x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Do the impossible - order that cheese right now!

Being relatable, in the television business, is something we all strive for, despite that fact that most of us live in an airtight bubble somewhere close to the Pacific Ocean.

Let me tell you a story. But before I do, let me stipulate that it may not be what people in the entertainment business call "relatable".

Being relatable, in the television business, is something we all strive for, despite that fact that most of us live in an airtight bubble somewhere close to the Pacific Ocean. It's a heady challenge, of course, to be overpaid and cosseted employees tasked with "relating" to an underpaid and unpampered audience.

What the American movie-going or TV-watching audience wants - really and truly longs for - is a hard thing for those of us out here in La-La Land, clutching our yoga mats and our expensive coffees, to figure out.

Maybe our big mistake is trying in the first place.

So here's my story:

I used to spend a lot of time in Paris, back when the television business was a bit more robust and you could get away with doing things like that while under a studio contract.

So, a few years ago, at the end of a happy dinner in an atmospheric Paris restaurant, of the 12 or so diners, half wanted a cheese course and the others wanted to go directly to dessert. It was late, even for Paris, and I knew that one of us was getting up early the next morning.

As the waiter disappeared to collect the cheese cart, I leaned over to my friend and suggested that since half of us wanted dessert and half of us wanted cheese, perhaps the smart thing to do, considering the lateness of the hour, was to get the waiter to serve the cheese course and the dessert at the same time.

He thought about this for a moment. "It would be nice, yes," he said in his thick French accent. "But, of course, it is impossible."

It was impossible, you see. As if the cheese and the dessert were some form of matter/antimatter, and their presence on the table would tear the cultural fabric that holds civilisation together.

And of course I laughed and tried to explain in my atrocious French how silly that seemed, but honestly, it doesn't seem all that strange.

Last week, the biggest show on US television was a one-hour drama called Hatfields and McCoys which appeared on the History Channel. It's a western, basically - set in the Appalachian hills of Kentucky in the late 19th century - and it's long been axiomatic in Hollywood that westerns simply don't work. Ordinary people don't want to watch that kind of thing anymore, clever Hollywood folks say. (Those same clever folks live close to the ocean and don't know any ordinary people.)

And besides, Hatfields and McCoys appeared on a cable channel that doesn't program anything but historical documentaries. So it's not only a genre and a format that the US audience is supposed to hate, it's on a channel that it shouldn't be on.

And yet, somehow, it worked. The show premiered to very big numbers, and subsequent episodes proved just as strong.

Like a lot of impossible things, the success of the show was impossible, and then suddenly it wasn't so impossible, because it happened. My French friend would have been appalled.

But that's the challenge of succeeding in the entertainment business. It isn't to be relatable or tame. Half of what we see on television or especially in movie theatres has already been focus-grouped and risk-hedged into nothing, which is why recent movie failures - like the astonishingly expensive Battleship or the crazily overhyped Five Year Engagement - aren't so surprising.

Because so many of us live in a bubble out in the fancy parts of town close to the beach, we're like my French dinner companion. He wouldn't dream of putting the cheese and the dessert on the table at the same time because it's just not done. Until, of course, someone does it.

Rules, for everyone but the French, are meant to be broken. And maybe that's what people in Hollywood, like me, really need to fear: not being out of touch, or "unrelatable", but being too chicken-hearted to take a risk, too cowardly to roll the dice and bet on Hatfields and McCoys. It's awfully hard to entertain an audience - let alone keep one interested - if you're always trying to "relate" to them.

Rob Long is a writer and producer based in Hollywood.