Wednesday 27 January 2016

When Is A Sitcom Not A Sitcom?

When Is A Sitcom Not A Sitcom? When it's a Movie.



At the moment, there's lots of press about the Dad's Army film, which I have not yet seen. I make no comment on that film in particular. The reviews already seem to be very mixed, but that doesn't mean a whole lot.

It is, however, worth thinking about why movies based on sitcoms tend not to work, or at least not satisfy. Clearly they can work, or at least be extremely profitable in the case of The Inbetweeners and Mrs Brown's Boys. But it's a tall order.

To help us think why, let us consider for a moment the Fiat Panda 4 x 4.

Yes. There is a variety of Fiat Panda which is designed to go off-road. See pic.

Yep. And off-road Fiat Panda.
Now, you would be forgiven for thinking that is literally insanity on wheels. The Fiat Panda is a small urban run-around car, perfect for parking in tight spaces and keeping the bills down. And if I'm driving one around Hounslow or Hampstead, I'm not thinking to myself, "I wonder how this thing would cope off road." Nor would I be wondering how to turn this dinky little thing into some kind of Landrover.

But someone did think that. And they worked for Fiat. And they created the Fiat Panda 4x4: The small urban runaround that can hack steep hills and muddy meadows.

I mention this because it reminds me of the sitcom/movie divide.

Sitcoms are not movies. Movies are not sitcoms.

And it's not entirely clear why you would want to turn a sitcom into a movie (eg. Porridge, Rising Damp, On The Buses, Inbetweeners, Bad Education, Alan Partridge with Ab Fab to come). Or a movie into a sitcom (see M*A*S*H, which was originally a book. Or The Odd Couple, which was originally a play).

Okay, I do know the real reason: money. A successful British sitcom makes you comfortably wealthy for a while, but not mega-rich. A runaway box-office smash like the Inbetweeners means that someone could probably buy a nice big house, the type with crunchy stones on the driveway. (That person may or may not be the writer of the movie, but that's a question for another time).

But here's problem: The sitcom and the movie are completely different beasts.

The sitcom is the dependable urban runaround: a recognisable world with regular characters who make the same mistakes every week and always end up back where they started, so you can do it again next week. And every week.

The movie is the weekend off-road adventure: a character leaves their familiar recognisable world to go on a once-in-a-lifetime voyage of discovery, in which they are fundamentally changed and nothing will ever be the same again.

Can you spot the differences is there?

The two do not go hand in hand. They can barely even touch each others' hands, so far apart are they. And it also explains why the standard sitcom movie is 'Our regular characters go on holiday and have an amazing adventure' like you get in The Inbetweeners or On the Buses or Bad Education, or there's a big event like a hostage situation, as in Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa.

You get a similar dynamic with TV sitcom Christmas Specials, which try to scale up, so they normally take the characters away to another place where extraordinary things happen (only made for a quarter of the money and usually watched by more people).

This is also part of the discussion about why 'last ever episodes' are so tricky to get right. And why the last episode of Peep Show was, for me, bang on the money. And the last episode of Seinfeld, my favourite show of all time, was bafflingly misjudged. More on that another time.

I'm not saying the sitcom movie is doomed to failure. It can work. It can bring delight to an audience. (I enjoyed Alpha Papa, especially the second time) It can make money. I'm just saying that turning a sitcom into a movie is like turning a Fiat Panda into an off-road vehicle.

But you know what? It looks like Fiat pulled it off. Top Gear magazine gave this ludicrous machine eight out of ten. But even they acknowledge this success is a surprise.

For slightly more specific, practical of writing on sitcoms, rather than movies, get Writing That Sitcom for Kindle or the Kindle App. And listen to the Sitcom Geeks podcast.

