by Danny Cohen
In the Emmy nominated drama Pass/Fail, Patrick Silverman struggles to navigate the dark and competitive world of collegiate cheating, paper writing and pill popping for grades. Now, Home Cinema, the channel that broadcasts Pass/Fail, is struggling to navigate the increasingly competitive scripted drama cable television landscape. As Pass/Fail ends its four season run this fall, Home Cinema has yet to create another hit show with flops such as Mist River and Calling Carde. Even Laredo Junction, starring indie heartthrob Curtis Morales from Biography of a Broke Homeboy, didn't make it past it's first season. Meanwhile, other cable networks continue to snatch up pitches at a record pace resulting in a serious lack of possibilities. Now more than ever, creating the new high end prestigious television drama has become more difficult.
“We’ve reached the end of mining ideas from literature and graphic novels,” says Greg Brahtheind, VP of Scripted Content at Home Cinema, “Everything’s been used or is in development already.” To stay ahead of the game, Brahtheind and Home Cinema have been grabbing at anything they can get their hands on, including turning doctoral history theses into pilots. “We shot a few episodes based on a thesis about the first Seminole War from a doctoral candidate at the University of Washington. The first episode ended up being six hours long and half of it was in the Creek language.” A project based on research papers from NASA scientists is currently circling the development offices. “We figure there’s gotta be plot and characters in there somewhere. We’ve got a whole room of writers working on these.”
Down the hall is the Development Pen, a stuffy room full of television writers working on the ideas. “The first day we realized that three of us had all independently written scripts about an unsuspecting comic book store owner who becomes a vigilante,” says Kirk Lukvirder. Amongst the ideas up on the cork board are: To-Go Menu, Permission Slip, Prescription and Nutritional Facts, crossed out with a fat red X. “Turns out AMC was already working on a Nutritional Facts show,” says Lukvirder, “so we scrapped that one.” The writers in the Development Pen are all hoping to land jobs as executive producers or show runners if an idea hits. Almost all of the scripts are similar: a middle-aged person has an unsuspecting secret that pushes them into morally ambiguous situations. The most current draft of Permission Slip follows a school bus driver who moonlights as someone who “slips” into places he doesn’t have “permission” to go into. “We’re really trying,” says Lukvirder with a sigh.
It isn’t just the well of high quality drama that’s drying up. Every network is searching high and low for comedy, reality, game show, and event entertainment. Except, oddly enough, for NBC. “I don’t see the problem, actually,” says NBC entertainment chief Robert Greenblatt, in his trademark cargo shorts and zipper t-shirt, before showing me a poster for NBC’s new Poke or Slurp reality show, in which contestants are prompted to poke or slurp a viscous brown bubble. ♦