Thursday, October 22, 2020

More lessons I learned as a showrunner of my college TV show

 Part 1

In Part 1, I alluded to scheduling issues. It's important to realize that Denison University was providing no support at all beyond letting us use the closed circuit channel. Cameras had to be borrowed from the Library Resource Center or - as became more common as the season went on - from the personal equipment of cast and crew. This also meant that everything we did for this was on our own time and we were asking our cast to participate on THEIR own time.

My fellow writer/producer/directors on the show were Adam Ziegler and Jeff Grieshober. We wrote episodes in a round robin rotation with a fourth writer. For season one, the gimmick was that it was an "exquisite corpse" method of writing. I wrote the first episode, established the characters and storylines, and made sure several of them ended on cliffhangers. I then passed it off to Jeff, whose responsibility it was to resolve those cliffhangers how ever he wanted, and then write Ziegler into a corner before passing the script on, and so on.

Ziegler and Jeff were directing their own episodes and briefly I left the responsibility for scheduling and shooting up to them. Very quickly, it became apparent that this wasn't the best way to go. Given the challenge of wrangling some actors for the same open windows in their schedule, we realized it made more sense to try to shoot scenes from two, even three episodes at once, if they were in the same location with the same characters. (We had a lot of scenes in dorm rooms, with consistent parings of characters.)

That meant I took it upon myself to schedule everything. My method became using different colored cards for each episode, and assigning each scene a card, listing the actors involved. Then I'd group all the cards by location and pin them to my bulletin board. Right away I had an immediate visual representation of which locations I'd need and for how long. Thus, if I had to schedule something in a friend's room that had been established as one of our character's dorms, and this spanned five scenes across two episodes, I'd probably aim for a weekend shoot, first clearing the location and then locking down the actors.

Visitors to my room would see this meticulously organized board of color coded cards and find themselves treated to my enthusiastic explanation of how this made production possible. Shockingly, none of them were as impressed as I was.

Nearly 15 years later, when I was working on NCIS: NEW ORLEANS, I walked in on our showrunner Jeff Lieber using one of our large white boards as he laid out the schedule for the next several episodes breaks, scripts, and production. Quite proudly, he showed me how each episode had a color and how he had staggered each stage and lined them up so that at a glance we could know EXACTLY what the room and the staff should be concerned with on a particular day. I started laughing and said that some people who worked on my college show would be very amused to see me on the receiving end of someone's ecstatic worship of their board.

You can have a laugh about this, but the truth is that this taught me an incredibly valuable skill - organization. Once we established this method, that show ran like a Swiss watch, particular when in our second round of scripts, we started writing to the things we knew were issues. Scenes with five characters became less frequent, as we focused on pairings of characters. Shorter scenes let us shoot things in oners, making post-production easier on us too. And as for the actors who were pains in our asses? We killed or sidelined them - at least until another writer would resurrect them as a twin for spite.

During season 1 of the show, I had a great idea when my second episode came around in rotation. The character we'd created to be the boyfriend of our female lead just wasn't working out. He was coming off as an asshole and it was starting to make her look bad for being with him - so I killed him off. And as that idea came to me, I had a vision for what I'd do if there was a second season of the show, one where I abandoned the round robin approach and tried being a showrunner for real.

I should explain I was writing this episode in January 2001. At that point, one of my favorite episodes of television was an episode of THE WONDER YEARS called "The Accident." It's about Kevin seeing Winnie fall in with a new group of friends and how it changes her. They're older, and it's hinted they're into drugs. There's a lot between the lines here, but there's the implication that even years later, she's not dealing well with the death of her brother and late in the episode, she's injured in a car crash. Kevin immediately rushes to her house and waits into the night for her to come home, only to be told Winnie doesn't want to see him. Later, he goes to her window and tells her he loves her, a sentiment she returns.

I'm not doing it justice, but it's a powerful, emotional episode.

