Monday, May 22, 2017

My review of the new TWIN PEAKS

When TWIN PEAKS first premiered in 1990 it truly was mind-blowing. There had NEVER been a show like that. Utterly spellbinding. David Lynch was at the height of his popularity. BLUE VELVET brought new meaning to the phrase “ear to the ground” and Dennis Hopper was maybe the creepiest villain ever... until Dean Stockwell showed up in the same movie.

Right from the first night TWIN PEAKS was an absolute sensation – a breakout hit for ABC. The entire country was speculating over who killed Laura Palmer and can a log really talk? The series was filled with riddles, and imagery, and horrific images, and the same crummy furniture from BLUE VELVET apartments. (Were Ralph & Alice Kramden the set dressers?)  Coffee and cherry pie became our national dessert.

Sound played a big role as well with eerie music and winds that only seemed to howl when characters were indoors.  There must be horrible insulation in the Pacific Northwest.  Where other shows hire orchestras to provide the soundtrack, Lynch seemed to use a guy breathing heavily into an oxygen mask.

TWIN PEAKS began as a midseason series and was riveting... until they revealed who actually killed Laura Palmer – well, sort of. After that it was never the same.  Everything after that felt unfocused. I just pictured writers Lynch and Mark Frost constantly saying “Now what do we do?” In short order, the series lost its magic and eventually was cancelled.

A few years later there was a TWIN PEAKS prequel movie that dealt with the Laura Palmer storyline in much greater detail. And the movie did… meh. Since I was a fan of the show I saw the movie. But the more I got to know Laura Palmer the less I liked her and the less I cared that someone was about to bump her off.

Then a few years ago word came down that Lynch and Frost were reviving TWIN PEAKS for SHOWTIME. Was I excited? No. Not really. Was I curious? Sure. Would Lynch be able to catch lightening in a bottle twice? Certainly worth a look.

I must say I was a little surprised by the level of anticipation as the premier date drew near. I guess there were a lot more diehard TWIN PEAKS fans than I thought. So I was in front of my TV last night at 9:00.

What did I think?

Well…

I remember back in college living in the dorm.  I would get together with a bunch of friends, we would gather in one room, put tin foil over the window, sit in the dark, and the only illumination was from the Snoopy blacklight poster. We’d pass around joints, drink Red Mountain wine that came in gallon jugs, listen to Moby Grapes albums, soak up the far out psychedelic vibes, and really think we were cool. It was all so deep and meaningful. Today I look back and think, “What an idiot!”

THAT’S how I felt watching last night’s TWIN PEAK debut. All that imagery and those spooky moody sequences that I once found so mind-blowing in 1990 felt repetitive and silly in 2017. I know that may not be the popular reaction, but I’m sorry. What the fuck was I watching?

I never found it scary. I fully expect the reboot of ROSEANNE to be scarier.

And not only was it very derivative of itself, it was derivative of LOST and FARGO as well. SPOILER ALERT – That big glass box – didn’t the Others put Jack in one just like it? And those stark landscape shots of snowy terrain and scenes where folksy folks talked folksy was FARGO without the humor.

For me the initial attraction of the original TWIN PEAKS was that you had this seemingly normal town but under the surface was all this evil and strangeness. Now everything is so completely whack that any shred of normalcy seems greatly out of place.

I look forward to reading other reviews. I’ll be interested to see whether the general consensus is that the new TWIN PEAKS was the work of genius and anyone who couldn’t see that was just dense, or whether they’ll agree with me that just random weirdness isn’t deep, it’s a college film student’s thesis movie.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Multi-cams require multi-skills

Lots of TV-related posts these last few weeks since it's the Upfronts time of the year. Here's another one:

As discussed, there are not that many multi-camera shows on at the moment. And a lot of young sitcom writers have never worked on a multi-cam. So the question is, can those young writers adapt and write in the multi-camera format?

And the answer is: of course they can... IF -- and it’s a big “if” – IF they are really good writers and really funny. Yes, there may be some adjustments in style but so what? Talent is talent.

