Archive for the ‘Reviews’ Category

Some random musings on a Sunday morning with coffee. Thinking about TV shows that succeed and those that don’t; wondering why.

I’m slightly surprised at how fast my prediction about The Playboy Club proved true. At the end of this article, one of the actresses on the show says The Playboy Club deserved more time because they had “best cast, best crew.”

Has anyone on earth ever watched a TV show and thought, “The characters are awful and every line is a cliche, but — I’m going to DVR and watch every episode because wow, what a crew!”Give people a character they love and the “great crew” will remain employed for years.This is the secret that gives otherwise “uncool” shows such as Matlock, Murder, She Wrote, and Monk such long legs. It looks to me like Castle is the example du juor, but time will tell.

For occasional and wanna-be producers like me, this is a cautionary reminder that a fact so basic and obvious can get completely buried in the complexities and politics of production. We’ll see several more Fall TV series collapse in the next few weeks because studios rely on bankable stars or trendy premises (hello, paranormal everything!), while forgetting: It all starts with the writing.

A fresh take on police procedurals. Is premise alone enough to guarantee success?

Speaking of premises, “trendy” can sometimes help, but your concept also needs your own fresh spin. Just as the success of Mad Men inspired the networks to try other 60’s-era dramas, the success of True Blood and The Walking Dead has triggered a fresh wave of paranormal dramas. Without having seen any of these coming shows, I can only assess them conceptually. On paper Grimm has a strong premise. It’s a police procedural — always popular, but as the waning of the franchise Law and Order shows, a stale genre, right? The hook is that one of the detectives descends from the Brothers Grimm, and thus can see into the world of monsters and fairy tales that the rest of us cannot. He uses this power to solve crimes, but has to be careful about it so that his “normie” co-workers don’t think he’s nuts. To me, that’s fresh: a tantalizing fusion of genres, with an engine for drama and conflict built right in.

Cast of Terra Nova: "Tell me again how we differ from Jurassic Park?"

Slipping genres a bit just to make my point — production-wise, Terra Nova is the most expensive episodic show to date. I’ve downloaded the pilot but haven’t watched it yet. Even sight unseen, the show’s fate radiates danger when no one I’ve talked to or read can articulate how it differs from the once-innovative, now-tired Jurassic Park.

Reminder to self: to succeed, fiction needs a likable but flawed protagonist, and a strong original premise. Without those as foundation, you can spend a ton of money, get the best special effects, or (more realistic for me and my readers) invest several years writing and rewriting and re-rewriting your novel…but a castle without a foundation will much sooner turn into rubble.

Anne Perry essentially invented her own genre. When she began pitching her first Inspector Pitt book in the 1970s, publisher after publisher rejected it. The conventional wisdom — proven wisdom, in the minds of booksellers — was that detective fiction readers hated period fiction, and period fiction readers hated crime stories. Her premise put a detective in Victorian London, aided by a smart woman in an era when women were to be seen more than heard. Once she sold her first novel in 1979, audiences gobbled it up. Her two related series have produced more than three dozen titles, spawned a host of imitators, and across the 1980s made “Victorian detectives” the trendy premise to copy.

Let’s you and I shoot for similar originality. I’m feeling less stupid about working on Hellephant! — at least the premise is not overdone! If I get my novel out in 2012, who knows? Maybe I’ll start a trend and 2013 will become “the year of hard-boiled men of action swapping bodies with animals.” (So likely.)


NBC promoted The Playboy Club as if they had a winner. What’s not to like? Sexy women in naughty outfits, a murder, the cool retro 60s, lots of double-crosses…

I’ll tell you what’s not to like: the writing. But as writers, we can learn as much from a train wreck as we can from a masterpiece. So let’s deconstruct The Playboy Club‘s problems.

Avoid Cliches Like the Plague

The dialog showed that the writers don’t know the difference between convention and cliche. Conventions are the things that the genre requires in order to be that genre. Romances need star-crossed lovers, noir needs a guy with a sordid past (and the story needs a downbeat ending), a fantasy quest needs a protagonist with room to grow and a “golden fleece” type of goal. These are conventions because a romance without lovers is not a romance; a mystery where the guy has no sordid past is not noir; and so on. Fans of those genres turn to them because they like the conventions. An action fan rarely explodes, “Not another car chase!”

Cliches, on the other hand, arise from executing the conventions exactly the same way loads of predecessors have done it. For instance, The Playboy Club follows a seeming naif named Maureen who runs afoul of The Mob, and this exact conversation occurs:

Maureen: “I’m not going anywhere. I can take care of myself.”
Studly guy: “You have no idea what these people are capable of!”

These lines have occurred, word for word, in countless previous movies. It’s just one of many examples where Playboy Club failed to bring a spark of newness to the screen.

