Love is all around

Don’t look at me like that. If you’ve lived your whole life in the UK as I have, then a blog with the subject heading “Love is all around” can only mean one thing. Clearly, I’m going to write something about world events, about how there are eye-poppingly scary things happening but we should remember that we’ve always got each other.

No.

I got nothin’.

Not on that. In the meantime, if you lived in America at all, you’ve now got a song in your head. Love Is All Around is the theme to The Mary Tyler Moore Show and this week its star died.

I could write you an obituary but people who actually knew her have done that. Instead, I want to focus on just that fact that in the UK you know her name but in the US she’s a deep-rooted part of the culture.

That does fascinate me, the way that we think of writers and actors as individuals but actually their talent and their reach is very much bound up in where they are. Mary Tyler Moore just isn’t as beloved in the UK as she is in the States. Mrs Brown might possibly not get the same reception in New York as in Britain.

Now, Brown is a character and Tyler Moore is an actor but you get it. As much as we try to move forward, as much as we try to create something new, to develop our choice of medium in new ways, we are very much bound to where we are.

The Mary Tyler Moore Show is also an example of being bound to a certain time. This is a sitcom that aired 1970 to 1977 and the word hit just doesn’t cover it. Seven years, three spin-offs and there’s a commemorative plaque at the studio where it was filmed.

It wasn’t just popular, it wasn’t just funny, it was genuinely groundbreaking and all the more so if your ground was America. When the show began, Mary Tyler Moore was best known for co-starring in The Dick Van Dyke Show. More than best known for it, it was one of those cases where the actor is so successful in a role that she’s in danger of never working again.

If you don’t know The Dick Van Dyke Show then the quick way to describe her character, Laura Petrie, is to say she was the wife. For all the character did, when the show was over, Mary Tyler Moore was permanently fixed in the audience’s mind as the wife.

So here’s The Mary Tyler Moore Show where this actor is single, a career woman and joining a television newsroom instead of being a housewife. The writers wanted more: they wanted her to be a divorcee but there was absolutely no possibility that American television would allow that. They were skittish about divorcees in general but they were not going to let anyone think Laura Petrie had divorced Dick Van Dyke.

Today that seems ridiculous chiefly because it is. But it also seems ridiculous because we’ve grown up and if our television still doesn’t treat women as it does men, it’s better. And it’s better in large part because of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, created by James L Brooks and Allan Burns.

So here’s this gigantic hit which changes and develops US television, but it didn’t travel and it has never performed well in repeats, in syndication, even in the States.

There are other examples of this: a show called Murphy Brown was a smash from 1988 to 1998 but you don’t see it around now. Amongst everything else Murphy Brown did, though, it was replete with topical references and those date it considerably.

The Mary Tyler Moore Show didn’t do that. In theory any episode stands up today as it did on first airing. Its most famous one, Chuckles Bites The Dust, has no 1970s political agenda, hasn’t anything overtly tied to 1970s events. But still, the show belongs to its time and that would be fine.

Except for how it makes it harder to really appreciate the power this show had, the impact. Writing about it from another country and decades after it ended, I think I know, I think I intellectually know what the series meant, but I can’t feel it.

Except I can in one way.

I’m saying all this about the show’s impact on television and you’re quite reasonably assuming I mean American TV but you can trace a line from this four-camera, three-wall videotaped 1970s American sitcom to the grittiest of UK dramas today. It’s a line that affected me: The Mary Tyler Moore Show is directly responsible for the fact that I’m a writer even though I can’t have seen above a dozen episodes at the very most.

For you know how it goes, wherever there shalt be a hit show, so shalt there be spin-offs. The Mary Tyler Moore Show had three and it’s peculiar what happened to them. There was The Betty White Show which you’ve never seen. There was Rhoda, which I’d say is better known in the UK than The Mary Tyler Moore Show.

And then there is Lou Grant.

Lou Grant is unique. It is the only one-hour, single-camera, film drama to come from a sitcom. Not only had it never happened before, it has never happened since.

I am a writer because of Lou Grant and how this was the first show where I recognised that drama was crafted, that it was made, rather than just being something on the TV in the corner.

But I wouldn’t have seen it and neither would anyone, really, if it weren’t for the power of The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Lou Grant was a character in that sitcom and he was so popular, the series was so very popular, that the network gave the Lou Grant show an on-air commitment for 13 episodes. Do what you like, make what you like but if it’s got actor Ed Asner playing his Lou Grant character, you’re on air for 13 weeks.

Well, okay, no, the network didn’t let anyone loose and if the show had bombed they’d have cancelled it halfway through the first ad break. But they paid for 13 episodes so cancellation is a tougher financial decision for them and this helped keep Lou Grant on for its first few months while it grew an audience.

Lou Grant, like The Mary Tyler Moore Show before it, was made by a production company called MTM and yes, that was named after Mary Tyler Moore. Even if you’ve never seen her show, even if you’ve never seen Lou Grant – come round to my place, we’ll have pizza and watch – then you still know MTM’s work.

