October 17, 2010

What if Books Were Like TV

Following the recommendation of many, many people, I finally got around to renting the first disc of season 1 of "White Collar" (that's the USA show that stars Chuck's Bryce Larkin as a conman working for the feds). I have to say, the pilot really hooked me. It wasn't as flimsy as I thought it was going to be. Characters got some depth and there was a really interesting supporting cast.

One of my favorite things to do with television is to watch a series pilot and then see what changes when the pilot is picked up. For those of you that don't know, a pilot is shot and given to the studio to determine whether they're going to pick up the show for a season (or a half season or a handful of episodes, etc). This means, a pilot may be good enough to get the series picked up, but certain tweaks happen when the series begins, usually with the supporting cast or particular character traits.

(Look at Agent Gibbs' team when he appears in JAG compared to when NCIS became its own series. Those people are never mentioned again. Likewise, compare how much pop culture Gibbs knows in Yankee White compared to the rest of the series.)

What amuses me the most about this juxtaposition is that the show so rarely acknowledges the people that are no longer there. They might get a one-line good-bye if they're acknowledged at all. Or, if the effect they have on the plot is relevant (such as June giving Bryce a place to stay), that effect may remain while the character vanishes.

Can you imagine what it would be like if books were like that? More and more, authors are gimmicking out the book-by-chapter sales. Or the choose the direction of the story contests. Can you imagine what it would be like to read a story where certain characters are determined not to be best and just abandoned or completely retconned in later chapters?

Is it because it's in print that we'd be upset? Or is it just that television has done it for so long that we're used to it? I can't imagine reading a book where a secondary character is replaced by a similar but distinctly different character in chapter 5 without explanation. Or perhaps we accept that the entire story is told in a book and the author is given time to go back and revise; whereas, it would not make sense to reshoot a pilot episode with new characters. Still, I always want to turn the network and say, "You know I see that. Right? I see the difference."

Sometimes it's actually a good thing. Some characters don't work or the writers threw in the kitchen pot trying to make the network like them, and you get the most ridiculous characters. Sometimes, like in the case of Burn Notice, it's a step back.

I liked the pilot cast. I was actually shocked at how progressive it was. Sure the two leads were both white males, but the supporting cast was four black people and two white people. Of those six people, four of them were women. And of those four women, one of them was a lesbian. As American television goes, that's a whole lot of minority for a non-minority focused show.

By the third episode, we're down to two women and two men. One of them is black and one is latina, but the lesbian is gone. Now IMDB tells me June and Diana come back, but I'm disappointed at the loss of Denise Vasi's Cindy. I thought she acted well, I liked her confidence, and it was nice having a female that would be totally immune to the charming main character's whiles. I also appreciated how little emphasis they put on her sexuality. Too often the "gay" character requires quotes because the writers make such a big deal of it that it becomes a distraction, as if gay people aren't capable of working in a normal, every-day environment.

I'm not sure if I'll stick with this show. The episode I just watched failed pretty horribly as a procedural. And actually it failed worse than normal. It made an effort to point out that FBI Agent can't use the gold coin because it was obtained illegally, but then a confession is taken based on the stolen gold coin. Any evidence deriving from illegally obtained evidence would be thrown out. The entire episode is a road map of how to let two criminals escape any kind of prosecution.

If you're going to be a procedural, you have to get your procedures close enough to the truth that the armchair-lawyers don't see the gaping hole you drove your plot through.


  1. Diana does come back and it's HILARIOUS to watch Neil works his charisma only to have it fall on deaf ears. There's one scene where Diana pretends to be a hooker, and in order bail her out (long story), Neil pretends to be her John. He cracks a joke about how she's not even acting interested in him, and so she feeds him a strawberry. He asks, "Is this doing ANYTHING for you?"

    Her reply: "Not a damn thing."

    I ignore the occasional plot fail because I absolutely love the character arcs. IMO, every single character is well fleshed out.


  2. I've never watched White Collar or JAG/NCIS, but I also notice the changes between pilot and series. Often the differences are just subtle tweaks to hair, wardrobe, or personality. But there are also the character removals, as you've mentioned. There are many examples, but these two spring to mind:

    In How I Met Your Mother, Ted meets Robin in a bar and pulls her away from her own group of friends. After the pilot, Robin has no friends except the others in the main cast. No transition period, nothing. Her old friends never show their faces in her life again.

    And in Buffy's first episode, Willow and Xander have another good friend, Jesse, who's killed off by vampires. He is never mentioned again. Often, throughout the series, Willow and Xander will reminisce about what it was like back before Buffy arrived, when it was just the two of them.

    Sure, I may kill off someone in the first chapter of my novel, but at least I mention him a few times later on.

  3. Actually, in the case of Buffy, Joss has said that Jesse's death was deliberate. Because he was presented as a main character, his death showed that everyone was in danger and that anyone could be killed whether he/she was a main character or not.

    It was season 4 or later, but there was at least once when Jesse came up directly and another time (Conversations With Dead People?) that he came up indirectly.