I had lunch today with Adam Belanoff. Up until today I’d never met the good fellow, though I thought highly of him. Adam was a writer on The Closer and now its follow-up, Major Crimes. I knew of him – and thought well of him – because he not only wrote wonderful, well-crafted, very serious mysteries on the shows, but he also did a rarity: he wrote some of the absolute funniest mysteries on the two series, as well. If you watch them, Adam is the guy who writes all of the – for lack of a better phrase – Laurel & Hardy episodes with Flynn and Provenza, where things take insane turns for the worse.
Most people don't know writers, and they especially don't know TV writers. And I think people should. I'm biased, mind you, but that doesn't mean I'm wrong. If you like the people who write books you enjoy, you ought to like the people who write the movies and TV shows you enjoy. Those actor folks really don't make it all up, y'know. And it's really hard to direct a blank page.
I first started paying attention to Adam's work with the brilliant episode “To Protect and Serve,” which is in essence a unique beast: a murder mystery done as a French farce, where everything goes wrong and keeps getting worse and funnier, starting with them discovering a dead body in Provenza’s garage, which they leave it inside there because they have tickets for a baseball game, and when they return and open the garage, it’s gone. The farce even includes the opening credits appearing and disappearing on the garage door as it goes up and down. Besides being so funny, it’s a wonderful mystery, where the detectives not only have to solve the murder, they have to first figure out who it was that got killed without anyone in the department even knowing what they’re doing because of how they screwed up.
Other joyous Flynn and Provenza episodes followed. There was the one where they’re pallbearers in a funeral, one of them trips, the casket tumbles to the ground – and two dead bodies fall out. Another has them getting Provenza’s car stolen with all their evidence in the trunk, while having stopped first to eat breakfast with the suspect they're about to arrest. Or them hitting on a couple of gorgeous stewardesses, who it turns out are using them in their own drug-smuggling plans and may possibly be involved in a murder. Or…well, they’re all joys.
To be clear, I think the writers on The Closer and Major Crimes are pretty much all terrific. Smart, sharp, thoughtful, writing material that respects the audience and characters. I just happened to particularly like the Flynn and Provenza efforts because they were unique. If any of the other writers had come up with those, I'd probably have been having lunch with them instead.
I liked those episodes so much, in fact, that even long before meeting Adam I said nice things about him behind his back to my pal, Jeff Melvoin, who’s the executive producer of Army Wives and is in charge of the Writers Guild Showrunners Program (which trains writers how to be in charge of a TV series). It turns out that Adam got into that program, and the two of them had been talking behind my back.
By pure chance, I came across Adam’s name on LinkedIn, and sent him a note about “You don’t know me, but I think your writing is great.” It turned out he did know me, and so we set up lunch plans.
You know that a lunch meeting was good when the whole reason you're getting together is because of one thing, and you don't even get around to it because the conversation goes flying off in a range of different directions. We didn't even discuss a word about the two series. In fact, the funniest moment came when he told me about how when he'd been hired to write for The Closer he had been practicing piano for five hours a day, as a possible career change because of his background and great love of music. Maybe go to Hawaii and play in piano bars. He said he was really torn at first about which to choose. "Let me guess," I asked. "You didn't have a girlfriend at the time." He laughed -- no, he didn't. That and his marriage came later. Gee, what a shock.
Still, piano bars of the world's loss is the TV viewer's gain. Later, I met the entire writing staff of Major Crimes, including the show's creator, James Duff, and we all had a nice "break from writing" together. That might not sound like much, but you must understand, professional writers can turn a "break from writing" into an art form all itself. In fact, they take their breaks very seriously, and it was quite a fest. They have this mass obsession for a game called "Lie-brary," where you have to write what you think the first line is of a specific book -- you get points if people guess that your effort is the first line, and also get points if you guess the real first-line. (Graciously, they invited me to join them. Ungraciously...well, let's just say the winner had Beginner's Luck. I think a new voice in the mix probably threw them for a loop.)
This daily obsession of theirs all takes place in a room completely surrounded by white boards covered to every last inch with details of the current episode they're working on, sort of like a all-encompassing parental reminder to eventually get back to writing. But writers will get back to work when they're good-and-ready. The "break" is one part procrastination (something writers are masters at -- so, you can imagine what it's like when there's a roomful of them), and another part recharging their creative energy. It's all entwined in the whole, convoluted creative process and was clear, too, how it helps build a team morale. You can't believe how dead-earnestly, yet hilariously they take this game which is so dear to them all. All hunched over in secret to block anyone from daring to see what they wrote. Yet laughing riotously at the vibrancy of the answers, most of which are -- as you can imagine -- richly inventive. The result is that what started out today as a leisurely lunch with one writer turned into afternoon with a dozen.
Major Crimes doesn't return to the air until June, so at least they do have time for artful breaks. But me, I have to wait four months. As an alternative, I suspect I'll have to set up another lunch with Adam.
But the best news is that another Provenza-Flynn episode is in the works. Hilarity ensues...
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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