Wednesday Wonders: Adding depth

In April, 1953, the first-ever experimental broadcast of a TV show in 3D happened, via KECA-TV in Los Angeles. If those call letters don’t sound familiar to any of my Southern California audience, that’s because they only lasted for about the first four-and-a-half years of the station’s existence, at which point they became the now very familiar KABC-TV, the local ABC affiliate also known as digital and broadcast channel 7.

The program itself was a show called Space Patrol, which was originally a 15-minute program that was aimed at a juvenile audience and aired daily. But once it became a hit with adults, ABC added half-hour episodes on Saturday.

Remember, at this point in television, they were at about the same place as internet programming was in 2000.

By the way, don’t confuse this show with the far more bizarre British production of 1962 with the same name. That one was done with marionettes, and judging from this promotional trailer for a DVD release of restored episodes, it was incredibly weird.

Anyway, because of its subject matter and popularity, it was a natural for this broadcast experiment. This was also during the so-called “golden age” of 3D motion pictures, and since the two media were in fierce competition back in the day, it was an obvious move.

Remember — at that time, Disney didn’t own ABC, or anything else. In fact, the studios were not allowed to own theaters, or TV stations.

The original 3D broadcast was designed to use glasses, of course, although not a lot of people had them, so it would have been a blurry mess. Also note that color TV was also a rarity, so they would have been polarizing lenses rather than the red/blue possible in movies.

Since it took place during the 31st gathering of what was then called the National Association of Radio and Television Broadcasters (now just the NAB) it was exactly the same as any fancy new tech rolled out at, say, CES. Not so much meant for immediate consumption but rather to wow the organizations and companies that could afford to develop and exploit it.

Like pretty much every other modern innovation in visual arts and mass media, 3D followed the same progression through formats: still photography, motion pictures, analog video and broadcast, physical digital media, streaming digital media.

It all began with the stereoscope way back in 1838. That’s when Sir Charles Wheatstone realized that 3D happened because of binocular vision, and each eye seeing a slightly different image, which the brain would combine to create information about depth.

Early efforts at putting 3D images into motion were akin to later animated GIFs (hard G, please), with just a few images repeating in a loop.

giphy-downsized

While there was a too-cumbersome to be practical system that projected separate images side-by-side patented in 1890, the first commercial test run with an audience came in 1915, with  series of short test films using a red/green anaglyph system. That is, audience members wore glasses with one red and one green filter, and the two images, taken by two cameras spaced slightly apart and dyed in the appropriate hues, were projected on top of each other.

The filters sent each of the images to a different eye and the brain did the rest, creating the illusion of 3D, and this is how the system has worked ever since.

The first actual theatrical release in 3D premiered in Los Angeles on September 27, 1922. It was a film called The Power of Love, and it screened at the Ambassador Hotel Theater, the first of only two public showings.

You might think that 3D TV took a lot longer to develop, since TV had only been invented around this time in 1926, but, surprisingly, that’s not true. John Logie Baird first demonstrated a working 3D TV set in 1928. Granted, it was an entirely mechanical system and not very high-res, but it still worked.

Note the timing, too. TV was invented in the 1920s, but didn’t really take off with consumers until the 1950s. The world wide web was created in the 1960s, but didn’t really take off with consumers until the 1990s. You want to get rich? Invest in whatever the big but unwieldly and expensive tech of the 1990s was. (Hint, related to this topic: 3D printing.)

That 30 year repeat happens in film, too. As previously noted, the first 3D film premiered in the 1920s, but the golden age came in the 1950s. Guess when 3D came back again? If you said the 1980s, you win a prize. And, obviously, we’ve been in another return to 3D since the ‘10s. You do the math.

Oh, by the way… that 30 year thing applies to 3D printing one more generation back as well. Computer aided design (CAD), conceived in the very late 1950s, became a thing in the 1960s. It was the direct precursor to the concept of 3D printing because, well, once you’ve digitized the plans for something, you can then put that info back out in vector form and, as long as you’ve got a print-head that can move in X-Y-Z coordinates and a way to not have layers fall apart before the structure is built… ta-da!

Or, in other words, this is why developing these things takes thirty years.

Still, the tech is one step short of Star Trek replicators and true nerdvana. And I am so glad that I’m not the one who coined that term just now. But, dammit… now I want to go to Tennessee on a pilgrimage, except that I don’t think it’s going to be safe to go there for another, oh, ten years or so. Well, there’s always Jersey. Or not. Is Jersey ever safe?

I kid. I’ve been there. Parts of it are quite beautiful. Parts of it are… on a shitty reality show. Pass.

But… I’d like to add that 3D entertainment is actually far, far older than any of you can possibly imagine. It doesn’t just go back a couple of centuries. It goes back thousands of years. It also didn’t require any fancy technology to work. All it needed was an audience with a majority of members with two eyes.

That, plus performers acting out scenes or telling stories for that audience. And that’s it. There’s you’re 3D show right there.

Or, as I like to remind people about the oldest and greatest art form: Theatre Is the original 3D.

Well, nowadays, the original virtual reality as well, but guess what? VR came 30 years after the 80s wave of 3D film as well, and 60 years after the 50s. Funny how that works, isn’t it? It’s almost like we’re totally unaware that our grandparents invented the stuff that our parents perfected but which we’re too cool to think that any of them are any good at.

So… maybe let’s look at 3D in another way or two. Don’t think of it as three dimensions. Think of it as two times three decades — how long it took the thing to go from idea to something you take for granted. Or, on a generational level, think of it roughly as three deep: me, my parents, and my grandparents.

Talk about adding depth to a viewpoint.

Image licensed by (CC BY-ND 2.0), used unaltered, Teenager wears Real 3D Glasses by Evan via flickr.

Momentous Monday: Media madness

I’m still surprised, even in this modern era, how naïve most people outside of the entertainment industry bubbles are about how it all really works.

I started out in my early years interning for network TV, then moving to a studio writing program before going on to TV production, finally ending up in film/animation production, staffing, home media, and then back in TV production via the talent and website end of it.

And what I can tell you is this: People who’ve never worked in any aspect of the industry have absolutely not a clue how it works at all. But I already said that.

When I interned for network TV, it was for a company that produced game shows at the latter end of the wave before they briefly died, but judging from all of the fan mail we got, one thing was very clear: People in places outside of major media centers — meaning Los Angeles, Chicago, and New York, seemed to think that whoever it was they saw hosting that show and holding the mic actually produced and ran everything.

So every single letter was addressed to the host of the show, and way too many of them were sob stories about how, “We’re so poor, if you just put us on, you could change our lives!” Since one of our shows was on a network that also had a popular soap opera at the time, it wasn’t unusual for us to receive mail for the stars of those shows, but addressed via our show, and it was the same damn thing.

Yep… direct appeals to the people onscreen who had fuck-all to do with actually creating the content on those screens.

In the case of game shows, there are entire staffs of people who do nothing but audition and select contestants and, with rare exceptions (Jeopardy while Alex Trebek was still with us, for example), the host of the show has nothing to do with it except for those taping days which, depending on how they schedule it, could be as little as two days a week to tape five shows, or five days a week to tape an entire season in a month.

Bring it up to modern times with total scams like America’s Got Talent, and every damn thing is manipulated and controlled from beginning to end — but I’m getting ahead of myself.

When I got to the studio writing program, I learned something else: Executives will pay lip service and bend over backwards trying to support… whatever. In my case, I was supposedly part of their push for LGBTQ representation. Another colleague in that program was meant to represent older women, and we had several POC as well.

And what happened? When we tried to write our stories, they were mostly ignored because they were “not what we’re looking for right now.”

Okay, so then why were you looking for us in the first place?

When I finally got into TV production for a primetime series or two, that was actually fun. I only ever wrote one episode for the second show I worked on, but otherwise, we were a great staff, and worked with fun people. Still, the fan mail was totally buggy because, again, the great unwashed just assumed that the actors they saw onscreen created everything on the spot and were in control of it.

So… god forbid that the producers created a story line that the fans didn’t like, because then the actors in those roles would get hate mail, and it was totally stupid.

Oddly enough, I never saw this problem while working for animated features, or in home entertainment, but that probably makes sense. However… what I still see to this day, especially in people having the misguided impression that anybody can become a billionaire superstar overnight on social media is exactly the same as I saw back in those days of analog broadcast media with rural fans begging the hosts to make them rich.

And I hate to break it to people, but all those big pop stars they adore? Yeah… every single one of them was discovered and then exploited by a major media company. Yes, they may be talented — or may be propped up by a team of really talented people — but, otherwise, they are all just smoke and mirrors.

You can certainly enjoy their stuff, of course, but don’t mistake the artist for anything more than the product, and don’t think that they’re solely creating it, in the same way that your favorite actor on your favorite TV show is creating that.

Sure, there are some who get lucky enough to finally take the reins. Prince is a good example but, don’t forget — there was a point in his career where he was so controlled by Warner Music Group that he rebelled by becoming The Artist Formerly Known as Prince and identifying himself by an unpronounceable symbol.

At the time, outsiders thought he was nuts, but there was method to his madness. By making the change, he made it damn near impossible for Warner to easily publicize his product — and he was holding back his best stuff, just putting out the bare minimum to fulfill his contract.

The second that contract expired, boom. Prince was back, and he started releasing new and amazing material immediately.

Other exceptions include the obvious, like Oprah, but of course it took her years to get to that position. Another is JK Rowling, who was about the only person Warner Bros. gave final approval to, although she may have finally scuttled that deal by going full-TERF.

For game show examples, Simon Cowell is directly involved in the production of his shows, as Alex Trebek was with Jeopardy, as a very hands-on producer but also a very nice guy.

But these are the rare exceptions.

Otherwise… every last act you see mentioned in the mass media, or listed on Billboard charts, or popping up on the trending lists on sites like Spotify or Amazon Music or whatever, is just a packaged product being sold to you, good or not. And, like it or not, they really have little control over which of their product actually gets out there.

Why? Because it’s a money game, run by mostly rich white men who are the gatekeepers of media. Play along, you get to be a playa. Don’t fit their marketing model? Then you get to be a poor artist. Who gets picked is a total crapshoot — or an absolute calculation.

Go look up the history of One Direction, or any boy band, for example.

