard, paddling for the street. I half-heartedly jog after him, trying vainly to take a picture of him with my iphone4, yelling nonsensical things like: "Come back here and I will fuck you up!"
He does not come back.
NETWORK NOTES: We don't like the detective very much here. He doesn't stop the bad guy, has no plan, and at the end sort of just puffs after him yelling like an idiot.
ME: It's real. It's what really happens when people are confronted with these types of things. Especially quirky amateurs.
NETWORK NOTES: Again, seems like a pussy.
ME: I get that. Maybe he'll just seem flawed but in an endearing way.
NETWORK NOTES: We also don't understand why he says the part about not paying the hooker. Why does he consider that to be relevant to all this?
ME: He's got a good heart. The hooker seemed so nice and he feels for her.
NETWORK NOTES: He's not gonna do something stupid in the next episode is he? Like call the hooker and meet her at a coffee shop and pay her the money she's owed.
I return to my office and call the police. Two and a half hours later they arrive, turning my USA detective show into a hard-boiled network cop series. Two female uniforms, serious women, women who clearly do not want to be hearing from some jackass waving an envelope with the word HOOKER! written on the bottom.
I detail my story, knowing how impressed they're going to be by the number of clues I've already amassed...
COP: Sir. Before you continue...I want to say something to you.
ME: Of course, officer.
COP: I need you to understand that it is against the law to file a false police report sir. It is a crime.
ME: Are you kidding me?
COP: I am not.
ME: Are you suggesting I'm making this up? Why? To cover up for the fact that a hooker has called my home demanding money from me? Do you think I'm a whore-r? (sp?)
COP: It's a strange story, sir. Very strange. Doesn't add up. They seem to know a lot about you.
ME: They were in my office for four hours! I'm pretty sure they weren't having sex the whole time. God knows I couldn't.
NETWORK NOTES: We like this part. Conflict between our guy and the system. Of course they would suspect that. Maybe our guy did do it. Maybe it's all a scam. Like Usual Suspects. We love that movie. People wouldn't expect that.
ME: He didn't do it. There's security camera footage which shows the plucky hooker and the big tall John.
NETWORK NOTES: We need to see that. Security camera footage is always cool.
So there I was: scanning security camera footage with one cop while the other one took the phone number for the hooker and called her to confirm my story. There was definitely a moment of panic when I considered that the hooker was going to deny the whole thing and make me look foolish, but God bless her she SANG LIKE A CANARY!
I am not making that up. That is what the police officer said when she got off:
COP: My God. That woman SANG LIKE A CANARY."
(For those of you who've never hear that line in real life, trust me, it's even better than you imagine it would be.)
So between my new best hooker friend and the security tape footage, the police finally believe my story. (Another FYI: the security camera adds, like, fifteen pounds.)
So what do they do?
They do nothing. Wait. That's not true: they leave.
ME: But...I've got a glass here with his fingerprints on it! He left a shirt! It's wet! Full of DNA! There's a muddy footprint! Don't you want to take a cast?
COP: We're good, sir. Nothing's been taken. No property damage. We'll pass it along to the detectives but...I don't even know what we'd charge...
ME: Breaking and entering? Unlawful sex and non-remuneration of a prostitute?
ME: Well, are you going to send a forensic computer expert out to go through my computer? See what he was poking around in? See if he's stolen my identity for real?
COP: Nah. You can go on your computer. It's fine.
NETWORK NOTES: Well that just seems like lazy writing.
ME: But that's what happened.
NETWORK NOTES: It's not satisfying. The amateur sleuth's gotta go on the computer, use his own sleuthing skills, figure out the perp. You know. MacGyver it. We need more of that. More MacGyvering. Less being a pussy.
So that's what I did. For the rest of the day, another tv writer friend and I scoured the office and computer for clues, photographing footprints, analyzing the back window of the office for smudges...We discovered that the end of the paper towel roll I'd left over there had gotten caught in the window, obviously evidence that the window had been opened and shut (never by me). We found a print by the window, a smudge on the sill, we discerned the wet shirt was from the rain the Saturday before, also explaining the muddy footprint...We created a timeline of entry, cross-referencing with the time codes from the security footage...He'd come in off the adjacent roof, through the window...bringing the weather with him...
We went through my computer and discovered he'd gone through every one of my files only a half hour before I caught him in the office. This included deal memos, accounting emails, pictures of my family. You name it, he'd seen it. I canceled all of my credit cards, alerted the credit unions...
We went through my browser--he hadn't had time to erase his history--and found that he'd spent a good portion of the morning ordering ANOTHER HOOKER. We blew up stills of webpages, recovering a possible email account...I imagined how impressed the detectives would be with me when I provided them with all of these new leads...I was an amateur forensic genius profiling motherfucker...
We found out that my hooker with a heart of gold had spent some time the previous night doing what many of us do while waiting for a john to return from a smoke break: editing photos on facebook. A few clicks and we'd learned that everything she said was true: she was a single mother of two, attending college...Her photos were full of friends and family and happy memories, and I couldn't help but wonder about a world where this woman would do what she did and then retreat back into her world, if only through photos...
NETWORK NOTES: Too much. The whole photo thing while waiting for the john. Ick. Maudlin. It makes me feel sorry for her and now I'm getting a little creeped out by the detective. This is not blue sky. This is the opposite of blue sky.
ME: I was thinking of a Coldplay song over a montage.
NETWORK NOTES: Oh we love Coldplay. That'd be really powerful.
ME: So that's how it'll end: The amateur detective mooning over the hooker with the Coldplay song in the background, pushing his way forward all alone, the system ignoring him, looking for a break that may never come.
NETWORK NOTES: But not dark or serialized or anything like that, right?
ME: It'll be case of the week. Like The Mentalist.
NETWORK NOTES: We love Simon Baker.
ME: Who doesn't.
NETWORK NOTES: Does it have a title?
MY BIG FUCKING HIT TV SHOW.