Keep It Simple, Showrunner
Let me start with the obvious caveat that I am deeply and inherently prejudiced in favor of the particular form of narrative filmmaking that I specialize in: fictionalized biographical and autobiographical dramas. I do on occasion dabble in the magical, either with overt supernatural themes or the more subtle magical realism, which is my preferred cut-off; I don’t like to stray far from authenticity. But the unreal isn’t my forte because it isn’t what I’m passionate about.
This wasn’t always the case. When I was younger and mired in a miserable childhood in a gilded cage, I escaped at any opportunity by turning inward and daydreaming a world I could control by magic. When I taught myself screenwriting in my early twenties, my stories were entirely supernatural; as I like to say, “Twenty-somethings are only adult teenagers.”
My favorite pubescent fantasy, one that lasted almost into early adulthood, was that I could transform myself into mighty flying centaur. Another was that I was the modern Holy Roman Emperor. My empire was far superior technologically and socially than America, my tyrant father’s country. Regardless of the storyline, my fantasy worlds always had an underlying messianic theme. As Marvel well knows, to its greater enrichment, I am not the only person in the world with those inclinations. But are the young messiahs saving the world or just themselves?
Despite having read Lord of the Rings thirteen times between eleven and fourteen years old, and having written my second screenplay when I was twenty-two based on some of Tolkien’s characters and creatures, a piece that was rejected by late-80s mainstream Hollywood because “fantasies are too hard to sell as a genre,” I no longer have any desire to tell stories that aren’t grounded in experience, whether it is mine or someone else’s; preferably it’s mine so I don’t have to do too many interviews and research.
I do have a couple of TV scripts and accompanying series bibles that have supernatural themes, but at best I love them as stepchildren. A name TV and feature producer, who specializes in genre fare, reviewed my “slate” of three TV shows and preferred the two supernatural pieces to the one semi-autobiographical show that is my true darling; for my money and time, the Real One is so much more powerful than any of the magic I’ve imagined for the Others. I wrote those for entirely mercenary reasons, to get in and out of the TV business by trying to appeal to the broadest audience: The Walking Dead fanboy as opposed to the Mad Men connoisseur. The sensation of writing them was detached, metallic and robotic, whereas the piece based on my life experience burbled through my heart, often warmed with tears of laughter and sorrow.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not an intractable stick-in-the-mud, just increasingly intolerant as my youth slips further behind me and I become focused on what I believe is important in storytelling. Sure, I still have an appreciation for the shows about dragons and iron thrones, or even the zombie apocalypse, and I have all the time in the world for great sci-fi, particularly in cinema. But they are superficial amusements that nourish the mind and spirit not one bit, and might even be bad for you; they are popcorn and candy compared to sensibly cooked protein and veggies.
Aside from coming from the heart, this is the other appeal for the slice-of-life dramas: they are so much harder to execute well, from a writer’s perspective. They might be easier on the production — generally not as complicated to film, costume or design sets for — but they are more difficult to make engaging and compelling on a basic level. A dragon swooping on a Yunkai slave trader and frying him to a crisp might be cool to watch, but it’s nowhere near as menacing as a dysfunctional parent about to seriously fuck up her child’s life. Yet it is so much easier to scribble in a dragon or a zombie than it is to make that diabolical parent believable, and sustain the dynamic engagingly over many episodes.
The fake, supernatural devices emerge purely from the imagination, from a world of make-believe. They both carry and save the plot over and over, but they are ephemeral because they have no real meaning. Dramas based on the real world — the good ones, the ones that educate and elucidate, that question and uncover raw truths — rely more on experience and introspection. They endure because they have a solid foundation.
If you haven’t seen Jill Soloway’s Transparent on Amazon Prime, then I would strongly advise you do, especially if you create content. It’s reaffirming viewing for me, so mature, so well observed and unflinchingly honest. It’s drama without melodrama, with a tasteful garnish of incidental comedy. It’s exactly what I strive to do myself. Not almost exactly. Exactly.