Friday 8 January 2016

Why There’s Not ‘Too Much TV’ (And What There's Not Enough Of)

“There’s too much TV” is a phrase we’ve been hearing a lot recently. It was most famously said in August last year by John Landgraf. He is the CEO of the FX networks, which brought us The Shield, Sons of Anarchy, Justified, The League and It’s Always Sunny In Philedelphia. And when a big, successful TV exec like that says it, people notice. FX didn’t step back from this statement. They counted up all the scripted shows on TV in America in 2015 and counted “409 dramas, comedies and limited series across broadcast networks, basic and pay cable and OTT services”, according to Deadline.

Now on the various podcasts I listen to and in the media articles I read, again and again comes the refrain from Americans and Brits alike: ‘Argh! There’s Too Much TV!’

It’s a golden era of TV, apparently. It’s too golden. Gold is heavy. And too shiny. It’s getting me down. Stop all this heavy shiny stuff. It’s too much.

As you can probably tell, all this talk of ‘too much TV’ has been bugging me. And it’s also been bugging me that I didn’t know why it was bugging me. But I think I’ve worked it out. The claim that there’s ‘too much TV’ is flawed for a number of reasons.

1. There’s Been Too Much TV For Decades

It’s just lots of it has been cheap, lousy and boring or trying to sell us stuff.

Let’s take a step back. I’m 40. I can just about remember when Channel 4 started. Until then, there were only three channels. But that’s already ‘too much TV’, as you can’t watch more than one thing at a time. The problem was the quality. There was lots of great stuff on, like Civilisation and The Living Planet and Porridge, and hey, let’s include Tenko. But there was lots of dull stuff.

And then came Sky. And Channel 5. And cable. Freeview. Freesat (seriously, who has that?) with hundreds of channels available, pumping out reruns of stuff no-one wanted to watch in the first place, cheap documentaries and infomercials. You couldn’t watch all of it. You wouldn’t want to. But there was already too much of it.

Now the economics have changed. For a variety of reasons, TV has become cheaper to make and distribute. Cheap TV still looks cheap, but you can make £120k go a long way these days. We made Bluestone 42, which looks pretty expensive, for less than £300k an episode. Back in the 1980s it would have cost a lot more and would not have looked half as good.

Plus there is greater investment in TV as Controllers, Commissioners, Bankers and Financiers are realizing that TV can be sold globally and make serious money. So, we can make more TV for less money. But there’s actually more money. And so loads more TV. Now, there may be too much TV for everyone to make money, but that’s a slightly different thing.

2. There’s Been Too Much Decent TV For Decades

And you could always get hold of it if you really wanted to.

The offerings of BBC1, BBC2 and ITV may have been uninspiring on occasions. Or maybe you didn’t like Rumpole of the Bailey or Howards Way. But you had alternatives. Even by the mid-eighties, video recorders were pretty common, and you can record decent TV, or buy TV shows on VHS. Or rent them. There was already lots of choice. Instead of watching what was on TV, you could watch Brideshead Revisited, Blackadder or Jeeves and Wooster.

And then came the DVD and a booming economy. DVD sales were through the roof. And then rentals soared with Netflix, which, in time, became a streaming service. Plus there’s, iTunes, Youtube, Amazon and Hulu.

That’s a lot of TV.

But there was always too much. And there were always options to watch something good. And in the UK, at least, despite the lazy claim that ‘there’s never anything on TV’, most people have had access to too much TV for at least thirty years.

So, what’s new? Not a lot. But why does this feel like a new problem? Why does the ‘There’s Too Much TV’ claim have resonance? It’s partly this, I think:

3. Why Do We Expect To Keep Up With All Decent TV?

How can they both look like Robert Reford?
There’s lots of moaning and groaning from people that they’ve not had time to watch True Detective or The Walking Dead.

But why the groans? It’s bizarre to hope that the world’s media will only produce just enough excellent content for one normal person to be able to watch in their spare time. Why do we have such an unreasonable expectation?

We don’t really apply this way of thinking to any other form of entertainment or culture, do we? I’d love to be able to watch all live Test Cricket involving England, full highlights of Premiership Rugby, Match of the Day, the NFL, IPL, all the major golf and tennis tournaments, plus some Formula One and Darts. But I can’t. There aren’t enough hours in the day. I work. And I have a wife and kids. But it would be odd for me to have a genuine industrial grievance that there’s ‘too much sport on TV’.

