Many years ago, I was a writer-producer on Steven Spielberg’s science fiction TV series SeaQuest, which featured Roy Scheider and a crew that included a talking dolphin patrolling the oceans of the future in an unbelievably phallic submarine. I joined the show in its third and, as it turned out, final season.
Because I was new to SeaQuest, I didn’t know anything about the show’s small, but very passionate, fan following. I soon found out. I was assailed by fans for writing scripts without consulting “the fanfic” first. Fanfic is short for fan fiction — unauthorized stories, books, scripts and comics written by fans using TV characters they didn’t create and don’t own.
The fans were upset that the lives of the characters depicted in my scripts deviated from the histories and relationships “firmly established in the fanfic.” They actually had the gall to chastize me, a writer/producer on the show, for daring to make creative decisions and tell stories without clearing everything with them first. Their argument was that I was writing for money, they were writing out of love, so their “fanfic” should be considered “the true history” of the characters.
I thought, at the time, that this kind of insanity was a phenomenon unique to science fiction shows. I ended up writing a comic novel about my SeaQuest experience called “Beyond the Beyond” and, afterward, figured I’d never encounter that kind of fanaticsm again unless I worked on another scifi show.
I was wrong.
Weekly, episodic, television series… actually, television characters… have the amazing power to inspire passionate devotion from an audience in a way that novels… and literary characters…do not. And all it takes is just one or two episodes.
I’m not exaggerating.
A few seasons back there was a science fiction show called Mercy Point, sort of an E.R.-in-space, that was cancelled after three episodes. Within weeks, devoted fans of Mercy Point spent thousands of dollars on a full-page advertisement in Daily Variety, the industry trade magazine, pleading for the show’s immediate return to the airwaves. Fans of Prey, an X-Files-esque series that lasted half-a-season over five years ago, are still clamoring for its return to this day.
Again, I’ve cited two scifi show as examples, but I was surprised to discover that all TV shows, whether they are dramas or sitcoms, have passionate fan followings. I’ve encountered it on every series I’ve worked on since…even Diagnosis Murder.
Yes, that’s right, a show most people think of as strictly for the elderly had, and still has, an avid following. Try running a Google search on Diagnosis Murder some time…. you will be astounded by the number of websites around the world devoted to the show and to “fanfic” about the characters. In fact, you can Google just about any TV series and find the same thing.
That kind of fan devotion is both a blessing and a curse. The fans can keep a show alive… especially if it’s “on the bubble” ratings-wise…and be enormously supportive and inspiring to the writers, cast and crew. But with any show, there’s always a loud minority of fans who, at some point, begin to feel as if the show and the characters belong to them… that writer/producers are obligated to seek their approval or input before making any creative decisions. And yet, as strange as it may seem, this minority of fiercely devoted fans don’t actually want writer/producers participating in “fandom” — because it undermines the authority of the self-proclaimed leaders of the fan community.
This kind of fanaticism, this sense of audience ownership of the characters, doesn’t seem to happen with authors and their literary series characters… at least not with the intensity that it does with TV characters. With one exception… if you’re writing books based on a TV show.
I was the executive producer of Diagnosis Murder, and now I’m writing original novels based on the show, which starred Dick Van Dyke as a doctor who solves crimes with the help of his homicide detective son, played by his real-life son Barry Van Dyke. The vast majority of Diagnosis Murder fans are wonderful, kind, intelligent people. I love meeting them and hearing what they have to say, good and bad, about the books and the characters. It’s important to me that they are happy with what I’m writing.
But there is a tiny, very aggressive, group of fans who openly resent the control I have over “their characters” and see me as a threat to their personal vision of the series. Often, these fans are also fiercely devoted to an individual character, or rather to the particular actor who played the character, confusing the two and thinking of them as one. Then again, so have many actors I’ve worked with.
“I’ve never been to Cleveland,” an actor once told me, arguing against a line of dialogue he was supposed to say.
“Yes,” I said, “but your character has.”
The actor looked at me, confused. “How could he if I’ve never been there?”
But I digress…
I think what makes TV characters so powerful, and the reason some people latch on to them so strongly, is that they come right into your living room, almost as flesh and blood. Characters in books exist purely in your mind, they are imaginary and you know it. No matter how brilliant the author is, it’s impossible for any two fans to have a shared vision of exactly what the character looks and sounds like, how he or she smiles. But once an actor assumes the part, it makes the character all too real for some people. And on those rare occasions when TV characters are recreated in books, for a minority of fervent fans it’s as if the novelist is writing about real people instead of fictional characters.
Which might explain the handful of bizarre and angry emails I’ve received, amidst many more kind and enthusiastic notes, since Diagnosis Murder: The Silent Partner was published in September…
“Have you shown Barry Van Dyke his scenes in the book so he can fix them? Does he know what you have him saying?”
“Sorry, Lee, but here’s one person who will not be reading your book. In my mind and my fanfics, Steve is happily married with children.”