The show is based on Soloway’s own experience with her father coming out as transgendered in 2011, presumably when he was in his late 60s, like Jeffrey Tambor’s character, Maura. There are many things I envy about Soloway’s talent, but I most of all I envy the incredible luck she has in having that dramatic hook dropped in her lap. I’m sure the process was painful and awkward for her family, none so much as for the person Maura is based on, and Soloway lays that bare in the show. Even as I write this I am soaking in awkwardness myself: do I call the parent a mother or a father, or do I just play it safe and go for gender-neutral pronouns and keep saying “the parent” or “the character”? Whatever: in terms of writing about what you know, fictionalizing your own experience, the material behind Transparent is a diamond mine.
Many storytellers, particularly those from dysfunctional families such as mine, believe their lives are worthy of being committed to film. But that’s not the case; entertainment isn’t therapy. There needs to be a hook for the viewer or reader, something that is at once familiar because of the reality it is based on, but also original enough either in the way it is presented and told, or in its subject matter.
After seeing how well Soloway’s personal hook — the mature transgendered parent struggling to be who she really is in a family of grown-up, self-obsessed children in Los Angeles, the most narcissistic city in America — works, I’m going to have to try harder, probably cheat and invent something as good. It’s so good, in fact, that I initially suspected Soloway herself of cheating, until I read up about her transgendered parent. Already the most authentic scripted drama in recent memory — and it is more real than most reality shows — Transparent got all the more authentic after I read the back-story.
Almost as much as I envy Soloway’s hook, I envy the Judaism that frames her world and colors her characters. As someone from a resolutely Northeastern Anglo-American background — more severely, from an almost purely Scottish-American one, meaning the kind that doesn’t even kneel in church and are stereotyped as being more parsimonious than the Jews — I can say that our family dynamics are imbalanced in favor of the grim side, or at the very least the colder side. It doesn’t make for the sort of family that gives your screen that warming glow.
As a native New Yorker, I appreciate that without Jewish culture my birthplace would be as boring as Boston. In fact, I am such a lover of Jewish culture that I’m an ‘oyster’, someone who sprinkles his sentences with Yiddishisms whenever possible. I love kvetching with yentas so much that I often rock back and forth with my eyes watering with pleasure when I’m doing it. Who else understands the importance of venting my resentments and complaints and anxieties than Jews?
Take for instance the difference in family arguments. I have scenes in my life where my father and I said one line each to each other, then we stood up, turned around and walked away, not to speak for four or five years. It wasn’t an argument, it was a nineteenth-century duel with pistols. I’m pretty sure I even bowed curtly once; formal cordiality toward one’s beloved familiars is the deepest of wounds, and I inflicted it. How far does that scene go when adapted for the screen?
To be authentic, I’d have to write very different family dynamics than Soloway’s to make them palatable, and that’s why I envy her. The one time I fictionalized my mother, after a table reading of the script she snipped, her faux-Chanel-clad arms folded one over the other, “I sound like such a bitch.” Yeah, well… The sad thing is, I thought I’d toned the real bitch down and made her funny.
Jewish culture is Mediterranean: passionate, messy, exotic. Jews are much like Italians, whose lively, child-nurturing world danced and gesticulated and ate so much better than we did right outside the doors of my childhood house in Rome. Jews, Italians, Greeks and others from around that ancient, sub-blessed sea criticize and castigate their children just like their Anglo-American counterparts, but they usually compensate by being physically affectionate and unconditionally loving and giving; although I do know of some exceptions, of course, Jewish childhoods as bleak with psychological abuse as mine. Those balanced light-and-dark dynamics are the glue that makes the Pfeffermans of Transparent so fascinating and yet so familiar.
What also fills me with Chagal-like ecstatic joy about Transparent is the writing, the characterizations and the performances, which flow from intensive workshops and rehearsals based on modern American performance techniques, which are firmly Jewish as well, courtesy Lee Strasberg, Stella Adler and, well, New York theatrical tradition in general. In England, actors are expected to show up, know their lines and pretend. But with Transparent they went so much deeper than that. They pushed and pulled each other’s boundaries, mined their experiences and emotions for motivations. Tambor donned a frock and heels and teetered around Burbank with real transwomen. He layered that humiliation and discomfort onto his already expressive grimace, and, oh, how it strips away the freak and the funny and makes us want to hug him and apologize for judging him as being freaky and funny in the first place.
