Saturday, February 09, 2008

Instead of Simply Complaining, I’m Going to Try And Fix the Problem

I’ve always thought/hoped that Douglas Coupland’s work would translate well to television or film. Zany characters, unbelievable plots – what could be more perfect for the screen, big or small?

And so I watched episode one of jPod with some measure of excitement.

It’s difficult to convey how bad it was. Ditto episode two, and three, although to be fair, a few bright spots here and there.

As Dead Things on Sticks pointed out, the show should be half-hour, not an hour. I remember getting to the mid-way point of episode one and thinking “there’s *more* of this left to endure?”

Here, in brief, are a few things that are wrong:

* The basement cubicle set is hideous. It’s visually repellant, actually. Coupland is a furniture designer and artist. I realize he isn’t a set designer, and I acknowledge Canadian television shows have tiny budgets. But still. It’s gross down there.

* The show hasn’t figured out a style or tone, either visually or comedically. It’s sorta like Ugly Betty, except nowhere near as sharp or snappy. (And I don’t even like Ugly Betty.) jPod often features very broad comedy (i.e. episode two, Bree and the UK vice-president) combined with an attempt at being edgy, profane or downright nasty (Cowboy’s sister and the remote control vibrator). It’s like your mom telling that joke from the Aristocrats – it doesn’t work. The show will never have a mass audience, so it should be shooting for 30 Rock territory (clever, fast, a bit insidery), although how you sustain the pace of 30 Rock over 44 minutes is not clear to me.

* Re: above. The pacing of the show is very wrong, although part of the problem is the hour-format. There’s 30 minutes stretched across 44 minutes.

* Cowboy (Ben Ayres) is trying to be Job from Arrested Development. It’s not working.

* Bree (Steph Song) has no clue what she’s supposed to be doing.

* Kaitlin (Emilie Ullerup) doesn’t yet have a clearly defined character either, and also seems to drift around the show. And I hesitate to guess how long the romance between Ethan and Kaitlin will be dragged out (a la The Office???) before it’s consummated. Unlike the Office, their chemistry is wonky.

* Steve (Colin Cunningham) can clearly do physical comedy, but the show’s directors need to realize they’ll get more laughs the less grotesque he is. His spasmodic freakout in episode one was painful to watch.

* Alan Thicke is not the show’s selling point. Once you get past the realization that Alan Thicke is not being a nice guy, you are forced to admit that he isn’t helping the show much. (See, for example, the unwatchable Nazi dance sequence in episode 2).

* Kam Fong is a strong character in the novel, but not so much on the show. I realize that translating a novel into a television show will never please everybody, but his weak-ish characterization goes toward the style and tone issue.

Here are the bright spots:

* Sherry Miller, playing Ethan’s mom, is brilliant. You can give her garbage lines, and she’ll make them sound as funny as possible. And she can act the pants off everyone else on that show. I had to use imdb before I remembered she was on The Newsroom.

* Ethan (David Kopp) has a tonne of potential. (Actually, ton, as he hates the metric system.) But the scripts aren’t giving him any help. You can see him trying, but occasionally even he gives up.

* I have a sense that John Doe (Torrance Coombs) has deep reserves of hidden talent. His creepy eyes suggest that a shipping container full of darkness lurks behind his shaggy haircut. Again, he just needs something to work with.

So, why have I told you all this? What is the point of my carping and mild praise?

I’m glad you asked. Last week I began an eight-week course in writing episodic television. As part of the course, I will have to produce a spec script. So I’m going to write a spec script for jPod. This will do two things:

* demonstrate to me that writing for television is no doubt incredibly difficult

* make me part of the solution, not part of the problem

I read on Dead Things on Sticks (link) that episode 7 and 8 are really funny. Of course, by then it’s too late – the audience for the show, which is already starting to flatline, is never going to return. And why should they?

Still, I think it will be fun to try and write a spec script for a show I don’t like, and in doing so address the shortcomings of the show, rather than writing a script for something super popular. It’s probably the exact wrong way to approach the TV writing business, but I certainly don't care.