Here’s an excerpt from “About Face,” the worst script that William Rabkin and I ever wrote…but before I share it with you, here’s the story behind it (which I originally shared on this blog back in July 2006)
We were working as supervising producers on the third season of SeaQuest, a scifi show about a phallic submarine exploring our oceans in the year 2032. We were a day into writing episode 14 when the series got cancelled. But studio and the network were still obligated to pay us for the script — the catch was that we actually had to write it if we wanted our money.
In other words, we had to write a script we knew would never be shot and that we were pretty certain nobody would ever read. But we weren’t about to walk away from $25,000.
So we wrote it in one day…while we were packing up our office. We amused ourselves by writing the worst scenes that we possibly could, reading them out loud to each other as we wrote. We turned in the script as we walked out the door and we assumed it would never be read.
To our horror, we were wrong.
We discovered years later that bootleg copies of this atrocity were showing up at science fiction conventions as one of the “lost episodes” of the final season. Some have even shown up on the Internet. It even became the basis for a fanfic story.
Okay, now here’s the excerpt. All you need to know to follow along is that Piccolo is a man with gills and Darwin is a talking dolphin (I’m not kidding).
EXT. SEAQUEST – CGI/STOCK
as it cruises through the sea.
INT. SEAQUEST – CAFETERIA
Lucas is at a table eating as Piccolo comes in.
Hey, Lucas, what’s the blue plate special today? I’m starving.
Wait – I thought you were starving.
I just lost my appetite.
(re: Lucas’ plate:)
You’d think the Chef could be a bit more sensitive.
The presentation may not be great, but it tastes pretty good.
He holds out a fork of trout.
Here, have a bite.
Piccolo turns away, disgusted.
Are you nuts? Why don’t you go offer Darwin some dolphin pate.
Suddenly Lucas understands.
Tony, you aren’t a fish.
I have gills, Lucas. I may not be a fish, but it still feels like
cannibalism to me.
You’re a human being who happens to have gills, that’s different.
If you could fly, believe me, chicken wouldn’t look very
Chickens don’t fly.
Piccolo glares at Lucas and walks out. Lucas smiles to himself.
I am truly, deeply heartbroken to learn that Michael Gleason, co-creator of REMINGTON STEELE, passed away tonight. I can’t really collect my thoughts right now to express how much he meant to me…it’s not easy to type with tears in my eyes. He and Ernie Wallengren, who died way too young, were my mentors in the television business…and in so many other ways. I am the writer I am today largely because of Michael. And in some ways I am the man I am today because of him. He taught me about the business and, perhaps more importantly how to survive in it. He gave me my first staff writing job on a TV series. He brought me into the editing room and taught me how to cut a show, letting me look over his shoulder for hours, days, weeks. Not because he had to,, but because he was a natural teacher, a professor of television. Michael wasn’t a perfect person, he had his demons, and he knew that — and he often used his own mistakes, personal and professional, as hard life lessons for me. He was full of love and enthusiasm and boundless energy. Nobody. NOBODY, told a story like Michael Gleason. The stories were wonderful, but the real pleasure for me was the obvious joy he took in the telling them. He taught me so much, not just about writing and storytelling…but also how to *be* a writer, how to *be* a producer, and how to treat the people I worked with. I’ve tried to pay it forward, to follow his example, with the “new writers” I’ve worked with, to do for them what he did for me. Every time I pitch a story… hell, every time I *tell* a story, I hear Michael in my ear. I know that I always will.
While my wife is away, I’ve been binging on THE AMERICANS because so many people have told me it’s a great show. I am now at the end of season 3. There are things I like about the series, but I think it has a fatal flaw. The producers are asking the viewers to sympathize with, and root for, a married couple of Russian spies who routinely kill innocent American civilians. I find myself actually rooting for the couple to get caught. One particular storyline in season two had them pursued by a “killer” in the U.S. military … a gay officer blackmailed into betraying his country. He kills a Russian spy who tries to kill him…and, when several innocent Americans are killed as a result of intelligence he provided, he starts murdering Russian spies. As much as the producers tried to portray him as a bad guy who was putting our “heroes” in jeopardy, I actually saw him as the hero…a man who realizes he has made a terrible mistake and seeks justifiable vengeance. I just saw a season 3 episode where the heroine forces a sweet, innocent old lady to kill herself. The heroine sheds a tear over it, but that hardly redeems her character, who has killed so many innocent people that I’ve lost count. What keeps me watching are the storylines involving a decent but tormented FBI agent, but it’s hard to watch a series when you loath the central characters. I’ll finish Season 3 but I’m not sure I will stick around for season 4, which is waiting on my Tivo.
