TV Book Reviews: SINGLE SEASON SITCOMS and TELEVISION FINALES

Two recent TV references books are worth your consideration this holiday season.
 
SINGLE SEASON SITCOMS OF THE 1990s: A Complete Guide by Bob Leszczak   This is a great book — and more than another “just the facts ma’am” reference book — — but the title isn’t entirely accurate. The author takes an extremely broad view of what consitutes a sitcom. He includes some single-season, hour long shows like AGAINST THE LAW, ADVENTURES OF BRISCO COUNTY, CUPID, FREAKS AND GEEKS, GOING TO EXTREMES, HARTS OF THE WEST, SPY GAME and TEQUILA AND BONETTI that most people would never consider situation comedies. And, in a book on Single Season sitcoms, he has a large section on shows that came back for an abbreviated, and/or very different second season like ALMOST PERFECT, BOB, and THE JEFF FOXWORTHY SHOW (this section is fascinating, because he explores the reasoning behind the often radical format changes that granted some of these doomed shows a second year of life). 
 
But do I care about those strange anomalies in a book about Single Season Sitcoms? No, I don’t, because this book is pure gold for a guy like me. He could have included a section on two season shows with female leads, a section on American shows featuring British actors, or a section just on TV private eyes, and I would have simply said — MORE! MORE! 
 
The book is jam-packed with tons of useful information. Each listing not only describes the premise of each show in detail, but often includes interviews with key production staff, like the producers, directors, writers and cast members (though sometimes the quotes from them are formatted with special indentation, and other times not, which doesn’t make a lot of sense). The majority of listiings mention the names of the showrunners or creators, but I wish every single listing did.
 
One of my favorite listings tells the story behind the trainwreck IT HAD TO BE YOU, the ill-fated 1993 sitcom starring Faye Dunaway and Robert Urich…that initially starred Twiggy and another actor…and by the time it was over, four weeks later, only starred Urich.  Another memorable listing tells the complicated history of 1995 sitcom MINOR ADJUSTMENTS, which went through many major adjustments over its short life, which spanned 20 episodes and two networks. 
 
I loved this book. No TV reference library is complete without it and the previous two volumes, SINGLE SEASON SITCOMS OF THE 1980s and  SINGLE SEASON SITCOMS 1948-1979 (both of which I reviewed here). I can’t wait for the next edition!
 
TELEVISION FINALES:  From Howdy Doody to Girls, Edited by Douglas L. Howard and David Bianculli. A book about televsion finales is long-overdue and I was eager to read this one. This 500-page opus is more of a series of critical analyses than a reference work, with experts like TV critic David Bianculli, TV reference book author Douglas Snauffer, and TV historian Robert J. Thompson offering their insights in essays that cover 71 finales, including such classic and controversial endings as Newhart, Seinfeld, Lost, The Sopranos, St. Elsewhere, M*A*S*H and Nichols. They also cover obscure, short-lived shows like Jericho and British series like Life on Mars and Spaced. The reasoning behind which finales were chosen to include in the book isn’t clear, so we don’t know why the enders for shows like Magnum PI, Jag, Miami Vice, The Paper Chase, CSI, Who’s the Boss and The Odd Couple were overlooked, while space was given to lesser-known series like Rectify and Carnivale.
 
The essays are interesting and, in most cases, thoughtful and well-considered, with the finales put into both historical/cultural context as well as within the context of the narrative of the often long-running shows themselves. But basically most of the entries are scholarly opinion pieces, the authors explaining why they think a particular finale was memorable or forgettable, good or bad (for example, Martha P. Nochimson hated the finale of Battlestar Galactica, faulting series creator/writer Ronald Moore for driving “the show where it could not and should not go” and frakking-up the finale)  I didn’t always agree with the authors’ conclusions (personally, I thought the Galactica finale was great and emotionally satisfying), but that didn’t lessen my enjoyment of the book. I wish, though, that the book focused far less on the opinions and analyses of the authors and more on the actual development and production of the finales, with interviews with the writers, directors, and cast members.  

Remembering Tom Kakonis

I’ve just learned the sad news that author Tom Kakonis has passed away. I first met Tom at the 1994 Bouchercon in Seattle. I was a big fan of his work and was delighted when he invited me to sit and chat with him…and I was thrilled when he later blurbed my book MY GUN HAS BULLETS. It meant a lot to me that a writer I admired as much as Tom would endorse my work.

