Insert ELEMENTARY Pun Here (The Writers of This Show Probably Would)

Um. The violin music is a nice touch. It may, in fact, be the most appealing element of Elementary, a title which seems to refer mostly to the level of skill displayed on the show.

 

Show. Don’t Tell.

One episode in, I have a predictive formula for future episodes of Elementary: take one small part Sherlock, add a healthy helping of Law and Order (mixing different iterations liberally), and add just a pinch of Criminal Minds. Elementary, my dear…(never mind. Just. Never mind).

Short story short: If you’re looking for innovation, look elsewhere.

The show works best if you think of it as a kind of postmodern pastiche of the shows mentioned above that, and even then, it’s not working well.  The Americanization of Sherlock Holmes  – he’s sexier, sexed up, and talks in catchier if slightly less intelligent phrases – is a sorry one, and it’s too bad: both Liu and Miller have charisma and chemistry to spare.

Problematic also is Holmes’ legendary brusque, dismissive and condescending attitude toward Watson: they really didn’t think that gender-bending casting decision through. If you thought  Steven Moffat making Irene Adler a dominatrix did a disservice to strong female characters, try making the much-abused sidekick Watson the only major female character:  whip-wielding Irene Adler starts to look like Susan B. Anthony.

OK, maybe slightly creepier than SBA.

Fragments of dialogue echo Sherlock; you can see the invisible pen writing around the British mega-hit constantly, and in some cases, it’s just impossible not to feel that the writers are cheating us, and clumsily too. The beginning, structurally, is very reminiscent of Sherlock’s beginning, which starts things off on the wrong foot altogether.

This is minor, but annoying: because Holmes is British, he occasionally speaks like an eighteenth century person. Hilarious.  My favorite instance of this: referring to the Mets as the “Metropolitans of New York.” Yes. Yes. I’m sure that’s how well-cultured British people living in New York talk.

On a personally disappointing note: they miss at least one great opportunity for a cereal/serial joke, probably because most of the jokes on the show are like a Midwest thunderstorm: you see them coming two miles out and resign yourself to the inevitable conclusion just as quickly. Which is kind of (aside from the music!) a microcosm of the show as a whole.

What’s Up With Inequality?

Hey! It’s that time of the year again!

You know what time I’m talking about! The week to two weeks that every major organization tracking gender diversity in theatre/television/film creation releases their terrible statistics on how few women and people of color are making their way to the top of their profession so we can write angry blog posts about it for a week and then go back to business as usual!

That’s right, within one week,

Oh wait, but my favorite punchline to all of this: this editorial titled (I kid you not) The End of Men, TV Titles Edition  – which, more ridiculously, shows up when you post it as a link reading “Proof That Women Have Taken Over TV.”

Analysis: well, we don’t get to write, direct, produce, or create, but, hey, women are really being mentioned a lot in television titles.  Hello, progress!

Reveal statistics. Cue bitching and moaning from both sides. Close discussion. Rinse and repeat next year, when these statistics have altered to the tune of four points, or a couple more women on the list.

WAIT. STOP. NO! Let’s talk about this!

Hey, what’s up? Seriously, what’s up with inequality?   If this was one set of statistics, we might be able to get away with wondering if they are valid,  but these are three major data sets that all point to one big, uncomfortable fact: climate of our industry is one of serious misogyny.

Whoa, boys. I’m not talking about man-on-woman misogyny. I am talking about an across-the-board attitudes, from men, women and corporations alike (hey, corporations are people too), the result of which is a serious lack of women’s voices represented in our mainstream culture.

The bad news: this is not about convincing a few cigar-smoking men to champion the ladies. This is actually about changing our conversation about women.

Famous case in point:

Why are we still asking that question?  Why are we still sold on this idea that in making deals, in choosing scripts, in what we like, we are blind to everything but talent? Why will some of you reading this article cringe at the mere mention of the word “inequality,” thinking, “I’m so sick of hearing about this”?  Yeah, it sucks. It sucks to experience it too.

Great. So. Let’s stop talking around this issue, and start a serious conversation about inequality that is not about shaming any particular demographic.  Let’s start an ongoing conversation that addresses the endemic nature of the way we talk about women, represent women, view women, and why it is we’re having that conversation – as a culture – with men’s thoughts on the matter voiced twice as loud as women’s.

While we’re at it, let’s talk about the fact that women are more likely to discriminate against women. With women about half as likely to succeed as men, one prominent showrunner suggests that women feel twice as keenly the cutthroat nature of showbiz, and are reluctant to help others succeed. Let’s talk, then,  about why we pit women against each other to compete for meager spots in women’s-only prizes. Let’s talk about the women who succeed and the women who don’t, and why we are more likely to choose a man’s voice over a woman’s, let’s talk about it.