“You shouldn’t be writing books about DM. The success of DM had nothing to do with you. It had EVERYTHING to do with the WONDERFUL actors.”
“There aren’t any hurt/comfort scenes between Mark and Steve in this book and that’s a big mistake. There should be at least one hurt/comfort scene in each book. One with Steve/Jesse would be good, too.”
“They should be publishing the fanfic instead of your books but you won’t let them because you are so selfish and egotistical and all you want to do is make money and see your name. Who made you the boss of DM? It belongs to the fans, NOT you!!”
“You ABANDONED the show in 1999 to do another show so who do you think you are writing books about DM now? You should be FORBIDDEN from doing it.”
“Once again you are forcing your view of DM on the fans and asking them to accept it. I refuse and I won’t read your books!”
“I love coming up with new ways to hurt Steve and I just love to read one of my ideas come to life. I don’t care for stories that have Steve hurting because someone close to him is hurt. But I will support those that do. I’m strictly a Steve hurt/comfort fan.”
“You don’t care about DM. We write for a hobby, not for $$$$. Our stories are pure. You just want to buy a big house.”
“Jesse shouldn’t be dating Susan. We told you we don’t like her and yet you refuse to listen. You should read my story XYZ at FanficHQ — that’s who he really loves. You can use her if you want.”
Can you imagine Sue Grafton, Michael Connelly, Ian Rankin, Nevada Barr, James Patterson, Janet Evanovich or anybody else with a mystery book series getting mail like this (not that I’m putting myself in their league, of course)?
No one questions a novelist’s ownership of his or her characters, to do with them as he or she pleases. Yes, we might wish that Spenser finally got rid of Susan, but we’d never presume to demand that Robert Parker do it, or take issue with him personally over what he was doing with “our” characters. Not that readers don’t have influence over the choices an author makes (take Sherlock Holmes’ premature death and forced resurrection, for example). But fans of books, even the most passionate, seem to recognize the line between reality and fiction, between their loyalty to the books and the author’s creative right to do as he or she pleases with the characters.
Not so with TV. And, it seems, not so with books based on TV shows.
When I was hired on Diagnosis Murder, I naturally figured my career was over. There I was, in my early 30s, stuck on a show that was considered by The Industry as programming for the elderly and the last professional stop for TV writers on their way to the Motion Picture Home themselves.
How could this have happened to me?
At the time, the series was mired in the bottom of the ratings. The exec producers were about to bring back Andy Griffith as attorney Ben Matlock for an episode as a ratings stunt. Matlock had only been off the air for a year or so, and people weren’t exactly marching in the streets, waving their dentures and colostomy bags in the air, clamoring for his return.
But I could understand the impulse. Bringing back beloved TV characters is a sure-fire way to get ratings… for good reason. We have strong emotional attachments to TV characters. We know all about them. We know their history. We know their dreams and aspirations. We know the most intimate details of their personal lives. They are so familiar to us that they are like members of our own family.
In a sense, they are. They are part of our shared, cultural family. And to us, they will always live on. So it’s only natural that we still think about them and that we wonder how their lives have changed since we last saw them.
But I was pretty certain nobody missed Matlock. At least not yet. But there was a character I missed. Joe Mannix. The epitome of the cool private eye in the 1970s. I wondered what happened to him and how he fit into the world today. I suggested we ought to bring Mannix back. My writing partner, William Rabkin, and I met with Mike Connors, who played Mannix, and convinced him to assume the iconic role one more time. We found a Mannix episode from 25 years earlier, brought back the entire guest cast in the same roles they played before, and used the old footage for flashbacks.
When I started writing the script, and typed the words “Joe Mannix” for the first time, I was thrilled. I remembered why I had become a TV writer in the first place. Because I love television and TV characters (I’ve kept every TV Guide that’s come into my hands since I was 10 years old. Scary, huh?)
We depicted Mannix as he always was, the tough, hard-charging PI, unwilling to face his own mortality, refusing to acknowledge a dire heart condition, and the fact he was growing too old for the job. Not only did Mannix figure out whodunit, and patch up his bad ticker, but he also saved my career.
The episode aired and was #14 in the ratings for the week. After that, Bill and I became the executive producers of Diagnosis Murder, and it remained in the top 25 programs under our aegis. Not surprisingly, we made a habit over the years of revisiting beloved TV characters on the show — or at least bringing back familiar actors in roles similar to the ones that made them famous.
I didn’t do it for the ratings spike as much as I did it for myself. I am, first and foremost, a TV geek and, deep down, I think we all are.
TV characters are real to us. Too real, in fact, to some people.
But it’s not just the characters who can become real to us. Sometimes, so can the world they live in, especially for network TV executives.
The TV series C.S.I is fictional. The way the characters behave, the scope of their investigatory responsibilities, their legal authority in a case, their relationship to the police detectives, and the lightning-fast scientific results they achieve have absolutely no basis in reality. As a veteran homicide detective I know likes to say, Star Trek is more realistic than C.S.I.