I’m very sad to learn about the death of my friend Ed Gorman, who had been battling cancer for several years. We only met in person once… but we corresponded frequently over the years and spoke on the phone several times. He was a remarkably versatile writer, slipping easily between westerns, crime novels, horror and even political satire. But on top of that, he was a great friend to writers through his popular blog, his magazine (he founded Mystery Scene), and as editor at large for Five Star Mysteries and Five Star Westerns (published through Thomson/Gale). It is thanks to him, and his enthusiastic support, that my novels THE WALK and WATCH ME DIE (aka THE MAN WITH THE IRON ON BADGE) were published. I tried for many years to get film versions of his novels WOLF MOON and TROUBLE MAN off the ground but wasn’t able to make it happen. The best way to remember and honor Ed is to read one of his great books — and then spread the word about them to others so they can discover his talent.
I recently read the stories of two TV celebrities.. one a star in front of the camera (Jan-Michael Vincent), one a star behind it (Steven Bochco). One is a biography, the other a memoir…and both were fascinating.
Grove missed his calling. He should have been a novelist. Thanks to Grove’s vivid prose and keen eye for emotional detail, Edge of Greatness reads much more like a tragic novel than the standard biography of a mildly talented actor’s rapid rise and horrific downfall. This is the all-too-familiar story of a self-destructive actor undone by all the temptations of Hollywood — sex, drugs, alcohol — and his own hubris.
The book tracks Vincent from his humble beginnings in the central California farming community of Hanford, through his years of stardom, and up to his current squalor, which is physical, mental and financial. As Grove puts it:
“A black Mustang convertible and a patch of roses out front offer the only clues to his past life, when his aquamarine eyes, chiseled features, and sun-streaked hair sang of creamy sand and sweet sex. He has long ceased being beautiful or strong.”
Vincent today is confined to a wheelchair. He has lost a leg, the result of peripheral artery disease, and he struggles with diabetes, epilepsy, and the ravages of “countless episodes of alcoholic poisoning and toxic shock.” Grove goes on to say that Vincent “barely weights 100 pounds, his teeth dangle in his jaw, brittle and emaciated” and that the condition of his liver “has moved far beyond the simple characterization of cirrhosis. It’s a celebration of rot.”
And all of those quotes are just from page one, effectively setting the stage for the tragic story to come. Sure, he gives away the ending, but it puts the actor’s entire rise and fall into horrific perspective that haunts the book. What makes this tragedy compelling reading, as opposed to the literary equivalent of watching a train wreck, is Grove’s writing and reporting skills. Perhaps that’s due to this startling admission from the author, at the very end of the book, when he asks himself if he likes Vincent:
I don’t like myself, which is what we have in common and why I was drawn to him.
And he goes on to conclude:
It’s obvious now that he was not born; he was invented. I thought there would be more, but this is it. He got what he deserved.
Bochco is one of the most talented, influential, and deservedly celebrated writer-producers in the history of television. It’s not hyperbole to say he has reshaped the medium, not just through the ground-breaking dramas that he wrote and co-created (Hill Street Blues, L.A. Law, NYPD Blue), but also by virtue of the many amazing writers that he discovered and nurtured (like David E. Kelley and David Milch). I’m among his biggest fans, speaking both as an appreciative viewer and a TV writer/producer who was inspired by him (and yet never rose to anywhere near his level of success, creatively or otherwise). That said, while there is much to learn from his revealing memoir, this self-published book is difficult to read, not because of the subject matter, but because of crippling editorial issues.
But let’s talk about the pluses first. The memoir works not just as the story of one writer’s rise through the television industry — from Universal Television staff writer to a celebrity show runner — but also as insider’s look at the massive changes that have happened in the industry and how it has affected programing. It’s also an in depth, inside look at how television shows are conceived, developed, written, and produced from the creative, business and political sides. Bochco not only examines how his shows succeeded… but also how and why they failed. And he can be brutally honest about it.
He goes into detail about his working and personal relationships with actors, directors, network and studio executives…and doesn’t always come out looking very good himself (more about that later). There are many memorable stories in the book — one of my favorites is the one about why he fired actor Daniel Benzali from Murder One. All I’ll say is that it comes down to when and where Benzali wanted to take a crap. Another favorite is the story of his encounter with William Paley, who ran CBS. Those are just a few of the great anecdotes in book that, as far as I know, haven’t been shared before. But Bochco also goes into more well-known controversies, like replacing David Caruso on NYPD Blue, and talks candidly about his intimate working and personal relationship with writer David Milch, who he discovered on Hill Street Blues and who battled with many demons, including a gambling addiction.