Two decades later, when author Joel Goldman and I launched Brash Books, I called Tom about publishing his out-of-print backlist. Not only did he say yes, but he surprised me by offering us an unpublished manuscript that had been sitting in his drawer for years. His dark-comic thriller TREASURE COAST was the first original novel that we released, so as long as Brash Books is in business, he will be an integral part of who we are as publishers, what we stand for, and what we aspire to achieve.

Tom was a great writer who didn’t get the recognition or wide readership that he deserved. I wish I’d been able to change that. Do yourself a favor and read MICHIGAN ROLL, his first and most acclaimed novel… I guarantee you’ll be hooked by this man’s talent and humor. He was a hell of a storyteller. 

The Return of Hardman

I’m excited to announce that I’ve acquired the rights to all of Ralph Dennis’s work — his published and unpublished novels. Brash Books will be re-releasing his 12 Hardman novels, starting with the first four in December, and the rest through 2019. The Hardman books include a terrific introduction by Joe R. Lansdale. The first two titles in the series, Atlantla Deathwatch  and The Charleston Knife is Back in Town are already available for preorder in paperback and ebook on Amazon, iBook, Barnes & Noble and Kobo.
 
We’ll also be re-releasing in 2019 a substantially revised version Ralph’s WWII thriller MacTaggart’s War, which we’ve retitled The War Heist. It was his last published title and didn’t do as well as he, or the publisher hoped. I believe i know why… I’ve gone back to his original manuscript, rearranged chapters, deleted chapters, and made other revisions to heighten suspense, sharpen characters, etc… cutting the book by about 35,000 words along the way (it still clocks in at 100K words).
 
And we’re also going to be releasing many of Ralph’s unpublished novels…which, if they need revision, I will be doing myself. One of the manuscripts is going to be slightly reworked as a sequel to his previous published novel Atlanta (which we are likely to retitle before re-publishing)
 
Boucheron 2013: Joel Goldman, Lee Goldberg and Jeffrey Deaver
Joel Goldman, Lee Goldberg and Jeffery Deaver at Bouchercon Albany where “Brash Books” was born

This has been a passion project for me ever since Bill Crider and Paul Bishop introduced me to the Hardman novels five years ago. I immediately decided I had to get them back into print, so I sought out the advice of my good friend Joel Goldman…and as a result of those discussions, a partnership and a publishing company were born. Now, after the publishing nearly 100 titles together, we are finally putting out the novels that we’d hoped would be our first releases.

Ralph Dennis isn’t a household name… but I believe that he should be. He is widely considered among crime writers as a master of the genre, denied the recognition he deserved because his series of twelve Hardman books, which are beloved and highly sought-after collectables now, were poorly packaged in the 1970s by Popular Library as cheap men’s action-adventure paperbacks with numbered titles.

Even so, some top critics saw past the cheesy covers and noticed that he was producing work as good as John D. MacDonald, Raymond Chandler, Chester Himes, Dashiell Hammett, and Ross MacDonald.

The New York Times praised the Hardman novels for “expert writing, plotting, and an unusual degree of sensitivity. Dennis has mastered the genre and supplied top entertainment.” The Philadelphia Daily News proclaimed Hardman “the best series around…”

Unfortunately, Popular Library didn’t take the hint and continued to present the series like hack work, dooming the novels to a short shelf-life and obscurity…except among generations of crime writers, like novelist Joe R. Lansdale (the Hap & Leonard series) and screenwriter Shane Black (the Lethal Weapon movies), who’ve kept Dennis’ legacy alive through word-of-mouth and by acknowledging his influence on their stellar work.  

I can’t wait to hear what you think of the books as they roll out… and I hope you will spread the word. We want Ralph Dennis to get the recognition and readership he’s long deserved.

The Other Lee Goldbergs

Sunny with 200% chance of Lee Goldbergs

For years, I’ve been getting emails, tweets, and posts meant for Lee Goldberg, the WABC weatherman, and for Lee Goldberg, also a  novelist, both of whom happen to live in New York, where Thrillerfest was held this past weekend and I was booked to be a panelist. So while I was at the conference, I decided to sneak away to finally meet my doppelgangers.

