Jul 12, 2015
Consistency, Thy Title Isn't TV Show Producer.......
But It Should Be
One thing I've always dreamed of doing is creating my own TV show. By dreamed, I mean not dreamed in the way of I seriously want to do this, but dreamed in the way of wouldn't it be fun if I could because this is what I would do.
Next year it will be 50 years since Star Trek debuted and TV producers became aware of the concept of the detail obsessed fan. (Though detail obsessed fans didn't originate with Star Trek. I read a biography of Margaret Mitchell which focused on the writing and publication of Gone with the Wind. Mitchell would get letters from fans pointing out inconsistencies in her novel. Mitchell would acknowledge the error, thank the fan and it sounds like if possible she then corrected the book for the next edition as there was always going to be a next edition of Gone with the Wind.) Now for almost half a century TV producers know that there are fans out there who will be watching their shows, willing to suspend disbelief to immerse themselves into the world the producer has created, but who then expect that world to be consistent.
That's fans, not just sci-fi fans. I'm on a board about Mad Men, and there are regular complaints about how Matt Weiner (the show's creator, producer and writer) made an impossible timeline for his main character Don Draper/Dick Whitman and his brother Adam. And the fans are right: the age difference between adult Don/Dick and Adam does not match at all what we see in the flashbacks of Don/Dick's childhood. It's a conundrum that can never be resolved because Weiner didn't bother to figure out a birthyear for the characters and stick with it. So every show with a devoted fan base has people who are paying attention to the show and remember the episodes. I would think that producers hope for fans like this. If people didn't care, they wouldn't be watching and producers want their shows to be watched.
TV series have a "canon": that is what is aired on the show is "official." By extension that means that anything else aired later on the show should not contradict what was already said. The major exception to this is daytime soap operas where no one expects consistency. Very long running shows are also a partial exception. Fans know when a new producer comes in that the producer will change things, but then fans expect a good producer to be consistent within that producer's version of the series. And, of course, cartoons with never-aging characters are also the other big exception. But for a scripted, live action TV show whether it's a drama, comedy, mystery or action show, the fans want you to stick with what you've said and create a consistent "world."
Canon starts with the show Bible. Every TV show has a "Bible." For years, I'd heard about the mysterious and secretive show Bible. It was supposed to be a document with all the behind the scenes information that the writers get to use to write the scripts. I was so excited the first time I got a show Bible for a series I loved. I was so excited until I got it and read it and then it made me understand a lot. Because of instead of being this fat, detail rich document, it's bare bones. It's really an on-paper sales pitch. There's a page about the premise of the show. The main character gets a description that's a few paragraphs, if that much. The other regular characters get one paragraph of a few lines to describe them.
I honestly don't get it. To me this would be fun!! This is the part I dream of doing. I get to create a world and populate it with people. You'd better believe I'd have detailed backstories worked out for the characters, especially the main character. I'd have timelines with birthyears and milestone events set in stone. So if I say a character is born in 1950 and his parents died when he was ten, there in 1960/61 (depending on exact birthday), I'd have the parents' death marked. If a character was in the military or went to college, I'd know when and where. (Of course, I wouldn't have every detail of a life worked out; there has to be room for writers to write, but I'd insist that what they write had to fit in with what was already established.)
For each regular character, I'd go back at least one generation because who a person is is heavily dependent upon who their parents were. So to know how my characters are who they are, I'd have to know who their parents were. For some characters, I would even go back two generations because grandparents can be important.
I'd work out family trees that way the writers and I would know who's in the family with none of this important-family-you've never-heard-of popping up out of nowhere nonsense that shows love to pull where a character suddenly has an ex or children or siblings. If a character has an extended family, that family will already exist and will occasionally be alluded to, photos on the wall, a Christmas card, something ------ anything ------ to give the sense that this character has people in his world that you haven't seen yet, but they're there.
I'd make these character real people to me with real histories and real issues and attitudes that came from that history. And by making the characters real to me, I hope I'd make them real for my audience.
Then once the episodes starting airing, anything that was said on the show about the characters would not only have to be consistent with what was already in the Bible, anything new would then go into the Bible. And, I'd make the writers stick by it. If the show lasted for years, it means the Bible would get long, but the great thing about current technology is it's got word search. So if you wanted to know if someone had allergies, a writer could just do a search on "allergy." That way nothing new put on the show would contradict what we already put on the show. In watching shows, it's even occurred to me that putting all the fiddly, little details down about characters and keeping it updated is exactly the job you'd contract an obsessed fan to do. They'd love it. They'd love to be able to pre-check scripts for errors. And you'd have a show where you'd never hear fan complaints about how you said/did this then later you said/did that.
But in the almost 50 years since Star Trek, I've never seen a single show that's done what seems pretty basic to me and a lot of other fans out there. The wikipedia entry for show Bibles says that the TV show Frasier "scrupulously maintained" their Bible with every little character detail that was mentioned on the episodes, but I don't believe it. Because after Martin (Frasier's father) specifically said that he didn't have a brother ("Author, Author" season 1, episode 22 ) then in "Beware the Greeks" (season 5, episode 16) suddenly Martin has a brother and not just a brother, but a brother's wife and brother's son that we've never heard of before and will never hear of again after this episode. That's the same old relatives-out-of-nowhere nonsense that TV producers have been pulling for years. And Frasier had other contradictions in it that debunk that "scrupulously maintained" claim.
Now there is one actor who did scrupulously maintain, David Suchet, in his twenty-four year portrayal (1988 - 2013) of Agatha Christie's detective, Hercule Poirot. Before he filmed a single scene, Suchet read every Poirot book and short story. (And that's a big stack. I know I've read it.) But he didn't just read it, he took detailed notes about Poirot. As Suchet said, "it was my business not only to know what he was like, but to gradually become him. I had to become him before we started shooting." (Something that was not appreciated when the show was first filmed and Suchet almost left the show when a director tried to stop him from basing his portrayal off those notes.) Suchet would refer to those notes whenever he portrayed the character. Once he even stopped shooting so he could call his wife to check the list for how many lumps of sugar Poirot took in his tea because he didn't want to get even that tiniest detail wrong. Before Suchet would put Poirot's mustaches back on, he would rewatch every single episode of Agatha Christie's Poirot. And by the time he'd been playing Poirot for two dozen years (off and on) that was a lot of episodes. But that intense focus on keeping the character consistent and true paid off for Suchet. Not only was he the only actor to play Poirot for that whole time period, his portrayal was critically acclaimed and beloved by the fans of the show and the books. (Suchet's portrayal was the first time I ever exclaimed, "That's Hercule Poirot.") But though Suchet scrupulously maintained, the show itself did not because there's no way to do 33 novels and over 50 short stories and set them all in one year and have everything be consistent.
There is a place for consistency in making a TV show. That place should start in the producer's mind and then the place will be in the hearts of fans who love the show. Consistency. It's not a new demand. It's not an unexpected demand. It's an almost half century old demand. And it would be nice if TV producers could finally answer that demand.
For more on TV production, read "When Good TV Shows Are Going Bad...Signs a Show Has Jumped the Shark."
Please take a moment to check-out the Archive.