However, for a multi-cam to succeed you need experience at the top. You need someone who has been through the wars. And for young writers, you need these mentors. “Why?” you might ask. “If I have the talent and a fresh voice and all the Red Bull I could drink why couldn’t I just run a multi-camera show?” Maybe you can. But can you answer yes to all of these questions?

When you and your young staff are at a runthrough and something doesn’t work can you identify just what that something is?

And how to fix it?

Can you and your young staff rewrite an entire script overnight?

Can you come up with that big joke at 3:30 AM that gets you out of the act?

Do you know how to deal with temperamental actors (although this skill or masochistic tendency applies to any format)?

If you know your show is going to be long can you watch the quad split and know if you have the proper coverage to make the necessary lifts?

Can you budget your time between the writing, editing, casting, politics, and the hand-holding required to turn out 22 episodes in about 30 weeks?

And finally, can you turn out a product that you’re proud of? That doesn’t depend on canned laughter?

That’s a lot of stuff. Unless you’re a writer, did you even realize how many requirements went into that job? I’ll be honest, when David Isaacs and I joined the Charles Brothers to produce the first year of CHEERS, our background had been primarily single camera (MASH). Theirs was multi-cam (TAXI and various MTM shows). And they were solving problems we didn’t even recognize as problems. A couple of years before that we had a multi-cam pilot for NBC that didn’t get picked up. Once we saw what it really took to pull off showrunning a multi-cam we thought to ourselves, “We would have been buried if NBC had picked up that show. We were nowhere near being ready.” It was a humbling experience (one of many in our long career).

All young writers have growing pains and need to learn their craft. But I do think that young writers schooled in multi-cam have a steeper learning curve. And as a result are better equipped to take on anything. Those horrible late nights may be worth it after all. (Keep this post on file for when it’s 4:00 AM and you’re stringing Red Vines together to hang yourself.)

Saturday, May 20, 2017

Join me on Instagram

Yes, I'm now on Instagram.   Please follow me at  Hollywoodandlevine.  I promise not to post any photos of food or cats.  Thanks. 

UPDATE:  Okay, you shamed me into it.  I just posted a "cat" photo.  

Now that the networks have set their Fall schedules...

...here are a few things to look for:

ABC is really going to challenge NBC in February with AMERICAN IDOL, ROSEANNE, and THE BACHELOR. NBC will have the Winter Olympics. Usually any Olympics obliterates the competition, but the ratings three years ago from the Sochi games were meh at best. Of course, it doesn’t help that the USA wins maybe five medals total.

Tuesday night will have a flood of comedy. ABC, NBC, and Fox all have competing sitcoms.

WILL & GRACE will go up against THE BIG BANG THEORY when CBS no longer has Thursday Night Football. Good luck to WILL & GRACE.

On Thursday night, SCANDAL takes on THIS IS US. There’s enough real scandal in the White House. I expect THIS IS US to kick ass. And the Seth MacFarlane vanity Fox series goes against them both. That way Fox services the very few who think Seth MacFarlane is talented enough to warrant his own series (like he was talented enough to star in major motion pictures and talented enough to host the Academy Awards) and also satisfy the vast majority of viewers who don’t.

CBS has the most stable schedule. And stability has its advantages.

The CW is the all-Super Hero network. Unless your series star wears a cape you have no chance. How soon until they do a live version of Mighty Mouse? Fox and ABC only have half their schedules devoted to comic book characters.
AMERICA’S FUNNIEST HOME VIDEOS is still on the air. How is that even possible?

Is ABC giving up on Sunday night? I guess they feel they can’t compete against NBC Sunday Night Football. So they have TO TELL THE TRUTH and SHARK TANK. Their logo should be a white flag.

Friday night is now officially the dumping ground for hour-long series that have lost their luster. It’s hospice care for dramas.

YOUNG SHELDON will be the new hit comedy of the year. It’s also very funny.

Fox hopes that Lee Daniels becomes Shonda Rhimes as they’ve devoted all of Wednesday to his shows. By the way, I’m rooting for STAR.

