DEJA VU ALL OVER AGAIN
by Nancy Rechtman
Do you remember the movie Groundhog Day where Bill Murray had to relive the same day over and over again? Do you ever get the feeling that maybe you've seen it all before? That everything around you seems like it already happened? Does this feeling seem to particularly overtake you when you check your local TV and movie listings?
Let's start with current movies as perhaps the most transparent example of artistic cloning. There is no question that a movie has derived from a prior movie when it has a number at the end of the title. Sometimes these sequels are based on strong successful movies: X-Men 3. MI3. Ice Age 2. Cheaper by the Dozen 2. Movie sequels are hit and miss - some are as good as the originals while others are just tepid retreads of the same familiar material. And sometimes we wonder why they even bother - does the title Basic Instinct 2 come to mind? Even if the movie title doesn't end with a number, we are now being offered a preponderance of remakes of older movies, with producers hoping to strike gold with an audience unfamiliar with the usually much better original version. The newest, and mostly lamentable trend, is dusting off old TV shows, some which were hits, most of which weren't, and transforming them into movies. The coveted young demographic audience has no recollection of these TV shows since they were not yet a twinkle in their parents' eyes at the time the original shows aired. We might as well just make a movie version of My Mother the Car while we're at it - or have we already done that? Another hot trend is making movies based on videogames. Oh sure, those will be movies with a heart and soul that will last through the ages. (Boys with ages 10-15 maybe.) Is there no one in Hollywood these days with a mind of his or her own with the vision to take a chance on something fresh and original?
Hollywood has always cannibalized itself. When it comes to TV, aside from the same stars being recycled from show to show, and lawyer, forensics and hospital shows ad nauseam, if you've read a recent listing of summer shows, you might feel that you're stuck in a media echo chamber. And right now, everyone seems to want to reverberate off the astounding success of American Idol. Have you noticed that it seems almost every new show this summer has to do with finding either new singers or new dancers, with the pretense that there is some sort of original hook that makes it totally different than the show they are cloning? And isn't it interesting that just about every one of these shows has three judges that include two men (one of whom is the requisite caustic and acerbic British judge) along with one woman?
The concept of American Idol was not unique in and of itself. It was based on the British show Pop Idol. Although it was conceived from a British show, American Idol follows a long line of similar American shows such as Star Search, The Gong Show (certainly during the tryouts phase of AI) and, going way back, Ted Mack's Original Amateur Hour. But the magic of American Idol has been created by the judges' personalities, along with the relationship between them, the host, the contestants and the audience. Trying to copy that formula for success in a deluge of summer shows is like taking an original document and making copies from copies until the papers are so pale and unreadable that they're not worth anything at all.
Another show that became an unexpected mega hit is Dancing With the Stars and its success has also led to a cluster of shows showcasing people who think they can dance. Assuming that doing a pale imitation of another show is going to give you the same prestige and ratings as the original is akin to authors who plagiarize other authors and call the work their own, and, who once they are caught, protest that they had no idea they were copying from anyone. I recently talked to a group of elementary schoolchildren about how they get their ideas to write. "Copy from someone else's book!" several of them shouted out in unison. Groan.
Of course there are original movies out there. Some of them are wonderful. There have also been original TV shows - unfortunately, most of these shows, often labeled 'quirky,' need to be nurtured, need to find their audience. TV networks no longer believe in nurturing, so most of these shows go the way of the dinosaurs and the networks continue to shroud us in the safe predictability of the afore-mentioned lawyer, forensics and medical shows. The networks used to show reruns throughout most of the summer as they didn't think anyone was actually watching TV until fall. Once they discovered they did have an audience who didn't necessarily want to watch reruns, instead of taking chances and giving us something to sink our teeth into, they opted to feed us recycled junk food. Yum.
There is no such thing as a guaranteed hit. Sometimes the most unexpected concept can click with an audience and take off. It's usually the formulaic, insanely expensive fare that ends up tanking. So, entertainment executives, why not take a chance outside your comfort zone? You might find that the audience is right there with you when you stop making them relive the same stories over and over again. Take a leap of faith - you just might find that you've finally helped us all move on to a new day.
Please let me know your reactions to these columns as I would enjoy hearing what bugs you, too. You can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Copyright Nancy Machlis Rechtman, all rights reserved. Small excerpts of the column may be republished as long as appropriate credit is given. To request permission to publish larger portions or the entire column, e-mail email@example.com.