Weatherman Lee graciously invited me to the WABC studios on the upper east side. When my wife Valerie and I arrived at the front desk, I introduced myself to the security guard — “Hello, I’m Lee Goldberg, this is my wife Valerie, and we’re here to see Lee Goldberg.” The guard took our IDs, picked up the phone, and called the newsroom to let Weatherman Lee know that “his parents are here to see him.”

Valerie and I looked at each other in horror. Do we look that old? 

Weatherman Lee bounded out to meet us, full of good cheer, and brought us back to the Eyewitness News set, where we took some photos and had a nice chat about the surprising parallels in our lives (for example my father Alan was the anchorman on Eyewitness News on KPIX in San Francisco). Weatherman Lee introduced us to the afternoon anchor David Navarro… and then he asked me if I’d like to join him on-camera to be a guest on his live “on the street” weather report. Of course I said yes.  You can see the Facebook Live version here.  It was a lot of fun. 

These two Lee Goldbergs write thrillers. One of them wrote TRUE FICTION.

The next morning I met up with Novelist Lee, author of The Mentor, for breakfast. It turns out we also had some interesting parallels in our lives. For example. were both published by the Thomas Dunne imprint at St. Martin’s Press (they originally published my novels My Gun Has Bullets and Beyond the Beyond). We had a great time sharing stories about our experiences in publishing and in Hollywood.

Now I’ve got to meet Lee Goldberg, the TV sportscaster in Maine, and Lee Goldberg, the technology writer…and maybe we Lee Goldbergs can figure out why there are so many Lee Goldbergs in publishing and television.

 

 

Lee and Craig Johnson at the Spur Awards

Okay, this is weird. I meant to simply upload this photo to my website… and that headline was supposed to be the caption… but somehow it accidentally became a blog post instead. Well, now that it’s here, I guess I better hurry up and say something about it.

I just returned late last night from Billings Montana, where I attended the Spur Awards, which are the Oscars of western writing. I’ve always been a huge western fan and I’ve been looking for an excuse to attend the Western Writers of America conference for years. I finally got one:  DOUBLE WIDE by Leo Banks won two Spurs — for Best First Novel and Best Contemporary Western — and it was published by Brash Books, the company I co-founded with Joel Goldman four years ago. So I jumped on a plane to be there for Leo and to bask in all the praise he’d be getting.

I was delighted to discover that my old friend producer Rob Word was there, too. Rob and I teamed up some years back to turn Bill Crider’s OUTRAGE AT BLANCO into a TV mini-series. The project fell through, but we had great fun casting and scouting locations in California and Calgary (we haven’t given up hope on filming it someday). He’s a true western lover and historian and is the host of A Word on Westerns. We headed out to Little Big Horn for the day, which we really enjoyed, and hung out at the conference with western literary legends like Craig Johnson, Loren D. Estleman, Preston Lewis, and Johnny Boggs, among others. Rob even convinced me to buy a cowboy hat for the Spur Awards banquet. And it’s a good thing I did, because it turned out that Brash got matching Spur Awards to go along with the two that Leo won. 

Here are some more photos from the event…

Lee with Loren D. Estleman and Preston Lewis

 

Lee, actor A. Martinez, and Leo Banks with their Spur Awards.

 

 

Lee Goldberg is Out-and-About in New York, Tennessee and Kentucky

Lee on the set of his “fake office” in NYC

I’ve been out-and-about a lot the last few weeks and I’m just getting a chance now to catch you up on all the latest news.

Two weeks ago, I was traveling in Memphis to research a new book, and visited Owensboro Kentucky, for a TRUE FICTION booksigning and a screening of the two short films, BUMSICLE and REMAINDERED, that I shot there. At the same time, I delivered the script for a new Hallmark Mystery Movie that I co-wrote with the amazing Robin Bernheim, whose many credits include REMINGTON STEELE, QUANTUM LEAP, and WHEN CALLS THE HEART.  

Speaking of Hallmark Mysteries, my friend Phoef Sutton just scored raves, and big ratings, for his latest Hallmark movie, DARROW & DARROW: IN THE KEY OF MURDER. You can read an interview with him about it at Kings River Life magazines.

I was only hone for a few days before I had to jet off to New York, where I was shot some new TRUE FICTION promos for Amazon Publishing. While I was there, I got a chance to see Amazon Publishing honcho Jeff Belle (who has been a big supporter of me and my books for years), and Amazon-bestselling authors Robert Dugoni and Mark Sullivan, who has co-authored five books with James Patterson.