I’ve not got round to watching The Wire or Breaking Bad. They both sound brilliant. I’ve not watched them because I’ve got other things to watch (like Line of Duty and Parks & Rec) and a finite amount of watching time. And, you know what? I can live with the fact that I’ve not had time to watch Breaking Bad, allegedly the best TV show of all time.

I can also live with the fact that I’ve not had time to read some of the great books, ancient or modern. Gimme a list of the Top 100 books of all time – I won’t have read most of them. I’d like to. I can read. I love reading. But the fact that I’ve not read certain great books yet, or really good ones that are being currently produced is not a source for major complaint, surely?

But it’s not just that.

4. Maybe We’re Getting Better At Making TV. Is that so hard to believe?

If we accept that there’s always been a lot of TV, and that there’s now a lot of good TV, it might mean that we’ve got better at making TV. It shouldn’t be any big surprise. Every industry improves. Better cars are now made faster for less money. Aeroplanes are better, greener, cheaper to run and safer. Why should this not be the case with TV?

Maybe we’ve learned some lessons, improved our abilities at storytelling and TV production and the stuff that used to be indifferent is now decent. And the stuff that was decent is now excellent.

I'm not saying that we’re so smart that we know whether or not a show is going to be a hit. Of course we don’t. Nobody knows anything. Everyone knows that. But perhaps in the past some shows were cancelled because they sucked. Now maybe shows are being cancelled because nobody really wants to watch them. They were well made, well written and well storylined, well shot and well directed, and well edited and well scored. They don’t suck. They’re good. But nobody wants to watch them. Or at least, not enough people to make them viable, or worth continuing with. (eg. BBC2's brilliant The Hour) But sometimes, foreign sales or the desire for prestige or awards or monthly subscriptions might mean these show rumble along without much of an audience and become part of the ‘too much TV’ problem.

Except it’s not really a problem, is it?

Especially when you consider that in the same year in America that there were 409 scripted shows, there was also room for 750 reality shows. Yes. 750. And 350 of them were brand new. How is that even possible? In America right now, it seems to be increasingly difficult to avoid being on television. But the point is that there’s plenty of TV. There always has been. There always will be. Things might be getting better because TV professionals are, shock horror, improving their skills.

And bear in mind that if you miss a season of The Mindy Project or Hannibal, does it really matter? You didn’t read Hard Times, Moby Dick or The Grapes of Wrath either. And you only read The Great Gatsby because it was short. Get over it.

Here’s the problem. Or my problem, at least.

Okay, it’s an observation.

5. Most of This Decent TV Isn’t Comedy

How many of those 409 scripted shows were out-and-out comedies or sitcoms (like Brooklyn 99, The Goldbergs and Veep), let alone shows filmed in front of an audience? I’m sure you’ll think of some, but I suspect you won’t get to a hundred. You might not even make it to fifty. (I tried to get a break down of that 409 and failed).

It’s a similar story in the UK. There’s a bit of single-camera comedy that’s doing very well critically, like Catastrophe, The Detectorists and Toast. The mainstream stuff like Birds of a Feather, Still Open All Hours and Mrs Browns Boys is tolerated but largely ignored by the press because they’d rather gush about something much more nuanced, novel and likely to win an award.

But let’s bear in mind what the best performing show is on those channels that do nuanced and novel. BBC2, BBC4 and Channels 4’s highest rated show throughout 2015 has been… Dad’s Army reruns.
Moreover, let’s look at all the Christmas and New Year Specials and new series: Sherlock, And Then There Were None, War and Peace, Dickensian, Endeavour and so on.  Not much comedy unless you include Aardman's The Farmer's Llamas. And a drama about the making of Dad's Army.

So not only would I'd say there's not 'too much TV.' I'd also say there’s not enough sitcom.

But then I’m a sitcom writer looking for work. So I would say that.