So how do we solve this problem? Well, step one is to stop consuming crap from artists being sold to us by major media companies and, instead, to seek out local indie artists and supporting them. Second… go make your own art, or find your friends who do, and then tune out anyone being sold to you by a major record label, media company, movie studio, or etc.

Photo © 2018 Jon Bastian, Emmy Statue, forecourt of the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, North Hollywood, CA.

The Saturday Morning Post #69: Pamela Rewarded Part 4

CONCLUSION. Previously: Pamela is an Emmy award-winning TV producer without a show, and she’s been desperately trying to get back in the game, but so far has only faced rejection, because everything she pitches is too much like her old show. Meanwhile, she’s also dealing with her recalcitrant children — son Walter, who took a dive out of his bedroom and seriously broke his arm because of her controlling nature, and daughter Althea, who despite having her every whim indulged seems bitter and resentful. Pamela has arranged for the social event of the season to mark Althea’s 18th birthday, but none of the invitees have replied. Instead, she’s hired 350 extras for the evening, hoping that Althea won’t know. Here’s the last installment.

The extras arrived in dribs and drabs on cue, and by seven-forty-five the party looked like a gigantic success. Althea still wasn’t down yet, but that wasn’t unusual. Strangers made her nervous, and she’d have to be coaxed. Pamela had allowed her to invite a friend, but the friend hadn’t shown up yet. When she did, whoever it was, Althea would loosen up.

Walter was another matter. He attacked the bar the second it opened up, even though Pamela had told him not to drink tonight. He was already weaving pretty well when he stumbled up to her as she stood by the stairs, waiting for the guest of honor to descend.

“No more for you tonight,” she said sternly, taking the glass out of his uninjured hand. “You’re barely 19 anyway. And I don’t want you ruining this evening for your sister.”

“You don’t want me ruining it for you.”

“Walter, what is wrong with you? You used to be such a good boy, but now look. Acting like a cheap drunk, falling down and hurting yourself. What happened? Is this what a year in the dorms has done to you?”

“Don’t worry, I’m not going back there.”

“I know, we’ve already settled that. And I think it’s a good thing.”

“No. I mean, I’m not going back there. My first semester, I applied to NYU — “

“But you got accepted to S.C. — “

“No, no. I mean, while I was a freshman and they accepted me. I’m transferring.”

Pamela stared at him, then sipped from the glass in her hand. “You want to run that by me again?” she said.

“I am going to NYU in September. I’m moving to New York next week.”

Pamela laughed. “No you’re not.”

“I’m an adult and you’re not telling me what to do. It’s bad enough I went to a college I didin’t want to. Don’t make it worse.”

“How have I made it worse?”

“Let me live my life.”

“How have I made it worse, Walter? Look around you, look at all this. This house. Your car, expensive clothes. Have you ever not had anything you wanted, and you have the nerve to stand there and tell me that I’ve made your life worse?”

His lip trembled and he bit it, staring at her with barely concealed fury. “I am going to NYU,” he finally spat out, low, his voice cracking.

“Then you’re paying for NYU,” Pamela shot back, “Because I’m not. I’m only paying for USC.”

“Only paying. That’s the problem, that’s the goddamn problem.”

“Watch your language.”

“I’m going.” He pushed past her and started up the stairs. “And fuck you.”

She dropped the glass, screamed for the maid to clean the carpet, then headed up the stairs, going to Althea’s door and knocking as she tried the knob. Locked. She had to find out who kept putting the locks back on after she’d have Oded remove them.

“Sweetie, are you coming down soon?”

“Just a minute.”

“Everybody’s here, they can’t wait to see you.”

“I said just a minute.”

“And you have to open your presents. There are lots of presents.”

Silence, then she heard movement inside, voices. Strange, Althea was supposed to be alone. Then she opened the door, already in her party dress and Pamela saw the boy, standing over by the vanity.

“Mom, Dale. Dale, mom.” Althea noticed Pamela’s horrified reaction, added, “You said I could bring a friend.”

“I meant girlfriend.”

“So I brought my boyfriend. Excuse me.” Althea stepped past Pamela, toward the stairs.

“Wait, wait. What do you mean ‘boyfriend?’” Pamela asked. “You don’t have a boyfriend.”

“Yes I do, his name’s Dale, that’s him.” Dale had emerged from the bedroom and Althea took his hand, pulling him toward the stairs. When the hell did she even meet someone to become a boyfriend, Pamela wondered. And where could Althea have met him? she didn’t know any black people. She didn’t know any people.

But before Pamela could say a word, Althea smiled at her and said the one thing that could possibly shut her up at this moment. “Don’t make a scene in front of the guests,” Althea whispered, and then she and Dale were bouncing down the stairs, holding hands.

Pamela grabbed the banister to keep from swaying. Oded came out of his room, saw her and bounded over.

“Great party, huh?”

“Fasten your seatbelts,” Pamela said. Then, “Oh, never mind.”

* * *
“Surprise!” the extras yelled, hitting their cue and getting their line right as Althea made her entrance.

Pamela had done her best to distract her daughter downstairs, latching onto her and taking her around to meet the guests, but the poor girl looked incredibly bored and didn’t say much of anything to anyone. Finally, she shoved Pamela’s arm off her shoulder. “You’re crushing me,” she said, moving three feet away and signaling for Dale to join them.

“Should we open your presents now?” Pamela cheered.

“Isn’t there a band or something?” Althea asked.

“Band first, then presents?”

“Okay.”

And the show went on and Althea stood by her mother’s side during the first song, then whispered in her ear, “I’m going to dance with Dale,” and wandered away. Pamela nodded, keeping an eye on them. Althea stopped briefly to talk to Oded, and then she and Dale faded into the crowd and onto the dance floor. She turned to watch the group play and then Oded popped up with a drink, standing at her side.

“They’re pretty good, huh?” he said.

“Not really,” Pamela told him, “They only charge like they are.” And it was true. The second song sounded just like the first, which sounded identical to the third, all of them variations on the theme of “Ooh, do you love me, girl? I love you.” It was all so hormonally puerile, except that these five boys all looked like virgins, and one of them was obviously queer — not that he’d know it for another decade.

It was over soon enough and then it was time for the presents, except that Althea was AWOL. Pamela and Oded looked everywhere for her, but she was nowhere. Pamela stomped up the stairs, beelined to Althea’s door and knocked as she grabbed the knob. It wasn’t locked. She flung the door open, finding the room empty.

Finding the room almost empty. There was an envelope on the floor, addressed simply, “Mom.”

She read the letter three times, stunned. The short version was, “I’m leaving. You suck.” The long version was three handwritten pages, every sin Althea thought Pamela had ever committed, every normal thing she hadn’t let her have. She shoved the note in her pocket, went downstairs and grabbed the microphone.

“Okay, thanks, party’s over. Everybody, out, out. Go. Home.”

And the extras scattered like ants, Pamela’s one-hundred-dollar guests, boy band long gone and unopened presents stacked on tables. The yard was devoid of partiers in five minutes, Pamela standing on the stage, alone as the caterers began to clean up.

She didn’t remember starting to do it, but certainly enjoyed it when she found herself in the middle of flinging boxes to the ground, kicking in fancy wrapping paper, hurling expensive foreign electronics into the pool, heaving fragile items hard into the flagstones, half-screaming all the while.

She’d trashed everything and overturned all the tables and had turned toward the car, which was concealed under a huge drape on the back lawn, when Oded raced up to her, grabbed her arm.

“Pam, stop it. This isn’t helping. She’ll be back.”

“No she won’t,” Pamela sputtered, pulling out the letter and shoving it in Oded’s arms. He took it but didn’t look at it. He was staring at her.

And then Pamela knew. Oded and Althea had been talking at the party. And Oded hadn’t seemed particularly surprised to meet Dale. Oded knew, he knew everything, he was in on everything. Just another one in a long line of people to betray her and plot against her, and it all made sense now. That was why Walter did what he did, why Althea had run away.

She raked her nails across his face, drawing four long red gashes down his left cheek. He jumped away. “Ow. What the hell did you do that for — ”:

“Get out.”

“What?”

“This is all your fault.”

What?”

“You know what I’m talking about. You hate me, you always have. Well, I’m done with you. Good-bye.”

She turned her back on him.

“Come on, Pamela. We’ll find Althea, we’ll bring her back.”

“You have fifteen minutes, and then I’m calling the police.”

There was a long silence, then Oded finally spoke. “All right. Okay, I’m gone. But you know what? You are one severely fucked up lady. And you can just kiss…” He balled up his face in rage, then shook his head, turned his back and walked away.

But Pamela wasn’t looking and she didn’t acknowledge him at all, and finally she heard him stomp across the patio, into the house. It was Dennis all over again, in its own way.

She went inside later, making sure Oded was gone, then poured herself a drink and stood in the living room, just staring at the Emmy. It was a beautiful statue, really. Majestic and hopeful. A Grammy was stupid, a Tony was way too small and an Oscar was too plain. But this one was perfection. It was all she’d ever really wanted.

She thought she heard a strange buzzing sound from somewhere, cocked her head to listen, but then it stopped. Maybe she’d had too much to drink. But then something hit her nose and she sniffed. Smoke? Was somebody smoking in the house? Great, she thought, Oded is back.

She went into the foyer, but there was no one there. The front door was locked. But she could still smell the smoke…

And then the buzzing again, and she knew what it was. One of the smoke detectors, the one at the top of the stairs. She looked up, and saw the smoke billowing down the hallway, gathering in a slow-forming pool at the top of the stairwell. She raced up the stairs, looked into the hall, which was already obscured. There was a flicker of flame from the distance, heat drifting toward her.

And there was Walter, emerging from one of the bedrooms, coughing. He stumbled toward the stairs, stopped and looked down at her, still holding the burnt-out match in his hand.

“Walter…” was all she could say.

“You’re going to pay for it,” he answered. And then the door to Pamela’s room swung open on a gust of flame and huge ball of black smoke coughed into the hall, drifting around Walter, above Pamela. She reached forward, grabbed for him and got hold of his bad arm, pulling him toward the stairs.

“Out,” she said. “Get outside. Now.”

But he sat down, refusing to move.

“Walter, don’t do this.”

“Which one do you really care about more?” he asked.

“Which, who?”

“Which thing, mommy. Me or the house?”

“I care about you, Walter. Now get out of here.”

“Don’t you think you should be calling 9-1-1?”

