Just finished watching the Jake Kasdan film The TV Set, produced by Lawrence Kasdan and Judd Apatow, starring David Duchvony, Signorney Weaver, Ion Gruffud, Justine Bateman, and Judy Greer. It's a film that got limited distribution due to the fact that it is basically an insider tale about what it is involved in creating a television pilot.
If you have any interest at all in television analysis, the process of making a tv show, or the television industry - you probably should rent this film. And make sure you watch the commentary with Judd Apatow and Jake Kasdan, skip all the other special features but that one. It's a great discussion about the obstacles involved in creating a tv series. Judd Apatow and Kasdan were the creators and writers behind the tv series Freaks and Geeks, which got cancelled after one season. Kasdan also was a co-creator of The Ben Stiller Show, and Apatow did Undeclared. Both have since left tv and gone on to film. They state quite simply that while it is difficult to get a movie made, once you are making it, the studios tend to leave you alone unless of course you go over budget or become expensive, which Apatow tries really hard not to do because he does not want to become their problem. While in television, the studio is always bugging you; they never leave alone. You never ever reach the point in which they are "committed" to your project, not threatening to pull the rug out from under you, or telling you it won't work.
The film is a bit of a satire - it makes fun of the process, depicting everything from the casting process to the actual presentation in front of the critics and networks.
The problem with television or creating television is you do not have control and someone who knows little about your vision is constantly telling you how you need to change it so that it will air. There's a great line that the studio head, Lenny, tells the writer in the film:"We don't want it to be too original. Let's get rid of the originality, so it can work."
The other problem - is that studio heads, network heads, programming heads can get fired like that! Apatow mentions during the commentary that what a lot of people don't realize is that if anything goes wrong or it doesn't work, everyone gets fired. Everyone they worked with on Freaks and Geeks, from the studio head up to the network chief, got fired and has moved on now. In fact before they even got there with their show, the studio had gone through three regimes. The turnover is that fast. The guy who green lighted 30 Rock, My Name is Earl, the Office, and Heroes, has been fired. He didn't last more than a year. Their necks are always on the line. They can never get comfortable.
And there's a really funny story about casting - two actually. They state that if you get the wrong actor for a role, you are doomed. But getting your casting approved is a tortuous process for everyone involved. They force the actors competing for the roles to hang out with each other during the whole process, often in these hallways for hours and hours on end. They make them audition in front of the production company and the network. You have to get the production company's opinion first, even if it doesn't effect the network's because it doesn't. It's possible to have everyone love a particular actor for a part, but one studio head - and lose the actor because of that. Judd Apatow mentions wanting Jason Siegel for Undeclared and being told no. Then asking for Seth Rogan and being laughed at. He tried to press the Seth Rogan point and threatened to quit, only to be told they could sue him over that since he'd already committed to doing six episodes.
The other story he tells is about minority casting. Freaks and Geeks was on in the late 90s around the time that the NAACP sent in their report to the networks and demanded minority casting. The networks reaction was to call up Apatow and demand they put in a minority character immediately as in now! Apatow says - they just called and said, find an attractive minority actor and give them a lead role. Now. He says that they didn't care if the show had already been cast or ten episodes written, the character had to be inserted. They were lucky to find a really talented woman to insert, so they did that. It wasn't a gorgeous latino woman, which disappointed the studio slightly, but it was at least something. [As an aside:The studios are obsessed with having really attractive people in these roles. And often will push them on the writers and creators.] This by the way happened across the board. It's typical of affirmative action - find someone to fit our criteria, we don't really care what they do, they can hold the door open, just make sure they fit the defined numbers.
He also said that what often happens is you'll be satisfied with your cast, the pilot is great, then after it is approved, the network will come back with notes and tell you to get rid of one of the actors and replace them with someone else. Or they'll say you shouldn't have the brother commit suicide, it should be the mom who dies.
You strive to get the pilot on air, looking at the carrot that is telling you that you will be left alone after that. But the sad truth is you never really are. In TV you never really have the freedom to do whatever you want. They will always come back with notes and suggestions. In some cases, if you are really lucky, you'll get a network head or studio guy who is willing to leave you alone, sees that you have a great vision, and lets you do it. But the turnover is so bad in the industry, that they are likely to disappear in two years if not less or be put in a situation in which they have to get you to change something or get fired. In short, you, the television series creator are always in conflict with the studio heads, unless you are making them lots of money, aka Abrahms with Lost. If you make people money, you have power.
Nor are they very forthcoming with what your future is. Everyone talks very politely,is very affectionate, and always saying and doing the opposite of what they mean. They'll say, oh we think your show is amazing, a definite go, no worries, but there is a small possibility it may not make it on next years schedule, the network is considering going in another direction... but we aren't really clear on that as of yet, so don't worry about it. Apatow says he used to want to grab them and scream, just tell me damn it! Is it a go or isn't it?? [This happened to Joss Whedon with Angel S4 and S5, they did the same little spiel. In S5, Whedon finally lost it and pleaded with the network to just let him know! ]
Kasdan says much the same thing, that he worked on a pilot for six months, thought it was a go, was told that it was 90% a go after the pilot was seen by the network and focus groups, then two weeks later, seemingly out of the blue, that it wasn't, only 4% interest. That it would not make it to the air. Apparently they do this all the time. They commission about 100 pilots or so from a studio, the studio figures some are hits, most long shots, they develop them and send them in. The sure things pay for the millions spent on the long-shots.
Apatow and Kasdan state that the best attitude to have in TV is not to care. Apatow said he started becoming successful when he stopped caring so much. One of the reasons Larry David succeeded keeping Sienfield true to his vision, was he didn't appear to care if it bombed or disappeared. He was always telling the studio that if they didn't like what he wrote, that was fine, he'd just quit. He gave the impression he didn't care what they or the audience thought. What you have to do, they said, is quit a few 100 times, before you actually get something worthwhile. Because if you give in on one thing, it compromises everything - for example - if you give in on a lead actress, but get your lead actor - it often will cause problems in the long run. You are constantly fighting to have your vision make it to the screen, to not have it picked apart or changed by producers, studio heads, network heads, who are always sending in notes. Often insane ones that make no sense.
From the commentary, most of the people who saw The TV Set were television writers and tv insiders, and they all said the film made them not want to do a tv show. It is a grueling process. That takes a lot of time and more often than not goes nowhere. After watching this, I thought - it is a minor miracle that good shows like Buffy, BSG, the Sopranos, Lost, or Heroes ever get made let alone make it to the tv screen. Not so surprising that the Bachelor and countless reality shows do. Freaks and Geeks died an early death because the network wanted to put on a game show in it's slot.
If you aren't that interested in the process of making a tv show or like satire, the TV SET may bore you. It's a lot like Robert Altman's The Player, filled with inside jokes and focused on the process. The other commentaries including The Making Of - are a waste of time, mostly self-congratulatory, with lots of bits about how great everyone is. They give little insight into how or why the film was made. The best commentary is the Apatow/Kasdan one, even if you don't like Judd Apatow or his comedies and think he's an chauvinistic asswipe, which I do. The film is mandatory viewing for anyone who wants to discuss the making of or quality of television shows in any depth or for that matter aspires to be involved in the process. According to Apatow, it's actually being used by some to teach courses on the topic.