It’s not rocket science. We have an exceedingly powerful reach as a culture, in a world where women across the globe are disempowered and disenfranchised. We have the opportunity here to literally change the world . Now. Not in twenty years.

 If we are stopped by our own stubbornness, if we (much like the US Congress) cannot have an intelligent conversation oriented toward how we change at a much more rapid rate, then we are not the creative powerhouse we believe we are.

But we are. We are an industry of visionaries, innovators, and creators. We can change how this goes, and we can change it now. So, great. Glad we agreed on that.

Where do we start? Where do you start?

SMASH V. REALITY

There is theatre, and then there are cliches and assumptions about theatre.

Certianly the single biggest achievement of Smash’s first season (and perhaps the thing we should applaud it for) has been cataloguing an astonishingly thorough collection of the latter.

As a New Yorker and a theatre artist, I thought it might be fun to debunk a few of the bigger myths Smash throws our way about theatre and it’s business:

MYTH #1: Actresses don’t like each other (although they occasionally pretend to like each other).

Truth Factor: 10%

This might actually be an interesting myth to explore if it was addressed in any sort of nuanced way: say, looking at how difficult it can be when young women are directly pitted against each other for big opportunities, and the insecurity and issues that ensue.

But scarcely a nod is made toward the intelligent, multi-talented and collaborative women that actually populate the New York theatre scene, despite unlimited opportunities to show it off. Actresses other than Ivy, Karen and the appallingly one-dimensional Rebecca appear as one-line, one-dimensional characters, who always, for some strange reason, seem to be cuddling with gay men and/or stretching.

In related news: : shockingly, not every actress in New York would scratch eyes out to play Marilyn Monroe.

MYTH #2: All theatre happening anywhere other than Broadway is exactly like Rent.

Truth factor: 1%

I have seen hundreds of off-off Broadway or “downtown” shows since I moved to New York. I have written them, been in them, produced them, and supported others in doing all of the same. I can safely say that the percentage of these shows that resembles Rent is one in a hundred, if that.

Smash wastes every opportunity to examine or even make a nod toward the innovative people and work going on outside the Broadway scope.  The lesson of Smash is that theatre in New York about being the star of the show and getting famous, not making interesting work.

There is a plethora of companies making amazing work that is collaborative and imaginative in nature. And not about film stars. Surprise!

MYTH#3: Women in theatre cannot resist the powerful men around them.
 

Truth Factor: .01%

This is a real eye-roller.  Yes, yes, yes. People in theatre do engage in that bastardization of a word which is hateful to even say: the “showmance.”   Sometimes they are married. So – it’s just like real life! Office romance!   Most women in theatre, though, especially those that have been working for any time period longer than six months, know how to have at least some professional relationships with the men around them.

In Smash-world,  the handsome, narcissistic actors and directors of the theatre world prove an irresistible temptation to the women who work with them – and when these affairs and intrigues start to go south, the women  suffer from hysterical emotional outbursts which sabotage their careers and marriages.

I don’t even feel the need to debunk this. It’s sexist and ridiculous and debunks itself.

 MYTH  #4: Assistants are crazy,  fame-hungry lunatics.

Truth factor: 5%

Tom’s creepy assistant/former-assistant, Ellis, who I think is the strangest character on the show by a long mile, is like something out of an Alfred Hitchcock movie. From a passing comment, he leaps to assume that he is a creative force and then proceeds to implausibly stuff himself into corners and appear in crannies like an evil wizard from Harry Potter. Really? Come on.

Here’s a little insight into the world of assistants and what they want: a career. That’s right! I know it sounds crazy, but most assistants actually want to have careers! Not only that, they want to work with successful, creative people, not sabotage them! So they actually, when not prevented by some sort of inherent sociopathic tendency, work hard, learn a lot, and often are rewarded for working hard, and end up succeeding.

Three bonus myths to be on the look out for!

 #5: People in the theatre like to throw drinks in other theatre people’s faces in real life, because it’s just so dramatically fulfilling.

#6: Everyone that lives outside of New York is a caricature, preferably sourced from a Norman Rockwell painting or a Hannah Montana movie.

 #7: People from the theatre love to use lines that sound like they could come from plays. Ex. “Don’t walk away.”  or  “I can’t do this anymore.”

I can only think there must be a drinking game in there somewhere.