Lots of military dramas on the schedule this year.  Green is the new Orange.

There are also a few religious-themed shows.   If you don't watch them this administration may just deport you.  

SURVIVOR is back. The only island they haven’t been to is Gilligan’s.

Throw in the intangibles like the World Series, two shows tanking and being cancelled right away, and it is still anybody’s guess how many episodes of ROSEANNE they’ll make before that thing implodes.

Next week I’ll talk about the types of sitcoms that were picked up and what to expect. Should be fun.

Friday, May 19, 2017

Friday Questions

Let’s dive into some Friday Questions.

The Bumble Bee Pendant has a question about the recent cancellation of LAST MAN STANDING:

Ken, so Tim Allen went on Twitter today (Tuesday) and said, "Stunned and blindsided by the network I called home for the last six years. "

We all know it's business, and its about money, but why would ABC burn a bridge, especially of an A List Star like Tim Allen? Why not be upfront, etc, and at least giving him some bullshit, rather than blindside him?

The Next time he or someone else has a product to share, ABC won't be their first choice.

Two truths: 1) Tim Allen is not an A-list star. Not anymore. Tina Fey is an A-list star. 2) Networks don’t care that they treat people poorly. Not anymore. Once they’re done with you they move on. I would not be surprised if some of the LAST MAN STANDING cast and writing staff found out about the cancellation on social media sites, not from phone calls from the network. You work on a show for six years and learn you’ve been dumped on Twitter.

And trust me, ABC is not alone. When a network wants to be in business with you you’re their best friend. They can’t do enough for you. HAMILTON tickets? You’ve got it. Room on the corporate jet? What time do you wanna leave?

Then they cancel your show and you have to walk home from New York.

Melissa Agar wonders:

I read today that Fox is bring New Girl back for an abbreviated season and that it will involve a time jump. Several shows in recent years have utilized this device -- Parks and Recreation, Jane the Virgin. I'm wondering what you think of the device. What challenges does it pose to a cast and staff?

I think it’s an interesting idea because it shakes up the show a little, and hopefully opens the door to new stories. It’s sure better than the reverse. On MASH we were stuck in this cosmic limbo where we couldn’t really do any time jumps. And trust me, by season seven it was very difficult to keep coming up with fresh stories that hadn’t been done.

Another advantage to the time jump:  If you want to make some cast changes they're easy to explain away. A line or two to cover the character’s exit and that’s it. You don’t have to do an episode showing his departure.

From suek2001:

I listened to your podcast through my ROKU device on my TV..through the TUNE IN app...works great! I did have a random question...how much did you have to pay to make your own theme song for the Podcast?

You mean my jingles? It helps to have a close friend who owns the largest and best jingle company in the world, Jam Creative Productions. We worked out a deal. A big thanks to Jon and Mary Lyn Wolfert.  The singers were amazing and here I am with them:
John E. Williams has a CHEERS FQ:

Was there ever an episode where Norm entered the bar and the writers forgot to add the "NORM" greeting?

There have been episodes where Norm entered with other people and on those occasions we didn’t do an official “Norm entrance.”  Usually they sang the theme from "the Magnificent Seven."

There may have also been a time or two when the bar was empty when he entered – so no, no “Norm entrance” on those.

Brad Apling wants to know:

It seems that bringing a TV show to the tube is complicated and getting more so in respect to, say, 30 years ago (which really isn't that long ago). So, it begs the question: Is there any encouragement for new writers to pursue the TV industry or is it a matter of numbers [some live, some die so might as well keep writing and trying]?

It is way easier to get a show picked up now than when I broke in. Back then there were three networks. If your pilot didn’t get on you were toast.

Now there are many networks, and streaming platforms, and premium cable channels. Shows can now be niche. So I would think for a writer this is a way more exciting time. Lot more buyers and opportunities. 

What’s your Friday Question?

Thursday, May 18, 2017

The current trend in network comedies

Deadline Hollywood, the online industry website, posted an interesting article recently about single-camera vs. multi-camera sitcoms. You can find it here.

