Has it really been almost two months since our last TV mailbag? In the interim I have received both excellent questions and creepy ones. (No, I am not available to be “rented out” for a private party, Adam from Salinas! At least not one that will involve a “non-fancy” hotel.) But the overwhelming majority of all queries involved the now-ended second season of Homeland. Since my relationship with Carrie Mathison is approaching Robert Caro’s with Lyndon Johnson or Richard Castle’s with whatever Richard Castle writes about (suede jackets? I’ve never watched Castle), let’s just burn through the Homeland stuff quickly, OK? Here are my answers to your top eight questions:
2. Yes, still.
3. Saul is not the mole.
4. Because the Wizards are historically a bad basketball team.
5. Come on!
6. I’d wait until a season in which she’s not pregnant IRL but my guess is that you’ll have to make do with Morena Baccarin.
8. You seem to know much more about helicopter-tracking technology than I do.
And with that, let’s put Homeland in a Lebanese safehouse for another eight months and — wait! There’s a last-minute missive received via Skype on BlackBerry that needs to be addressed:
My real name is Nicholas Brody. It has been for 30 years. Now, thanks
to Homeland, everyone thinks I am a terrorist. Advice?
— Nicholas Brody, Austin, TX
Woof. This is a tough one, friend. On the plus side, you have an advantage that people stuck with names like Joffrey, Desmond Pfeiffer, or Nikki and Paulo do not: No one calls Nicholas Brody “Nicholas Brody”! Unless you are a ginger ex-military weirdo, chances are you go by “Nick” or “Nicholas.” I think it’s also safe to assume that your significant other has a term of endearment for you that doesn’t involve your shared last name and that no radical clerics address you as “Neeee-kooooo-laassss” in a manner befitting an asthmatic cobra. My only real advice is to treat yourself the way Homeland‘s writers treat your namesake: as a misunderstood hero with a Koran in the garage, a hole in his hand, and a capacity for good as big as his mouth is tiny. Just stay away from Gettysburg and, at parties, be sure to introduce yourself as “Nick” and avoid shooting any big game. Oh, and don’t listen to jazz. But that’s just good advice in general.
Am I crazy for thinking Men in Black would make for a good TV show?
— Mark S.
Sure you are, Mark. Crazy like a Fox (programming executive)! If you could somehow find a way to remove Barry Sonnenfeld from the project and thus keep the budget in the low eight figures, this could totally work. Think about it: The entire premise is already basically a television procedural. Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones’s characters are a classic set of mismatched partners, one funny, one frowny, each of whom appeals to an entirely different demographic. (Scientologist dabblers for the former, humorless abolitionists for the latter.) The rogue aliens provide a handy little case of the week, plus there’s plenty of room for a convoluted, overarching mythology, the occasional time-travel indulgence for sweeps, and a built-in gimmick for tabloid celebs to improve their Q scores by cameoing as Martians.
Wait, I’m feeling this now! All you need is a comely, wide-eyed rookie to be the audience’s entry into the world — not only is Natalie Morales free, she’s got experience adapting indie comics to TV — and some new actors to take on the famous roles. Let’s give the Agent J role to Damon Wayans Jr. because he’s spastic, funny, and unless Happy Endings‘s ratings death spiral reverses itself, he’s likely to be out of work soon. For the ornery Agent K, I’d consider Craig T. Nelson, especially if Parenthood (another film-to-TV success) makes its legions of fans cry for real by getting canceled. And assuming Rip Torn can’t be propped up to reprise his role as Zed — it says something when even 30 Rock, a show that made 87-year-old Elaine Stritch a recurring guest, kills you off — why not just complete the circle and grab S. Epatha Merkerson? She’s got plenty of experiencing sitting behind a desk and listening to harried officers explain themselves. What’s the difference, really, between the Bronx and the Moon?
Now that that’s done and dusted, let’s open this up wider. Adapting movies for the small screen has always been common, but its popularity tends to go in cycles. The success of The Odd Couple and M.A.S.H. led to disasters like Serpico, Logan’s Run, and Shaft, in which CBS helpfully suggested that the main character would be more appealing if he worked with the police instead of against them. (This is like Disney making good on the long-promised Star Wars series, only with Luke as a cheerful rookie at Stormtrooper Academy.) For every Friday Night Lights there’s been a Ferris Bueller, starring Charlie Schlatter and Jennifer Aniston’s former nose.
Historically, the best adaptations have been those that respect the fundamental difference between movies and TV: The former transports us into a world to tell a particular story, the latter has to create a world rich enough to sustain multiple stories and repeat visits. That’s why ABC’s upcoming S.H.I.E.L.D. makes so much sense: It’s Avengers-adjacent, but with enough gamma rays to fuel a distinct identity. It also helps if the movie didn’t linger too long in the public imagination. That’s why Sarah Michelle Gellar will always trump Kristy Swanson as the one true Buffy and why we remember Mr. Belvedere but not the 1948 movie on which it was based. (I guarantee you, that’s the only reason.)
