Screenwriting And Old Television Shows

I do not watch television much.  Here in France I would need a satellite dish and receiver to receive the signals for TV5, the French station or have a subscription to a set of UK channels.  So I do without and really don’t miss it.  I have books to read when I’m not working on this centuries old house and music from the cds I’ve stored on the laptop of memory sticks.  Beyond that I can always hop into my old yellow Seat and drive somewhere.  But there are times when I bring up You Tube and watch an old movie or television show.  Sometimes I’m lucky with the old movies and find a few that I have never seen and never knew existed.  Many of these such as Monty Woolley in Holy Matrimony are good stories well written and well acted.  Some are dogs.  Well you pays your nickel and takes your chances.

Most of the modern television that I have seen or been forced to watch has rarely impressed me.  And now with the advent of “reality” tv, I can only wonder why the medium has survived.  I like to watch the old Dragnet, a cop show that really did a public service.  Unlike High Patrol with Broderick Crawford, Sergeant Friday and his partner acted in a story of real events.  The writers for that show went to the police department and obtains real cases, everyday occurrences of crime, most of which were the simple ordinary crimes one might find in a city as large as Los Angles.  The cases selected were ones that had required a few days to a few weeks to solve and were told in a simple and direct manner.  Yes, the little asides and the stiff speech gave the show some charm.  We could all speak like Jack Webb, in that short choppy monotone voice of few syllables.  But compared to such shows as the old Hawaii 50 and NYPD Blue and CSI Special Victims Unit and so on, these were stories about real ordinary people done in an ordinary way.  You could have been siting in the squad room listening to the detectives trade cases.  You know what I mean, a little flamboyance, a little drama just to make it interesting but nothing over the top.  Now days everything is over the top, so much so that we have to invent alien invasions, zombie invasions, the last surviving humans on the planet and will they survive this week’s problem or will every body dies?  Well, as long as the show has ratings we only start killing off the survivors one or two at a time when the ratings dip.  And when the ratings get too low that the last show should show the bad guys wining.

As a child I loved watching shows like Science Fiction Theater.  I had to wait until my after puberty years to learn to appreciate Playhouse 90 and the many other very fine productions of what is commonly referred to as the golden years of television.  Yet, unlike it’s name, one did not see Buck Rogers and space ships and aliens and exploding volcanos all the time.  It was the forerunner of shows like One Step Beyond and the Twilight Zone.  There was some science to the show and the writing has usually been good.  My brother and I liked the program well enough and our interests in science was peaked by the stories and the machinery.  One of these days  am going to build a Jacob’s Ladder, that’s the one with the two rods set at an angle and a spark is generated between them and travels up the rods in an arc.  That’s all the thing does, nothing else, just looks cool.  Every mad scientist has one.

One Step Beyond is a very good show, I love the writing.  If one tried to revive it today one would need a bevy of special effects and writers who put everything in the story including the kitchen sink.  I think our reliance of special effects has led to over writing and over acting.  It’s like the current run of comedy shows.  If something is funny then over doing it will make it a riot.  Perhaps.  A sitcom can no longer be mere amusing, it must be a riot.  Exaggeration is the norm for living these days.  Yet life isn’t a constant laugh track.  Did you even notice that the Three Stooges never had a laugh track?  Ah, but one can only take some much slapstick and incompetence.  Still, when I’m in a hospital I sometimes try to get the operator to page Dr Howard, Dr Fine, Dr Howard.  Of course that has lost its meaning to the younger generations who never knew the Stooges.  No, One Step Beyond went into the paranormal and other questions of the modern world.  The writers searched for the most unusual occurrences not easily explainable by modern science (at the time) and present them in a dramatised manner, but not overly so.

The Twilight Zone was a “What if” type of storyline.  What if we take a normal daily event and put it into a new context, one that is a little beyond our reason to explain?  How would an individual react to some situation out of the ordinary, out of daily context?  The writers, which often included Rod Serling at least directing the writing, were very good, very imaginative.  Here we see the shift towards a bit of over acting, over dramatization. bu always in the services of IRONY,  Yes, capital letters lest we forget that George W Bush and Barack Obama can be elected but Hillary Clinton can’t.  I shudder to think what Serling could have done with Hillary.  Imagine, if you will, a woman running for president….caught in the Twilight Zone.  Oh, the possibilities just come blowing past me.

Of course no study of screen writing would be complete without reference to Alfred Hitchcock.  He is like the bartender who serves up your martini with a double twist but you are never quite sure if it is stirred or shaken and what’s actually in it.  All you know is that you want another.  No, make that a double.  Again, ordinary people in ordinary circumstances with ordinary outcomes twisted several times.  Irony is the most common device used in both drama and comedy.  One needs a sense of the ironic because it is life.  The woman inside the prison who helped the two murderers escape, the guard who wanted to expand his art collection sensing that the one inmate had talent and he could collect big ten or twenty years later.  Irony is all around us.  Christine Lagarde who said that the IMF did a feasibility study and found the Greek debt was non serviceable as is and recommended that the EU creditors take significant hair cuts (losses).  Almost immediately the anti euro groups in Spain (Podemos) and Italy (Five Star) are writing requests that the IMF study their respective counties debt and deliver the same message.  The Greek contagion has spread, significantly.  You can’t make this stuff up, real life is stranger than fiction.  But you can make a screenplay of it later on.  I can picture Alfred giving his ending comment on tonight’s story and then adding, “And now a word from our sponsor.”

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