“The Single Best Piece of Fan Fiction I’ve Read This Year: A few months ago, I wrote a column about people writing fan fiction; subsequently, I’ve been on a nonstop search for the most bizarre entry into this sordid world. I’ve read “Diagnosis Murder” fan fiction that includes a near-anal rape of a main character. I’ve even read “Star Trek” slash fiction, which illuminates a dimension to Sulu’s sometimes contemptuous relationship with Capt. Kirk in a rather, uh, prickly fashion. But it wasn’t until I happened upon Lance Bass fan fiction that I truly understood what it means to love.”
We’d just delivered our script on a long-running cop show. The star called us into his trailer for his notes.
“I read your script,” he said. “There wasn’t a single drive up.”
“What’s a drive up?” I asked.
He stared at me. “How can you call yourself a professional writer and not know what a drive up is? It’s the scene where I drive up, get out of my car, and walk to the door of wherever I’m going.”
“Oh,” I replied, relieved. “We didn’t put any of those in on purpose. We like to start a scene in the middle, after you’ve arrived, after all the introductions. The viewers all know who you are and how you got there.”
“What do you mean?”
“How can they be certain how I got there?” he asked.
“I’m sure they’ll assume you drove,” I said.
“But which car did I drive? What color is it? Is it a cool car or a lame car?” he said. “The drive-ups are important. People love to see me drive up. It’s what’s made this show a hit.”
He then turned to the first scene of the show. “Great scene,” he said. “Powerful stuff.” He tore the page out of his script. “But I can do all of this with a look.”
He then went to the next scene and tore two pages from it. “I can do this with a look, too.”
It didn’t take us long to figure out why he really liked the drive-ups so much…and why the drama of most scenes was best conveyed with a look rather than a word. No dialogue to learn.
That got your attention, didn’t it?
One of the amazing things about the world wide web is how searching for one thing leads you to another then another… and then you’re someplace in cyberspace you never would have discovered before. I started by stumbling on a mention of one of our “SeaQuest 2032” episodes (yeah, I’m one of those ego maniacs who googles his own name every so often), which guest-starred Patricia Charbonneau. I clicked on her name, because I wondered what she’s been up to lately, which led to links for a lesbian romance movie she did with Helen Shaver, which led to…
…The Encyclopedia of Lesbian Love Scenes, also known as “Clublez,” which is soon going to be my friend Bill’s favorite site on the web. Clublez is essentially an online list of lesbian love scenes in movies and TV series the world over, with reviews and a point scores for “Buildup,” “Kissing,” “Love Scenes,” and “Movie Overall.” Many of the reviews include — hubba hubba — vidcaps. Most of the stuff is from mainstream movies, direct-to-video thrillers, TV episodes (the site’s definition of what qualifies as “lesbian scene” is pretty liberal… two women who happen to be in the same room is almost enough) and in a seperate section, a handful of x-rated stuff from some guy named Viv Thomas.
The guy who created this site (I’m assuming it’s a guy) also has something called “Kissing Galleries” — pictures of women kissing from around the world. Two gals kissing seems to be what this guy gets off on most…judging by his reviews and his “galleries.”
As you can see, I thoroughly explored the site… all in the name of research. I’m doing a script on, um, guys who compile lists of lesbian love scenes. Honest.
On the heels of saying most execs we deal with are bright, funny, and a pleasure to work with… that’s not always the case. Here’s one of those cases…
We were writing our first episode of a detective series. We turned the script in to the network executive for his notes. The first note was in scene one, act one.
“The hero doesn’t know what’s going on,” the executive said.
“That’s right,” I replied. “Because it’s a mystery.”
“You can’t do that,” the executive said. “The hero should be ahead of the story.”
“Ahead of the story?” I asked. “What does that mean?”
“The hero should know,” the executive said.
“Know what?” I replied.
“Everything,” The executive said.
“But he just arrived at the scene,” I said. “He’s taking his first look at the body… and you want him to already know everything?”
“Is he a hero or a complete moron?” The executive asked. “Nobody wants to watch a show about a guy who’s lost, confused, and stupid.”
“It’s a mystery and he’s a detective,” I said. “He’s going to show us how smart he is by solving the crime.”
“If he was smart,” the executive said, “he wouldn’t have to solve it. He’d already know.”
“So what’s the mystery?” I asked.
“There isn’t one,” the executive said.
“So what’s our show about if there’s no mystery to solve?”
“You tell me,” the executive said. “You’re the writer.”
We were writing an episode of a series for a Major Television Producer who had dozens of hit shows to his credit. This particular series, however, was not destined to be one of them.
For this episode, he wanted to do a “modern take” on a “cowboys and indians” story. He wanted to see “indians on the warpath” only with “a contemporary sensibility.”
“Call’em Native Americans instead of injuns,” the Major Television Producer instructed us, “that’ll make the story instantly relevant.”
He also wanted it hip, sexy, and edgy. And he wanted women, lots of beautiful women.
I joked that we could have seven super-models lost in the desert. His eyes lit up. “Yes,” he said. “That’s perfect. That would give the show… sophistication.”
Unfortunately, he wasn’t kidding around. We were stuck with seven super-models. I learned an important lesson. I never joke about the story in a meeting… or the joke could become the story.
We went off and worked on the outline for our script. We came up with a scene in which some bad guys destroy some sacred Navajo ruins, upsetting the Native Americans, causing them to go “on the warpath” and attack the bad guy’s camp. But when the Major Television Producer read our scene, he was outraged.
“You can’t have the bad guys destroy Navajo ruins,” he bellowed. “It’s unthinkable. Those ruins are priceless, historical artifacts. The American public will never stand for it. You’ll offend our entire audience!”
We apologized, explaining all we wanted to do in the scene was provoke the Native Americans into attacking the bad guys.
“Why not have the bad guys rape the seven supermodels,” the Major Television Producer said.
“Sure,” I replied. “That won’t offend anybody.”
“Exactly,” the Major Television Producer said. “Now you’re learning how to write television.”
Brian Castaneda writes to me:
“My current theory is that network executives are a bunch of cowed and gutless morons who don’t have an iota of courage or the wherewithal to support quality shows. But that can’t be it, right? Right?”
I don’t think so. I know all of us TV writers are supposed to sneer at the dumb network suits, but I’ve been lucky enough to work with more bright, intelligent execs than dumb, mean-spirited, or interfering ones. The truth is TV is big business and more intensely competitive than ever before. The network can’t afford to keep a unwatched show on the air. WONDERFALLS didn’t deliver for a lot of reasons…some the fault of the network, some not. But the bottom line was, it didn’t deliver. Yes, there’s art on TV…but TV isn’t an art gallery or a museum. It’s a busness, first and foremost. TV Shows exist to sell ad time, that time is sold based on eyeballs (and the age of those eyeballs, but that’s another rant). If a show isn’t delivering eyeballs, and the network can’t sell the adtime, they are supposed to keep it on the air anyway? Yeah, some shows take time to build… but most shows never will, no matter how long they are kept on the air. The audience drop off on WONDERFALLS from half-hour to half-hour tells the story. They couldn’t even keep the audience that was already watching. FOX probably made the right choice axing it.
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.