“Get your ass downstairs right now.”

She could hear the crackling flames, roaring into the hall, the smoke getting thicker, every alarm upstairs going off. She didn’t have to call 9-1-1 and Walter knew that. The security company had already been notified.

“Who’s paying for NYU?” Walter asked, waving smoke away, his eyes watering.

“We’ll talk about it later,” Pamela said, grabbing the front of his shirt, trying to pull him up.

“We’ll talk about it now,” he replied.

“You can go to NYU if you get out of this house right now.”

“Swear?”

“Yes, I swear, goddammit, now move.”

With a smug grin, Walter got up and hurried down the stairs, Pamela following. He was at the door when she suddenly remembered, turned back toward the living room.

“Leave it,” he said.

“No,” she answered.

“Okay,” he replied, walking back to the bottom of the stairs. “You can take it or me out, not both.”

“Stop screwing around.”

“I’m not screwing around. Which one is more important to you, me or that lump of brass? It’s D-Day, mommy. Or maybe that should be V-Day. You know. Victory. Yours or mine, but not both.”

There was a sudden creaking from the back of the house, then a crash. Pamela could see the flicker of flames through the dining room doors, and then the smoke started pouring in. Something in the kitchen had gone up fast, and then flames exploded through the dining room, licking at the living room doors, flanking the display case.

In the far distance, sirens trembled, approaching and receding slowly, up the canyon roads.

The flames were advancing, crawling around the walls now, crawling toward it. They were reflected in the polished gold, highlighting it, making it shine.

Pamela stepped into the living room, started toward the statue, but then the flames roared up, cutting her off. There was nothing she could do but watch as the walls blackened and the fire crawled ever closer to the winged lady.

She backed out of the room, heading for the front door. Walter wasn’t sitting on the stairs. Maybe he’d finally done something sensible.

She opened the front door and the flames in the house roared up, jumping at her. She ran, down the drive, hearing now the terrible crackling of shattering wood and the wail of the sirens finally arriving on the other side of the front wall. Walter wasn’t there. But he had to have gotten out. He had to.

She turned and looked at the house, which was belching hot yellow and black smoke from its entire upper floor, downstairs windows glimmering. From where she stood, she could see through the front window, through the living room doors, could just catch a glimpse of the edge of the statue, flames now dancing at its base. And then the vision was gone, buried in the cataclysm and firemen were racing past her, two men in white uniforms taking her arms and leading her to a stretcher and an oxygen mask.

But they couldn’t save the house, nobody could, not even Pamela. Everything burned, even the garage, the Emmy reduced to a melted, blackened thing and Walter… Walter gone.

And Althea and Oded. She had worked so hard to make everything exactly perfect, and it was all gone so easily and despite the oxygen, or because of it, she started hyperventilating and wound up in the hospital anyway. The baskets of flowers and the Things Executives Sent were lovely, but none of them came with job offers. They all wrote notes about how terribly tragic her loss was, and if she needed anything blah, blah, blah. But the blah blah blah meant nothing. None of it had meant anything. And six months later, somebody else produced her story, fictionalized, as a movie of the week.

It won four fucking Emmys.

* * *

The Saturday Morning Post #68: Pamela Rewarded Part 3

Previously: It’s May 2000, and Pamela is an Emmy-winning former show runner, just after the last season of that award-winning show. We learned a bit about her life and early career, then jump back to the present as her son, Walter, winds up in the hospital. Pamela’s first husband, Roger, is actually Walter’s son, but he doesn’t know it. To find out why, read Part 2.

“The doctor said it’s a spiral fracture, which I guess means it’s worse than a normal one. He’ll be in there a while,” Pamela explained as she and Oded stood outside the ER entrance, along with Roger and some bored-looking young blond boytoy, Pamela the only one not smoking. She wasn’t sure why she had called Roger. It just seemed like the proper thing to do when someone’s son fell off a second-story roof.

“But it’s just his arm?” Roger asked, and he was truly concerned.

“And his wrist,” Pamela said. “He’s going to have pins and everything in it. It’ll be a few months.”

“What was he doing up on the roof, anyway?” the boytoy injected with a vague drawl.

“Brian…” Roger hissed, and Pamela wondered how many Y’s were in the name.

“We don’t know,” Oded offered, Pamela giving him a stern look. “Well, we don’t,” he defended.

Well, she did, she thought, hoping no one else knew. She’d only been trying to talk to Walter, up in his room, the one he stayed in when he wasn’t in school, to convince him to live here the next semester instead of in the dorms on campus.

It had been hard enough steering him into USC in the first place. He’d wanted to go to NYU. But she’d convinced him that he’d make much better connections in the industry at a local school, and especially a prestigious film program, for which she could yank strings like nobody’s business, guaranteeing he’d get in.

She’d never expected him to move on campus. Yes, it wasn’t that far away, but it wasn’t in the greatest neighborhood, either. That was the approach she’d used, making a plea to his personal safety, but he didn’t seem worried at all. Then again, he was six-five and broad-shouldered. He never would have been a football player, but he probably didn’t have to worry about being mugged. That argument exhausted; she was trying to think of a second attack when Walter started crying.

“Honey, what is it, what’s wrong?”

He blubbered incoherently, couldn’t say anything for a long time. She sat there with him, arm around his shoulder, listening to the sniffles, muttering her own encouragements. He could tell her anything, she was his mother.

After about the third round of that, he suddenly bolted from the bed, tearing out of her arms, and he yelled, “Stop running my life!” She tried to approach him, to give him a reassuring hug, but he kept backing away, arm out to fend her off. He was babbling something about how she always made his decisions, always had to know what he was doing, was always intruding into everything, but she wasn’t really listening to that. She just wanted him to stop crying, and for everything to be okay. He finally backed into a corner and stood there, not looking at her, eyes red and angry.

“It’s okay,” she said, walking up to him, arms out.

“No it’s not, it all sucks,” he yelled at her, suddenly making a decision. He shoved past her, walked to the far end of the room and threw open the window.

“Walter — “

“This is your fault,” he announced, and then he lumbered out the window, onto the eave, somehow managing to fold himself through the small opening.

Pamela rushed to the window and got there just in time to see Walter vanishing in a swan-dive, heard the crash and thud below, and then a groan.

She was down the stairs in a second, flipping open her cell phone on the way, out the back door over to Walter, who had bounced off a redwood table, half into a flower bed. He was holding his right arm, mouth open to scream but sound not coming out. Pamela was already talking to 9-1-1 as she knelt next to Walter, gently touched his cheek.

“Mommy…” he whimpered.

“Sssssh,” she said.

And then the waiting, she and Oded and Roger and Brian, doing nothing for hours in the quiet place. If they asked, she’d tell the doctor he’d been cleaning the gutters or something. No, why would he be doing that after dark? Maybe he was chasing a chattering squirrel away.

But then a candystriper was escorting Walter out the double doors and Pamela got to him first, kissing his cheek, carefully avoiding his right arm, which was slinged and wrapped in plaster, metal bars protruding from the casing.

“Guess I’ll be living at the house next semester,” he said, indicating his arm and smiling. Then he saw Roger and reacted strangely. “Yo, Brian. Whazzup?”

It turned out that Roger’s boytoy went to school with Walter — or to put it another way, Pamela’s son was friends with Pamela’s gay ex-husband’s little blond whore.

Only in LA.

* * *
She’d been taking meetings but nothing was happening. It had been three months already since the last episode aired. Pitching stories left and right, but she’d inevitably hear through the grapevine that whatever suit she had played her heart out to had said, “No, it’s too much like Father’s Daughters. Different lyrics, same tune.”

And Walter had been quiet and surly lately, avoiding her. At least he hadn’t tried to do anything stupid and self-destructive, not since that dive off the roof. Anyway, he’d be living at with her in September. That was one big headache out of the way. Being on campus all the time, away from… Well, there were just so many bad influences out there.

But, she had more important things to worry about right now. It was almost Althea’s eighteenth birthday, and Pamela was throwing her a big party. The girl had seemed so depressed and withdrawn lately, which was a mystery. Althea had had everything she’d ever wanted, and her mother indulged her every whim. Why wasn’t she happy?

Well, the party would fix that. There’d be a tent in the yard, clowns and magicians, maybe she’d rent horses. She’d find some boyband to hire for the evening, invite everyone she knew, and the highlight of the evening would be the last of many gifts bestowed, a new car, she hadn’t decided exactly what yet, but it would be black, Pamela’s favorite color.

The preparations kept her distracted, so she almost didn’t notice that the RSVPs weren’t coming back. A week before the party, and only three of the five hundred invitees had responded, although two of those were “No.” That was unusual. She should have at least heard something. She made some phone calls, left mostly messages, got vague excuses from other associates. “Oh. You know, Pam, we’re not sure yet if we can make it. That’s a busy weekend…”

“Oh, bullshit,” she thought after a few of those. This was the height of production, the slowest part of the social calendar, and anyway, people in these positions could arrange to not be working, if they really wanted to do something.

But that was impossible. Everybody knew how important Althea was to her. What a big occasion this was. Was somebody else having a big party that they hadn’t invited her to? No, that couldn’t be it, because the two-party arrangement was standard practice in Hollywood. Always mention the other party, whether it exists or not, so there’s an excuse to leave if the first party sucks.

By three days before the party, she was frantic. Only she, Steph, Walter and Oded were on the guest list. Even the old man hadn’t replied, and Narita just kept taking messages when Pamela called, giving no reasons for his lack of response.

There was only one thing left to do, so she called an old friend in extras casting. Althea would never know the difference and her party would be a success. The “friend” insisted he couldn’t offer any discount, but Pamela still booked three hundred and fifty extras at a hundred bucks a head. The specifications were “studio executive and young mogul types, and their significant others.”

Dammit, now she’d have to have nametags. Well, Oded could do that and make himself useful for something. He’d tried to poke his nose into the planning and arrangement, but Pamela shooed him off. He knew nothing about that sort of thing.

It’s funny, he’d been her accountant originally, starting the year she’d become a staff writer. She blasted up the ranks so fast that she soon outgrew his practice and was going to move up to an entertainment management firm, but when she came in to tell him his services were no longer required, she could tell he’d been crying.