If he were English, Tambor would have likely drawn on his experiences cross-dressing for Christmas pantomimes or the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. At any rate, most Englishmen have experience in transvestism. In Scotland it’s part of the national costume.
The camerawork and directing style of Transparent is deceptively whimsical and expansive, adding to its sense of hyperrealism. It’s almost as if Soloway is taking us into her personal sandplay — a form of interactive psychotherapy that draws on childhood sandbox “let’s pretend” games — using live actors rather than toys and figurines. The overall look and tone is early Dogme 95 meets Mike Leigh, with the loose, voyeuristic/participant Dogme camera buoyed and contained by Leigh’s formalized improvisation. It’s a realism achieved via deceptive simplicity.
A jarring comparison was made by one entertainment-industry site that I read in conjunction with my research about the making of Transparent. The writer said it was “Amazon’s House of Cards.” What he meant is that it will catapult the Amazon to be taken seriously as an original content provider, the way HoC did for Netflix. This is a done deal, certainly: Transparent already enjoys a 97% approval rate on Rotten Tomatoes.
But the comparison ends there. As much as House of Cards and similar shows are powerful, gripping and intellectually addictive, their worlds and stories fall within the realm of possibility, but they are unlikely. We know Transparent is real life transplanted to film, or I certainly do. I live in that particular Los Angeles. I cross some of those streets, specifically the rainbow crosswalk in WeHo featured in establishing shots, every day. Only this morning I was at a gay condo just like the Shangi-La that Maura moves into. In that respect, Transparent is more like the seminal Entourage, which hit so close to home that I squirmed through the first four episodes until I got used to seeing my professional world rendered into a pap of clichés.
Another show that fell within the realm of possibility, but then jumped the shark into the highly unlikely, not to mention at times excessively emotional and boring, was Homeland. Season four is a drastic reboot, a spring cleaning. It’s such an about-face, in fact, that they’ve even changed Carrie’s mental-health diagnosis. Formerly everyone’s favorite ugly crier, Carrie is now emotionless, unsympathetic, the epitome of ‘ruthless killer’, a terrible mother who is not above contemplating infanticide. In other words, she’s gone from steep-cycling bipolar to classic psychopath.
There is a risk Homeland might teeter back into mawkish family drama at times, but never to the extent it did in the overly maligned season three. But with Carrie’s mental instability now ratcheted up and the groundwork for some enthralling spy-vs-jihadi dynamics laid out, I doubt we’re going to see the near-fatal wobbles of the past season.
Cinemax’s The Knick went from being curious and all right to superlative over the past few episodes. Steven Soderbergh has directed and shot the entire season himself. This is some daring television: the production design is stunning, award worthy; all of the choices Soderbergh has made underscore what a maestro he has become. It isn’t often I research how a production was pulled off — for instance, I couldn’t care less about how Game of Thrones is created because it’s obvious — but The Knick is one of them. Again, as a native New Yorker I know my city well, and those are some seriously realistic recreations of not only what it looked like per photographs of the time, but also what it must have felt like.
I don’t even mind the anachronistic electronic soundtrack cleverly blended with ambient hospital noise coursing through The Knick, a sound that is so modern it’s futuristic. And it’s playing over a drama that takes place in 1900’s New York. Fastidiously accurate Downton Abbey this isn’t, and yet The Knick thrusts you so much more believably into the same period than DA, which looks as formulaic as a soap opera by comparison.
That soundtrack combined with that same Dogme 95-ish handheld camera as Transparent, often traveling shots tracking characters over the shoulder, makes the viewer feel uneasy, maybe queasy. It conjures at once the urgency of hospital situations as well as the disorientation a person experiences in those situations. Just in the way it is shot and assembled, The Knick drags the viewer into the dawn of modern surgery, when almost every precarious step was into the unknown, when most passageways and corners awaited illumination both figuratively and literally.
