How Did We Get So Many Great Television Shows?: An Interview with UCLA’s Neil Landau (Part Three)

You and your interview subjects have a lot to say about genre across the book. Is genre still important as a means of marketing specific programs and targeting specific audiences? Are new genre categories emerging in this era of experimentation and differentiation? What genres do you see as most characteristic of the current television environment?

Marketing executives like to classify and categorize shows in order to package and sell them.  It’s often an easy “pass” (rejection) when a series doesn’t fit into one genre.  The network execs usually say: It’s too all over the place.
But now we have some phenomenal half hour dramedies that defy classification — and that happens to excite me: Atlanta, Baskets, Better Things, Louie, Insecure, Orange Is the New Black, Casual, Derek, Master of None, Transparent, Fleabag, Better Call Saul.  Even M*A*S*H blurred the line between comedy and tragedy, but was always known as a comedy series (with accompanying laugh track).
Are they comedies or dramas?  I say: who cares.  Just watch and have your mind blown. They don’t always go for the joke. They push their characters to the edge. They make us cringe and/or recoil. But I, for one, can’t look away.
Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt broke the traditional sitcom mold, in my humble opinion; it’s created a new genre unto itself.  Ditto: Baskets.  Ditto: Atlanta which features, in random measure, dark and light, funny and serious, and magical realism. It’s winning accolades and praise and deserves them all.
I don’t watch TV to see the same old, same old.  I want to be surprised!  I don’t want to fall asleep to my TV.  I want it to wake me up.
We’re also seeing more historical series (from long ago to the more recent past) and science-fiction series that defy our expectations: The Crown, The People vs. OJ, Stranger Things, Westworld.  Game of Thrones is such a game changer because it demands viewer engagement in a multi verse, and viewers of all ages are addicted to its story lines and cast of thousands.
There’s an interactive component to these out of the box genre-bending or genre-transcending series; we don;t just watch them, we discuss them. They’re in the zeitgeist.  They’re part of the national and global conversation.  It used to be that I’d ride the subway and everyone was reading a book or newspaper; now everyone is watching TV content on their smart phones, headphones on, fragmented attention spans processing.
Multitasking has become like breathing. We can consume content faster than ever and store that data for our social interactions; maybe it’s because we’ve freed up our memory by not needing to memorize so many facts and figures anymore; it’s all stored on our iPhones and available in a matter of seconds via google.  We’re distracted, addicted, restless, and need constant stimulation or else we’re bored.
Familiar genres tend to increase boredom, but familiar genres with a fresh spin can engage us in new and exciting ways.  True Detective (season one) was a tried and true detective series (the most prevalent genre), but it was an existential detective series.  Bloodline (on Netflix) isn’t just a family ensemble drama/soap opera; it’s a new genre: family noir. Mr. Robot provides us with an unreliable narrator and revels in destabilizing its viewers; the show dares us to guess what’s going to happen next.  The Leftovers (on HBO) is also it’s own genre: the rapture drama, inviting us into a world that defies explanation.  The season two opener offers a teaser that’s astonishing and rapturous.  Damon Lindelof knows what he’s doing, even though it’s not a show for everyone.

Alongside genre there is the question of format. At places, you and your subjects suggest that the procedural will die out with the generation which grew up on the broadcast networks. Why has serial television become so central to the new media economy and ecology you are documenting here? And what do we make of the return of anthology series, such as Black Mirror, or of series with short story arcs, such as American Crime Story and American Horror Story?

I covered this one above, too.  I should have read all the questions in advance, but I enjoy the spontaneity.  Sorry!  Suffice it to say, that audience engagement is stoked by the audience’s relationship with the characters.  If it’s a limited series, that relationship needs to grip us right out of the gate (such as with the exceptionally engaging The Night of on HBO).
Longer serialized shows translate to long term relationships, involving shifting allegiances, and often a love-hate dynamic.  Sometimes we root for Frank Underwood, sometimes we root for Claire.
The same applies to unscripted documentary series.  Making a Murderer was a limited series but I kept changing my mind as to Steven Avery’s guilt.  Ditto: The Jinx.  And this also applies to scripted series like The Night Of.  Give me a complicated mystery that’s smart and airtight and I’ll follow you anywhere.
The Affair on Showtime destabilizes us with multiple perspectives of the same event, Rashomon style. Sure, it’s a narrative trick, a device, but it works beautifully and pulls you in.  UnREAL also provokes and destabilizes.  It’s pitch black comedy and satire and soap opera and reality TV all rolled into one.  Black Mirror (which I refer to in my book as “The Twilight Zone on digital crack”) is just so damn disturbing because it’s not wholly science-fiction; it’s already happening, or will possibly happen soon.  It’s both prescient and portentous.  I can’t get enough.
Yes, it’s problematic that we have to wait so long for new episodes of some of our favorite series.  Between seasons of ambitious, expensive shows like Game of Thrones, Westworld, and House of Cards can take more than a year.  Due to Donald Glover’s busy acting schedule (hello: Star Wars), we won’t be getting new episodes of Atlanta until 2018; it’s a disruptive show that’s being disrupted.