Another emotionally intense episode I admired was an episode entitled "Crosetti." In it, the body of Steve Crosetti, one of the detectives, is found in the water. The immediate assumption is suicide, but Bolander is assigned to investigate, even as Crosetti's partner Lewis remains convinced that the man he worked with every day would never have killed himself. He even goes so far as to mess with Bolander's investigation, earning him an aggressive rebuke from the elder detective. But in the end, the autopsy tells the sad tale - Crosetti had taken so many pills before going into the water that he was "a walking drug store." Lewis tries to cling to denial for a moment, and then completely breaks down in tears. The first one to pull him into a bear hug... is Bolander. It's a powerful moment, and one I wish was on YouTube.

Anyway, my thoughts of a season two all led to this idea: "I get to write my 'Crosetti' or my 'Accident!'" I envisioned a storyline where Katherine, our female lead, deals badly with the murder of her boyfriend and slips into depression over the first half of the season, culminating with her friends having to come together to stage an intervention that goes badly and almost provokes a suicide attempt. I wanted to show I could write and direct something big, dramatic and emotional. I was also certain our actress was up to the challenge. So right there, that became my secret agenda for Season two.

I mentioned that this struck me in January 2001. Well, guess what hit the airwaves the very next month? An episode of Buffy The Vampire Slayer called "The Body," which deals with Buffy coming home to find her mother dead of non-supernatural causes. It's a grounded, emotional tear-jerker of an episode. I was a known acolyte of Buffy's creator, Joss Whedon, and so since it wasn't until May that I started sharing my season two plans with my team, IMMEDIATELY their reaction was, "Adam wants to do 'The Body.'"

Anyway, that led me to lay out a more concrete plan for Season Two. Since season 1 had proven we could do essentially 10 half-hour episodes in a semester. I decided that we'd take our time in Season Two and produce 15 episodes across two semesters, intending eight each semester. I staked out episode 5 as the intervention episode and told the other writers that they could pitch anything they wanted, but it had to fit into that plan. Since I was getting my indulgence, I was determined to let the others indulge themselves too - mostly because I was afraid they'd quit if I didn't.

To make a long story less long, I didn't realize just how much my artistic ego was going to cost. Five straight episodes of someone falling further and further into depression makes for bleak viewing, especially when it culminates in an episode so heavy that the darker tone ripples through other episodes around it. I went too far - people enjoyed the first season of the show because it was fun and here I was giving them something heavy and depressing. It was apparent once I saw the results, but I was blind to this as I was creating it.

And do you want to know what was really funny? About a month after we started shooting, the sixth season of Buffy debuted. The storyline for that season dealt with Buffy being resurrected and dealing with depression and PTSD because her friends pulled her out of Heaven, where she was at peace. She spends essentially the whole season in varying states of depression until she claws out of it. With apologies to any writers who worked on that season, it was a very bleak and occasionally unenjoyable season to endure, particularly in the middle third.

So I'm watching one of my favorite shows, shouting at them that "How could you go so bleak? This isn't what any of us watch the show for! We don't enjoy seeing Buffy like this!" while realizing that the thing I'm screaming at them for doing is the EXACT SAME mistake I made when my artistic pretensions got away from me. I was watching my idols commit the exact same missteps I was learning from in real time. It was a weird bit of synchronicity.

This also probably explains why I so connected with the first season of 13 Reasons Why. As I watched it, I realized what they achieved there was in many ways what I was striving for during that season of my TV show. (Though obviously, I was nowhere near a good enough writer to achieve what they did.)

I wish I had a really good ending for this story, but here's the truth: while we wrote all 13 episodes of season two (two episodes of the grand plan ended up being eliminated along the way), we only ended up completing eight of them. Commitments and other projects started taking everyone's attention during our senior year and ultimately, we pulled the plug. It killed me to not finish what we started, but as I look back, the experience of making the show was its own reward far more than the completed episodes ended up being.

And I'm not exaggerating when I say that I spent more time working on the show than I did on all of my other classes, probably combined. It galvanized for me that working in TV was something I wanted to do and in a weird way, proved to me that I had kind of the head for it.

Would I have stayed in the game so long if someone told me then that 20 years down the line I'd still be trying to "make it?" I don't know, but looking back, I'm glad I didn't give up.

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