The programmes French TV executives want, it turns out, are quite like the ones American TV executives want. And that's not necessarily a good thing.
A sad day when the same old formula also works in Paris
About four years before it was even invented, people started hating television. Especially American television.
You've heard the clichés: bad sitcoms, predictable dramas, tame dialogue, soft characters. These days, though, things have changed. Some of the best, most interesting, and most riveting entertainment is on television. Television has become a lot more sophisticated, even while its blood rival - the feature film business - has decided to make movies exclusively about robots.
But it's hard to shake a bad reputation, and those of us who work in television always feel a little bit sheepish about it. The great writer Fred Allen once called television "chewing gum for the eyes", and there's still the sting of truth to that remark. Network television executives remain ever vigilant against scripts that are too interesting, or too funny, or too unexpected to put on the air. There are some great shows on American television, but each has had to swim against a heavy tide of notes, market research, fearful executives and a preference for the inoffensive.
So a couple of weeks ago, when I found myself in the offices of a couple of television executives in France, I thought maybe I was in for it. I mean, you know the French. They may no longer have an empire, but if there's one thing they're great at, it's being condescending to Americans.
I'm helping out on a promising project - a show that's designed to be shot in Los Angeles for a French audience - and the reason I agreed to help back in the autumn (aside from the truth that it's a fun, smart idea) is that I knew that at some point this winter, I'd have to be in Paris for a script meeting. I've always wanted to say to someone in Los Angeles, when she asks, "Hey, can we get together next week for lunch?" - "Next week? No, I'm sorry. Next week I'm in Paris. For a script meeting."
And even though I don't smoke, in my version of this conversation I am suddenly smoking, and wearing a scarf, and sipping a small cup of coffee. And looking both sad and amused at the same time. And shrugging.
I like France, as you've probably gathered.
But I was worried, a bit, about this script meeting, because I'd be there as the American guy, the American writer, the guy who writes Le Sit Com. And I braced myself for a lot of subtle but unmistakable disdain from the executives. I had never heard the kinds of things French television executives are concerned with, but I imagined they'd be the opposite of what an American network executive might want, and distinctly French. You know, like:
"Can the story be less … conclusive?"
"Can this character have a greater sense of ... surrealism?"
"We think the main character here should die." That sort of thing.
Now, I speak a little bit of French, and I understand it pretty well, but in the meeting - which was entirely in French - I was about six seconds behind. It was like watching a slightly delayed satellite transmission. My brain translator was a bit slow that morning, but I wasn't worried, really, because I thought I had the notes already figured out: they're going to want the script to be less American, and a lot more French.
I'll be honest: my attention drifted a bit. At a certain point, I just gave up and started counting the number of scarves and shrugs. I had reached about a dozen when I something snapped me to attention.
I heard someone use the phrase plus aimable. I know enough French to know that means "more likeable", which is something I hear a lot from American television executives. They are always concerned about characters being likeable and friendly, approachable and non-threatening.
They wanted the main character to be more likeable in France, too. Which was disconcerting.
And then I heard the phrase bouclé, which means, basically, "wrapped up". That's another thing American executives like: stories with definitive buttoned-up finishes. They don't like things vague or open-ended.
Neither do French television executives, apparently.
So the headlines from the creative meeting in Paris were: make the characters more likeable, and make sure the story is wrapped up at the end. Which are notes I've heard before. In Burbank.
Which proves that it really is a global marketplace. And that's not necessarily a good thing.
Rob Long is a writer and producer based in Hollywood