MacGyver – The Real Origin Story

Part 2 – The Bomb in the Hourglass….

So, after the usual haggling between my agent and the studio’s business affairs department, the deal for me to write their ‘Hourglass’ pilot was finally made and it was time for me to head over to Paramount TV to meet with the studio execs and the producers to find out what exactly was ‘Hourglass’.  (Since all I’d been able to glean so far was that is was supposed to be a ‘single-lead, action/adventure show’ – “single-lead” meaning one hero instead of an ensemble cast or ‘a team’.)

Now ‘meetings’ in Hollywood are a lot like dating; there’s usually a round of ‘pre-meeting’ calls between the agents, producers and execs to stroke everyone about how excited we all are to be meeting, followed by the meeting itself of course, and then another round of ‘post-meeting’ calls to determine how the meeting really went, and was everyone pleased with the outcome or just pretending that they were.  I mean, nobody likes to blow it on the first date, right?  And since we already had a deal in place, all involved were eager to see things got off on the right foot.

For my part, I was mostly just there to look excited and listen—not a stretch really—since this was my very first pilot and by now I was truly curious, and figured I could find a way to have fun writing an action/adventure piece, no matter what it turned out to be.

Soon enough then I’m in a conference room with Henry Winkler—by then a huge star thanks to playing ‘The Fonz’ on “Happy Days”—and his producing partner, the highly regarded director, John Rich, along with the studio execs, Grant Rosenberg and Tony Jonas. (No doubt there were some junior execs and assistants there as well—there are always ‘seconds’ in these meetings to take notes and ‘learn’—but, for the life of me, I couldn’t tell you who they were—and hereby offer my apologies to them for the haze of memory that eventually haunts us all.)

But what was immediately clear in the meeting was how psyched ABC was about this  project: “Everyone at the network loved it, and bought our pitch right there in the room!” (In the TV biz, that’s a big deal; usually the network likes to put on a poker face and say they’ll get back to you with their decision).  So now I’m genuinely excited. Wow.  They bought it in the room.  This is awesome.  And I can tell everyone at the table smells a hit here.  Enough with the suspense; ‘Hourglass’—lay it on me!

“So the reason we call it ‘Hourglass’”, they continue, “Is because every episode happens in exactly one hour!— Get it?  We have a real ticking clock.  One hour of TV time is one hour of actual time!  It’s a totally new concept.  Great, huh?

Now my mind is already starting to race a little—and not in a good way—as I smile and nod, trying to wrap my head around this before I come back with the most obvious question…”Oh, so you want to do a serial, is that it?  Each episode is one hour of a larger continuing story?” (A concept by the way that nearly two decades later was employed to enormous success on the show “24”)

“Oh, no”, they casually reply, “The network doesn’t want a serial.  Each show has to be a ‘stand alone’ episode: a single story from start to finish—all in one hour.  And get this; it’s never been done before!  How cool is that?”

And that’s when the bomb went off in my head—because I knew at that instant there was a very good reason it had never been done before, which was …it wouldn’t work!

This brilliant concept that everyone—including the network—was in love with was doomed before it could even get off the ground!  And, apparently at the moment, I was the only one who got that!  (Now you’re probably asking yourself exactly how I knew—with only a few years of TV writing to my credit—that this pretty puppy simply would not hunt—which I’ll get to in a minute.  But we’re still in a meeting with some very heavy hitters, remember?)

Since it’s generally considered bad form to throw up all over your partner on the first date, I’m doing my best not to look horrified– considering I’ve already signed on to be the writer here— and desperately searching for anything that might give me a way to spin this.  So I try backing away from the dynamite I’ve just found in my lunch box and go for another tact by asking, “And the main character in this?— What’s he all about?”

“Well, we like to think of him as the court of last resort”, they say, “You know, when nobody else can handle the mission, they call him.”

“Anything else you can tell me about him?”, I press gently, already feeling my fingers slip off the edge of the cliff into the abyss looming beneath me—

“Not really.  We sorta thought we’d leave all the rest of that up to you.  You know, not to tie you down with too many details or get in the way of your creative process.”

And there it was—I got nothing! My head’s in free fall, my arms and legs flailing in empty space like Wylie Coyote who’s just been snookered off the precipice by the Roadrunner—again.  Worse still, they’re all looking at me, waiting for me to coo with excitement over their beautiful newborn, when I know for a fact it’s just a head of cabbage.

Nothing to do now but stare at all that dynamite and give it a poke in the hope maybe someone else will realize it’s a bomb.  “So in this format of the ticking clock,” I ask, “What happens if our hero has to, you know, like go across town or something?  Do we just see him travel for all the time it would really take to do that?

“Oh,” somebody jumps in, “He like knows all the bus schedules cold or something.  And he could like hop from the back of one bus to another to do that really fast—or something like that, you know?”

I just nod again, realizing now I’ve got to get out of there, fast.  Because if I poke that dynamite any harder by pursuing such questions, the bomb is definitely going to go off right then and there—which would not be a good thing at all.  So I quickly swaddle this thing in as much bubble wrap as I can muster with the futile hope that maybe I can get it back to my office and figure out some way to disarm it.

“Wow, cool” I mutter, “This is really something, you know.  I’m gonna have to give this all some serious thought.  Can’t wait to get started, in fact.  So if there’s nothing else?…” And I beat a hasty exit, and tried not to crush the steering wheel of my car on the drive home—though there might well have been a considerable amount of screaming and cursing; the mind tends to heal itself over time by forgetting such things.

Now to your question; how did I know with such complete certainty that this ‘Hourglass’ concept was such a non-starter?  Well, that will require somewhat more space than I’ve got left in this issue.  But I swear on my Swiss Army Knife that I will take you through it step by step in the next installment.  Though since you’re already a Mac fan, I feel it’s only fair to give you the chance to work it out for yourself in the meantime if you like.  And here’s a hint to get you started…

One of the most amazing—and effective—aspects of storytelling through film (or TV) is the ability to jump instantaneously across space and time.  One second you’re in location A, the next second you cut to location B, C, D or whatever.  And the new location can be simultaneous with the first or an hour, day, month, year or millennia later.  So now imagine if you will, trying to tell a compelling and satisfying story in one hour without that ability.  Can you hear the bomb starting to tick yet?

NEXT TIME: Write or Wrong?

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