Sunday, May 04, 2014

TV: Black Box illustrates ABC's big problem

When Academy Award, Tony and Emmy winner Vanessa Redgrave does her first US TV series as a regular (not a guest star), it should be big news. But ABC's Big Box hasn't been news.


And basking there in this slow dawn of delight, she suddenly knew with the holiest burst of certainties, that she, of everyone in all the world, had been chosen, honored with this sacred mission, and closing her glad eyes, Suzanne could feel the quiet hum of this blessing slowly cool her burning brain.  And it was while she was surrounded by this same chill of celluloid that the dialogue began gradually to be decoded, certain words whispered to her and her alone.

That's from Carrie Fisher's novel The Best Awful.  What stands out to us the most about the novel?

A late 2005 party where a bitter TV actress who'd achieved magazine photo fame but nothing more and was at the apex of her slow fade to obscurity (and agenting) as her overly praised good looks melted off her face and left her looking like a man by the age of forty.

There she was, sloshing her drink, spilling it on any foolish enough to stand too close, and raving about how awful Carrie was, how she went off her medications and she was a mother, and how, when you're a mother, you're children come first and . . .

The Best Awful is a novel in which Carrie's fictional alter ego Suzanne Vale returns from Postcards From The Edge with a daughter and with a bipolar disorder.  It's a great book.  Carrie, who is bipolar, has done a masterful job conveying what Suzanne goes through, how the medication makes her feel dead in contrast to the flights of euphoria when she's unmedicated and on a manic jag.

But here was this failed actress at the party launching into a lengthy attack on Carrie, on Carrie's book and on Carrie's mothering.  This was coming from a woman who, in 2004, had missed her only child's recital because she was blowing one of the many trashy producers of a sitcom in order to get the second female lead in the spin-off (the planned spin-off never happened -- she swallowed for naught).  This was coming from a woman who had lied to said child about who the child's biological father was -- passing first one man off as the father and then another.  We could list so much more.

The point, though, is this woman was far from a 'model' mother and yet here she was trashing Carrie Fisher, who was openly dealing with being bi-polar, and Carrie's novel and, most of all, Carrie's abilities as a mother.

Like The Best Awful, Black Box revolves around a woman who is bipolar.  Dr. Catherine Black (played by Kelly Reilly) hides the fact that she's bipolar from everyone except her family and her psychiatrist Dr. Helen Hartramph (Vanessa Redgrave).  In the first episode, she gets engaged to Will (David Ajala) and tells him about being bi-polar while also implying her acts, when she's unmedicated, have included cheating on him. He then leaves her on the side of the road.

Americans don't like illness, the entire American culture is geared towards ignoring and avoiding any sickness.

Take "Scar" from The Bedroom Tapes,  the Carly Simon song that is about Warren Beatty.  Carly had breast cancer and found just how much some people can't deal with reality.

A man I knew once said he wanted to see me
I said I'd been sick but was on the mend
I told him a few of the overall details
He said: That's too bad
And he's never called me again
What a gift in disguise that poor little puppy
So scared of misfortune and always on guard
A big man will love you
Even more when you're hurtin'
And a really big man
Loves a really good scar

So the discomfort with illness may be part of the reason that the series is getting far less attention than it deserves.

Another reason is the current scandal.

The show is produced by Amy Holden Jones, Ilene Chaiken, Oly Obst, Anne Thomooulos and Bryan Singer.


That Bryan Singer.

The director of The Usual Suspects, Apt Pupil, X-Men, X2 and the upcoming X-Men: Days of Future Past.

He's currently being sued by a man who alleges that, when he was just a young teenager, Singer drugged and raped him.  Singer denies the allegations.

He's getting little industry support.

The charges may be true but there are problems with the narrative.  Possibly if Singer's last hit film Valkyrie had crossed the $100 million mark domestically or if his last directed film wasn't the bomb Jack The Giant Slayer, there might be a more rousing defense from the industry?

Whether the charges are true or false, the charges being made basically argue "gay mafia."  That's the group or alleged group often whispered of and finally put into print in the June 1995 issue of Spy magazine with Mark 's "The Gay Mafia: Who are the real power brokers in Hollywood and how much do they really control?"  Some see reports of a Gay Mafia as urban legend, as true or as an example of homophobia. The notion of a gay mafia was spoofed on Will & Grace in "The Honeymoon's Over" (written by Sally Bradford) with Jack being blackballed by the gay mafia (headed by guest star Elton John).

Again, Singer may be guilty or he may be innocent.  (And, in the US, he's presumed innocent until proven guilty.)  But with regards to Black Box, he's just one of five executive producers so why punish the show and the people working on it?

The third reason the show is struggling?

It's gotten an ambitious scope and it airs on ABC.  The two don't go together these days.  ABC's really struggling to break open any TV series which can't be summarized in a brief, one sentence logline.

For example, Nashville actually is a great series. It could be hailed as "One of the best show's you're not watching" were it not for the fact that it has a solid audience.  But ABC's been unable to expand it beyond that core because the network just doesn't know what it's doing.

For example, Chris Carmack should have been the focus of half the promos this season because his Will is a closeted country singer and this story is (a) involving and (b) not what the promos have sold the show as. Much should also have been made of Oliver Hudson joining the show this season.  First, Oliver has a following.  Second, he's playing a character unlike any other on the show.

Nashville's problem isn't the writing or the acting or the production (unlike the Water Cooler Set, we grasp directors don't really matter on TV shows -- idiots in the Water Cooler Set wrongly think TV is like film, it's not -- the writer rules in TV).  Nashville's only problem is perception.

It was heavily advertised last season as a battle between established country music star Rayna (Connie Britton) and up and comer Juliette (Hayden Panettiere).  In other words, it was promoted as All About Eve with banjos and steel guitar.  That's not what it ever was but that is the image ABC promoted and the image that's stuck.  Stressing Will and Oliver Hudson's Jeff in the promos could have gone a long way towards expanding the image of the show.  There's nothing wrong with Britton or Panettiere or the performances that they're giving but the people who haven't tuned in are avoiding the show because of the advertising.

Black Box is strong television that's struggling for an audience.  That could be due to the lead character's illness, it could be due to allegations about Bryan Singer, it could be due to ABC's inability to break open a program.  We think it's a combination of all three and argue it is the third aspect that is ABC's biggest problem.  Black Box will last another season or it won't.  Networks also have little interest in shows starring people with illnesses (the stars in the various medical dramas are always the doctors, not the patients).  If Bryan Singer's guilty, producing a TV show will be the least of his problems.

But the inability -- with free airtime -- to promote your own shows?  The inability in your own network promos to expand interest in your shows?  That's a much more serious problem.  ABC can have shows that deliver -- and Black Box and Nashville deliver -- but it doesn't make a difference if ABC has no clue how to promote their shows.  Here's the first hint: Lose the cookie cutter approach, this is a network not Touchstone Pictures.

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