As I mentioned a little while back, sometimes What's My Line? liked to play tricks on their panel, and the Mystery Guest wasn't a celebrity at all, but someone with a connection to one of the panelists. That often resulted in an especially fun episode. And this is one of the funniest.
The other day, I posted an episode where the Mystery Guest was the popular newsman James Kilgallen, father of panelist Dorothy. In this, Ms. Kilgallen is off -- having just given birth to a son. So, the show had her other two little children on. And they are a hoot. But what's so funny is that, since their mother is on the show, they obviously watch it all the time, and therefore know the ins and outs of how its played better than most guests ever could. And at one point, they just throw the panelists for a total loop that has the audience dying with laughter for its utter cleverness. Host John Daly's reaction when he realizes what they are doing is worth the price of admission. I shall say no more.
One thing I will say is that since Dorothy Kilgallen can't be there, replacing her on the panel is a woman who fits in perfectly with our theme of children. It's Margaret Truman, daughter of Harry.
Never mind that the kids aren't famous. This is a treat.
One of the hard things, I've noticed, in writing lyrics for musicals is to use a famous line as the centerpiece of the song. It might scan poorly, or feel like it's jammed in, or the rhymes around it will be forced. Or any number of reasons that can go wrong. This, however, is one of the few that got it right. And that's all the more impressive given that it's one of the most famous last lines in English literature.
(Another is "There is a Sucker Born Every Minute," from Barnum, which a posted a video of here.)
This is the final song in the British musical, Two Cities, which has music by Jeff Wayne and lyrics by Jerry Wayne. It's based on Charles Dickens' novel, A Tale of Two Cities. And the song is "It's a Far, Far Better Thing." This is a number that could have go wrong in so many different ways, but it's quite touching and when they reach "the" line, it's extremely effective.
Adding a nice touch to all this is who sings the song. It's the actor Edward Woodward, who most people would recognize him from the TV series, The Equalizer. But he did several musicals, one a pretty big hit, High Spirits, based on Noel Coward's play, Blithe Spirit. As you'll hear, he's actually quite good.
Just to refresh your memory for the context of the song --
Sidney Carton is a young man who's been bored most of his life, and has largely wasted it. He's in love with Lucie Manette, but she's long-engaged to Charles Darnay and deeply in love with him. The are all in Paris during the French Revolution, and Darnay has been wrongly arrested and in prison waiting to be beheaded. Because he and Carton bear a passing resemblance, Carton decides to change places and save Darnay, so that his beloved Lucie will be happy. And as he heads to the guillotine, he recognizes the culmination of his wasted life and says, "It's a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known."
And with that, the novel concludes.
Which brings us to the song.
An article here in Think Progress by Alyssa Rosenberg covers a Directors Guild symposium, headed by DGA president Paris Barclay. The article tries to make the case that (what a surprise!) TV is a directors medium. She seems to buy into the flimflammery, and links to an article by New York magazine TV critic Matt Zoller Seitz -- written however for the website Vulture -- which she refers to as a "flag-planting piece." That article, which you can read here, has at its core the statement --
"The notion persists that TV is not a director’s medium—that any creativity comes from the writer or producer, whose jobs fuse in the P.T. Barnum–esque title 'showrunner.'
"But here’s the thing: It isn’t true and maybe never was."
Mr. Seitz's article is thoughtful and well-written. And it's admirable in the attention he gives to subject and its history. It also comes across as huge revisionist theory, and has little bearing on how television shows are, and have been, physically made.
It's important for me to put a big disclaimer here. I traded a bunch of tweets with Mr. Seitz over the article. (A terrible medium to do such a thing.) In them, he makes some points that I thoroughly agree with. That directors shouldn't be totally dismissed as meaningless in TV and its history, and that directors shouldn't be denigrated in TV any more than writers should be in cinema. And he ended by noting --
If all I had read were the tweets, I think I'd almost completely agree with Mr. Seitz (a very good and thoughtful critic who tends to care about the subjects he writes about, something rare and impressive).
But I read both articles, and whatever his and Ms. Rosenberg's intent, I think another impression comes through. Even if that wasn't the intent, I fear most readers will think otherwise. And I also think that in his trying to make a perfectly reasonable case, too much bending in the other direction took place, and therefore suggests offering another perspective.
