03
Mar
11

Why Teevee Sucks (The Book)

Treehouse of Horror III6

“Mr. Blackheart?” – Lisa Simpson
“Yes, my pretty?” – Mr. Blackheart
“Are you an ivory dealer?” – Lisa Simpson
“Little girl, I’ve had lots of jobs in my day, whale hunter, seal clubber, president of the FOX Network, and like most people, yeah, I’ve dealt a little ivory.” – Mr. Blackheart

A few weeks ago, a reader (thanks Steve!) e-mailed me with a PDF copy of an unpublished book written by a longtime television writer named Andrew Nicholls.  Nicholls and Darrell Vickers, his writing partner, have been typing away for television since the 80s, including a number of recognizable titles and the last years of The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson.  (This is their website).  Nicholls’ book is titled “Valuable Lessons: How I Made (And Lost) Seven Million Dollars Writing For Over A Hundred Shows You Never Heard Of”.  It’s a 280-page insider’s tale of the bureaucratic, greedy, dishonest, and generally fucked systems and people that make almost all teevee suck so very, very hard.  There’s a PDF copy available at their website, or you can drop eight bucks and get a nicely formatted Kindle version.  Either way it’s an excellent read.

In particular, I want to draw your attention to two parts which serve to illustrate the same principle from two different vantages.  If Nicholls has an overarching theme, other than “where the hell did my life and money go?”, it’s that teevee is shitty because too many twits are allowed positions of creative power.  The first selection is the only section of the book that deals directly with The Simpsons, though Al Jean and Mike Reiss do make an occasional cameo elsewhere.  The second is about what happens to an otherwise promising show when the inmates begin running the studio.

The Simpsons was famously doused in anti-executive garlic by His Holiness St. Brooks of New Jersey, and “Valuable Lessons” is a reminder of just how lucky we are to have gotten the show the way we did.  I’m going to quote this at some length because it gets right to the heart of how utterly backwards and unintentionally cynical the unwritten rules of mass media really are.  From a chapter titled “Where Are They?” (p. 44):

Those who develop programs for television, who account for all the new shows’ existence at the annual TCA (Television Critics Association) meetings in L.A. or New York, often say they’re open to any new thing they feel the public might be turned on by. Innovation. Stuff we haven’t seen on TV until now. Push that envelope. We’re the network that takes chances. We’re always looking for talent. (No, they’re always looking for latent). We wanted to give it a twist, do it from a new angle. We told everyone this year to think outside the box. Mix things up. Take a few wild swings, see what happens.

So where are the high-IQ characters on TV who aren’t also socially inept?

Where are the single people with poor or no relationships?

Where are the characters who have three or four, or even two major interests in their lives?

Where for that matter is the person who is consistently interested in anything other than sports, beer, sex and money?

Where are the poor people who slowly work their way to wealth instead of inheriting it or winning it in a lottery like Malcolm and Eddie or Roseanne?

Where are the socialists?

Where are the highly-admired bullies? A 2004 UCLA study revealed that schoolyard bullies are actually popular with their peers and, contrary to everything you see on TV, they have the lowest rate of emotional problems. (We had a highly-admired bully on Ned’s Newt, but you haven’t seen that.)

Where are the men who offer to help a woman build or assemble something and who succeed? Or the women (Ellen being the exception) who do so and fail?

Where are the mentally ill Chinese guys?

Where are the families engaged in ongoing frustrating disputes with insurance companies, HMOs, Boards Of Education, local government?

Where are the unattractive middle-aged people trying to figure out why or where their lives turned out so horribly wrong?

Where are the men or women involved in ongoing labor disputes?

When has a boys’ sports team ever beaten a girls’ team?

Where are the Jewish families, orthodox or non? With only 5.8 million citizens, who’s more of a minority in the U.S. than the Jews? There are more Mormons in America, for Moroni’s sake. And where are the Mormons for that matter, God bless their underage-niece-marrying souls?

Where are the white characters who continually get the better of a minority character? This is the kind of argument right-wingers make, no? But what does it say of the idées recues of a society that a network will only air an episode of a comedy in which the woman shows her husband how to start a fire, or how to jack up a car or erect a camping tent?

It says they think it’s funnier that the woman can do it.

Think about that. They wouldn’t air a show in which the punchline was that an athlete can outrun a couch potato. Or that a Harvard grad out-SATS a self-educated guy who grew up on a farm. (The Simpsons is a whole separate case… and it’s close to miraculous, considering how much money it’s made Fox, and how much the other networks like money too, that it hasn’t been more widely imitated in half-hour comedy. Their secret: no network notes. Ever. Do you know what Fox did to help the show in its first two years? Nothing. They hated it.)

