At least in television crime stories, the bad guy eventually gets his just deserts.
Unlike TV, the world of crime has happy endings
Every now and then you read in the newspaper about some long-forgotten crime finally getting solved. Usually, there’s a crusty and dogged homicide detective involved. He’s been retired for years, has been obsessed with one unsolved case, has spent his time tracking down leads until the moment where it all clicks into place and he solves the case.
The newspaper story is frequently accompanied by a photograph of the elderly detective escorting the criminal into custody, beneath a headline that reads, “Justice At Last” or something equally bland. But these kinds of stories always produce the same satisfying jolt: it feels good to know that in the end, the bad guy gets his just deserts.
What works in murder cases, unfortunately, rarely works in show business. In the world of the entertainment industry, as opposed to the world of crime and evildoing, transgressions simply don’t get punished. Which is odd, because in most other respects those two worlds are identical.
A few months ago I produced a pilot episode of a television series for a cable network. Most networks order several “pilot” or proposed episodes throughout the year – if they like a script enough, they’ll spend the money to see it produced and then decide whether to make a series of episodes.
Rich television networks will order three or four times as many pilots as they need, which allows them to be awfully choosy. Smaller cable outfits will be more prudent: they often produce just what they need.
Unfortunately for me, the cable outfit I was working with had it both ways: they only ordered two pilots – which, at the time, seemed to suggest that both of them were a sure thing – but in the end decided to be as choosy as their larger colleagues. They only ordered one pilot to series.
Not mine, as you may have gathered from my general tone.
Which is OK. I’m a professional. I’m a veteran of the entertainment business. I know that every project doesn’t always move to the next level. Every script isn’t produced; every pilot isn’t ordered to series; every series isn’t a hit – I know all of this.
Still: this was a particularly good pilot with a great cast, and it seemed like a sure thing not simply because of the pilot-to-series maths, but because it was really, really good. And what’s worse: the show they chose over mine was really, really bad.
But you don’t have to take my word for it. The other show – what I prefer to call “The Pretender Show” – had its premiere a week ago, to dismal ratings. I’m not especially proud of myself, but I have to admit that my spirits soared when I saw the headline in an entertainment industry news site that described the debut as “lacklustre”.
“Lacklustre!” I shouted gleefully to a friend of mine, pointing to the headline on my phone. “Did you see that? Isn’t that great? You know what that is? That’s karma!”
“I don’t think you understand the meaning of the word ‘karma’” he said. “It doesn’t really refer to what happens to a television network that didn’t pick your pilot.”
I shook my head sadly. My friend has a small-minded way of looking at the world.
“Of course it does,” I said. “What’s the point of it otherwise?”
He wasn’t convinced. He wanted to know, he told me, if reading that headline really made me feel better about the failure of my own effort to produce a show for that slot. Was I happy now, he asked? Was this the television industry version of the newspaper photograph, with the old detective and the bad guy in custody, “Justice at last?”
“You’re ruining this for me,” I said.
Because, of course, he was right. Just watching the network suffer because – in my mind, anyway – they made the wrong choice wasn’t nearly enough. What I need for them to do, I realised, is to take out a full-page ad – or, better, put up a giant billboard on Sunset Boulevard – apologising for their mistake and begging my forgiveness. Anything short of that and I wouldn’t be satisfied.
“You’re delusional,” my friend said when I revealed this. “I know,” I said.
“You’re just going to have to make your peace with the fact that the network made a mistake, that your show would probably have been more successful, but that no one is ever going to acknowledge that.”
“I know,” I said. But louder this time, because I was worried that my friend was going to continue to make sense and I wanted to cut him off before he did.
As I said, I’m a professional. I know that when a network or studio executive makes a terrible mistake, more often than not the only fallout is that he or she is given an enormous amount of money to slip quietly away. In real-life Hollywood, unlike in the movies and television shows that Hollywood produces, the endings are mostly unsatisfying.
Rob Long is a writer and producer based in Hollywood
On Twitter: @rcbl