What Mr. Seitz does do is postulate a well-presented theory about how our perception of TV is due to it being such a new medium. He writes --
"One explanation is that movies have a half-century head start on TV, so there’s been more time for critics to settle on terms and definitions. I like to tell people that TV, as both business and art, is at roughly the same place in its development as cinema was in the late fifties, around the time that the French floated the auteur theory. We’re still figuring out who the “author” is on TV shows."
Leaving aside the argument of the "auteur" theory that drives writers nuts, and has always been a sort of self-congratulatory flagellation (there's a legendary, perhaps mythic story about the writer Robert Riskin walking into his partner's office, the director Frank Capra, dropping a blank ream of paper on his desk and saying, "Let's see you give that the Famous Capra Touch"), this TV theory above -- while understandable -- doesn't have a significant enough overlap with history. Early movies were always a director's medium, most particularly because there was no sound! Early TV was always a writers medium because of it was radio that had a camera stuck in front of the actors. It has nothing to do with a half-century head start. And further, there is no argument about whether directors are the "author" on TV shows. Except perhaps in the DGA -- and I'm not sure even there. Maybe with Paris Barclay.
I have a great friend who directs on a successful TV show and was recently made a producer on the show. He was initially hired and later promoted by a mutual good friend of ours -- a writer...who is the showrunner in charge of everything on the series. My friend the director loves directing and directors. I can't even begin to imagine him walking up to our showrunner friend and explaining that he's the author of the episode he's directed. First of all, the show has been on the air for about five years. (A writer created it.) Each year, the writing staff comes in 3-4 months early, ahead of everyone, and breaks down the entire season ahead of time, what the episodes will be, how the season's stories will develop, how characters will develop, and then begin writing the shows. About 10 days before an episode is to be shot, the director finally comes in. He gets up to speed, shoots the episode, oversees the editing -- with the showrunner -- and leaves. And the writing staff continues writing, developing and planning the rest of the season.
“One of the common perceptions,” Alyssa Rosenberg writes in her article, “ is that directors in television are simply translating the on-page vision of the writers and show-runners.” This leads to Paris Barclay correcting that supposed mis-perception. And it comes from one of the funniest lines in the Mr. Seitz’s article is when one particular director proudly states that he goes on location scouts, which somehow seems to endow him with great authorship powers, he apparently believes. If that's the case, then the set designer who goes along also has claims to authorship, as does the location scout...and all the writers on the scout.
Mr. Seitz singles out specific shows, specific episodes and specific shots to push his theory that TV is a director's medium. And all the examples indeed are great samples of directors doing impressive work. It's one of the things he does well, as a student of TV history.
Forgetting for a moment singling out specific shots -- or even especially well-directed series -- what most critics (of TV and film alike) tend to overlook is that sometimes there's a really great shot because (are you ready?) -- it was described in the script! Not always, to be sure, but seriously, it really does happen. No, really. It does.
By the way, to be clear, there are absolutely magnificently-directed TV series. And directors at their most basic do solid, critical jobs in television. But to single out "Remember that shot where...?" as proof of authorship is to ignore the road that got you to that shot, even if you single out a dozen example, or hundreds. There are 700 minutes of script for just one single TV show in a single season. Multiply that by all the shows every week, of every network, of every season, of every decade for the history of television. There darn well better be some great shots in there. And great directed episodes, and great-directed shows. And there are.
And it's important to remember to that, much as film directors like to talk about the characters they helped mold in their movie (that a writer created), in TV that actor and character has been created and well-set and solidly established long before most directors step on the set. There's very little explaining who a character is and what he or she is thinking, when that character may have existed for three years already, or far longer, on the page and in the performance.
And again, almost all those great directors came to the show a week or so before the episode, while the writers oversaw it all. Mr. Seitz notes that today directors are producers on series. True. But this is a new manifestation, as he himself notes. Not something that always "was." And those directors-now-producers proudly now are staff are themselves surrounded by a full staff of producers who are almost all writers.
