The Devil You Don't Know
Try as hard as they might, my aunts and uncles could never convince my grandfather to watch "Room 222."
Their reason for thinking he'd like it was the same reason he knew he wouldn't: it was about his life.
No, he'd never really taught in a mostly-black inner-city setting. But he'd done plenty of time teaching high school. And that meant he had no interest. Partly he just had no interest in coming home from doing something and then watching it. Of course, in general, he didn't watch much TV and never has, except for football ... though for a while, his fondness for Whoopi Goldberg's humor had him making the first few minutes of "Hollywood Squares" appointment TV.
But I find this a lot. Many doctors don't watch "ER," and those who do always tell me how they get stuff wrong. Well, they get, say, treatments right -- when they shout "20 cc's of diaglucosimide," it's usually accurate. But they get the other stuff -- hospital politics, relationships, etc. wrong.
But still, I find it a little surprising that they always seem to get theatre wrong.
Didn't these people -- actors, writers, directors -- work in theatre at some point? Not Broadway, they probably didn't, and I wouldn't know what's right and what's wrong anyway. No, I mean little plays -- like school plays, community and regional theatre. Are there really creative people in Hollywood who didn't sing in the chorus in THE SOUND OF MUSIC in 10th grade? Who weren't a squirrel in a kindergarten SNOW WHITE?
And if they weren't ... their kids aren't doing them now?
So why do they always get them so terribly, terribly wrong? This is my beat, after all. I know a thing or two about this.
For one thing, I've said this before, but why does every school play in a movie or TV seem to have a 70 thousand dollar budget? Who is building these sets and stitching these costumes? You remember what school plays were like -- cardboard sets, kids wearing their fathers' bathrobes, etc. I think it's just runaway hubris -- you hire a professional art director to design this stuff and of course you'll get things that look like professional art direction.
You know what else really bugs me? When they show people in rehearsals wearing nearly full costumes. Look, sometimes people will wear a rehearsal skirt, shoes, or a jacket ... may a corset or something if the costume will require something odd to affect movement. But there's really no reason to have somebody cavorting around in full costume while he still has a script in his hand.
But, as much as this annoys me, it's just dressing. I understand that audiences need to be spoon fed ... or at least we think they do. One of the reasons I love Waiting for Guffman is that it gets everything right ... well, with a satirical overemphasis, sure, but just about all of us have been in a show very much like RED WHITE AND BLAINE.
But what really gets in my craw is when a plot point hinges on a fundamental lack of understanding of the world.
I first noticed this on an episode of "Ed." "Ed" frequently irritated Amanda with stuff like this. They had a few episodes that hinged on academic matters -- her field -- and they always blew it. Like, one episode had characters tying themselves in knots over a kid who had a shot at big time academic scholarships worrying about not getting into college because PE was ruining his GPA. Like one afternoon of phone calls to Harvard and company couldn't take care of that.
The "Ed" episode that offended me with its sheer lack of logic involved the family of a young black kid suing the school because he wasn't cast as Abraham Lincoln in a play. Did anybody bother to tell them that schools do color blind casting all the time? I think most school theatre directors would love the mildly subversive irony of casting an African American Lincoln.
Okay, maybe in a town in Ohio, where "Ed" was set, they aren't quite progressive enough to go for that. I doubt it, but maybe.
But I can guarantee you ... GUARANTEE you, that there is not a school in Massachusetts that would refuse to cast a black girl as the title role in ANNIE. Yet that very issue was at the heart of an episode of "Boston Legal" a few months ago.
Look, the politics of Massachusetts school theatre directors probably skews about 90-10 liberal. The only reason somebody might hesitate to cast an African American Annie -- and I believe the show established that the girl could act and had a great voice -- would be if he or she HAD to cast a white Daddy Warbucks and worried about telling a story of a rich white man "saving" a poor black girl. Even then, I think most people wouldn't worry about it.
SIDEBAR: Man, is ANNIE a lame show. There is so much good dramatic potential in the character of Little Orphan Annie. Remember how much Ralphie loved her in A Christmas Story? She's one of the great little-girl adventurers of all time. But for some reason, they chose to use none of that and do a generic "Cinderella" remake. Hey, "Cinderella's" a great story, but why buy the rights to Little Orphan Annie and then create something that misses everything that makes her special? Oh, and the music sucks too.
Anyway I didn't see that episode of "Boston Legal." Maybe they had more complicated reasons than my simplified summary assumes. But probably I'm right and they're stupid.
I know I'm right about a recent episode of "Desperate Housewives" that featured a subplot about Felicity Huffman's character working on a private-elementary school production of LITTLE RED RIDING HOOD. She was shocked and offended that the evil mom who ran these things was going to change the script (which appeared to be a published edition) so that wolf wasn't really evil and didn't get killed by the hunter in the end.
I have worked on three different versions of LITTLE RED RIDING HOOD -- played the wolf once, assistant-directed the second, and directed the third. The first play I ever saw, when I was two years old, the play that got me hooked on theatre, was LITTLE RED RIDING HOOD.
And none of them have the wolf die in the end. Only one of the four had a villainous wolf and that one went out of its way to make him look goofy, stupid, and non-threatening. In fact, I would wager that there is not a published version of the play available in this country that plays the story straight. (INTO THE WOODS doesn't count, since it's not geared specifically for kids)
Why don't any scripts do "the real story"?
Well, because there's no surer way to freak out an audience of four-year-olds, and make sure your school or theatre gets bombarded with nasty letters, than to put an evil wolf on stage and have him successfully consume people.
(And, oh, there isn't any one "real version" of the story ... early ones have Red getting eaten and staying eaten and the wolf gets away with it ... SLEEP TIGHT, KIDS!)
Incidentally, if I were ever to write a LITTLE RED, I'd probably want to play it pretty close to the bone, mostly just to resuscitate Little Red Riding Hood as a hero. Most of these "the wolf is really the good guy" ones make her the bad guy and even the "just plain goofy" ones make her inane and insignificant.
But my point ... the writers of "Desperate Housewives" should have known better and I'm smarter than everyone.
... That is kinda the point of all these entries.
Friday, February 11, 2005
The Devil You Don't Know