Now let’s go into the negatives, which are substantial and detract from what otherwise could have been a great book, perhaps one of the best ever written about the TV business.
The book is amateurishly produced on every level. The title of the book, at least on the cover and on the spine, is Truth Is a Total Defense. The title of the book on the two title pages, however, is Truth is a Total Defense: My Fifty Years in Television. That’s a minor quibble, but it’s your first clue that this is not a professionally published book (it’s also missing a copyright page, which is pretty astonishing in itself).
Bochco is a very wealthy man, as he often mentions in the book. So I don’t understand why didn’t spend the money to have the book professionally edited. For a guy who prides himself on his attention to detail in his shows, he doesn’t exhibit the same care when it comes to his book. He appears to have done little or no copyediting. For example, titles of shows are not italicized or in quotation marks… though sometimes, for no reason at all, they are in all-caps. It’s a very strange choice and makes it difficult to read the book.
Typos and other errors abound. He refers to John Wells, executive producer of ER as “John Welles.” He even misspells the names of characters he created, alternating between “Goldblume” and “Goldbloom” when talking about the character from Hill Street Blues.
There are also a lot of factual mistakes. For instance, Bochco was a story editor on McMillan and Wife, which he describes as Rock Hudson playing “the D.A. of San Francisco” when, in fact, he played the Chief of Police. He mentions releasing David Caruso from a clause in his post-NYPD Blue agreement, one that prevented him from doing another series for five years, to let him do a CBS pilot. He says the CBS pilot didn’t sell, but that the next show Caruso did was CSI Miami, and it was a big success. Actually, the CBS pilot did sell. It was called Michael Hayes, and the series ran for 21 episodes before being cancelled. There are errors like this throughout the book that could have been easily avoided if he’d hired a professional copy editor.
There’s also an interesting omission. He talks about nearly every show he worked on at Universal Television… and says the first show he ever created was Griff in 1973. And yet he never mentions that in 1969 he co-created The New Doctors segment of The Bold Ones, the most successful series spoke in that drama wheel. I wonder why he completely skipped over that.
He does something in the book he would never do on his TV shows — he uses lots of cliches, like “moved so fast our heads were spinning,” “it was no day at the beach,” “I didn’t want to rock the boat,” “necessity is the mother of invention,” etc. It’s laziness he would never tolerate in a script but lets slide in the book. I mention it not to be petty, but because its a sharp contrast to what he says throughout the book about his standards of good writing.
Structurally, the book is mess. He starts with the moment, a few years ago, that he learned that he had leukemia, and then goes into his disappoint and anger that his sister wouldn’t donate bone marrow. From there, he shifts into the story of his TV career, jumping forward, backwards, and sideways so it’s often hard to keep track of where you are in his career and personal timeline. And then he returns to his leukemia, and his difficult battle over the disease. As part of that story, he shared the emails he wrote to his family and friends while he was being treated…some of them cringe-inducing, particularly those where he rips his sister yet again for not giving her bone marrow to him. Is this his autobiography? A book about his career in television? Or a book about his battle with leukemia? He can’t seem to decide. This is where a strong editor would have really helped the book.
He likes to depict himself as a nice guy, someone who is supportive of other writers and who strives to bring out the best in everyone around him. Often, he probably is the person he describes…and there are plenty of examples of that kindness and supportiveness in the book. But he also clearly delights in trashing people, particularly network and studio executives, some of them by name, who had the temerity to disagree with him or pass along notes from their bosses. Many of the people he trashes are small fish, individuals far less powerful and wealthy than he is….and, as a result, he comes across as a bully taking advantage of his stature to beat on those who aren’t able to defend themselves.
He repeatedly claims he doesn’t carry a grudges, but he clearly does. He rips into his first wife’s boyfriend, actors Kiel Martin, Daniel J. Travanti, and Daniel Benzali, writers Mike Kozoll (co-creator of Hill Street Blues), Terry Louise Fisher (co-creator of L.A. Law), Eric Lodel (co-creator of Murder in the First) and David Milch (co-creator of NYPD Blue) to name just a few of the people who get singled out for his righteous and often brutal wrath. Some of them undoubtedly deserve his harsh words, and this is his memoir after all, but he doesn’t come out looking particularly good himself in many of these stories. He also repeatedly savages, perhaps rightfully so, his sister for not donating bone marrow to him when he needed it (also trashing her husband, actor Alan Rachins, in what can best be described as collateral damage).