In other words, they think having the woman fix the tire is so obviously unlikely that to show it will provoke laughter. They are saying, “We all know women are incompetent at this, let’s turn things on their head in this one instance for a big wacky guffaw!”

Except, over the years, that one instance has become every instance, and the comedy has worn off like the outside of a Tic Tac.

If you’re picking up here because you skipped the block quote, go back and read the whole thing.  I’m serious.

Shit like that is why The Simpsons is unique, and why most television programs are forgettable and bland.  How many times have you seen the exact same plot on different shows?  How many times have you heard the same jokes?  Watched as the same concepts and characters are dragged in circles around your screen like the floppy corpses of vanquished charioteers?

Which brings us to Drexell’s Class.  This particular single season sitcom has so completely dissolved into the pop culture ether that its opening credits don’t even merit their own YouTube video.  You have to skip to the 5:35 mark, past the openings for The Trials of Rosie O’Neill, Step by Step, Reasonable Doubts, The Best of the Worst, and Palace Guard, to see them and, insult to injury, the video is titled “1991 TV show openings Part 7”.  I failed to find a clip; most of the video search results were maudlin tributes to Brittany Murphy (who got started on the show), and even those were just still photos of her accompanied by whatever piece of musical treacle seemed least likely to offend the copyright gods.  Drexell’s Class has been all but totally forgotten and, to hear Nicholls recounting of its genesis, it’s no wonder why.

Drexell's Class

Image yoinked from epguides.

The show was originally conceived as “W.C. Fields teaching school”.  It’s a pretty simple fish out of water setup: cantankerous hard ass forced into the company of educators he considers beneath him and children he loathes.  They even got Dabney Coleman to play the W.C. Fields part, which made perfect sense as Coleman spent the 80s playing cantankerous hard asses (most memorably in Tootsie and Nine to Five).  Nicholls describes the beginning of the first episode (p. 140):

On a particularly bad day, Drexell calls the father of a troublemaking student in to school, only to learn that the dad works at a local racetrack and knows of a wink wink sure thing in tomorrow’s last race.  Drexell places a big bet and proceeds to systematically trash everyone and everything at the school, while running back and forth between home and class to pack, and following the race on the TV and radio.  Of course after he’s called the Principal an “inflexible, barren, potato-shaped sack of malice” the winning horse stumbles on the track.

But that wasn’t what it looked like once FOX got done with it.  And please remember that this is 1991 FOX, the network that was operating out of a shoebox, broadcasting controversial fare like The Simpsons and Married With Children, and constantly promoting itself as the rebellion against network television.  Nicholls:

At first Fox seemed to be on board with the premise of the show:  the posters had a picture of a scowling Dabney and the slogan DABNEY COLEMAN ON FOX.  IT HAD TO HAPPEN.

But as we went into production the notes on the script bespoke a different attitude:
*character is too nasty
*give Otis’s character more genuine moments so you care about him
*he is a fundamentally decent guy and this needs to be sensed
*show how he takes the situation of anger and turns it into a positive teaching thing
*show edgier ways of showing “heart” moments that will be unique to the show
*he needs to have more levels in his character coming across (charming, funny, graceful, wisdom)
*have Otis push Billy Ray to a new level and show a breakthrough and how it has affected him
*a genuine moment is needed in the script
*show how he genuinely is a good teacher

Gee, can we get genuine enough?  When I read heart moments I just about beshat myself.

As you can guess, things went rapidly downhill from there.  FOX, the edgy new kid on the block that was supposed to be changing all the rules, had the horse race excised in full from an episode in which the main plot was the horse race.  A few pages later FOX lets them know, “We never want to see another scene set in the classroom”, on a show that had the word “Class” in the title.

It’s that kind of grotesque, Brazil-level absurdity that makes so many shows basically unwatchable if you want to do anything besides set your brain to “liquefy” for a little while.  Case in point, this promo for the episode “Bully for Otis”, which looks to have been broadcast during the original airing of “Burns Verkaufen der Kraftwerk”:

Har har, Dabney fall down!  Check out this joint promo for “Homer Defined” and the Drexell’s Class episode “Convictions”:

It’s funny because they’re prisoners!  Keep in mind that “Convictions” was the fifth episode of the series.  Five (5) episodes in and they had completely abandoned their premise.  Nicholls relates that the prohibition on showing the regular classroom came after episode four.  “Valuable Lessons” has plenty of those kinds of gory details, up to and including a dead orangutan, as well as some “aww Johnny” moments about Carson that are just nice.  It’s a quick read, and if you have any interest in how television shows are made, and why they are made so relentlessly poorly, it’s very much worth your time.


2 Responses to “Why Teevee Sucks (The Book)”


  1. 1 Patrick
    4 March 2011 at 11:44 pm

    I’m probably one of the very few people that watched Ned Newt.


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