They accurately point out that this year networks pretty much bought reboots of popular retro multi-cams but practically all new comedies were single-camera.

So what does this mean, trendwise?

At this point I must pause for a disclaimer. I have no favoritism in this discussion. I’ve worked on both single-camera (MASH), and multi-camera (CHEERS, FRASIER) and love them both. Additionally, I have no plans to develop pilots for the networks in the near future so I don’t have a dog in this race.  All I ask is that a comedy be funny.  Use two cameras or shoot it on a surveillance camera.  I don't care.   End of disclaimer.

The article suggests that multi-cam shows are on the way out. Three current multi-camera series were cancelled – LAST MAN STANDING, 2 BROKE GIRLS, and DR. KEN. The first two for monetary reasons, the latter for humanitarian purposes. And NBC’s multi-camera offering, THE CARMICHAEL SHOW, airs in the summer, which is like a professional baseball player only getting to play in winter ball in Venezuela.

Nellie Andreeva, wrote the article, and I don’t disagree with anything she says. Multi-cameras are out of favor and young writers don’t want to write multi-camera (although many of these same young writers have never done it and maybe can’t write multi-cameras) so they don’t pitch projects of that genre.

But I think there’s more here to analyze. TV genres run their course and die. RIP Westerns and sayonara Variety shows. They faded for a good reason. People stopped watching them. So you would assume the same would be true for multi-camera comedies. But it’s not. Most of top rated sitcoms are multi-camera. THE BIG BANG THEORY, MOM, KEVIN CAN WAIT. What does CBS know that the other networks don’t? (CBS, by the way, did pick up a couple of new multi-cams.)

For all the single-camera shows on the air, how many of them are really big hits? I don’t mean time slot hits, or gaining .3 share of 18-34 women when Live + 7 Day totals are in – I mean a top ten major impact hit.  (MODERN FAMILY years ago but now it's just hanging on.)  And that’s not to say that there aren’t terrific single-camera shows (and conversely, truly terrible multi-camera shows). But when Westerns were dying, BONANZA wasn’t a top five show.

I always contend that viewers don’t select their comedies based on number of cameras. They don’t know the difference in most cases. They watch THE BIG BANG THEORY and FRIENDS and SEINFELD because they’re genuinely funny. When networks say they need to program a multi-camera show to compliment another multi-camera show I say why? Who gives a shit?

When Fox says it can’t launch a multi-camera show I say what comedy show that isn’t a cartoon CAN you launch? NEW GIRL? That was six years ago and despite its tepid numbers for years they still renewed it. Fox must really have been disappointed in their comedy development this year.

Certainly there is the nostalgia factor in rebooting shows like WILL & GRACE, ROSEANNE, ONE DAY AT A TIME, and FULLER HOUSE. But there is also the fact that they’re proven entities at a time when networks make all decisions based on fear. The fact that these reboots happen to be multi-camera, how many big hit single-camera shows have there been in the ‘80s and ‘90s? MALCOLM IN THE MIDDLE maybe? Now it’s MALCOLM IN MIDDLE AGE.

And if these reboots work, what will it teach the networks --that multi-camera is still a viable form or they need to reboot SILVER SPOONS? What do you think?

There would be more multi-camera shows on the air today if networks put more of them on the air. Period. End of story. CBS gets that. You could argue that one of the new shows CBS bought is the YOUNG SHELDON spin-off of THE BIG BANG THEORY and even that’s single-camera. But it has to do more with storytelling. You want to see young Sheldon out and about in the world. You don’t want to see him stuck in his room. So of course it’s a single-camera show.  And I bet you it'll be damn funny

I think you stand a better chance of breaking through the clutter with a new multi-cam because you’re held accountable. The show has to get real laughs. And if you can pull it off (it’s not easy) you’ll stand out. And you know the TV business. If another FRIENDS comes along and is a sensation the next year there will be fifteen multi-camera shows on the air. 

