Lazy Days and Beloved Characters

I finished writing my latest MONK novel the other day and I felt like lazing around. I’ve had a lot on my mind lately and after writing a book I didn’t feel much like reading one. So I vegged out on television…some new, some old.

The BATTLESTAR episode was, astonishingly, one hour of pure exposition…mightily well-written, grandiose and flowery exposition, but exposition all the same….the dreaded “Irving the Explainer” taken to new, galactic heights by three Cylon-the-Explainers. Only a serialized series on it’s last episode or two that doesn’t give a damn anymore about drawing new viewers would dare film an episode like that and call it entertainment (though Marc Bernardin at Entertainment Weekly thought it was so “revelatory” that it “melted my Goddamn face off.”)
The TERMINATOR episode was merely dull and totally uninvolving, relying heavily on the over-used trick of having the hero (or in this case, heroine) talk to an imaginary character. Alan Ball should be shot for doing it so effectively on SIX FEET UNDER because now every TV series has to do it. Nobody seems to have noticed that it became a cliche three years ago and is now slipping into unintentional parody. At least the folks on GREY’S ANATOMY have raised the stakes by having the heroine fuck the character who isn’t there…oh, wait, I take it back, GALACTICA did that two seasons ago when it still had a sense of humor to go along with all of its dread and misery. The folks at TERMINATOR have forgotten what made the TERMINATOR movies so much fun…and have gotten mired in dreary angst…probably because angst is cheaper to shoot than Terminators destroying things. The John Connor character has become a morose, whiny, Excedrin headache come-to-life…but the two lady Terminators? They’re great.
The “old”  TV that I watched was a private eye marathon that I staged for myself with episodes of HARRY O starring David Janssen, THE OUTSIDER starring Darren McGavin and THE ROCKFORD FILES starring James Garner.HarryO
THE OUTSIDER and ROCKFORD were, essentially, the same show, about a down-and-out ex-con turned private eye in L.A. Roy Huggins created THE OUTSIDER and co-created ROCKFORD with Steve Cannell, who brought more humor to the concept.  I liked all three of them very much ..not so much for the plotting, which was often weak and predictable, but for the mood and the terrific anti-private eyes at the heart of those series (and the brilliant lead actors who played them). Nobody did world-weary heroes and lovable losers like McGavin, Janssen and Garner.  It’s hard to pick a favorite among these three great series, but if I had to, I guess it would be HARRY O.
Janssen is a pleasure to watch as beach-bum Harry Orwell, riding around San Diego on the bus, tie loose around his collar, a permanently pained expression on his tan, lined face. What a terrific character. Both Rockford and Ross were tougher than they looked, but not Harry. He wasn’t tough at all. Just bone-tired and lonely…and too caring for his own good. He couldn’t even run after a bad guy or a damsel in distress, not with that damn bullet permanently stuck in his aching back. What other private eye but Harry would turn down a willing Linda Evans by saying “I can’t make love unless I’m in love…just a little.” Ross and Rockford would have bedded her in a second…out of desperation and opportunity if nothing else. Not Harry.
Sure, the plotting in HARRY O was often lousy, but the show captured, better than any other before or since, the pure pleasure of reading a great PI novel. The show wasn’t as complex as a Ross MacDonald or even John D. MacDonald novel, but it aimed for that kind of emotional and psychological complexity…even when it pandered with a drooling psychokiller plot (starting with it’s pilot, “Smile Jenny, You’re Dead”).
Watching HARRY O, ROCKFORD and THE OUTSIDER, I realized what those old shows had over those two, recent episodes of GALACTICA and TERMINATOR. Character. Keep in mind, GALACTICA and TERMINATOR are two of my favorite shows (well, they were). But, at the risk of sounding like an old coot blogging from his bungalow at the Motion Picture Home, I think that too often shows today confuse angst with character, dread with depth, misery with complexity. A character doesn’t have to be in endless spasms of self-loathing, denial, heart-break and agony to be someone worth watching or caring about. That’s cheap and easy “complexity” for a writer, it’s writing a character rather than creating one…and it’s a beating for the audience. Characters are more than the sum of their pain, anguish and loss…and their capacity for cruelty to themselves and others.  It’s not superficial or weak writing to explore more subtle conflicts…and to season them with humor, compassion, vulnerability, and some joy. There are people I love very much who are going through very hard times…and yet they haven’t lost their sense of humor or their ability to find joy in their lives, even in their darkest moments. If anything, it’s that capacity for humor and joy that is seeing them through it.
I love (or, I should say, loved) GALACTICA and TERMINATOR…but Captain Adama and Starbuck, Sarah Connor and John Connor….in the end, they aren’t memorable characters. They feel like writerly constructs. Pain masquerading as character. They don’t live and breath the way Lt. Columbo, Tony Soprano, Archie Bunker, Adrian Monk, Al Swearingen, Mr. Spock, Mary Richards, Matt Dillon, George Costanza, or even Dexter Morgan do, to name a few. Because despite all of the dark, angst-ridden conflicts that the writers have created for them, the characters on GALACTICA and TERMINATOR are incessantly one-note: Miserable. And too often than not, they leave the viewer feeling the same way.

Missouri Breaks

The 94th Annual Missouri Writer's Guild Conference April 3-5 in Cape Girardeau is shaping up to be a terrific weekend…and I'm not just saying that because I'm one of the lecturers. Speakers are still being added, but folks on tap include Simon & Schuster editor Kate Angelella and writer Harvey Stanbrough, who has been nominated for the National Book Award, the Pulitzer Prize, the Pushcart Prize, and just about everything else except the Booker, the Nobel, and The Oscar (but I'm sure they'll be calling him any minute now). Here's some more info from the conference organizers on the Sunday "Master Classes."