Sherlocked: The Game is ON

If you haven’t heard of the BBC’s Sherlock as of the date of this post, get off your couch where you’ve been watching Law and Order: SVU marathons for the last three months. There’s a new detective in town – and judging the walloping publicity campaign for the much-anticipated CBS show Elementary, he’s here to stay.

Sherlock, co-created by Steven Moffatt and Mark Gatiss, follows the modern-day adventures of one Sherlock Holmes and his put-upon assistant, Dr. John Watson.

The show exists in a kind of sexy hyper-reality where the audience is privy to text messages, blog entries, and the thought processes of the characters through the layering of text and images over the screen images.   It’s a little bit like Google Glasses for television (remember Google Glasses?).

If you’re anything like me (and I always assume that you’re a least a little bit like me), you spend most of your day taking in at least two sources of visual information: you’re walking to the subway and you’re catching up on Deadline.com. You’re watching television and you’re catching up on Deadline.com.  You’re hanging out with friends and…well, you get the idea (don’t hate. I’m very informed).

Sherlock masterfully capitalizes on our multi-multi-multi-tasking brains and manages to essentially compress a great deal of information into a few seconds by making the delivery of that information exciting and making the audience feel, like Sherlock, hyper-smart.

This is intelligent television-making we should all pay attention to and here’s why.

This may be the trend to watch.  As viewer attention spans change and become less focused, there are two ways to start working more effectively: a) fit as much story as possible into a smaller amount of time, or b) create a world for the show where information is multilayered and rapid, never allowing your audience downtime to say, check their cellphones.

Sherlock, with episodes that are essentially mini-movies, has the luxury of length, but Moffatt and Gatiss, smart television folk that they are, have created a world where suspense and character are created on a number of levels simultaneously (there’s a great chase scene in the first episode, A Study in Pink, that really shows this off).

Watching an episode feels like being a in a high-speed amusement park ride, where we are occasionally intentionally stopped for a few moments before being taken around the next curve.  The iron-handed control of how the audience experiences each episode’s narrative is fascinating.

It will be interesting to see what direction Elementary goes in, whether CBS embraces this stylistic choice, and what audience response will be.  While I am a huge fan of Sherlock Holmes (the books), I doubt very much that Sherlock’s success is all due to the story of the detective – and has quite a bit to do with how this re-telling is packaged.

 

‘Make Those Around You Better’ : Collaborating Effectively

As creators become ever more connected to the people responsible to bringing that work to light – from producers to fans – we must deal head on with the process of collaboration. Every software interface seems designed to put us in communication with our peers and our idols. Even celebrities are jumping on the crowdfunding bandwagon to fund passion projects. There has never been a better time to get a team of people working on your ideas.

Many of us writer-folk tend to shudder away from the idea of collaboration because we want to protect our ideas until the “right person” comes along to lift us from obscurity and place us on the Oscar podium where we belong. And yet there is little evidence to support the notion that great work is made a vacuum. Reading the autobiographies of those who have succeeded in the biz, it’s impossible not to notice the formula:

Meet Someone + Work Together = Meet More People + Work Together + (repeat until sickeningly wealthy and famous).

Great! You say. I’m ready to meet people. Let’s go to Starbucks!

Hold your horses. Collaboration is an art form in itself, and the entertainment industry is home to the best and worst kinds of it. Some mad skills are required to do some excellent networking here.

Fortunately, the Internet has got you covered.

The first place to turn for collaborative advice is to the masters of collaboration: scientists. This article about scientific collaboration in graduate programs has some of the best advice for artistic collaboration I’ve read, and outlines comprehensively who to reach out to in collaborating, and the qualities of good collaboration.

Our next stop is PBS, to a recent and incredibly thorough article that deals specifically with collaborative journalism.

This chart created by Kelly Hall from East Carolina University offers a good evaluation of collaboration in groups.

Gregg Komer’s terrific blog Collaborative Acumen offers a wealth of information and insight on being a good collaborator.

If you’re sitting at your computer thinking “But I want to protect my precious ideas!” – you’re not wrong. You don’t just want to start riffing ideas with your neighborhood bum on your Brooklyn stoop – but you might also shouldn’t be spouting ideas to every industry-affiliated suit that comes around.

In our profession, ideas are money and success and the fulfillment of what we want. It’s important to be communicative and upfront, especially if writing with others, and take Rights for Writers’ advice on creating collaborative agreements. Be wise about sharing your ideas.  There are a lot of awesome, talented people out there who might be the key to bringing your work to life – and ultimately, that’s the result you want.

Collaboration, to me, is best described by the Jack Clark quote contained in the NPR article: “make those around you better.”