So when all is said and done, yes, Truth is a Total Defense, is a fascinating book for anyone interested in Steven Bochco and the business of television. There’s is much to learn from the book about writing, show running, and the television business. But it’s also a deeply flawed work that’s in desperate need of professional editing.
I missed the pilot of NOTORIOUS but I watched episode two… or I should say, I endured 3/4s of the episode before I decided to stop torturing myself. It’s a show about a TV news show producer (Piper Perabo) and a celebrity lawyer (Daniel Sunjata), and how their two worlds, media and the law, are entwined. The series wants so desperately to be shocking, racy and daring… but it feels like a rehash of the worst elements of SCANDAL, DYNASTY and LA LAW all mixed together in a blender with a book of cliches. It’s all beautiful, cardboard characters in gorgeous clothes in brightly-lit sets being oh-so-naughty…and yet it feels so tame, so forced, so fake. A behind-the-scenes moment with the female newscaster, playing strip poker with a camera man, is just one of the cringe-inducingly-fake situations that make this show so painful in its attempts to be scandalous. NOTORIOUS is the television equivalent of the fake wood trim that’s supposed to make the interior of a Chevy Impala feel luxurious. The only thing notorious and NOTORIOUS is that it got on the air at all.
After a week or so of slogging through dreck, I have finally seen one new fall show that’s worth watching. Not surprisingly, it’s on HBO and not one of the broadcast networks. WESTWORLD takes a familiar premise — an amusement park full of robots where nothing can go wrong — and gives it a twist. In this telling, it’s the robots who are the heroes… and the guests who are the bad guys. Imagine a version of JURASSIC PARK where everybody is rooting for the dinosaurs and that’s the conceit of WESTWORLD (both WESTWORLD and JURASSIC PARK were creations of Michael Crichton). But it’s clear the writers are going for something deeper and richer than simply shifting your rooting interest…and I’m eager to discover what it is. And that they are doing it with WESTWORLD, the 1970s movies that essentially started the “robot amusement park goes wrong” genre, makes it even more subversive.
My only problem with the show is that, at least in the pilot, they’ve tipped those scales too far the other way. All the human characters are unlikeable. They aren’t nuanced at all. The humans are bad, bad, bad…while the robots are tragic, imprisoned figures being horribly, and repeatedly abused in just about every way.
The production values, starting with the stunning main title sequence, are top-notch, so much so that you can almost forget, but not quite, that you’re seeing the same western sets that have been used in dozens of other TV shows and movies.
The cast is exceptional, too, though it’s a shame to see Sidse Babett Knudsen, the wonderful star of BORGEN (one of my favorite series) playing such a one-dimensional baddie. It’s a waste of her considerable talent but a joy to see her again nonetheless. I hope we’ll see her “human” character become less robotic…as the “robots” become more human.
CBS has been riding high on crime procedurals now for several decades and its getting harder and harder for them to find fresh franchises that aren’t just new editions of CSI, NCIS or CRIMINAL MINDS in different cities…or reboots of old procedurals. BULL isn’t it. The series, based loosely on the life of Dr. Phil, is about a shrink (Michael Weatherly) who uses psychology, surveillance, investigation, computer hacking, and manipulation to select and influence juries. The problem, at least in the slickly-produced pilot, is that there’s nobody to root for. It’s a show about how obscenely rich people can manipulate/game the justice system to get the result they want. And, in the pilot, it’s all about a smug, obnoxious, rich kid accused of killing a teenage Asian girl, herself a drug dealer, that he had sex with at a party (he hog tied another naked girl in an S&M pose, and posted pictures of her on social media, but didn’t sleep with her). Bull doesn’t know if the kid is innocent or not — his job is just to get the kid off. Everybody involved on the story, including Bull and his TV-perfect team, is either unsympathetic or repugnant…nobody is the least bit likeable. So who are you supposed to root for? Of course Bull discovers late in the game that the kid is just horribly misunderstood, unloved, sexually conflicted and innocent of murder…but that doesn’t change the fact that there’s nobody in the story for the viewer to give a damn about. So what’s the franchise? I assume that each week Bull is hired by someone very rich to influence and manipulate the jury in the criminal trial of someone who may or may not be innocent (but who, of course, will always turn out to be innocent, because our hero can’t be seen using his superpowers to get a bad guy off). Is that a series? Maybe it is. But not one I’m interested in seeing.