For MTM went on to make Hill Street Blues and every single television police drama owes a debt to that. It’s the iPhone of cop shows: everything before it looked a certain way, everything after it looked like Hill Street Blues.

And that would not have happened at all without The Mary Tyler Moore Show.

Her show was bound to a certain time and of course so is Mary Tyler Moore herself but both have impact that is so great that we feel it even when we don’t know where it came from. The makers of The Mary Tyler Moore Show were trying to make a good, funny sitcom, they weren’t sitting there thinking that oooh, after Hill Street we could make St Elsewhere and change hospital dramas too.

They got on with what they were doing and they did their very best. So actually, maybe yes, maybe I do have something about the world today: let’s get on with what we’re doing and do our very best.

Community Script Writing 101

This is going to read like a long and unqualified hymn of praise to a particular TV show but actually, I think it’s about confidence and verve and talent. But you have a point about it being long: grab some tea and a couple of biscuits, would you?

Follow. I have recently binged through the first three seasons of Community (Amazon UK, Amazon US). It’s a US sitcom set in a college, and my wife, Angela, has not binged through it at all. Most episodes, perhaps 70% of them, have left me agog enough that I’ve gone to her insisting that she would not believe what the show had just done.

For instance, she came back one evening and I was blinking at the screen. I told her they’d just done an amazing episode with paintball. Uh-huh, she didn’t say but she could’ve done. Not long afterwards, I was telling her that they’ve done an entire episode with stop-motion animation. They did a perfect pastiche of Law & Order. One episode is almost completely done as a 1990s 8-bit computer game with the characters drawn as Super Mario-like graphic sprites. There is an entire episode produced in the painstakingly precise style of a National Geographic or History Channel documentary but what it’s documenting is a pillow fight. Another apparently straight episode splits off into six alternative timelines with each being worse than the one before.

That’s nice, she also didn’t say but could’ve done.

Community isn’t her thing but what I want to focus on here is me and how I would tell her about it. How poorly I would tell her.

You can so easily praise Community for doing these stunts that it comes across, I think, as a comedy that does stunts. Let’s do a spaghetti western this week. Whoop-de-doo.

Plenty of series do pastiche episodes. I’m trying to remember specific examples but I just have this general shrug: I do remember The Young Ones doing University Challenge supremely well, and Press Gang did a kind of Doctor Who that was quite touching, but otherwise, shrug. It feels like a cheap idea, it feels like a stunt. Make this episode be a western and that alone will be hilarious.

But.

When Community did that paintball episode, I was beside myself with its audacity and true imagination. That episode turned this series from a funny, self-aware comedy about a group of students at an adult education college into – well, I don’t know. Within its 21 minute running time, the entire show changed from one of type of sitcom into something like a feature-film epic. Every character under extreme, just extreme pressure; allegiances formed and betrayed; plots made and failed; friendships won and lost.

Also, there was paintball.

The college becomes a war zone with paintball guns and it is very, very funny but it’s also so very, very serious. You feel like you’re seeing characters in their true colours, and it just happens that those true colours are red, blue, orange, green and yellow paint.

It is riveting and I was just agog.

When I learnt that the show was going to do it again in the next season, I was actually excited. It was an effort to not skip straight to that.

I’ve been thinking a lot about why this worked and why a pastiche could be so much more than an empty parody. I’m afraid I think that it’s down to the talent, the verve and the imagination of the makers. Damn them. How can I steal talent, verve and imagination? Bastards.

It’s not that the show is perfect. This is unfair of me but a DVD extra put me off a little: the first one I watched had series creator Dan Harmon narrating a series of clips which had fart noises added. There’s puerile and there’s seriously? you bothered to make that?

I saw that quite early on in my watching, before I was hooked and in fact before the first paintball episode which truly is a series-changing, series-defining moment. So it did put me off and that was unfair because I think there’s really only one puerile joke in the actual episodes. There’s this monkey, right, and it’s a pretty good addition to the show: it is the catalyst for an episode set entirely in the main study room set. But its name is “Annie’s Boobs”.

That just doesn’t fit, for me. Doesn’t seem to fit Troy (Donald Glover), the character who named the monkey, and the start-stop reactions from Annie (Alison Brie) seem like cutaways instead of permanently, inherently part of her character.

Every show takes time to find its feet in its first few episodes and I’d put Annie’s Boobs down to this one working out Troy’s character except that the name persists.

It really interests me how the series visibly changed and developed its characters. Not in the sense of them growing and changing over time, though they do and though they should, but in the sense of the writers fixing what doesn’t quite work. Troy and Annie, for instance: Annie’s defining characteristic at the start is that she’s in love with Troy and he doesn’t realise. That’s going to be a series-lasting kind of thing, a series-long will they/won’t they, except that it isn’t. That’s cut off at the knees quite early on and it’s to the benefit of both characters.

