The Franchise-Premise Differentiation (whedonverse mentions)
Tuesday 17 June 2008, by Webmaster
On Friday, May 23, fans of the canceled CBS series Moonlight gathered at Warner Studios in Burbank, Calif., to protest the network’s decision to end production. They hoped to duplicate the results of an effort by the fans of Jericho a year earlier, which resulted in a change of heart by CBS and a revival of that series ... at least for a while.
Moonlighters are pushing on two fronts, hoping to get CBS to issue a stay of execution—or to convince some other outlet to pick up the series. (Among those our own SCI FI Channel.)
Now, even though it ultimately failed, I applauded CBS and the fan community for giving Jericho a second chance.
Moonlight is different. I doubt that it will succeed.
And, frankly, don’t believe it ought to.
Moonlight was created by Trevor Munson and Ron Koslow. Munson had developed the concept as a novel and screenplay and had been teamed with Koslow by CBS for the 2006-07 development season. Koslow, of course, is revered by many sci-fi and fantasy fans for Beauty and the Beast, the 1988-90 CBS series starring Ron Perlman and Linda Hamilton as a pair of unlikely lovers. (Disclosure: I wrote an episode of B&B.)
Moonlight starred Alex O’Loughlin as Mick St. John, a private investigator of two generations past—1952, in fact—who was turned into a vampire by his then wife.
Mourning a short-lived immortal
Jump to 2007, and not only is he dealing with the challenges of being a vampire, but he’s got to make a living. Which task is made even more complicated because he keeps running into echoes of his past—specifically Beth, a woman whose life he once saved. She was a child then; Mick appeared to be the same age he is now. Oops.
There were problems getting Moonlight on the air. Several principal roles in the pilot were recast—indeed, the pilot was essentially reshot. The first show runner, David Greenwalt of Buffy and Angel fame, left, to be replaced by Chip Johannessen (of Millenium, Dark Angel and Surface).
Who also left. For the last phase of Moonlight’s life, its show runners were Harry Werksman and Gabrielle G. Stanton (Ugly Betty, Grey’s Anatomy).
Casting and show-running challenges are the rule in series startups. (Few people remember, but television pilots used to be produced as sales tools and never aired, because networks, production companies and ad agencies assumed changes would be required.) It is incredibly difficult to find the voice for characters, to define their relationships, to craft stories that appeal to millions of viewers.
This is the major reason why mass television drama is so dependent on a "franchise": lead characters are usually police officers, emergency-room doctors, defense lawyers, western sheriffs or private investigators in Hollywood, people who work in jobs where stories walk in the front door. (I’ve been involved with a number of attempts to create franchises based on journalists, both broadcast and in print. Trust me on this ... it doesn’t work. Cops and doctors can take physical action to solve problems. Journalists can only expose them and hope for the best.)
A sci-fi or fantasy series is even more complicated, because it will not take place in the "real" world but in an environment that involves magic, the future, aliens, time travel or some other concept.
It requires a premise, not a franchise.
But building a series around a premise is risky. You can find yourself, as was often the case with Star Trek, spending too much time examining the varieties of time-travel effects rather than what they mean to people. Or, as often happened on The 4400 and Roswell, giving more emphasis to the cops-and-robbers business of tracking aliens/unknowns than to making you care who was being tracked.
In other words, you’ve got to squeeze that premise lightly.
A protagonist without a premise
Kevin Reilly, entertainment president of the Fox Network, knows. In a recent Los Angeles Times article about the new Joss Whedon series The Dollhouse (below right), he said that one of the things he liked most about it (aside from the name Joss Whedon) was that it wasn’t overwhelmed by its premise.
Another option is to blend a premise with a franchise. So we’ve seen doctors dealing with aliens (Mercy Point) and lawyers dealing with futuristic science and social problems (Century City) and cops doing the same (Mann and Machine) and starship captains wrangling intergalactic rustlers (Firefly).
The 2007 season put several new examples on display, with Journeyman’s time-traveling journalist (a double whammy) and an immortal cop (New Amsterdam) and a vampire P.I.
Looking at these, you could conclude that blending franchises with premise doesn’t work.
Until it does. Because there’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer. (A sort of cop, don’t you think?) There was X-Files. (A pair of cops.)
If pressed to quantify the difference between a Buffy and a Moonlight, however, I would note that Buffy only used the form of a cop show. She wasn’t a cop herself. X-Files too. Mulder and Scully worked for the FBI, but FBI-type stories (bank robbers, kidnappers, terrorists) were never the driving element ... X-Files cases were.
So, to recap:
Moonlight’s first mistake was making Mick an actual private investigator rather than giving him a job that merely allowed him to have P.I.-like stories. (And, really, you’re an immortal ... and you’re going to work as a private investigator? Not a stockbroker? Not shadowy chairman of the Trilateral Commission?)
It leaned too heavily on the franchise.
Its second flaw was playing fast and loose with its premise, by making changes to the accepted mythology of vampires.
Mick can go out in daylight. (I get it: Who wants to attempt a TV series that has to be set entirely at night?) You could kill him by chopping his head off, I suppose, but garlic? Just another vegetable. A crucifix? Not a problem for our hero.
If you’ve read Richard Matheson’s classic novel I Am Legend (we’ll wait while you rush out and do so), you have seen how cleverly a writer can re-examine and reinvent the vampire mythology. Matheson took all of the classic elements—garlic, sucking blood, inability to tolerate sunlight—and made something new out of them.
Moonlight simply threw elements out. Its premise actually vanished.
What remains? A series about a private investigator who is a lot older than he looks.
And, for all the virtues of the attractive cast, why would anyone march in the hot sun—or risk millions of studio dollars—to revive that?