But success is its own reality to television network executives. So while you and I may know C.S.I. is fiction, it’s real to the people who develop TV shows. If you’re writing about crime on television, you’re required now to incorporate the world according to C.S.I into your fictional universe.
The best, and most obvious, example of the inescapable CSI-ification of cop shows is the venerable Law & Order. If you look at the early episodes of Law & Order, there isn’t a single C.S.I. tech in sight. At most, one of the detectives might refer to information that “just came in from the lab.” Now, in every episode, there’s a talkative C.S.I. tech at each crime scene and the detectives have to make at least one obligatory stop at C.S.I. HQ to get a multi-media briefing from some colorful tech in a lab coat. Because if the detectives didn’t acknowledge the story-telling liberties and dramatic devices of C.S.I., the crime story just wouldn’t be real or contemporary or “cutting edge”…well, not to network executives, anyway.
I recently wrote a pilot, a sample episode of a proposed murder mystery series, for one of the big three networks. The first note I got was to add a regular C.S.I. character to the show, even though the series concept had nothing to do with that aspect of homicide investigation. The network’s argument, of course, was that the show “didn’t seem real” without a visit to the crime lab, even though the proposed series isn’t about cops (If the pilot gets filmed, which I won’t know until after the new year, I’ll let you know if the CSI character remains… I suspect he will).
Did Columbo ever talk to the C.S.I. folks? How often did the cops of Homicide or NYPD Blue consult anyone at the crime lab?
There are, of course, hundreds of examples of successful cop shows and legendary detective heroes who solved crimes without a heavy reliance on technology, forensics, and the story-telling conventions of C.S.I. But that argument won’t work with network executives because those shows and characters, with the success of C.S.I., have instantly become “dated” and “old-fashioned” in their eyes (even a western, in order to be “contemporary,” had to include forensics… though that didn’t help Peacemakers stay on the air).
So it doesn’t matter if C.S.I. is totally fictional, it’s the new fictional reality by which all other fictional realities will be measured against by network executives for fictional authenticity… at least until another cop show becomes a break-out hit and redefines the way we tell crime stories on television.
The best hamburger place in LA. I eat at the Woodland Hills place four or five times a week. Always the same thing. Double charburger with cheese, protein style. I’ve also fallen into the habit (nice segue) of eating breakfast on my way to work at the local Dennys. I’ve only been going in for two weeks now, but I am already a regular. They don’t know my name yet, and I don’t know any of theirs, but they know what I like to eat. I don’t have to order at all. I just smile when I come in, find a seat, and five minutes later there’s my Grand Slam, two eggs over medium, all bacon (soft, not crispy) and a large Diet Coke (which they keep filled and transfer to a to-go-cup when I go to pay at the counter). It’s comforting…small townish… and kinda scary. I’ve started to notice the other regulars. The guy who sits at the counter drinking one Iced Tea after another (he comes in every day and stays, I’m told, for HOURS). The enormous fat guy with a weeks worth of newspapers to read EVERYDAY. He uses a cane and has the look of a hardcore sci fi fan. Also video geek. Odds are he has tapes of everything Heather Locklear has EVER done. The big table of school bus drivers. There are more. They all seem sad to me… until I realize I am one of them. Then I wonder what they are thinking about me (“Look at that judgmental jerk over there… looking at me like I’m some kind of loser. Is that a nose on his face or is he eating somebody’s arm?”) The fun people are the illicit lovers who come in from the dive motel next door. I love eavesdropping on their conversations.
Who said TV writers don’t lead glamorous lives? Okay, now I am officially rambling.
My brother writes a terrific column for the Las Vegas Mercury. ..especially when he’s writing about my Mom.
All of us Goldberg men are lard-asses… so we are on the Atkins Diet. Well, I am. Tod quit because he couldn’t poop anymore… and wrote a very funny column about it called The Crap Free Diet. If you’re eating “protein burgers” and counting carb, you gotta read this.
Television is my life. Well, at least it pays for my life… and consumes most of it. I’m either watching it, or thinking about it, or talking about it, or making it. Today, I spent most of my time making it, sitting in on meetings for the new season of “1-800-Missing.” We let our star, Gloria Reuben, go so now we’re reworking the show for the amazing Vivica Fox. But it means picking the clothes shes going to wear, the car she’s going to drive… basically creating an onscreen life for this character. It’s something the studio and the network get involved in, hence the day of meetings. I’m supposed to be writing a script for the show right now and writing a fourth Diagnosis Murder novel to meet a July 1 deadline… which is why, instead, I’m creating this blog. Never overestimate the power of procrastination.
My brother Tod Goldberg and my sister Linda Woods have been nagging me to start a blog for sometime. I enjoy reading blogs, particularly Roger Simon’s , but haven’t gotten around to it yet. Instead, I’ve been posting on newsgroups, email digests and message boards.
Did I get enough plugs in there? I promise my future blogging will have more substance, wit, and relevance. Well, mostly it will be rambling about what I’m writing, what I’m watching, what I’m reading, and what I’m thinking. It’s cheaper than a shrink I suppose.