Spend the night at Drury Lodge for $85 and attend a Sunday Masters Class for $65
from 9 to noon! If you have a busy weekend, you can just come to Cape for Sunday morning and attend a master's class. These are smaller sized classes where you have intense
instruction from a writing professional. Many of these are taught in workshop
format where you will be doing some writing and learning both!
Here's the four fantastic classes we are offering:

Class Number One: Lee Goldberg's "Breaking Into TV Writing — The Crash Course."

TV writer/producer Lee Goldberg ("SeaQuest," "Monk," "Diagnosis Murder," ) will
teach you how to watch TV the way professional television writers do — how to
recognize the "franchise" of a show, the four-act structure, and the unique
conflicts that drive the weekly storytelling. These are essential skills that
are not only important in understanding TV, but also in writing the all
important spec script that will be your calling card (but many of the lessons he
teaches can also be applied to novel-writing). This three-hour seminar combines
a free-wheeling lecture and discussion with clips from television shows that
highlight the key points. You'll never watch TV the same way again after this

Class Number Two: Harvey Stanbrough's "Writing Realistic Dialogue Workshop" 

Harvey's classes are often STANDING ROOM ONLY. He's that good! This is a
discussion of the necessity and excessive use of tag lines and brief descriptive
narrative passages; the physical and abstract nuances of Implication; the use of
sentences vs. sentence fragments; the use of dialect, including truncated and/or
phonetic spellings; mechanics; and conveying emotion through dialogue.

Class Number Three: Barri Bumgarner's "Let's Write! Workshop"

Barri Bumgarner is a teacher like no other. She is enthusiastic, fun, and
encouraging. Anytime you have a chance to take a class with Barri–seize the
opportunity. This class is a session designed to inspire and get ideas
formulated, design characters, plots, and even do a bit of writing!

Class Number Four: Annette Fix's "Memoir Workshop"

Annette Fix has written a fantastic memoir, The Break-Up Diet, and this is not
easy to do. She brings her story to life through humor and also includes
universal themes. If you are writing a memoir or ever thought about writing one,
you don't want to miss this workshop.
Don't delay! Sign up today! (We've heard rumors there's a
storytelling festival in Cape that weekend, too. So there's lots of things to

Remakes A-Go-Go and Not-A-Go

Variety reports that Fox has cast Kathryn Hahn as Edie (played by Jennifer Saunders in the original) and Kristen Johnston as Patsy (originally played by Joanna Lumley) in their latest attempt to remake  the hit UK sitcom ABSOLUTELY FABULOUS. Hahn was the neighbor in REVOLUTIONARY ROAD and Johnston is best known for her work on 3rd ROCK FROM THE SUN.

Meanwhile, director king David Nutter, who has a perfect record of getting his pilots picked up to series, has agreed to helm the third try at a WITCHES OF EASTWICK series. 

CBS greenlit a slew of pilots this week…but so far they haven't ordered the buzzed-about remakes of STREETS OF SAN FRANCISCO or HAWAII FIVE-O

Mr. Monk and the Mug Shot

Gary Mugford gave MR. MONK AND THE TWO ASSISTANTS a great review on his blog Mugshots. He says, in part:

Goldberg takes advantage of being a novelist to bring back Sharona in Mr. Monk and the Two Assistants. And that sets up a battle between assistant Past and assistant Present to see who will be assistant Future. In doing so, he captures Natalie’s insecurities perfectly. Afterall, he’s been inside her head for quite a while now. He also recaps most of those earlier book adventures in some small detail during this book, making it a good jumping on point for the series. Not suprisingly, this is apparently the best-selling of the series of novels to date.

It looks like the book is about to be eclipsed in sales by MR. MONK IS MISERABLE, but TWO ASSISTANTS is definitely a big favorite among the fans.  I’m toying with a notion for bringing Sharona back, perhaps in book #11. But we’ll see….

Thanks for the review, Gary!

On the Red Carpet

Jerrilyn_lee_pam_2009_72dpiI am heading off pretty soon to the launch party at the Mystery Bookstore for my friend Jerrilyn Farmer's MURDER AT THE ACADEMY AWARDS, which she wrote with Joan Rivers.  Publisher's Weekly gave it a starred review which said, in part:

This smooth blend of Rivers's trademark bitchy humor and Farmer's deft plotting also offers a poignant reminder about the cost of fame for too many young Hollywood celebs.

UPDATE – The launch party drew a huge crowd. Jerrilyn regaled everyone with hilarious stories of working with Joan Rivers. Judging by the affectionate stories Jerrilyn told, it's a perfect and fun-filled collaboration. I'm sure that fun comes across on the page, too. (Pictured: yours truly, Mystery Bookstore owner Pam Woods, and Jerrilyn Farmer, photo courtesy of Linda Brown)

I Spy a Great Book

Open Channel D! Wesley Britton has accomplished a mission impossible — he's written the ultimate reference work on TV Spies on-the-air, in print, and even in music. Get Smart — the ENCYCLOPEDIA OF TV SPIES is now available for pre-order from the publisher and you should grab it. 

Britton’s book is a long overdue and desperately needed reference work is not only a detailed and complete listing of every spy show on TV, it also includes appendices on TV spy soundtracks and novelizations that, on their own, are well worth the purchase price.  This richly detailed encyclopedia will satisfy both the curiosity of fans and the scholarly needs of researchers. But it's not fanboy drool nor is it dry and academic. Britton clearly loves his subject and approaches it with enthusiasm that comes through on every page. I strongly recommend it!