He tried to cover it up, act as if nothing had happened, but she pried it out of him. He’d fled Iraq just before Desert Storm and was trying to get asylum, but his application had been rejected and he was expected to leave the country in two weeks. Just like that, some bureaucratic decision. Pamela was outraged.

“Isn’t there anything you can do?” she asked.

“No,” Oded replied. “Well, get married, but I don’t know anybody, that’s not going to happen.”

“Marry me.”

“What?”

She repeated the question, just as abruptly. Why not? She needed somebody to keep an eye on the kids, and the accounting thing could be useful. Not to mention the tax breaks, if she paid him for his work.

“It would be strictly a business arrangement,” she explained. “Pre-nup, of course, what’s yours is yours and what’s mine is all mine.”

“Let me think about it…” Oded said, but she could tell he seriously was considering it.

Ten days later, he said yes and they were married the next day, which was Valentine’s Day, but that was strictly coincidental. That was seven years ago, just before Father’s Daughters aired as a mid-season replacement. By their first anniversary, Pamela finally had everything she’d ever wanted — career, house, children, husband. Everything except the Emmy, but now she had that, and life was complete.

And the party on Saturday was going to be a success if it killed her, and Althea would be happy again.

* * *

The Saturday Morning Post #67: Pamela Rewarded Part 2

Continuing a short story from a collection I wrote around the turn of the century. In part 1: It’s September, 1999, and Pamela is the producer of a hit TV show — the only hit on a crappy network, which just won an Emmy. But that didn’t stop the network from deciding that this would be the last season, and the show ends in May, 2000. Also, keep your eyes peeled for an appearance by someone you may have met a couple of Saturdays ago in another short story from this collection.

The last season came together and Pamela had managed to talk Vince and Mister out of their stupider ideas — no, she was not going to have a disgruntled ex-employee blow up the family’s church during services in the penultimate episode leading into the sweeps month two-hour series finale, nor have the oldest son come out as gay. “This show is not Sunset Circle,” she’d told them in response to that one, taking one last swipe at Chuck and Cindy and their show, which had been renewed. Again.

At least she managed to talk them into giving two of the daughters less than happy endings. In the back of her mind, these were her secret spin-off seeds that might bear fruit later.

But as May rolled around, it was time for that annual ritual, the wrap party, that was always at its most maudlin when it happened for the final time.

She stood by the bar at the Century Club, Althea and Oded at her side, holding court as one network exec after another came by to say how sad they were that Father’s Daughters was over. She smiled, shook their hands, pretended to accept their condolences, knowing exactly which ones had voted her down. The grand finale aired in two days, the writers’ offices had long since been abandoned and the studio space was already re-rented and being re-tooled for a new show. This party was a footnote, but an obligatory one, the official wake for the corpse that was already decomposing.

The actors were avoiding her, the ones that had bothered to show up. A cast of seven regulars and three top-of-show recurring roles, and four of them weren’t there. The leading lady, the oldest daughter, middle daughter’s boyfriend and the wise-beyond his years teenage son, all missing in action. So was a big chunk of the crew and half of the writing staff. That would never have happened before, not in the days when she had everybody walking on eggshells to keep their jobs. But that power had been broken. She couldn’t fire people who didn’t work for her anymore.

The exec parade petered out and Pamela finished her drink — club soda — and Oded took her glass unbidden, heading to the bar for refills. Pamela wasn’t paying attention to him, though. She rarely did. She was wondering where her son had snuck off to, then she looked at her daughter.

Althea was brooding, face down, looking bored out of her skull. She’d been doing that a lot lately. Pamela had tried everything to snap her out of it — a shopping trip to the original Neiman-Marcus in Dallas, a new car, tickets and a backstage pass to an N’Sync concert, a spa-day makeover. Nothing worked. She’d never thought of things like family counseling or Prozac, not for any of them, because they weren’t that kind of family. They were a happy family, an ideal family, Pamela was convinced of that. They were the family that rarely existed in the real world, the old-time, traditional, fully functional TV family. There were no flaws here, none that Pamela could see.

“Isn’t this a great party?” she said to Althea.

“Can we go?” Althea muttered.

“In a while,” Pamela answered. “I kind of have to be here, you know.”

Althea rolled her eyes, sighed.

“Hey, tomorrow, why don’t you and I go to Tiffany — “

“I’m busy tomorrow.”

“All day?”

“Yeah.”

“You know, somebody has a birthday coming up,” Pamela sing-songed. “Have you made your list yet?”

“No.” Althea glanced up, on the edge of saying something, but then she looked down again, shook her head, started to walk away. “I’m going to dance.”

And Pamela was reaching after her, but Althea had blasted off and was already halfway to the dance floor. “Why don’t you dance with Oded?” she called out, but it was buried in the noise from the DJ and the thousand schmoozy conversations. That was the real function of one of these parties, she knew. Finding the next job. Nobody was here for her.

Nobody, goddammit. Nobody. The few of her own people who’d bothered to show weren’t even coming to this corner. She could see all the writers’ assistants huddled on the balcony, looking down at the dance floor, glum. Her story editors were off with Chuck, laughing and joking.

Her co-executive producer wasn’t here yet, but that was par for the course. It always took that woman four hours to get ready to go anywhere, and it was amazing she ever found designer-anything for these affairs in her size, which was thirty-four if it was a day. Still, Steph was the only one Pamela could trust, the one who was always letting her know who was out to get her, the one confirming rumors that would otherwise have just been paranoia.

“I’m worried about so-an-so” coming from Steph’s lips was usually the thin end of the wedge that would always end, a few weeks later, in somebody else getting fired. She was a good person to have around.

But, until she got here, Pamela was standing alone by the bar in the Century Club, feeling isolated in the darkness, waiting for the proper obeisance to be paid. She remembered some old movie line, some Chinese actor, saying “I see a room full of empty people.” That was certainly true. Empty, and apparently blind.

Oded returned, handed her the glass. She looked at it, thrust it back to him.

“Where’s the goddamn ice?” she snapped.

Oded shot back to the bar without a word.

* * *
Pamela sat in the garden behind the house, best-selling novel she was trying to option for a movie-of-the-week splayed open on the ground next to her iced-tea. It was the story of a young Irish Catholic priest in Seattle who becomes an Anglican minister in order to get married, but then moves to England when his wife’s father gets sick. The whole thing was perfect for TV. But after two months, she hadn’t convinced anyone else of that. At least she didn’t have to worry about going broke, not for a long time, but a big shot of cash soon would still be nice. It always was.

Her life had been perfect for TV. She’d lived one sitcom after another, wound up in a one-hour drama, ending in a heartwarming family show. Her first husband had been a soldier, her high school boyfriend. She’d married him in a fit of panic before he shipped off to Viet Nam. God, whenever she thought about that, she felt so old.

By the time he’d come back two years later, she’d really grown cold on him, but they were married, after all, and he came with benefits — medical insurance, housing. He’d also come out of the war relatively unscathed, decision made to become a career soldier.

But it had turned into a strange marriage of convenience a few years later, when she caught him with that Navy boy — and didn’t really care. Roger had freaked out, but she told him they had a pretty nice arrangement. She got to live a lot of places, meet a lot of people. He got to have the show wife, obligatory for an officer. And necessary, to cover up other activities, which could have led to a court martial and dishonorable discharge. But, naturally, if he was fooling around, there was no reason for her not to. She’d always wanted children.

Roger never knew that Walter was actually his. It had been a very strange night, after a very rough year. Pamela had been pregnant — that one belonged to a very nice young Sergeant who worked with Roger at the DOD — but then she had a miscarriage. That had been at Thanksgiving. Then, about a week later, Roger came in, drunk, depressed. She’d been inside all day, hadn’t watched the news, so she had no idea.

But he was crying and started drinking everything in the house. Then he lay on the sofa next to her, put his head in her arms. She stroked his hair and he kept crying, then he suddenly sat up, turned and kissed her, jamming his tongue in her mouth. God, they hadn’t done that since high school.

Suddenly, he was all over her, which was strange, but she didn’t stop him. He pulled off her clothes with silent need, dragged her into the bedroom while pulling off his own, then threw her on the bed and climbed on top.

Pamela was amazed. She had never been fucked with such desperate energy before, or as roughly. Roger was pounding her like uncooked Chicken Kiev, headboard slamming into the wall, and then he ripped the fitted sheet off the bed as he clutched it in orgasmic spasm, elastic snapping into Pamela’s shoulders as Roger shuddered out a groan, then rolled off of her.

He didn’t remember a thing in the morning, and she never reminded him. But she would never forget the night that Walter was conceived. How could anyone of her generation ever forget the date December 8, 1980?

Just to make sure, she didn’t see the young sergeant again until the doctor told her she was pregnant. But she never told Roger that he was the baby’s father. Better that way. Yes, officially, Walter was Roger’s son. But the emotional value of Roger not knowing that would help if any future arguments about those sorts of things came up.

Althea was definitely not his, and Pamela didn’t have to withhold any information to assure him of it. That night in December was the one and only time she and her first husband had ever had sex. One single incident in nearly twenty years.

And then it was over, divorce finally granted not long before Roger suddenly “retired” from the military. She always knew there was something funny about that, him leaving the service at the ripe old age of thirty-nine after an abrupt three pay-grade promotion, and with a ridiculous pension.

But they’d made a deal. Roger would never try to see Walter, and Pamela would release all rights to any of his benefits. She hadn’t been living with him for about five years at that point, anyway. She’d already moved out to Los Angeles. She ran into Roger once, after the divorce, saw him getting out of a brand-new BMW — a seven series, not a three, meaning he really had money, he wasn’t just pretending. They chatted briefly, he mentioned his house in Laurel Canyon, which he’d just bought. So, maybe Pamela had gotten the short end on that one.

But that didn’t matter. It freed her up to marry Dennis, finally. It was about time, since they’d been together for four years already. The kids needed a father in the house, and Dennis repaired motorcycles for a living, out of the garage. Sure, it was a little blue collar, but it gave her time, so she could take a job as a production assistant for a TV show and work insane hours. But some day, she hoped, it would be worth it.

Apparently, though, she wasn’t the only one working long hours. She’d found that out when she went to look for a screwdriver in the garage one night, opened the toolbox and a plastic bag fell off the bottom of the worktable, splitting open on the floor, spattering white powder across her feet.

She could smell it from here and knew what it was, and she went ballistic. Nobody was going to endanger her children like that. If the cops raided the place, arrested them both, what would happen to the kids?

