So the Lady Wife is a professional screenwriter — she’s got a manager and an agent and a spec script and everything. She compares it to being Kevin Costner in Bull Durham — you’re in the minor leagues, so you’ve got talent, and now it’s a waiting game to see who gets to go up to the majors:
Aspiring ball players ride around the country in a crummy bus and play in tiny municipal stadiums. And writers, when they’re in the minors and hoping to go up to “the show,” go around town and meet with development executives. These execs are not really all that empowered — they’re midlevel people who have to go up to someone above them and pitch the movie the writers pitch them. But they are the gatekeepers. They’re the ones who are responsible for scouring Los Angeles for the hot new writers, meeting with them all, and trying to discern which one has the $500 million idea. This is a high-pressure position, and naturally nobody wants to be the person who brought in a dud from an untested writer.
(Though there is a theory that says that since a medium-to-large-budget Hollywood film usually makes half its theatrical revenue in the opening weekend, the success of most of these movies has little to do with the script and a great deal to do with a combination of familiar branding, a hooky premise, and shrewd marketing. Thus the increasing preference in Hollywood for adapting comic books and TV shows.)
(Also, many, many of cinema’s greatest flops came from “proven” moneymakers. Yes, I’m looking at you, George Lucas, the man who tried to foist both Howard The Duck and Radioland Murders on an innocent public.)
Anyway, when a writer goes into these meetings, it’s customary for the development executive to say nice things about his or her script (“but it’s not really right for our company”), and then to lay out exactly what would be right for their company. Which is almost always whatever made money last month. When Mamma Mia! became a surprise hit, everybody was looking for musicals — even though statistically musicals have been probably the worst-performing genre of the last thirty years. And when Taken, a modestly budgeted thriller with a good hook and fairly competent execution, ran away with the box office in February, everybody was looking for the next Taken.
Which is fine and all, and God knows I wouldn’t want to be a development guy and have to sit through hundreds of meetings every month and try to guess, based on the stars and the tea leaves and Liam Neeson’s wrinkled ass, which of the thousands of scripts floating around will become the next breakout hit. But I think there’s a terrible danger in looking for something exactly like Taken, because each time someone does the Taken story, we in the audience see more and more of the strings, and the story becomes less and less convincing. Sure, I’ll buy it once that there’s a highly organized and ruthless gang that sneaks into vacation homes and with devastating efficiency kidnaps virginal young women for nefarious purposes — but every time after that, I’m going to find this story less plausible and less interesting.
All of which is just by way of saying that I was first dismayed, and then amazingly pleased, when a recent episode of my favorite new drama, Southland, pretended to open with a Taken scenario, only to turn it inside out and flip it backwards over the course of 43 minutes.
The episode starts with a man puttering around in his yard, only to see, through the windows, masked men moving through his house toward his daughter. Of course, like the audience, he assumes abduction and rape will ensue, so he rushes into the house to pull his best protective dad rampage — only to be knocked down and immobilized with duct tape.
Pretty scary, right? Except it turns out that the home invaders just leave the guy and his daughter tied up and rob the house. They’re jewel thieves, not sex slavers, but because the victim is rich and the home is in Bel Air, two homicide detectives are assigned to the case. (In contrast, in the same episode a young girl from a poor neighborhood who’s witness to a gang murder receives inadequate police protection and practically no help from the system.) And then, in what I think is the most ingenious move, as the story progresses it becomes clear that the robbers aren’t even the clever, Hans Gruberesque thieves we at first thought they were. They actually confuse the police, who assume at first that they’re brilliant and organized, by making a series of increasingly ridiculous and amateurish mistakes.
The climax of the episode is a car and foot chase punctuated by helicopter assistance, and it’s one of the most amazing pieces of editing I’ve ever seen on broadcast TV. But while it’s certainly exciting, it also underlines how dumb and aimless the thieves are. In the end, they’re not particularly worthwhile adversaries for the police — and that’s the point. These guys aren’t Professor Moriarty matching wits with the law — they’re a bunch of punks who got lucky for longer than they should have.
I love Southland because, although it at first seems to be a fairly straightforward police procedural, it knocks down our genre expectations at every turn, providing less of the “Justice! Fuck yeah!” feeling Law & Order strives so hard for and instead showing both crime and law enforcement to be pursuits heavily influenced by chance and random opportunity. Every episode makes perfect sense, and the resolution to each is complete and correct, but frequently it feels that story has meandered far, far away from its inciting incident — which is what makes the show so fascinating.
In another recent episode, a cop driving home after a few beers is accidentally run off the road by some drag-racing thugs, who circle back and steal his gun and his wallet while he’s still unconscious. To keep the cop from getting a DUI, which would end his career, his buddies conduct the investigation off the books, putting together a “misdemeanor task force” to sweat the local community until the give up information about the missing gun. This results in public outrage (social commentary always sneaks into the show somehow), but it also leads them to a major gunrunning organization that they hadn’t been aware of before. They take down the guys selling M240Bs on the street, which is a major victory — and the audience feels it as such. But the original missing gun is returned quietly, almost incidentally, in a way that’s completely believable but also completely unsatisfying in terms of traditional narrative construction. And the writers don’t care. The universe is weird and unpredictable, they say, and where you think you’re going has little to do with where you end up.
This philosophy shapes the way character notes are revealed as well — as on Lost, characters who start out as heroic or comic show us their darker sides as time goes on, but whereas Lost‘s whole structure is about the inevitability of our sins coming to light, Southland often underplays these moments, suggesting that we’ve just happened along, coming into this bathroom or this gay bar or this living room at an awkward moment.
It’s a strange show, hard to get a grasp on — only now, six episodes in, do I really have a sense of who the regular cast members are — and yet it’s all the more intriguing for its ambiguity and its sense of mystery. And since Kings appears to have died an unjust death, this is probably the only new drama I’ll keep watching.