One character that suffers from changes and fixing, though, is Britta (GIllian Jacobs).

At the very start, ie episode one, Britta is the reason the show exists. Jeff Winger (Joel McHale) is a disbarred lawyer having to get some college credits and really only being interested in “the hot blonde from Spanish class”. He creates a study group just for the two of them and it is so very much entirely to get her into bed that he is even lying about knowing any Spanish at all. It is therefore disastrous for him when other people come to the first ‘group’ meeting and, again, this is the start of a series-long will he/why would she kind of tale. They are the sexy not-yet-couple, they are the Sam and Diane of the show. (Which the series actually directly states. I mean directly: it names these Cheers characters in dialogue.)

Except this sexual tension is also dealt with.

After the first episode and certainly after the first season, I think Britta is sidelined and Annie is brought to the fore in her place. I’m uncomfortable with this: Annie becomes the centre of a lot of sexual attention but she’s meant to be 19 and substantially younger than anyone but Troy. Actor Alison Brie was about 26 when the show started, which helps me yet I still squirm a bit.

Whereas Britta loses this role as the centre of sexual attention and that should be good. For a series that specifically knows it is a sitcom and deliberately plays off sitcom tropes, she begins as very much the standard blonde sexy one and it’s good that there came to be more to her.

But Community is a comedy about this study group with seven people in it. Most of the time, it feels like a comedy about this study group with five people in it.

Pierce (Chevy Chase) is the member most overtly and deliberately left out:

JEFF: Annie, let’s not rehash this. The guy’s been a jerk all year.
ANNIE: He’s a jerk because we exclude him.
JEFF: We exclude him because he’s a jerk.

But watch any story from about halfway through the first season and you find that it’s typically about something that involves five of the group – sometimes it’s two stories and the group is divided – plus Britta doing something else. She orbits the group. In the A-B-C kind of storytelling ethos, she usually has the C story.

I can’t criticise the show for it: what this series does with its 21-minute running time is truly nothing short of miraculous. I honestly don’t think there is another show that goes as far and as imaginatively. You get taken to places that are beyond ridiculous and the steps that get you there are not convincing, they are not sensible, yet in the moment you completely believe that they are. When this group steps out of a space capsule – honestly, from a college class to a space re-entry in 21 minutes – you are actually cheering for them.

You triumphantly tell Angela that they made it safely back to Earth.

Uh-huh.

So if they can’t get every character in every story, I can’t criticise. I can lament, though.

I find the show inspiring, actually. I didn’t watch it to be a lesson in writing and I look at its imagination with only yearning, but it makes an astonishing job seem effortless and part of me wants to celebrate that.

Unfortunately, part of me wants to hang on to it and I can’t.

For I lied to you. I haven’t just seen the first three seasons, I’ve also seen half of the opening episode from season four.

It’s gone.

This verve and talent and imagination is gone.

Now, I knew as a media writer that Community had famously had a problem in its fourth season: creator Dan Harmon was fired as showrunner. And I know as a media writer that he got hired back for the fifth season. That’s why I’m going to make it through the fourth, just so I can see whether the fifth comes back. (It’s just been announced that there will be a sixth.)

I see your point that it is unfair of me to judge an entire season on the first ten minutes of its opening episode but I raise you that I only watched those first ten. Where previous episodes scooped me up and carried me at a thousand miles an hour, this one dropped me.

The clue is not in the writing or the story or the plot or the characters, though, it’s in the acting.

It’s the same cast for the fourth season and I have thought that the whole set of them is exquisitely good. But in this opener, the actors are acting.

You’ve seen this. Actors who don’t have good material to work from will go into a kind of mugging. They put their backs into it, they put their worth into it and they make the best they can of the job. I don’t criticise them for this, if I were an actor I hope that I would be good enough and care enough to do it too. But it’s visible. And what I see is that the material isn’t there.

As actors, they are hoping to pull something off with their performance. As a writer, I have a habit of believing that everything is on the written page. We’re all wrong. Shows fly when script and cast are at their best and are at each other’s side.

I saw and very much liked the pilot episode of Community many years ago. The pilot that now seems so ordinary compared to the delicious insanity of the series. I didn’t watch any more until a couple of months ago when writer Alex Townley loaned me the DVDs.

Naturally I’ve thanked her enthusiastically but she’s told me she feels a bit guilty. That she’s led me to the disappointment of the fourth season. And she described this fourth run as being “like fan fiction”. Ouch. It’s the perfect description: Community 4 feels like it’s written by fans who know all the rules of the show but didn’t create it, aren’t moving it forward, aren’t reaching deeper.

You need verve and talent to dig deeper and I think you need confidence too. Now, where exactly can I get me some of those?

Community is on DVD here on Amazon UK and there on Amazon US. I hope you love it as much as I do.