When Dennis returned that evening, she dragged him out to the garage, pointed at the debris on the floor and said one word. “Bye.” That night, she had a twenty-four-hour locksmith change everything. The next morning, she called a lawyer to arrange one divorce and one arrest. As soon as she was absolutely sure she wouldn’t get into any legal trouble by reporting what was in the garage, she called the police, told them the story and they found Dennis three hours later. Of course, that hadn’t been difficult. He was already in custody, picked up for drunk driving the night before.

By that point, she’d maneuvered over to a position as writer’s assistant on a hit half-hour sitcom. It was an easier show than most, because every episode was written by the producer. He didn’t have a writing staff. He didn’t need one. The man seemed to work twenty-four hours a day, and he was funny, pulling off elaborate verbal riffs in dialogue that just kept building and building on jokes until it all just exploded in a brilliant comedy gut-punch right before the act out. He’d been doing that for two seasons now, solo, with no sign of slowing down.

Then, one day, he suddenly had her calling writer’s agents, setting up meetings. And he farmed out a script to an up-and-coming twenty-two-year-old. And then another, two in seven weeks. By the middle of the season, he was wondering aloud to Pamela whether he should hire a writing staff next season. By the time they got picked up for another two seasons and had eight shows left to shoot for this one, he offered her a script. Of course she said yes, despite having no experience, which she admitted — but he just told her that never stopped anyone else in this business.

And suddenly, Pamela had become a TV writer and climbed up a rung, and she became a staff writer the next season and she never knew why the producer had suddenly changed his ways. She wasn’t in the gossip loop. Yet.

She never would know that the man had been one of Dennis’ clients, and the arrest had spooked him out of all his bad habits.

That falling bag had been her big break in more ways than one.

* * *

The Saturday Morning Post #66: Pamela Rewarded Part 1

All you need to know: This story, which I’ll have to serialize, was part of the 24 Exposures collection, which I wrote around 1999-2001. It’s definitely pre-911, pre smart phones, pre social media. This story, though, was largely inspired by my own career in television. Enjoy!

She held the thing in her hands, feeling its weight, admiring its elegant yet simple curves, sweeping up from the base and straining for the heavens with its big, round summit. It was huge. And heavy. Much heavier than she’d expected.

She lifted it up to her chin, then carefully slid it into place, backwards onto the high shelf, where two precisely arranged pin-lights perfectly augmented its gleaming golden highlights, its engraved plaque, upswept wings and wire-work globe. It was a woman, winged Victory or a take on Nike, carrying the world. It was a token that the woman looking at it, Pamela, had succeeded, finally, in a man’s world.

“The Emmy is up, let’s go out to dinner!” Pamela shouted, her voice booming off the high ceiling and enormous walls. Her husband, Oded, came dashing into the room, that worried look on his face that he’d done something else wrong. “Where are the kids?” she asked him.

He shrugged. “Walter, off with his friends somewhere. I think Althea’s in her room.”

“Aren’t you supposed to be watching them?” She was giving him that look he hated.

“Walter’s on winter break, let him enjoy it.”

“My daughter isn’t.”

“Uh… Althea doesn’t really like me following her around everywhere. She is seventeen — “

“Seventeen, not eighteen. Seven. Seven, as in not eight, not old enough, not an adult — “

“Okay, okay, got it,” Oded waved her off. He hated it when she started writing TV dialogue, and especially when she started spouting her own show’s party line, mid-argument. Frequent mid-argument, lately. “Should I go get her?”

“Yes,” Pamela blurted, volume up to emphasize the stupidity of the question. Oded hurried out of the room. “Well,” she thought to herself, “At least I managed to find the one docile Iraqi on the planet.”

She looked at the Emmy again, staring at it. At hers. It was the crown jewel of her life, new centerpiece (besides herself) of this four-million-dollar house with the full five-car garage, money pouring in hand over fist because TV was a mammon machine (for the right people), the servants, the garden, two kids, her husband. And an Emmy.

“Here we go again,” she thought to herself as she got to work very early on Monday morning, her office still stuffed with week-old congratulatory baskets and flowers and other clones of Things Executives Sent that were all bought at the same Store Where Executives Get Them. Well, more correctly, Where Executives’ Assistants Order Them by Phone, she thought as her assistant popped in the door, messages in hand. He was holding one out to her, saying words she hadn’t quite focused on yet. But she never let on to that. Instead, she had subtly conditioned her staff to over-explain everything, so she could catch it the second or third time around, then cut them off. Always make them feel like the dumb ones, that was the key.

“Narita called three times already. She said Mister wants to see you as soon as you’re in — “

“Now?” she asked. Her assistant nodded. “Okay,” she said, instinctively reaching for her purse as he stepped out the door. How did make-up always manage to vanish in the car? She touched up her lips and her eyes, checked the hair, the teeth. Made a mental note — collagen, no; Botox, god yes; have Louanne touch up the roots Friday; remember to get that cap checked. Good. Instinctively, she knew this was just going to be an official face-to-face congratulations for finally snagging the company its golden lady, a thank you from the old man for all her help. Still, any trip up to Mr. Torand’s office that hadn’t been scheduled three weeks in advance made her nervous.

She walked the long hall, came at last to the far lobby, and saw the guard pick up the phone the instant she was in sight, heard him say, “She’s here.” Before she could speak, he’d hung up and was buzzing open the door. “They’re expecting you,” he said, and she passed through to the inner sanctum.

They are expecting you. How did he mean that? “They” meaning the boss and his execs, or they meaning the boss and… network execs? Maybe, but they never went out of their way to compliment awards. Anyway, the pick-up for next season and the one after that were a slam dunk. That was all the compliment she needed.

Narita stood up and said hello, escorting Pamela to the big door. She swung it open and stepped into the room, where the boss’s big oak desk was dwarfed by the walls, looking a third its real size at the end of a long, white carpet. Mr. Torand was the only one in there. It wasn’t until she saw Narita that Pamela realized the guard was talking about the assistants when he said “they.” Well, of course he would. His “they” was not Pamela’s “they.” His “they” didn’t matter. Obvious now, but Pamela hadn’t thought of it before. At least it meant the meeting would be short and easy.

Mr. Torand was standing by a bookshelf, which was crammed with People’s Choice type awards, staring intently at a singing bass, which was going through its routine. He was humming along with it, laughing. Pamela approached cautiously. She was always amazed at what the boss found amusing. Sometimes, it was hard to believe he was the founder of a billion-dollar empire. He looked like somebody’s slightly ditzy grandfather, and preferred jeans, sneakers and sweaters around the office. He was holding a pipe in one hand, which he now brought to his lips and lit. He took a puff, chuckled at the fish again, then looked toward her, gave her a big smile. “Pammy, how’s my girl?” he asked. He was one of those people who was so respected that a comment like that never elicited any negative response. He was too old for it to have those connotations, a relic of a different world. “Like my fish?”

Pamela forced a smile. “It’s very funny. Where did you get it?” Of course, she knew damn well where. It was the sixth one she’d seen this month.

“Chuck got it somewhere for me, I don’t know exactly.” He looked at it again and chuckled. He loved animated toys. He still owned one of every Furby ever made, but he never used a computer.

“So…” he suddenly turned the fish off, trotted to the door and closed it, signaling to Narita, no calls. Bad sign, Pamela thought, getting a little nervous as she walked to his desk. He gestured her over to the sofa instead. Really bad sign, Pamela knew. She sat, sinking into the leather bedlam that spanned three walls. Mr. Torand sat in an armchair.

“You guys,” he began. “We finally have an Emmy.” He looked dreamily at the ceiling. He’d been in the business for decades but was never associated with that elusive “quality” that put TV shows into rarefied ranks. And yet, he’d had one hit after another, so he was obviously doing something right. Since his own peers did the nominating for the real awards, it was obvious they had begrudged him his success until, finally, acknowledgement had become unavoidable. At least, that’s what he’d thought when the winner was announced. He’d found out not long after that there were other reasons, and so the Emmy lost a little bit of the vindicatory power it had wielded on awards night. And sweet Jesus, he had to try to explain that now. How the hell was he going to do that?

Pamela saw the drifting look in his eyes, the slightly open mouth, avoiding her gaze. She knew that look. It was the stasis before disaster, the firefly moment when the news is telegraphed before delivery. It lasted half a second, and then the old man inhaled, flipped his hands, began.

“I don’t know how to tell you this,” he said. “But I just got the call from the network, and they’ve decided not to pick you up after this season. Your last episode will be next May. I’m sorry.”

The floor fell away. She couldn’t believe it. She stared at the old man, rage building. What were they thinking? Hers was the only show that had any kind of audience on that crappy network. The only one to ever even be nominated for an Emmy, much less win one. The only goddamn thing they had going for them, and they were pulling the plug?

“Motherfuckers,” she spat out. “Why?”

“They said that they felt the series had explored all the areas it had to explore and that it tapped out its potential, and nothing further could ever live up to how good it was in the past. They decided to end it on a high note.”

“I got them a fucking Emmy!” she shouted, then caught the faux pas. “We have done more for them than anybody else.”

“I know, I know, Pammy,” he said. “You guys have been doing great work. I fought for you, I really pleaded with them, said you had a lot more great material in you, could win them a few more next year, but… well, you know how political these things can be. What with Billy getting fired last year, and he was a big supporter of yours. Look on the bright side. Syndication.”

True, she thought. After seven years, there were enough shows in the can to make Father’s Daughters as ubiquitous as I Love Lucy. The money would keep rolling in for a long time. But, despite that, she was going to become the most useless commodity in the industry in eight months. Well, realistically when they wrapped, in six months: An out-of-work show‑runner.

“Anyway,” the old man went on, “we want to do something really special with the farewell arc and the finale. I’ll have Vince come by with our ideas later.”

And he was standing already. That was it. So she knew two things, at least. One, there was no way in hell the network would be convinced to change their mind, not by anyone, not for anything. Two, all the old man’s comments about fighting for her had been bullshit. That was par for the course. Pamela stood, walking to the door. The one thing of which there was no shortage in the television business was bullshit. The politics made it as horrific and treacherous as a junior high school playground.

Oh, but the money.

And syndication —money for nothing, and the tricks are free.