One of the bigger surprises in recent years has been a resurgence of radio formats and genres through podcasts. Can we see the success of Serial and its successors as a byproduct of the same sea changes in production, distribution, and consumption you discuss here primarily in terms of television?

I can certainly foresee a TV version of Serial and other podcasts.  These radio programs are now valuable IP with built in audiences, and they’re also based on the irresistible allure of a great central mystery with twists and turns.  They’re both interactive (whodunit?) and voyeuristic, like the best of so-called “unscripted” TV.  It takes us inside the world of the crime and behind the scenes of the painstaking investigation. BUT ALL WITH A SLOW BURN.
Broadcast network procedurals tend to offer crime and punishment in one closed-ended episode, fast resolution, easy justice.  These serialized podcasts engage us and keep us on the edge of our seats but don’t offer black and white resolution.  The investigation usually just leads to more questions.  Justice is elusive.  These podcasts and true crime stories are grounded in realism, and hook us in based upon the vicarious thrill of both being there and re-experiencing the crime, or even by putting us in the position as viewers/listeners and thinking: What if this happened to me?

Critics describe these breakthrough programs as possessing distinctive voices or perspectives, a shift that we can see as closely associated with the rise of the Showrunner as a kind of television auteur. Many of the folks you interview are showrunners, so what insights might we get from reading the book about the emergence of author-based television production?

Great showrunners have all the power in the TV business — whether they originally created the show or have been brought in to run the operation.  Their sensibilities, leadership skills, and vision have brought them hard-earned reputations that they can and will deliver a high quality TV show on time and within a prescribed budget.  A fresh, original idea is good.  Being able to execute that idea in an exciting, authentic, visionary, accessible way is invaluable.
And several of our more famous show runners choose to run several shows at the same time: Chuck Lorre, Ryan Murphy, Shonda Rhimes, Greg Berlanti. I don’t know what drives them, but running one show is arduous and requires incredible stamina.  Delegation is key.
But these show runners have stories to tell and characters to birth. They are their own brands.  We trust them to deliver on the promise of the premise.  I asked Norman Lear how he’d managed to run multiple shows.  How did he handle all the stress?  He wisely replied: “Yes, it was incredibly stressful.  But there’s such a thing as good stress.”  Those were the days….

Several of the new players you discuss in this book are moving away from the pilot process that shaped old television production. Is this a good thing or a bad thing? Why?

 
I’ve covered the wisdom behind this above.  Ted Sarandos has condemned what he calls the idiotic, fiscally irresponsible, wasteful, inefficient pilot process.  I tend to agree with Ted (hey, you can’t argue with success).  One hour drama pilots can cost upwards of $5 million — and never air.  That’s unsustainable and nutty.
But there is value in looking before you leap.  But in today’s on-demand, binge-viewing TV landscape, the demand for fresh new content exceeds the supply.  If you’re a TV network or platform, better to be first with a new series than a day late and a dollar short.  In other words, everything is moving much too fast to calculate catching lightning in a bottle.
There is no magic formula to a hit series, no matter how much a network retools an ostensibly “broken pilot.”  Mr. Robot got on the air because the assistants at USA Network and NBCU rallied for it; at first, their bosses just didn’t get it.  But the inner-office fandom was overwhelming.  Most groundbreaking shows had and have a rough road making it on the air.  But shows from All in the Family and Breaking Bad to Black Mirror and Atlanta beat the odds and entered the zeitgeist.  The rest is history.

 

 

 

 

 

Neil Landau (’85), teaches in the M.F.A. screenwriting and producing programs and serves as the associate director of screenwriting for television at UCLA TFT.

His writing credits include the 1991 teen comedy feature Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead, starring Christina Applegate; the Pax TV series Twice in a Lifetime; MTV’s Undressed; CBS’ The Magnificent Seven; Fox’s Melrose Place; Nickelodeon’s The Secret World of Alex Mack; ABC’s Doogie Howser, M.D.; and one-hour drama pilots for CBS, ABC, Warner Bros., Disney, Lifetime and Freemantle.

Landau’s 2012 3D animated feature Tad: The Lost Explorer (Las aventuras de Tadeo Jones) earned him a Spanish Academy Goya Award for Best Adapted Screenplay. He is currently working on its sequel, as well as the screenplay for Paramount’s upcoming 3D animated feature Capture the Flag. He is also working on a new animated film, Sheep & Wolves, for Wizart Animation (The Snow Queen), slated for a 2016 release.

In 2013, Landau’s original screenplay, Flinch, was optioned by Avenue Pictures’ multi-award-winning producer Cary Brokaw (Closer, The Player, Angels in America, Shortcuts, Drugstore Cowboy).

From 2004-2007, Landau worked as a script consultant for Sony Pictures Television International (2004-2007). In 2010, he consulted on the Goya-award-winning Lope (for Warner Bros. and El Toro Pictures, Spain) and Bruc (El Toro/Universal Pictures). He has also worked extensively with screenwriter/director David Koepp (Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, Angels & Demons.)

Landau is the author of the bestselling book 101 Things I Learned in Film School (Grand Central Publishing, 2010). Focal Press has published his new books, The Screenwriter’s Roadmap (2012) and The TV Showrunner’s Roadmap (2014).