So: what movies would I like to see in series form this fall? I asked podcast partner Chris Ryan for his thoughts, and when he was done shouting things like Last Year at Marienbad at me, he made a strong case for Robert De Niro’s The Good Shepherd — a three-hour opus about the founding of the C.I.A. — being better served by TV. (Turns out Showtime agrees with him.) There’s also an argument that the Bourne franchise could be spun off, S.H.I.E.L.D.-style, into a zippy companion piece to the Matt Damon movies, a gritty, global procedural that expands the world while tightening the focus. You could cast a hall of fame crew of hammy stage actors like Stacy Keach and — oh, what’s that? I’m describing The Bourne Legacy? My bad. I tend to do that.
Out of this year’s Oscar contenders, I think Argo suggests a desire for an FX-like show — perhaps on FX? — about the occasionally heroic work of our nation’s costume and makeup designers. (Now that I think about it, there’s a version of this show that could work on Bravo too.) Wouldn’t we all like to see David Simon take a crack at adapting Beasts of the Southern Wild for HBO? (Cast Wendell Pierce, call it Bathtub!, and the New Yorker rave practically writes itself.) Or how about Silver Linings Playbook reimagined as a working-class version of Desperate Housewives called Crabby Snacks & Homemades? (The Wing Bowl episode would be like the Battle of Blackwater on Game of Thrones with barbecue sauce instead of blood.) And isn’t Amour really just PBS’s version of The Walking Dead?
But if I had to choose the no. 1 unjustly kind-of-forgotten movie I’d like to see reborn as a television series it’d be Sneakers. The 1992 Phil Alden Robinson flick about a misfit gang of “security specialists” was ahead of its time in its handling of technological spy games (as well as its recognition of Timothy Busfield as kind of creepy.) As a movie it was the perfect mixture of warm characterization and legit thrills, which translates too easily into TV: It’d be a comic caper with real stakes, like the hours that end up on USA but with night-vision goggles instead of sunglasses. The best thing is, there was already a brilliant show that captured this spirit: the late, great Terriers. So let’s hire Shawn Ryan and Ted Griffin to do the adaptation. We’ll cast Kyle Chandler in the Redford part, Clarke Peters in the Poitier. Get Evan Peters from American Horror Story to replace River Phoenix and Will Forte to take the honorary SNL weirdo crown from Dan Aykroyd. (As Whistler, the blind hacktivist, you can’t do any better than David Strathairn. Guess what? He’s available!) Gin up enough cash to land a new female foil — Lake Bell? Lizzy Caplan? — and tell me why FX isn’t giving this 13 episodes.
That was such a good question there’s almost no ‘bag left! Let’s speed things up.
A number of SNL alums have recently attained success on sitcoms. Are there any SNL alums from the last 25 years who you thought would have better post-SNL careers than they actually have? What current SNLers do you think have the most potential to cross over into sitcoms?
— Mike, New York
The trick here is that SNL is much better at producing supporting players than stars. For every Will Ferrell and Kristen Wiig there are a dozen Tim Kazurinskys and Ellen Cleghornes. The most successful ex-cast members are the ones who identified their strengths — and limitations — and sought a career with them in mind. Think Phil Hartman taking a juicy supporting role in a well-written sitcom — NewsRadio‘s Bill McNeal was the Jack Donaghy of his time — over a lead in a crappy one. I think the recent, subtle successes of Casey Wilson (Happy Endings), Ana Gasteyer, and Chris Parnell (Suburgatory) should serve as inspirations to all former and current SNL-ers, proof that there is steady work out there for professionally funny people, even if it doesn’t necessarily lead to A-list fame. Tim Meadows’s wonderfully deadpan turn on last week’s 30 Rock (as NBC’s in-house counsel, Martin Lutherking) suggested he’s gotten the memo. I hope he shares it with Will Forte and Molly Shannon, along with the barely noticed Paul Brittain and Abby Elliott. (And in the future? Kate McKinnon has “Best Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series” written all over her hilarious face.)
Has any character destroyed a show more than Stan on 1600 Penn? I find the show completely enjoyable when anyone but him is doing anything.
— Ryan, Iowa
1. His name is Skip.
You recently tweeted an interview with Adam Pally where he said that comedies with unlikeable characters aren’t as funny as ones with likable characters. While I may agree with him on average the big current outlier is Parks and Recreation where every main character is mostly likable. Does this likability make it tougher moving forward for Parks since they have to find ways to stay interesting without being able to fall back on just having characters find new ways to do socially unacceptable things?