* * *
Her head was reeling as she walked back down the long hallway. As she neared the elevators, she heard familiar voices, the producers on another company show. She stopped and listened. News traveled through this place like air through a natural blonde.

“But, come on, that show was over two seasons ago,” one of them said. It was Chuck, who had had more cancellations and resurrections than anybody else on the planet.

“True,” that was Cindy, his co-producer. “It was pretty tired last season. I’m surprised they’re even going to try to squeeze one more out of it.”

“Well, how many times can you do the ‘Father Rick Saves the Runaway Teen’ story, anyway?” Chuck laughed. “Bor-ing.”

Well, of course someone like him would find it boring, Pamela thought. His shows were always overheated soap operas, one couple after another playing randy roulette, no basic values, everybody out to screw everybody else, literally and figuratively. His shows weren’t like real life. They were like… hell, they were just like TV.

“Think she’ll manage to fire this staff before the series ends?” Cindy wondered.

“Why not? She’s done it, what, five times?”

Pamela drew herself up, thinking “God, what losers.” She decided this was the moment for the awkward end-of-act entrance, the big handjob that would bring the viewers back after the commercial: “INSERT Pamela, just off the lobby, listening. She reacts, then walks by.” No… “She reacts, then draws herself up with dignity and walks by.”

“Hello!” Pamela called out. Cindy blanched, but Chuck, ever the pro, smiled and waved as if nothing had happened.

“Hey, congrats on that Emmy,” he called out.

“Thanks,” Pamela answered, continuing on. She wrote the tag in her head. “Chuck and Cindy exchange a look. Busted. Fade out. End of Act.”

But not end of show. Not for one more season.

* * *

Fangry

I originally posted this article back in May of 2019, when the latest fan outrage erupted over a demand to “re-do” the final season of Game of Thrones, a year after the call to do the same for The Last Jedi. Well? Guess what? Plus ça change. Earlier this year, angry fands made similar demands for a re-cut of The Rise of Skywalker. So far, none of these do-overs have happened.

Until now.

Coming in 2021: the fan-demanded Zack Snyder cut of Justice League, and I can’t help but think the only reason that it’s happening is because of the industry being shut down due to COVID-19. Plenty of execs and post-production people with nothing but time on their hands, no new product, and certainly no blockbusters. The top-grossing film of the 2nd quarter, The Wretched, made $4,751,513 at the box office, a giant flop by any other standard.. Top film so far of the 3rd quarter is Unhinged, at a slightly better $14,121,709

But, to me, the craziest part about it is this first trailer for the recut. Now, if you’re a fan of Watchmen and saw the original and/or Snyder cuts of the first film, the song they used here is… well, an interesting choice, to say the least. Considering that the original Watchmen book was itself a parody of the original DC characters but playing on lesser-known knock-offs from a then (1984) defunct brand, it’s a weirdly interesting full circle.

But by all means, watch the trailer first, then read my article. You won’t regret either. I hope.


Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve probably heard about the petition started by fans demanding a re-do of Season 8 of Game of Thrones, and this may have given you a flashback to last year, when fans of Star Wars demanded the same thing in the same way for The Last Jedi. Hm. Oddly enough, that was Episode VIII, but I’m sure that’s just a coincidence.

Of course, there’s no chance in hell that any of this is going to happen. Personally, if I were one of the producers on the receiving end of that petition, my response would be, “Okay, sure. Season 8 cost $90 million. When I checked, 218,141 of you signed the petition. So if each of you sends us $412.56, we’ll do it.” (Note: I am not going to link to the petition at all, and the reasons why not should become obvious shortly.)

This is called “putting your money where your mouth is,” although I’m sure that many of these fans who are complaining are either torrenting the series illegally or sharing HBO to Go passwords with each other, which just makes it more infuriating.

As an artist, nothing galls me more than armchair quarterbacking from the fans. Note that this is different than critiquing. If a fan sees one of my plays or reads one of my books and says, “I really didn’t like how the story played out,” or “I couldn’t relate to the lead character,” or similar, than that is totally valid. But as soon as a fan (or a critic) gets into, “It should have ended like this,” or “I would have written it like that,” or “this character should have done this instead,” then you’ve gone over the line.

Note, though: Professional critics do not do this. That’s what sets them apart from angry fanboys.

Thanks to the internet, we’ve moved into this weird area where what used to be a consumer culture has morphed into a participatory culture. Sorry to go Wiki there, but those are probably the most accessible ways in to what are very abstract concepts involving economics, marketing, and politics.

There are good and bad sides to both, which I’ll get to in a moment, and while the latter has always been lurking in the background, it hasn’t become as prevalent until very recently. Again, not necessarily a bad thing, but it needs understanding and context to work.

So what do we mean by consumer and participatory? The short version is “buy stuff” vs. “give stuff.” A consumer culture focuses on getting people to spend money in the pursuit of having a better life in a capitalist economy. Its marketing mantra is, “Hey… you have problem A? Product X will solve it!” It is also aimed at large groups based on demographics in order to bring in the herd mentality. Keeping up with the Joneses writ large. “Everybody is doing it/has one!”

Ever wonder why people line up down the block at midnight in order to get the latest iPhone or gaming console on the day it comes out? It’s because they have been lured, hook, line, and sinker into consumer culture. But here’s the thing people miss, or used to miss because I think we’re becoming a bit more aware. Because demographics are very important to consumer culture, you are also a product. And if some corporation is giving you something for free — like Google, Facebook, Instagram, etc. — then you are the only product.

Participatory culture is one in which people do not just buy, watch, or read the products, but in which they give input and feedback, and the rise of the internet and social media has pushed this to the forefront. Ever commented on a post by one of your favorite brands on how they could make it better? Ever snarked an elected official for whom you’re a constituent? Ever blasted a movie, show, or sketch in a mass media corporation’s website? Congratulations! That’s participatory culture.

As I mentioned above, it’s not new. In the days before the internet, people could always write letters to newspapers, legislators, corporations, and studios. The only difference then was that it was a bit harder — physically creating the message, whether with pen and paper or typewriter, then putting it in an envelope, looking up the address via dead tree media, taking the thing to a post office, putting a stamp on it, and dropping it off.

Phew. That’s some hard work. Now? Fire up Twitter, drop an @ and some text, click send, done.

And, again, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I’ve had more direct responses from my own elected officials to my social media comments than I ever did back in the days of mail of the E or snail variety only. The mail responses were always form letters with the subtext of, “Yeah, we get this a lot, we don’t care, here’s some boilerplate.” Social media doesn’t allow for that because it becomes too obvious.

But where participatory culture goes too far is when the fans turn it into possessory culture. Again, this isn’t a new phenomenon. It’s only become more common because being a participant and not just a consumer has become so much easier.

Here’s the anecdotal part. I’ve spent a lot of my working career in the entertainment industry, particularly film and television, and a lot of that dealing directly or indirectly with fans. And one thing that I can say for certain is that people who aren’t in the industry — termed “non-pro” by the trades and often called “muggles” by us — don’t have a clue about how it all works.

If you don’t know what “the trades” are, then you probably fall into the muggle category. Although it’s really a dying term, it refers to the magazines that covered the industry (“the trade”) from the inside, and which were read voraciously every day — principally Variety, The Hollywood Reporter, and Billboard.

But I do digress.

In college, I interned for a game show production company, and one of my jobs was reading and properly directing fan mail, or replying to it with one of a dozen form letters they had printed out en masse, because yes, the questions or complaints were so predictable. One of the big recurring themes was the mistaken belief that the host of the game show personally wrote, directed, edited, and selected contestants for the entire thing. Yeah, no. Unless the host was an executive producer (and the only example that comes to mind is Alex Trebek, for whom I almost worked), then the only thing the host did was show up for the taping day, when they would do five half-hour shows back to back.

And so… I would read endless letters with sob stories begging the host to cast them, or complaints about wanting them to fire one or another guest celebrities, or, ridiculously often, outright requests for money because reasons (always from red states, too), prefiguring GoFundMe by a decade or two.

A lot of these letters also revealed how racist a lot of Americans were then (and still are) and yes, the response to that crap was one of our most sent-out form letters.

This pattern continued though, on into the days of the internet and email. When I worked on Melrose Place, we would constantly get emails telling the stars of the show things like, “I hated what you did to (character) in that episode. Why are you such a bitch?” or “Why don’t you change this story line? I hate it.”

Really? Really.

Gosh. I guess I never realized that scripted TV had so damn much improv going on. Yes, that was irony. And here’s a fun fact: While a lot of it may seem like it’s improv, SNL is actually not, and doing improv there is the quickest way to never get invited back.

At least those comments were much easier to respond to. “Thank you, but Heather Locklear does not actually write her parts, she only performs them. We will pass your concerns on to the producers.” (Which we never did, because, why?)

Still… misguided but fine. And even things like fan fiction are okay, because they aren’t trying to change canon so much as honor it — although it can sometimes spin off the rails, with Fifty Shades of Gray being the ur-example of a fangirl turning a Twilight fanfic into a super dumpster fire of bad writing and terrible movies and still somehow making a fortune off of it — the perfect storm of participatory culture turning around to bite the ass of consumer culture. I’m not sure whether that’s good or bad, but if anybody did this to my work, I’d probably want to punch them in the throat.

Of course, there are always textual poachers, who approach fanfic from a slightly different angle. Their aim isn’t to make their own fortune off of rewriting stuff. Rather, it’s to, well, as a quote from the book Textual Poachers says, “Fan fiction is a way of the culture repairing the damage done in a system where contemporary myths are owned by corporations instead of owned by the folk.”

So that’s perfectly fine. If you’re not happy with how Star Wars or Game of Thrones turned out, then write your own damn version yourself. Do it on your own time and at your own expense, and enjoy. But the second you’d deign to try to demand that any other artist should change their work to make you happy, then you have lost any right whatsoever to complain about it.

castle-rock-misery-stephen-king

Don’t be Annie Wilkes. Stephen King knew that.

See how that works? Or should I start a petition demanding that the other petition be worded differently? Yeah. I don’t think that would go over so well with the whiny fanboys either.

The perception of art is completely subjective while the creation thereof is completely under the artist’s control. If you don’t like it, don’t look at it, don’t watch it, don’t buy it. But, most of all, don’t tell the artist how they should have done it. Period. Full stop.