Speaking of Patterson, it’s great to see my friend, Edgar-winning author, and Appellate Court Judge David Ellis get a shout-out/acknowledgment as the ghostwriter channeling Bill Clinton &  Patterson in Janet Maslin’s review of THE PRESIDENT IS MISSING

The props dept create framed photos and other props for the fake office.

I learned this morning that Scott Brick, narrator of the five Fox & O’Hare books I co-wrote with Janet Evanovich, and HOUSE OF SECRETS (coauthored by my brother Tod Goldberg and Brad Meltzer), has been as the new voice of Lee Child‘s Jack Reacher! (The legendary Dick Hill is retiring). I’m very happy for Scott and hope he’ll still squeeze in time to narrate more of my books 🙂

And, in case you missed it last week, author/editor Steph Cha had the brilliant idea of assigning my brother Tod  to interview me for Los Angeles Review of Books (LARB)….the result is probably the most personal, and indepth interview I’ve ever done. I hope you like it. 

Mark Sullivan, Lee Goldberg and Jeff Belle

Goldberg vs Goldberg: The Interview

Author/editor Steph Cha​ had the brilliant idea of assigning my brother Tod Goldberg the task of interviewing me for Los Angeles Review of Books (LARB)​….the result is probably the most personal, and indepth interview I’ve ever done. I hope you like it. Here’s an excerpt:

Lee and his brother Tod express their delight at having books released simultaneously in June 2016

TOD: I often get asked what it’s like to have a family of writers and artists, and it’s hard to explain, exactly, because it’s the only way we’ve lived. Our sisters are both writers and artists, our mother, after her socialite period, became a newspaper columnist covering socialites, our father not that I ever lived with him as a sentient human as you noted, was a TV news journalist, and then there’re all the uncles and cousins and whatnot, too. But you were the first one, really, to make it on a national stage, which I know gave me the confidence to aim big, and which I suspect made it easier for our sisters, too. Did seeing mom’s and dad’s success and, in many ways, eventual failure both of them had these sort of big-league dreams but ended up never quite getting there, which ended up driving them both a bit mad provide some motivation for you?

LEE: There’s no question that dad being on television and mom being a writer shaped me in profound ways. There is a lot of both of them in me … though more of mom than dad. They were both comfortable in front of an audience, whether it was on camera or standing on front of people. Mom had a big, outgoing personality and great sense of humor. She was a deft schmoozer and a big ego. She was a profound exaggerator in her storytelling, for both comic and dramatic effect. She went after what she wanted, personally and professionally. She was a fighter. I have a lot of those same attributes, though I hope with less of the destructive flip side. For example, I know when I am exaggerating a story and, I like to believe, so does my audience. We’re in on the joke together. It’s like when an audience buys into the franchise of a TV series … no matter how ludicrous it might be (she’s a nun — and she can fly! A detective with OCD! A drug-addicted doctor who hates his patients!) … because they want to enjoy the ride. Unlike mom, I don’t believe my exaggerations are the truth and then exaggerate them the next time I tell the story, and then exaggerate that, until I am heading into something approaching clinical delusion. I know where the truth ends and the embellishment, for comedic or dramatic effect, begins. I’m deeply afraid the day will come, though, when I lose that self-awareness.

I haven’t talked much about dad because he wasn’t really in my life after I was 10 years old (though he was in my life more than you or our sisters). Dad grew up wanting to be a TV anchorman … despite coming from a small logging town and having zero contacts … and yet he achieved that dream. He eventually became an anchorman on KPIX, the CBS affiliate in San Francisco … a major station in a major market … and it should have been a stepping-stone to the national stage. Getting there had to take talent, drive, and confidence … but somewhere along the line he lost his mojo … or, more likely, his backbone. I was too young at the time to know why or how it happened, or if mom was somehow to blame. But he became a weak, wishy-washy, superficial man. He let people, he let life, walk all over him. He stood up for nothing and nobody and lost everything. He showed me it was possible to achieve your dream, but through his failure, he also showed me you had to be strong to keep it. That’s not all I learned from him. Seeing him on TV every night also made television — the industry and the medium — something approachable to me. He made the TV part of my family. He made it small and human. My father was a TV screen, and I knew that I was stronger than he was. So yeah, I could break into TV. No problem. And I did.

You can read the full  interview here. 

What Is The Bad Guy Doing?