But how can you find that next FRIENDS or FRASIER or SEINFELD if you don't develop multi-camera shows?

In fairness, though, I will say this:  When a single-camera show is bad it's usually just flat or boring.  When a multi-camera show is bad it's painful to watch.  And the forced canned laughter just makes it worse.   So it's riskier and risks are something networks are petrified of.  So it's not enough to develop multi-camera shows, you have to develop GOOD ones.  You have to hire writers who are skilled in the form.  Hey, it ain't Shakespeare.  They're out there. 

All that said, if I were developing for a network (and again, I am not) I would definitely pitch a single-camera show. Why? Networks are more receptive, I’d have a better chance of selling it, and here’s the main reason: There would be less interference. With multi-camera shows every day there is a runthrough; the notes are endless. On the night the show is shot there are notes every second on everything from camera angles to performances to set dressing. With a single-camera show at some point you go to Simi Valley and it’s 3 AM and you just film it. That’s for me.

But to just discard multi-cameras is like a basketball team just dismissing anyone who isn't tall.  And then there's Isaiah Thomas.  

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Episode 20: Romy & Michele’s Podcast Reunion


“Romy & Michele’s High School Reunion” has become a comedy classic. Ken interviews Robin Schiff, creator of those characters and screenwriter of the movie. Robin is one of the most successful comedy writers in Hollywood. She discusses her career, the challenges of being a woman in the world of comedy, an exciting new chapter for Romy & Michele, and she has great advice for young screenwriters.


Listen to the Hollywood & Levine podcast!

Podcasting my fate to the wind

It’s taken a few months but I’m really starting to get the hang of this podcast business. Like with my blog, when you present a variety of topics you need a little time to figure what works and what doesn’t. Eventually you get more comfortable and more into a groove.

It also helps to have some steady listeners. I don’t feel obligated to “introduce” myself every episode.

I’m still experimenting with subject matter, length, and the number of interviews. Thanks to your suggestion, between 30 and 40 minutes seems to be ideal. I don’t want to have interviews every week because then I spend most of my time being a booking agent. I’m also looking for some different more offbeat interview subjects. I think we’ve all heard enough stand up comedians on other podcasts.  Marc Maron is down to interviewing guys from open mic night.  In the future I also want to bring on some of my writer friends – names you may know but only via credits.

I continue to enjoy flying solo and not having a co-host. Especially now that Ryan Seacrest has been taken. I prefer talking directly to YOU. And all too often I hear podcasts where the first five minutes is the two hosts chatting about their weekends. I don’t care about MY weekend much less theirs.

I attended a seminar on podcasts recently. It was part of a larger international radio convention so naturally most attendees were forcing their voices down. I learned a few interesting facts. The largest segment of the population that listens to podcasts is Men 25-49. I might’ve guessed Women.

20% of all audio listening (radio, Spotify, satellite, podcasts, etc.) is done on smart phones. Podcast listening is up every year. Close to 30% of the radio audience listens to at least part of a podcast. What that says to me is that there are still 70% of listeners to go. So there’s still a large untapped audience. (Now I just have to figure a way of getting them.)

The most listened to genre is true crime. Duh! SERIAL kicked that into gear. Second most popular is storytelling/humor. Hey, that’s me! So I’m encouraged by that fun fact. It’s nice that what I present is not way down there with podcasts about lint.

One difference between podcasts and radio is that in podcasts everybody starts from the beginning. And most listen all the way through (another reason why a half hour is better than say two). In radio your audience is always coming in in the middle (and leaving the minute commercials come on). 

The bottom line for me is that I’m really having fun with it. It’s like radio except I can’t be fired and I don’t get any program directors telling me to just shut up and play the records (which is especially disconcerting when I’m doing a talk show).

I’ve got some cool things coming up, and as always I’m interested in your feedback – what you like and don’t. So if you haven’t listened to the podcast (or you did when I started but haven’t in awhile), I hope you’ll check it out. And subscribe. That and reviews are the best way to build an audience. (I don’t know who reads these reviews but I’m told they’re important so I plug them whether I know why or not.) Oh, and tell your friends. I’m hoping you each have 10,000 friends.