There are other shows with an authenticity mandate that either aren’t currently on air or have been cancelled altogether. I’m entirely fickle about whether I prefer The Honourable Woman to Homeland; I wasn’t before the start of the latter’s current season: The Honourable Woman was kicking the shit out of it. Now they’re back on a par. I do know that Claire Danes is going to have a tough time against Maggie Gyllenhaal, who has raised the bar so high that I’m not sure Jessica Lange can hit it.
Like Transparent, the regrettably cancelled Enlightened was such a razor-sharp slice of Angeleno life that it was often painful, probably because it was set in a gelid goyishe family more akin to my own. Perhaps what failed Enlightened is that it didn’t really shed new light on the human experience and educate, which Transparent, Homeland, The Honourable Woman, The Knick et al. emphatically do. For instance, after watching Transparent, I realized there were a few things about the trans experience that I didn’t know even as an LGBT person, especially about older trans folk. Nothing sorted out the Israeli-Palestinian conflict like THW. As for the trial and error behind the invention of surgery… Similarly, the hyper-realistic Rectify opens a window on the experience and debate about the death penalty and wrongful incarceration. I had only a vague notion about the creation of the atomic bomb before Manhattan. Although it is far from a simple production — still, it’s not at the level of GoT — Mad Men teaches us about the advertising business, the 60s, and gender politics during the sexual revolution. On a personal level, as the child of similarly dysfunctional characters straight out of Mad Men, it helped me understand the world I was born into.
Notable exceptions to my point among the shows I follow would be The Leftovers and Penny Dreadful, neither of which are probable nor simple scenarios. But Leftovers doesn’t rely on the supernatural or sci-fi to carry it forward; a supernatural event that occurs in the opening is the hook, but it’s not the primary motivator of the drama. Leftovers is more in line with Rectify than, say, True Blood. I give Penny Dreadful a hall pass because it’s extremely well written and crafted. I would also argue forcefully that it teaches the literary origins of modern horror, cleverly mashing together authors and material from Oscar Wilde to Mary Shelley.
Since I started writing this piece, I’ve seen the season premiere of American Horror Story: Freak Show. I’m an unabashed fan of Jessica Lange’s. I loved the first season and a half of the series with almost the same passion I have for Penny Dreadful. I thought the scene in this past episode where Lange’s character as Marlene Dietrich sings David Bowie in 1952 so off-the-wall it was brilliant in a David Lynch sort of way. The writing is quite solid, even theater worthy, in spots. But I couldn’t connect with the show the way I do with the realists. I will never connect with it, emotionally or artistically. I will see the full season eventually, but I will let the episodes accumulate in the corner until all of them have aired. Then I’ll binge watch them one day when I am nailed to the bed with a hangover so debilitating that existence no longer makes whatever sense I’ve constructed it to make, at which point I’ll need clowns to tumble and murder for me.
I am not shitting on the supernatural or the implausible shows by any means. I appreciate them for the entertainment value they deliver to people who don’t share my tastes, which are shaped by my rarified experience and education. Again, I’m also of a certain age where I don’t want to escape from the marvels of the real world the way I did when I was young.
I also admire the showrunners and writers who can wrap their minds and enthusiasm around what I can’t. I am dazzled by my friend Bryan Fuller, for instance, the creator of NBC’s acclaimed Hannibal, who has written and created other sci-fi and supernatural shows that consistently rank at the top of TV-buff lists. But I can’t imagine doing what he does. And I’d like to think he’d be bored to distraction writing and producing what excites me.
In all honesty, knowing that I can’t do the fantasy fare nearly as well as Bryan wounds my ego, and sometimes it makes me feel like I’m less that the omni-creator I aspire to be. As one producer who was developing a hyper-realistic TV drama of mine once said, while reprimanding me for turning in revisions to notes within hours of them being given, “Stop trying to be super-writer!” I’m not sure I can, but with those words in mind, I try, and I feel less of a failure.
Another real-life quote with which I soothe myself, when I’m panicked that I’m coming up short in comparison to others, is from my lawyer, a New York Jew who is my personal Wailing Wall: “You can’t do everything, James. But nobody does what you do better than you do.”
As long as I keep it simple, keep it real, I’ll be good.