Unfashionable Fiction? 'ELI', KINGS Creators on TV Future

Fiction Outta Fashion on TV?

As "reality" television continues to dominate much of television, fans of creative, fictional programming have been crying foul, particularly this season when so many critical darlings went down hard. From Pushing Daisies and Life on Mars, to Swingtown and Life, this year's busy chopping block seems to indicate that fiction is struggling to stay alive on broadcast television.

"In network television, it's just becoming harder and harder to tell quality stories, particularly ones that are serialized. Cable is becoming more and more the home for that kind of writing," said screenwriter Marc Guggenheim, who co-created with Greg Berlanti the recently canceled ABC show Eli Stone.

Guggenheim and Berlanti have company while they recover from their show's cancelation. The two are co-writing the script for Warner Bros.' upcoming Green Lantern movie with Michael Green, who also had his show, Kings, canceled by NBC this year. Guggenheim and Green started noticing similarities in their circumstances and talked to Newsarama about the current landscape of network television.

"I said to him, both of our shows are doing the Saturday death march," Guggenheim said, referring to the fact that both Kings and Eli Stone will finish out their season this summer on Saturday nights, otherwise known as where Network TV shows go to die. "It's in vogue right now to blame the networks, but at some point, you have to start blaming the audience. For whatever reason, the broadcast audience is clearly not responding to this kind of material."

"I think it's a negative feedback loop," Green added. "I think audiences sampled some of the better reality shows or some of the worst reality shows and checked them out. And networks, which are all too quick to try to replicate success with repetition, went ahead and started making more of the same. The audiences started checking those out too. And eventually it started becoming not only a viable alternative, but a less expensive alternative for networks to make."

Guggenheim also pointed out that just talking about "scripted vs. unscripted" doesn't really describe what's happening. "In addition to that, I draw a distinction between good scripted and bad scripted," Guggenheim said. "There's always going to be some scripted television on network. The problem is – and I'm not going to name names – but are they shows that are kind of mindless, cookie-cutter shows that sort of appeal to the lowest common denominator, or are they smart, quality drama?"

Another distinction made in television is the difference between "procedural" shows, such as Law and Order or CSI, as opposed to "character-based serial shows," like Lost or Desperate Housewives. And right now, procedural shows are experiencing a surge of popularity, Green said.

"If there's a tone in our voice when we talk about the distinction, it's because Marc and I happen to enjoy writing character-based, serialized shows more than procedural. But that's just us. That's not to say one is better or worse than the other," Green said. "There just seems to be this never-ending appetite for procedural crime drama on television. I guess there is an upper limit to that, but CBS hasn't found it yet. And good for them – they do make good versions of that product."

"I used to make my living doing procedural. My TV career started with doing procedural, self-contained, one-hour crime dramas like Law and Order," Guggenheim said. "I actually think those done well are totally valid and viable and very entertaining. If I'm disturbed by anything, it's the trend toward procedurals that are not done well, but are kind of mindless. It's not so much the form I dislike as the bad execution of the form."

Green and Guggenheim have more in common than just their similarly canceled shows. Not only are the two working together on Green Lantern, but both are current comic book writers – Green on Superman/Batman for DC Comics and Guggenheim on Resurrection for Oni Comics and Amazing Spider-Man for Marvel. And because of this shared experience, they both recognize the unique characteristics of audiences who also read comic books.

"Comic book readers are the best audiences. They're audiences who love with their whole heart, who pay attention with both sides of their brain, and when they get into a show, they give it their all," Green said. "They almost rely on the idea of ongoing storytelling. It's what they're there for. They want ongoing narrative and ongoing character stories. Kings was on a network that is very deliberately moving away from serial storytelling. But the comic audiences hear about a show that will have serial storytelling with genre elements, and that's what they get excited for."

Guggenheim said comic book audiences also tend to care more about quality. "Look at the top 10 comic books that sell in any given month," Guggenheim said. "You may not agree that it's your cup of tea, but I defy you to point to them and go, 'Wow that is an utter piece of crap and appeals to the lowest common denominator.' Whereas if you look at the top TV shows, you're going to find a good chunk of shows that will make you say that."

That love of comics not only brought the two writers together on Green Lantern, but it's coming into play again for Guggenheim on his next project. Although Eli Stone may be done, the writer's already working with someone from the comics world on another TV show.

"It's probably too soon for me to announce my involvement with it just yet," Guggenheim said. "But I will say I'm working on a new TV show co-created with someone with incredibly good comic book cred. It's a pilot, and we haven't been ordered yet, so that's the reason I can't really say who or what it is."

And even with the landscape looking dim for serialized fiction on broadcast TV, both Guggenheim and Green believe their favorite type of character-based storytelling could make a come-back soon.

"What goes in and out of fashion is how much character-based, serialized television there is," Green said. "For awhile, when I started in television, it was verboten for writers to get anything serialized. It would be a fight to get 10 percent of an episode to be about ongoing character relationships from episode to episode. Then with the success of Lost, Desperate Housewives, and HBO shows really teaching audiences how to watch serialized television in a sophisticated way, there then became fights with your network and studio who wanted things more serialized. And now it just seems to be bouncing back the other way."

"Television is very cyclical. The pendulum is always in motion," Guggenheim said. "We can talk about the way the landscape looks today, but a year from now, it will change. All it takes is one smash hit or two smash hits to radically alter the landscape and change the pendulum motion."

Tomorrow we talk to Guggenheim and Green about another element that Kings and Eli Stone had in common: God, as well as the challenge networks face when marketing innovative television to the broadcast audience.

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