Lee, Steve Cannell & William Link at Santa Barbara Book Fest
Lee Goldberg, Stephen J. Cannell, and COLUMBO co-creator William Link at the Santa Barbara Book Festival

Creating a strong antagonist in a crime novel can be the key to the success or failure of your story. I’m a firm believer that “the bad guy” has to be as smart or, preferrably, smarter than my hero…and someone whose personality and actions will highlight all the weaknesses and conflicts that make my hero who he is.

I also make sure my “bad guy” is more than just a bad guy…he’s someone with his own agenda, his own demons, his own needs, someone who has more going on in his life than whatever criminal act he is engaged in (or that he has already committed). And that’s very important. Rarely is anyone just pure evil for evil’s sake…except in cartoons, Batman episodes, or James Bond movies.

I always try to look at the story from the bad guy’s point of view and ask myself what he’d be doing if he was the hero of the story…and if my protagonist was, in his view, the “bad guy.” I have to invest as much thought in my bad guy as do in my hero if the story is going to work.

You can learn a lot about making bad guys rich characters by watching THE SOPRANOS, a show that’s ostensibly all about the bad guys. Sure, they killed people, but they also had mortgages to pay, worried about their kids, read the morning paper, had all the responsibilities, hopes, dreams, and anxieties that “good guys” have. They didn’t wake up each day and ask themselves “what evil can I do today…mwa-ha-ha.”

I learned to make my bad guys fully-rounded characters, with lives and goals of their own, from watching COLUMBO…and later working for Stephen J. Cannell…and reading Elmore Leonard and Larry McMurtry.

On COLUMBO, we spent the first half-hour of each episode watching the bad guys, getting into their lives, understanding why they had to kill. But what ultimately made COLUMBO such a pleasure was that he was always outmatched by the bad guys…and beat them anyway. The smarter the bad guys were, the smarter he had to be to beat them. Or, to put it another way, the best bad guys brought out the best in Columbo.

It was Steve Cannell, one of my mentors, who taught me to always ask myself “What is the bad guy doing?” “What does the bad guy want?” “What is the bad guy thinking about?” in every scene where the bad guy wasn’t on screen. The bad guy always had to be doing something, not sitting around waiting for the detective to catch him or simply throwing obstacles in the detective’s way.

Elmore Leonard and Larry McMurtry (in his westerns) made their “villains” as likeable, layered and interesting as their heroes…in fact, some times they were even more compelling. Leonard and McMurtry excelled at creating likeable, funny, believable psychopaths and killers.

The bottom line: having a strong antagonist makes your hero stronger and your story better.

(This post was originally written for April’s The Big Thrill Roundtable)

Writing is Rewriting

My writing ritual is simple. I do my best writing from 8 pm-2 am…and I usually start my day at 10 or 11 am by rewriting what i did the day before. When that is done, I start writing “the new stuff.” I repeat that process until the book is done.

I’m a big believer that writing is rewriting…and that it’s always easier to rewrite crap than it is to fill an empty page…

Get. Something. On. The. Page.

That is my writing mantra.

But that often means that what I end up with at the end of the day is terrible or just the broad strokes of what I am going for. I know I will go back, sharpen the dialogue and color between the lines, adding the character or details left out in my eagerness get something down. Or it can go the other way…I’ve written endless reams of exposition and dialogue that I need to trim with an ax. Ten pages of blather becomes three pages of tight, lean writing. If what I’ve written doesn’t further the plot and reveal character then it has to go. I am also very aware the beat of my story, the pace…it’s almost like tapping my foot to music. If i lose that beat, cuts or revisions need to be made to move things along.

I typically go through the pages with an eye toward cutting all the exposition that I possibly can,all the unnecessary details that slow the pace, and taking whatever clever lines I come across in prose seeing if I can put them into my characters’ mouths instead. I strike out any cliche phrases, which were left as place-holders for actual writing that I’d do in the revisions.

I will often rewrite a scene four, five or six times before a book is finished. So when I complete my first draft, it’s pretty close to done. Anything I do at that point, before turning it in, is more about tweaking and polishing.

PS – I should also mention that I always work from an outline, I never just wing it. I need to know where I am going so that when I’m writing I’m concentrating on writing, not plotting. My plot may change (and often does) as I write, and when that happens, I revise my outline. That is a continual process. I usually finish my outline, which I call a living outline, about a week before I finish the book.

(This post was originally written for  April’s The Big Thrill Roundtable)