Moreover, a TV sits in a home. The audience invites its series in. And decides if it wants to invite you back week after week. And the heart of that is whether that audiences sitting at home (or watching on a computer or tablet) likes the characters. And is involved in the story. No matter how brilliantly directed a show may be (and many are) -- its character and story that involve an audience and get you invited back. A one-off feature film can bowl you over with cinematic magic. A TV series -- series -- has to get you asking it to come back.
Please note: it is no denigration of directors to say that TV is a writers medium. Nor should anyone suggest that directors don't play an important part, as Mr. Seitz notes. They absolutely play an important part, just as writers do in feature film. However, it's a writers medium not because writers are Better or More Important that directors -- that's a matter of ego and subjectivity -- it's a writers medium for a very objective reason: because reality demands it.
And this, for all I've written above, is really the most important thing why the theory of TV being a directors medium has no bearing in reality.
That's because Nature gives us seven days in a week. And 24 hours in a day. And 60 minutes in an hour. And no matter how hard you try -- you just can't get around that.
A feature film might have a detailed schedule down to the day, but it's free-floating, and if a director goes over-schedule, he might get chewed out or even fired, but the movie will flow on and eventually finish. When cutting that movie together, it might be 107 minutes -- but if it's decided to recut the film and an extra minute gets added, fine, it'll end up 108 minutes. If a movie's release date has to get moved, so be it.
But when How I Met Your Mother is scheduled for 8 PM on a Monday -- it darn well better go on at 8 PM on Monday, and it better be exactly, to the dot, 22 minutes and 30 seconds. (Or whatever the requirement is.)
TV schedules are voracious monsters, and their demanding needs must, must, must be met. There's no wiggle room for a director wanting to get the perfect shot, or keep doing retakes until he or she gets it just right, or trying to experiment with an interesting angle or...well, fill in the blank. Almost all of that has been worked out long before by the writers, in the writers' room. Down to the second. There occasionally can be some room for rich creativity by directors, and we see the results of that and revel in those results and appreciate them. There are great, visual TV shows and moments. But even then, the writers are usually on the set, watching everything, and making sure that it's all correct, and tweaking it as it goes along. (Look for a writer on a movie set, and you might need a telescope.) That's because the voracious beast of the Realty of the Schedule is always rearing its ugly head in TV. We Need the Episode Now. Get it Done. It Must Be Shot, It Must Be Edited. It Must Be Gotten to the Network by 2 PM on Tuesday. Must. Must. It MUST Be on the Air. on Friday. At 9 PM. And Off at 9:27:30.
That's why TV is a writers medium. There's no other alternative. It's not about creativity or talent -- though the best of TV is wildly creative and majestically talented. It's because Nature created a week with 7 days.
And no amount of revising history, no matter how thoughtful or well-written, will ever change that. Nor, as long as Nature is around, can it.
I admire that Mr. Seitz is trying to right a wrong, where the contributions of directors in TV shouldn’t be denigrated. And of course he’s absolutely right about that. But I suspect that this colored my perception of the article, since for 50 years writers have been trying to correct the perception of the Director As Auteur in movies – and much longer, the concept that writers just “word it in.” Writers being denigrated doesn’t even begin to describe it. “Schmucks with Underwoods” is how famed studio owner Jack Warner depicted them and their typewriters. So, to finally see a correction, and have it be how poor directors have been overlooked, it just went too far for me. I know the article was about just television, but in ignoring the larger history, and in going so overboard to change a perception (one which, by the way, I do believe is based on a valid truth) an unfair sensibility was given.
In the end, I'm glad to know that the point Matt Zoller Seitz says he was making is something I largely agree with. I just think the article -- with its solid thought and scholarship -- leaned too far in trying to make a point, and left out what are to me more valuable realities. I think that happens sometimes. You want to make a point and focus on it. And though the point behind it valid, the larger truth gets shunted to the side.
A couple months ago, you may recall that Elisberg Industries added a new member to our corporate board. That was when we made Rabbi Jack Moline our new VP of Telecommunications. Not doubt many people scoffed, thinking that Corporate Spiritual Adviser might have been more appropriate.
O ye of little faith. (No pun intended. Sort of.)