The spoiler paradox

This is another piece that has been amazingly popular since I first posted it in April 2019. I thought I’d bring it back around to the top, even though the suspense over Endgame and GoT is long over.

In the last few days, I’ve accidentally stumbled across big spoilers for both Avengers: Endgame and the most recent episode of Game of Thrones. Now, I have friends who have posted online that if anyone spoils either or both of those things for them, then the person doing the spoiling is going to be unfriended.

Here’s the funny thing, though. According to a study done by Nicholas Christenfeld, a psychology professor at UCSD in California, although most people say that they hate spoilers, in reality, they actually enhance enjoyment, whether somebody was part of a particular fandom or not.

One of the most archetypal examples, perhaps, is the film Citizen Kane. I’m going to spoil it in the next sentence, so brace yourselves. “Rosebud” was his sled. (It was also William Randolph Hearst’s nickname for something else, but that’s beside the point.)

Oh noes! Movie ruined, right? Probably not. I’d had it spoiled for me long before my first viewing of the film in a high school movie history class, but it didn’t matter. Why not? For me, it was because I got to enjoy watching how the characters in the movie figured out what I already knew, as well as to enjoy all of those moments when they went down the wrong path thinking they were right.

A follow-up study by Christenfeld confirmed this even more. And think about it for a moment. Shakespeare is still being produced and adapted to this day, and so are a lot of other classic plays, but everybody knows how they end. Unless you’re maybe a middle-schooler who hasn’t read it yet, you know who dies in Romeo and Juliet and Hamlet. But it doesn’t matter. You know who Keyser Söze is, or what’s in the box in Se7en, or who Luke’s daddy is (or Kylo Ren’s parents, for that matter.)

That doesn’t make these things unwatchable. And here’s another way to look at it. How many times have you re-watched your favorite film or TV episode/series or play? Did knowing what was going to happen wreck that experience in any way at all?

The answer, obviously, is “No.”

Another example from my life is Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None — which we first read in middle school English class, but at least we were fortunate enough to not be subjected to it until the book had gone through name changes in order to purge the title of not one but two absolutely racist terms. I didn’t manage to see the movie version until I rented it long after I’d read the book, but knowing who did it and how did not detract from the experience in the least. In fact, it made it more interesting because I was in the know, as I mentioned above, and seeing everyone else being totally oblivious to it all just made me, as an audience member, feel smart. (We’ll ignore the fact that this version changed the original ending. Argh!)

So, coming back to the present… a funny thing happened before I got around to watching Avengers: Infinity War. I had the whole gotdang thing spoiled for me — who got snapped away, who got killed before that, everything. Did it spoil my enjoyment of the film? Not one bit. Now, full disclosure: I am not a Marvel Fanboy. In fact, I’ve only seen a few of the movies, and really couldn’t care less about the franchise. Likewise, I never got into the Game of Thrones TV series (although I love the books), although I can appreciate them as art, and I do not begrudge their fandom one bit. Hey, if you like either or both, great. Just don’t look down on me for not being into them, and don’t give me crap for being a Whovian and Star Wars nerd. Deal?

(I will judge you if you’re a fan of gore porn horror movies, though. Seriously — what is wrong with you that you call that shit entertainment? On the other hand, since Titus Andronicus is one of my favorite Shakespeare plays, did I just go full hypocrite? Or did I just say, “Hey, gore porn creators, class it up a bit, okay?” I mean, GOT did definitely steal at least one big dinner bit from Titus. Thanks, Arya!)

Now, back to one, as they say in the film biz. I know how Endgame ends, what happens to whom, and yadda yadda. Does that infuriate me or make me not want to see it or unfriend people? Oh, hell noes. It makes me want to enjoy the experience of seeing how they make those things happen. Same thing with the most recent episode of GOT. Ah, so she did what to whom? Bring it, and show me how.

“Spoilers” don’t really spoil anything. We only try to pretend that they do. But, as Professor Christenfeld has demonstrated, they most likely actually enhance the experience.

So when I tell you that I was really surprised when Tony Stark killed Jon Snow, don’t hate me. Thank me. I’ve just helped you enjoy both of those franchises even more.

Friday Free-for-all #25

In which I answer a random question generated by a website. Here’s this week’s question Feel free to give your own answers in the comments.

Where are some unusual places you’ve been?

Most of the unusual places I’ve been to revolve around entertainment, although it’s not that they’re so much emotional, per se, they’re just places that a lot of the general public doesn’t get to go.

I’ve stood on the stages at South Coast Rep, the Mark Taper Forum, and the L.A. Theater Center, was produced on the first and performed on the third. I’ve also been all over backstage at SCR and LATC, and they are fascinating places.

They’re also a huge contrast to the backstage areas of the many smaller theaters I’ve performed in, where you’re lucky if the booth is bigger than a closet and if there’s anything resembling a dressing room.

Backstages at the big theaters are usually much larger than the stage and lobby combined, at least in area although not necessarily in volume. A big regional theater will have everything back there — lots of dressing rooms, a full costume shop and wardrobe department, set design and construction, a prop department with its own workshop, offices for all of the designers, producers, and other creatives, and quite frequently storage for costumes, props, and set pieces to be ready at hand if they need to be repurposed to the next production.

The thing that really impressed me about LATC, though was the sheer size of it. To the public, it’s a five story building, although the entrances to the theatres are only from the lobby, the second floor, and the basement.

Behind the scenes, though, there are two floors up with rehearsal rooms and the like, but the really amazing part is what’s underneath that first basement.

It’s five floors up and five floors down, and although I never got to fully explore those basements, that was where a lot of the construction work was done. It was also where the dressing rooms were, on two separate floors. The amazing perspective was how those various floors connected to the theaters, which revealed the true art of deception.

What people didn’t realize is that several of the theaters, while appearing to be no more than one level below ground actually went far deeper than that. It’s been a while, but if I recall correctly, there were entrances to the mainstage from both the 4th and 5th basement levels, although the latter did have a ramp up. But you could still get to the stage from the 2nd basement.

But the even more unusual places were working film and TV sets, and especially studio backlots. Now you may or may not have been on the Universal Studios tour at some point and it’s fun but, of course, it’s mostly centered around taking people through the various attractions hidden all over the place, with views of the backlot just a bonus.

My POV of that backlot is entirely different because I spent over a year on that lot in a writing program, and when we were on breaks, we were pretty much free-range writers. I used to love to just wander all over that backlot, and one of the most fascinating things to me was the enormous difference in scale and the deceptiveness of the layout.

We had all gone on the tour at the beginning of the program just for fun, and it makes the backlot seem enormous compared to how it’s really laid out. But once I started wandering around it, I realized that everything was much closer to everything else. The New York Street set is right next to Courthouse Square from Back to the Future — although that’s kind of obvious from the tram. But… the fake suburban streets, the Psycho House, the European Courtyard, and the Five Points western set are all pretty much on top of each other.

From the tram, this detail is basically hidden by the fact that the back of an outdoor set looks pretty much like the back of an indoor set — plain wood, beams, and slats, so one is indistinguishable from another. The only difference is that the backlot buildings do have volume, so the other side of back wall you’re looking at does look like the real interior wall of an actual building on the other side.

I should mention that actually walking into one of these buildings when it does have practical (working) doors is pretty surreal, too. They’re built so that what can be seen looks real, but otherwise, it’s all just scaffolds and c-clamps.

Over my lifetime, I think I’ve been on just about every major studio lot in town — Universal, Warner Bros., Paramount, 20th Century Fox, CBS Radford, CBS Television City, ABC Prospect, Dreamworks Animation, MGM, although I don’t remember what studio it was known as at the time, and Jim Henson Studios, formerly A&M Records, formerly owned by CBS, and built and founded by Charlie Chaplin.

Universal Studios fun fact: back in the day, it was easier to sneak from the touristy parts onto the backlot than the other way around, at least if you knew where the door was. That’s not the case anymore, of course.

That’s kind of true of all of the studios. Before 9/11, once you got onto a backlot, you could pretty much wander around at will. Sure, it took a little bit of confidence and attitude, but if you looked like you knew where you were going, nobody would question you.

Why? Because of that old Hollywood fear of not realizing that the person you were confronting was someone important who could get you fired in an instant.

One of my favorite moments happened at Paramount. I’d been sent up there by my day job to get a signature on some union-related paperwork from a TV director. Mission accomplished, I figured I’d take a bit of a stroll, so I’m wandering past the soundstages with a file folder in my hand.

It’s the middle of a weekday, so they are actively filming, but as I turn down the road between rows of stages, a guard is coming my way, and he starts to approach me with that, “What the hell are you doing here?” look.

But… as luck would have it, the red light outside of the soundstage we’re in front of comes on right as he’s about to speak. In case you don’t know, that light means that they’re shooting inside, so everyone outside needs to stay quiet.

Perfect timing, because before he can say a word, I point at the light and give him an annoyed look and he meekly shuts up and goes along his way, to let me go along mine. I didn’t stick around too long after that, but I felt vindicated.

My absolutely favorite studio experience, though, was at one you’ve probably never heard of and, in fact, one that didn’t even really look like a studio, despite having the word in its name.

It was the Santa Clarita Studios, in the town of the same name, and it looked like an industrial park. However, on the inside was where they housed the standing sets (as well as built the temp ones) for a little show called Melrose Place.

Although the writers’ and producers’ offices were down in Mid-Wilshire, I got to go up there quite a lot for production meetings, but I’ll never forget my first visit when they took me on a tour of the set.

I’d always just assumed that the actual Melrose Place Courtyard was a real apartment building somewhere, but nope. It was a full-scale, two story, permanent structure, detailed inside and out, including the swimming pool. Most of the apartments were practical in the sense that they also served as shootable interiors thanks to “wild” walls that could be removed for camera access.

What really sold the whole thing was the massive trans-light opposite the courtyard entrance that curved around and partway along the side walls. A trans-light is basically a gigantic photographic slide — think a few stories high and really, really wide — which is illuminated from behind and creates the illusion of actual scenery behind it, in this case the Hollywood hills.

They could do day or night with that thing, and even in person it was as convincing as hell, so that walking into that courtyard was like being outside.

The rest of the sets were just as impressive, as were the layouts. One of the things that always amazed me was that the two major standing business sets — Amanda’s ad agency and the hospital where several other characters worked were actually built back-to-back. You could literally walk through a door at the end of the hospital and right into the offices, or vice versa.