“Who Cares?” Is Not Rhetorical

The unforgivable sin that is going to get Playboy Club canceled before the season ends is that the writers gave us no one to root for.

Perhaps the writers thought they had offered a bonanza of fascinating viewing, because in the first episode, every character either has a disgraceful secret, or implies one for future episodes. But if everyone is a backstabber, a traitor, compromised, or a tattle-tale, why would we care about any of them? Who do we relate to?

We’re intended to care about Maureen. The problem is that as written, as directed, as acted, she is stupid.  Annoyingly stupid. An accident in the first few minutes plunges her into deadly trouble if anyone finds out what she unintentionally did. (So far, so good.) Maureen then makes two choices: first, when given the chance to flee, she refuses to (even though she’s new in town!). Second, although her job as a Playboy bunny is to enliven the party, she mopes dramatically everywhere she goes, telegraphing her trouble. When conversation gets near her “secret topic,” she looks desperate and holds her breath. Basically, she is as good at keeping secrets and masking her expression as the average toddler. Even more taxing for our suspension of disbelief: nobody notices.

What I Learned at the Playboy Mansion

What can we learn from a drama that cost millions to produce, yet can hardly be tolerated for one episode? Well, lots, but two BIG take-aways for me were:

1) Your protagonist has to be proactive and make reasonable choices. Maureen not only does nothing to solve her problem; she does less than the average person would. A much better story would have her immediately attempt to flee town, then find a compelling reason why she can’t. Or, she would decide to stay because she has already demonstrated that she is a master of deception. Whatever your choice, the last thing you want is for your viewpoint character to stand around letting things happen to her, having no particular response.

2) Commercial fiction requires someone to root for. Karl Iglesias, in his superb Writing for Emotional Impact, provides a priceless list of 51 traits that give a character “rooting power.” I won’t list them all, but they fall into three categories: victims (characters we feel sorry for), Samaritans (characters with humanistic qualities), and idols (characters with desirable qualities). We get on the side of someone who is being unfairly laughed at, snubbed, or passed over. We root for someone who helps the less fortunate, defends the defenseless, or changes her heart and forgives. We care about characters of courage, charisma, awesome skill, or winsome playfulness.

I predict a short life for The Playboy Club. It debuted to about three million viewers, which is a smaller audience than some cable shows command (and a distant third place behind its network rivals). To avoid a similar lack of attention for your own work, bring your own unique inventiveness to the conventions of your genre, let your characters drive the action, and give us a reason to care. C’mon, any dumb bunny can do it.

The 1980s: Chariots of Fire, Reaganomics, Thriller, Magnum, P.I….and the publication of my first two novels. I took myself very very seriously, reading deeply literary reviews, aspiring toward profundity, and devoting lots of pondering to “my body of work” and “my legacy.” That’s some precious musing, considering that I was writing books like this for kids.

Nowadays I often agree with a quote attributed to Tony Hillerman: “Literary fiction is when nothing much happens to people you don’t much care about.” I’ve embraced my inner fan boy, and discovered that the shallow end of the pool holds most of the fun. Sometimes ya just have to say, “The hell with dialog, let’s blow something up!”

The President's VampireThus I’m delighted to discover Bookgasm, a review site specifically for genre fiction. Count on Bookgasm to review fine titles such as Bullets, Broads, Blackmail, and Bombs, Robopocalypse, and The President’s Vampire. If your reading tastes often run towards thrillers, fantasy, sci-fi, comics, and tough guy novels of various kinds (Westerns! –even Westerns!), you might like Bookgasm’s “reading material to get excited about.”

I like the length of Bookgasm’s reviews, but even more, I like the tone: professionalism mixed with insouciance. They hold the authors to high standards of entertainment, but always keep in mind that we’re not talkin’ world peace, here. Though sometimes flippant, they can still land interviews with heavy hitters such as the conspicuously talented Michael Connelly. And how can you not appreciate a site that gives away the occasional free book?

If you’re not interested in Bookgasm by now, I give up.

Connelly is one of those authors who proves that it’s a false dichotomy to set deep and literary fiction against fun and well-paced fiction. They don’t have to be opposites. His popular novel, The Lincoln Lawyer, feels deceptively light, yet explores gray shades of morality, injustices of the justice system, socio-economic dilemmas, and the arc of a character who begins the book morally lost (and apparently satisfied that way). To cite another example, some might consider Water for Elephants a literary novel, but I experienced it as a page-turner.

Is it pulp? Is it literature? What does it matter if you love it? Thanks to Bookgasm, I discovered an author I’d never heard of who writes incredibly vivid, well-paced thrillers – yet moved me enough that after some of his scenes, I had to put down my Kindle and stare into space, absorbing the emotional layers of his scenes. I’ll devote my next entry to analyzing some of his masterful techniques.