This morning I got an email from Rabbi Moline, hard at work in his Elisberg Industries office, who -- after scouring all our multimedia here that's posted daily -- came upon the video of Herschel Bernardi on Israeli television, posted here the other day.
As befits a VP of Telecommunications who is a rabbi in his spare time and therefore actually understands Hebrew, he kindly jumped right in and did a translation. What he wrote was --
"The Israeli TV show in the second clip is also fascinating. Bernardi clearly understands no Hebrew, and I can't say I listened closely enough to get the whole of his intro, but the host referred to our ancestors, 'our father Abraham, our father Isaac, our father Jacob' and then said 'today we welcome our father Herschel' and immediately mentioned him as the star of 'Arnie,' which was likely playing on Israeli TV at the time. He also makes a joke about Bernardi wearing sandals, saying he came from the beach."
To all you scoffers -- so there! It's for reasons just like this that we do such careful hiring. And why we brought on board Rabbi Jack Moline as our VP of Telecommunications.
Hey, do we look out for you, or what?!
Biddy biddy bum.
I thought I'd post a number that didn't make it onto the cast album of You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown, so it's probably not known much, though was used in the animated TV production they did of the show. It's an odd little piece that I find to be a hoot, called "Glee Club Rehearsal." It's certainly not one of Clark Gesner's most-substantive numbers -- in fact, a lot of it isn't even Clark Gesner, as you'll see -- but I love the off-beat whimsy of it.
There was a news story today about how a pro-Hilary Clinton for president super PAC had raised over a million dollars. The group, Ready for Hilary, began collecting donations early in the spring. The larger point is how efforts are underway to clear the playing field for Ms. Clinton to be the leading Democratic candidate, assuming that "leading" means "only."
It reminds me of a conversation I was having with a friend at lunch. This is a friend who gets very involved in Democratic politics and has hosted numerous political fundraiser and actually does have the proverbial "friends in high places," making it not proverbial at all, but very real. He was feel very morose about the prospect of Hilary Clinton as the Democratic nominee for president. He didn't dislike her, though there were things about her that he wasn't crazy about, he was just saying that he thought she was the wrong person to lead the ticket and wouldn't be able to win. All through the meal he was getting more down by the forkful. (Actually, chopsticksful...)
I kept trying to buck up at least his spirits by pointing out that it was soooo extremely early in the process. (I wasn't remotely as much against a Hilary-for-President campaign as he was, but I did want a cheerier lunch companion.) No, no, he kept saying, she has SO much more money than anyone, no one comes close to her in the polls, she's got the nomination. She's the one. Again, I kept trying to explain that in all my political watching, things can change all the time, that that's the problem with early polls, people can only say they'll vote for a name they've heard of, and they usually say the name who's most familiar, but candidates who are lesser-known pop up later all the time, and often win.
It did no good. No, he'd say, she's much, much, much too far ahead. She had far, far, far too much money. And there's no one else. No one. Further, he's talked with his friends in Washington, and that's what they tell him. The nomination is Hilary's. She's got it. They know. They're experts. She's the nominee. It's over.
Nothing I could say would budge him from that one inch. My insistence that presidential campaigns this far in advance were meaningless -- was meaningless. No, not in this case, he was adamant. Hilary Clinton will be the Democratic nominee for president.
And then Barack Obama announced his candidacy.
Okay, so our lunch was eight years ago. But still, that was the conversation.
And the point still holds. It's just far too early in the process. We have no idea what will happen in the world. No idea how issues will change. No idea who will announce that they're running. Nobody outside of Georgia had even heard of Jimmy Carter when he said he was running for the nomination. "Jimmy who?" was the joke. A few years later, he was president.
My friend likes Hilary Clinton much more these days. But that's moot. She is far ahead. She does have far more money. But it's ridiculous to pay much attention to that almost three years ahead of the next Democratic convention. Much too much can change. Sorry, I mean, will change. That's not to say that Hilary Clinton won't be the Democratic nominee, and a terrific one. Or whatever. It's just -- well...
It would be nice for her to at least announce that she's running first.
Robert J. Elisberg is a political commentator, screenwriter, novelist, tech writer and also some other things that I just tend to keep forgetting.
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