And I know there were more sets hiding in there, but it’s been a long time. What has always stood out, though, and makes it a truly unusual place is… well, it’s two things.

First is what an absolutely wonderful experience it was. The people were amazing — creators, crew, and cast — which made the idea that every character in the show was a back-stabbing bastard even more amusing. That couldn’t have been farther from the truth. (Well, with one exception, but karma got that one big time for being a bit of a lunatic.)

But the second is that being at that studio and on those sets felt like stepping into the television for a while, and it made it all feel real even though I knew that it was all make-believe at the same time.

Somewhere, I have the cast and crew photos or each seasoan I worked on the show, and by tradition we always took them in that courtyard set, with people at ground level, on the stairs, and on the balcony. And that’s an unusual place and a bit of TV history that will always be a part of me, as I will always be a part of it.

Image: © 1999 Spelling Television,. author’s personal copy. Melrose Place final season cast and crew photo.

Bad movies that really aren’t

Looking for some lockdown entertainment now that you’ve binged absolutely everything you want to see on your preferred streaming service? You can’t go wrong with these gems that are either underrated or so bad they’re good. Sometimes, both.

Judging any art form is really subjective. After all, one man’s masterpiece is another man’s mishegoss. And you can’t really measure the entire world of creativity based on just your standards. Sure, it’d be nice if everything conformed to your taste, but why does it have to? You don’t have to watch it if you don’t like it.

I mean, if I ruled the world of entertainment, then most reality shows would not exist, no one would have ever heard of the Kardashians or the residents of the Jersey Shore, and professional wrestling would have died in the 1950s, along with a lot of other things. And sorry, but there would also be no MCU or DC movies.

If all of that pisses you off, good. It should. Because, like I said, if there’s room for my fanboy stuff, there’s room for yours. If I don’t like your stuff, I don’t have to watch it, and vice versa.

This isn’t to say that everything ever produced is perfect, or that all critics are wrong. Sometimes, a hot mess can be damn entertaining despite, or even because of, its flaws, and here are my ten examples of movies that, IMHO, are much better than they have any business being.

  1. Myra Breckinridge (1970)

Adapted from Gore Vidal’s “book that couldn’t be written,” this “motion picture that couldn’t be made” is actually much better and far more subversive than it was given credit for at the time. Then again, maybe it was too far ahead of its time, since it dealt with issues of gender identity, sexual orientation, feminism, and the capitalistic rape of the arts at a time when American society wasn’t ready for that discussion. As if we really are now.

Vidal disowned the film, and a lot of the cast involved, especially Raquel Welch in the titular (ahemn) role bad-mouthed it before it came out. Some critics think it’s the one thing that prevented her meteoric rise to stardom from continuing, which is a shame. Rex Reed also isn’t half bad in his debut, but the rest of his onscreen acting career amounted to small parts, cameos, or appearing on game shows, although he did frequently appear as himself in documentaries about other performers.

Still… viewed through the lens of the world almost fifty years later, the film comes across as a wry and knowing satire that somehow managed to understand the marginalized, even if the director was a straight and probably homophobic moron.

  1. Caligula (1979)

This one is an interesting milestone mainly because it’s the only example I can think of that had a big name, famous cast combined with hardcore porn. Oh, sure. None of the stars were involved in the actual boinking, but nonetheless there was plenty of real sex happening onscreen in this film, money shots and all — and some of the big names did do a lot of faking it.

But here’s the thing. I’ve been a fan of Roman history for a long time, and had read Suetonius long before I saw this film in an art house revival, and if anything, it actually holds back a little bit from the reality, despite all  that jizz and gore on screen.

If you can handle all the ick, though, what’s not to like? We have Malcolm McDowell, Helen Mirren, Peter O’Toole, and John Gielgud, leading up a cast of mostly Italian actors who were probably doing the old “it’s getting dubbed later” trick with their dialogue. But, anyway… for the most part, Caligula follows Suetonius pretty accurately, paints a really nice portrait of Rome circa 40 C.E., has a little bit of something for everyone, and has some really nice dark humor.

Bonus points and a connection to the first entry: the screenplay was written by… Gore Vidal, who also disowned it and insisted that his name be taken off. Somewhere in my collection, I think I still have a rare paperback edition of the novelization of the film that credits him as the author. He would have hated that.

  1. The Apple (1980)

Kudos for this one, because it happened right at a point when Hollywood musicals seemed dead — although it didn’t manage to get the same attention as the next entry on the list. This is definitely a B Movie and set in the then far-off world of 1994, where “life is nothing but show business.” The only thing they got wrong was in jumping the gun a little bit, but not by much.

I’d classify this one as pretentious silliness, but the musical numbers are enjoyable enough and well-choreographed, and the issues of reality shows with audience manipulation to tinker with the results still ring true today. Bonus points for the Big Bad being played by famous Polish character actor Vladek Sheybal in what is, as far as I know, his only musical role. He made a career out of playing dubious Soviets during the Cold War, but is probably best known to mainstream audiences for his role in the James Bond flick From Russia with Love. Here, it’s a hoot seeing him play a saucy singing and dancing stand-in for Satan.

Oh, yeah. In case the symbolism in the title was too subtle for you, yes, it’s that apple ultimately, with Mr. Boogalow and Mr. Topps competing for the souls of innocents Pandi and Dandi. I’m sure the symbolism of the protagonist’s and antagonist’s names will probably jump right out at you, too.

  1. Xanadu (1980)

Another musical dealing with religious mythology, although this time around it’s Greek, and involves a muse (Olivia Newton-John) who came down to Earth. (She’s Terpsichore, the muse of dance, in case you’re keeping track.) The plot involves some silliness about re-opening a long closed roller rink as a failed mural artist (Michael Beck) teams up with an old time band leader (Gene Kelly), and they all sing, dance, and skate around combined with some really cheesy 1980 visual effects that were in that awkward slot between purely optical and purely CGI.

Still… it’s an entertaining romp if you just let your brain go and marvel at this attempt to combine the au courant (Olivia) with the past (Kelly), and an even further past (the Pan Pacific Theater, which was another character, really),  and set it all to cheesy as hell pop songs. Hey, it was good enough to be unironically turned into a Broadway musical.

  1. Meet Joe Black (1998)

The main critique I hear of this film is that it’s just too damn long, but come on. It happens to be exactly the same length as Avengers: End Game to the minute. What I enjoy about this film, though, besides the amazing pairing of Brad Pitt and Anthony Hopkins in the leads, is how much of a throw-back to 1930s and 40s Hollywood films it is, particularly Heaven Can Wait (1943) and Death Takes a Holiday (1934) — which was the direct inspiration for this film.

After Joe Black takes over the body of a young man who struck the interest of Hopkins’ character’s daughter before he was struck by multiple cars and apparently killed, it becomes a meditation on the need for love and the inevitability of death and, indeed, how the former can conquer the latter. This is a film about big ideas, and it takes its time with it, which is probably why it put a lot of people off.

  1. Battlefield Earth (2000)

This one is on the top of my “So goddamn bad it’s gold” list. Cheesy as hell? Oh yeah. Cosmic shit show? In spades. Worth watching? Definitely. Here’s the review I wrote when it came out. What wasn’t to hate about it? Crazed cult member spends millions on vanity project with no apparent oversight, chews up and spits out the scenery, and everything in it seems derivative.

On that last point, here’s where I have to give props to L. Ron, though. Sure, there are bits that seem to have been ripped from Logan’s Run and Blade Runner and other stuff. However, he did write his pulp epic before those books and movies ever came out. So this is chicken and egg stuff. Still…

The best part of Battlefield Earth is that if you know it’s a thinly veiled explanation of Scientology, then everything in it makes that pseudo religion look so goddamn ridiculous that this movie is practically an anti-recruiting tool — and Travolta couldn’t even see that. And that was L. Ron Hubbard’s joke, really, I think, because he parodied hard the religion he created and its structure. Who are the villains in this story? The Psychlos. And even though he gave them a name reminiscent of the people Scientologists consider the villains — psychiatrists and psychologists — that was just a dodge,  because everything thing the Psychlos do and say, especially to each other, is right out of the Scientology  rule book.

So, yeah. This movie more than anything reminds me of what an evil genius L. Ron was. He managed to create a cult and then mock them quite openly in his fiction, knowing that they’d never get it because he’d blinded them to it. Brilliant!

  1. National Treasure (2004)

History: 0. Fun: 10. That’s all I really have to say about this one and its sequels. It’s a romp that may teach some people some stuff, and it’s sort of an Americanized Dan Brown, except without quite so much made up bullshit. Okay, a modicum of made up bullshit, but at least it’s not stolen from other writers who made it up first.

  1. John Carter (2012)

The only reason that John Carter tanked is this: Disney bought Lucasfilm. Period. Why did that have an effect? Simple. They didn’t want to start supporting another science fiction franchise in the wake of the behemoth they’d just reined in. So all PR and marketing for this film stopped abruptly before it opened, and more’s the shame, because it’s a pretty accurate take on what is arguably one of the earliest American science fiction franchises, and Mr. Carter deserved a hell of a lot more.

I mean, come on. Is Disney really that blind that they don’t realize how damn many fourteen-year-old boys (and girls) they could have gotten to come see A Princess of Mars? Otherwise, John Carter is a well-done ripping adventure that combines every desert planet from Star Wars with all of that MCU jumping about.

  1. Jupiter Ascending (2015)

This one was misunderstood by people who don’t like comedy or satire in their science fiction. (“You got chocolate in my peanut butter!”) But, come on. It’s funny and off-kilter, and it’s meant to be. The other thing to keep in mind: during the time this film was in production, the Wachowskis were going through some difficult personal times, just after Lana’s public transition and just before Lily’s — and one of them was outed as transgender against her will. So take that title, as well as the plot, as symbolic.

Is the whole thing meant to be camp and with a double meaning? Oh, hell yes.

  1. Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (2017)

I consider this film to be the unofficial sequel to Luc Besson’s amazing The Fifth Element, because it really feels like it’s set in the same universe, and it starts off with an absolutely amazing opening sequence (with Rutger Hauer and Bowie bonus points) and then includes this amazing bit of stuff from Rihanna that made me question my sexuality. What’s not to like?

Which movies that are generally considered “bad” do you really love and why? Tell us in the comments.