Thanks for listening. And if you haven’t listened, just click the gold arrow right under the masthead.  The current episode is all about the final episode of CHEERS.  And the new one coming tonight is my interview with Robin Schiff all about ROMY & MICHELE.

So far HOLLYWOOD & LEVINE is the most listened to podcast on my phone. I’m hoping to extend that to your phone.

UPDATE: People have asked how they can subscribe if they don’t have iTunes. Two of my readers graciously explained other ways you can subscribe so I thought I would share them. Thanks Jeffrey and Chris!


Jeffrey Graebner says:

You can subscribe from just about any Podcast application, actually. I use PocketCasts, which is one of the most popular options for Android and was able to easily find it with a search. I did just check and was a little surprised that it isn't available from Google Play. You might want to look into getting it added there.

There is also a direct RSS link that you can plug into pretty much any Podcast application to subscribe if it doesn't show up via a search. That link is found by clicking here. By the way, the RSS address is actually available from the banner at the top of your site. It is the little icon with two quarter circles above a dot.

I just checked and was a little surprised that it isn't available from Google Play. You should be able to add it by going to https://play.google.com/music/podcasts/portal and clicking the "Add a Podcast" button. You will then need to enter the RSS address I gave above and provide them with some information so that they can verify that you are the owner of the Podcast.

Chris Ledesma then adds:

To "subscribe" to any podcast, you just need a podcast app from your app store. Search "podcast" and you'll find many to choose from. Of course, most iPhone users use iTunes, but you don't have to. Once in the app, search for "Hollywood and Levine", when it finds it there should be the option to subscribe. This means that you don't have to go looking for the podcast each week. As soon as Ken posts an episode, your podcast app will get it for you. You can even set the app to send you a notification on your device, but that's not required. Finally, if your app has trouble finding "Hollywood and Levine" then you can search using an RSS link. Poke around your app for "search by RSS" and put this link in the search bar: click here.  http://hollywoodandlevine.libsyn.com/rss Good luck and happy listening!

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Why I love FARGO (well, one of the reasons)

Exposition is a bitch!

Like all screenwriters I consider it a necessary evil. You need to provide backstory; you need to define characters for the audience. But it’s generally uninteresting and often stops the action rather than forward it.

And yet it’s crucial. The audience needs that information. Too little exposition and the audience is confused. Too much exposition and the audience is logging onto Netflix.

What’s a writer to do?

I generally try to dole exposition out in dribs and drabs. And if I can couch it in jokes that’s the “little bit of sugar that makes the medicine go down.”

Characters’ behavior can be a big clue. Their look, voice, speech patterns, wardrobe, attitudes, and decisions all contribute to building a profile without someone having to say: “You’re a loser, schemer, with a limited education, poor self esteem, a modest income, shitty dresser, youth slipping away, and you have jealousy issues.”

Still it’s very hard to do that artfully.

Which brings me to last week’s episode of FARGO.

They did something that just blew me away. They presented an incredibly novel way to re-introduce all of their characters.

With FARGO alum Billy Bob Thornton doing the narration, he recited the introduction to the orchestra segment from Prokofiev’s PETER AND THE WOLF. Each character (or animal) was represented by a single instrument, and on the screen you saw the FARGO character who best represented that animal. So Nikki was the conniving cat, Ray the dumb duck, etc. In four minutes you absolutely knew who each character was without any of them saying so much as a word. Visually and stylistically it was eye (and ear) popping.

That, to me, is ingenious storytelling.

The episode itself was excellent too with the added treat that PETER AND THE WOLF provided the soundtrack throughout. There are I’m sure other parallels to PETER AND THE WOLF, both in the basic story and the fact that Russian characters play a part.

Great writers always look for different ways to tell stories, convey information, capture an audience’s imagination. This is truly a golden age of television drama. Shows like FARGO raise the bar. And inspire old seasoned vets like me, even after all these years. Talk about hitting the right note.