A good question! I think it depends on both the style of the humor and the skill of the writers. One of the reasons why I adore Parks is because its creators, Greg Daniels and Mike Schur, clearly love Cheers. And the thing about Cheers is that even though it was nominally about a sad Boston cabal of barely functioning alcoholics, it was really about a family. On Parks, Schur (who runs the show) has managed the same difficult balancing act that the Charles brothers perfected on Cheers: building a warm world in which the characters’ outsize quirks make them more lovable, not less. Shows built on a sharper tone can run forever on CBS, but personally I find them to be exercises in severely diminishing returns. There’s an offputting mania to fanged sitcoms like Don’t Trust the B, where it seems anything can be sacrificed on the altar of a cheap joke. And while The League remains my no. 1 drunk Netflix streaming indulgence, it’s too gleefully mean-spirited in its comedy for me to ever take it more seriously. But it’s also possible to blend the two styles: Seinfeld and Pally’s Happy Endings are two wonderful shows built around loathsome, self-absorbed creeps. The trick is keeping everything toasty within the deluded bubble of the main characters’ friendship. The world ends up paying the price for their shenanigans, not the audience or each other.
Why is Julian Fellowes in such a hurry? Downton Abbey does not let a single problem marinate with the viewer. If a certain paralyzed character feels something in his legs, within the episode he will be walking. I suspect part of this [is] due to the fact that the show has no respect for real time.
— Andy V, San Francisco
YES, THANK YOU, YES! I just polished the silver and decanted the brandy in happiness. The biggest problem with Downton Abbey isn’t that it’s a Tory fantasia of a vanished empire in which misplaced dress shirts are more important than World Wars. It’s that it doesn’t take advantage of its own story! Again and again, Julian Fellowes asks a marginally interesting question and then answers it himself before teatime. This season, the Crawley family’s financial troubles appeared to be a worthwhile plot engine and it didn’t even matter if it was obviously going to be resolved by a magic inheritance from the unseen father of a plain-faced, romantic ghost. But Fellowes — the creator and sole writer of the show — wrapped the whole thing up in three hours! This is the same man who made the audience wait over two years for a celebratory cousin marriage, then had the temerity to cut away before the kiss. I blame Downton‘s upstairs/upstairs hierarchy: Fellowes has no footmen or, at the least, junior writers to help him. He insists on setting the table himself every time. I can’t help but think this has inured him to the noisy but necessary push and pull of television writing. Someone should have been there — in a dinner jacket, of course; we’re not animals — to point out that the longer Fellowes spends on interesting stories the less likely he is to be tempted by ludicrous ones involving Canadian burn victims and temporary paralysis. TV viewers are savvy enough to understand when a show is stalling — and we’re OK with it. The problem is when the guy steering the ship seems more untrustworthy than an Irish Bolshevik. (This guy knows what I’m talking about.)
Who do you think is a more useless TV child, Chris Brody or Bobby Draper?
— Daniel, Teaneck, NJ
Wow. This is like the Pittsburgh Pirates facing the Kansas City Royals — in March. It’s like a land war between Switzerland and Guam. It’s Mahatma Gandhi challenging Matthew McConaughey to a hot dog–eating contest. But, because this is a mailbag on the Internet, I will attempt to answer.
Chris Brody, while underserved by Homeland‘s hyperactive plot, is an athletic prodigy (able to compete in both soccer and karate without ever visibly breaking a sweat), a technological savant (able to identify large-screen televisions at a distance of over 10 yards), and a soothsayer with strange and terrifying divining powers of unknown provenance. With his father temporarily out of the picture, I foresee him taking on an increased role in Season 3, perhaps as a Minority Report–style “pre-cog” able to help Saul Berenson track down terrorists between heady bouts of KumaWar.
By comparison, Bobby Draper (a not-at-all-taxing role that manages to chew up actors faster than Betty Draper plowing through a box of Bugles is important only in what he represents to Don: the family he broke apart, the son he barely knows, the specter of his poisonous relationship with his own father. In terms of what he represents as an actual, living character? Umm, he enjoys food? And television? Basically, what I’m saying is he could be replaced with a cardboard sign or the monkey from Animal Practice or, hell, Josh Gad and he would still be as inessential as a Clio Award. Sorry, Bobby. It’s your turn to leave the room.
My girlfriend recently had sex with my roommate/former best friend. I’ve already taken some anger out on him with a few punches to the face, but now I need to decide what to call him ’til he moves out in a couple weeks. Shane (a la Walking Dead)? Mike (re: Homeland)? Owen Sleater from Boardwalk? Even Furio from Sopranos is an option, but he never sealed the deal. If you can’t tell I watch way too much TV.
— Cedric, West Philly
Don’t we all, Cedric. Don’t we all.
Let’s make this a semi-regular thing! Send your questions to grantlandTVmailbag@gmail for possible inclusion in a future mailbag.
This article has been updated to correct an error; Irwin “Whistler” Emery, the Sneakers character, was blind, not deaf as originally stated.