Even the best writers have their off days
Chuck Lorre was speaking with admiration when he told the New York Times regarding “The Sopranos” finale, “This is what you get when you let a writer do whatever he wants.” But the “Two and a Half Men” co-creator’s observation exposes a larger point.Network notes have gotten a bad rap, but as several recent programs attest — including David Milch’s bizarre “John From Cincinnati,” Aaron Sorkin’s self-indulgent “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip” and, yes, David Chase’s much-debated blackout — left to their own devices, even the finest writers can produce material that leave audiences cold and occasionally slack jawed. Executives once joked that every A-list producer has a dud inside them just waiting for its owner to achieve success affording them the freedom to release the beast — a dynamic that begs the age-old question of how to guide creativity without shackling it. Chalk up the aforementioned misfires in part to the “No guts, no glory” rationale, where those granted the license to dream big have a desire and even mandate to generate out-of-the-box thinking. Writing about the surf drama “John” in the latest New Yorker, critic Nancy Franklin offered this defense, stating that it’s inevitable a genius of Milch’s caliber will periodically conjure up a flop “If you let him,” then added, “Networks don’t let that happen; HBO does. It takes risks.” Come again? HBO might take more outlandish chances than the major broadcasters, but the entire business is a crapshoot, and the networks can point to commercial failures by star producers Sorkin, Paul Haggis, John Wells and David E. Kelley — all launched last season — to prove it. Indeed, Haggis’ “The Black Donnellys” is practically a poster child for the kind of ill-conceived series writers can unleash once they have gained the clout (in Haggis’ case, an Oscar for “Crash”) to slough off parental supervision. If anything, desperation by programmers and a proliferation of options for original shows has theoretically created more opportunities to get their work seen in less-filtered form. On the flip side, writers tend to trust “suits” less, often with good reason: Not only did companies grow more bottom-line-minded as they became cogs in vast international enterprises, but the fact that networks and studios frequently share parentage eliminates lines of defense that once helped shield writers from interference. Put simply, NBC Universal is less likely to go to war with NBC or USA to protect somebody’s creative vision when everybody breaks bread at the same corporate retreat. Six Sigma, kids! Still, the aforementioned programs’ shortcomings remind us that notes aren’t inherently bad; bad notes are, and even pedigreed talent can benefit from a little direction. “Get Smart” producer Leonard Stern is something of an authority on notes, having assembled a very funny book of idiotic but true memos from network executives titled “A Martian Wouldn’t Say That!” — deriving its title from a CBS executive’s objection to dialogue on “My Favorite Martian.” Asked if there’s such a thing as a good note, Stern quipped, “It’s generally the one you don’t get.” He then suggested that the best advice traditionally comes from other writers, recalling that networks once employed staff writers to function as intermediaries — bringing a credible, less threatening and authoritarian voice to the process. Stern agreed that writers have cause for skepticism in dealings with executives, especially when the suits cite research and testing — betraying their willingness to “surrender instincts, or a refusal to acquire them.” Yet while writers have always chafed at network meddling, few acknowledge the opposite — that Sorkin’s final volley of “Studio 60” episodes, for example, underscores his brilliance but also the need for an editor, somebody to curb that habit of making conspicuous detours to deliver thinly veiled lectures and vent about pressure groups, distracting from the larger story. It really is, in other words, a symbiosis if not a precise collaboration. And if everyone does their jobs, executives can actually help steer writers toward the Promised Land, or at the least away from a hidden reef. Maybe both sides will figure that out someday — but think of this as just a friendly suggestion, not a “note.” That way, someone might actually listen to it.