MacGyver – The Real Origin Story

Part 3 – Write or Wrong?

In the last chapter, if you recall, I left you to ponder why the ‘Hourglass’ concept as it was pitched to me—one hour of TV time was one hour of actual time—was ultimately not going to fly as a TV series.  And I promised in this installment to explain how I knew—even upon hearing it—that, no matter how cool it sounded in the room— I had a major problem on my hands.  So here goes—but this may get a bit technical so just bear with me…

They told me they wanted a single-lead, action/adventure show of ‘stand alone’ episodes: that is, each show had to be a complete story in itself built around a single, main character and NOT a serial where the story carried over from episode to episode. (For example, NCIS, BONES or CASTLE, say, are ‘stand alone’ shows where the character stories may arc over a whole season but each show is a ‘case’ to be solved in that episode: whereas GREY’S ANATOMY and BOARDWALK EMPIRE are more ‘serials’ where the stories carry over from show to show and each episode is just a part of a larger story that arcs across an entire season, sort of like a soap opera.  The networks’ desire for stand alone series vs. serials in prime time tended to move in cycles, but in the early 80s when I got this assignment, trust me, no one wanted a serial so there was no point in even exploring that option.)

So if each episode had to be confined to a single hour of actual time, that meant my main character—our hero—couldn’t really travel much at all since it takes, you know, time to go from place to place.  He couldn’t for instance be in the U.S. in one scene and then be in China or Istanbul or even another city in the next scene.  And even if I could cut away to, say, the disaster or problem he was going to solve—or some other characters (which I didn’t really have either because the show was to be built around our hero), it wasn’t going to be very interesting to just watch our guy travel, you know?  In a show like this you want to see your hero doing things, not traveling to the scene.

That meant, in order to squeeze the most drama out of any story, it pretty much had to take place in one location.  And our hero would have to arrive at that location at the start of the episode.  In other words, since traveling for more than a few minutes was out, every show would have to end where it started.  Needless to say, trying to generate decent action/adventure—on a typical TV budget— while confined to one location was going to take some doing.

To be clear then, under the proposed ‘Hourglass’ format I would have to completely forfeit the primary ability of film language to jump either space or time since the time had to be continuous.  And that in turn meant the space—or location—had to be, more or less, unified as well—at least for the purposes of our hero because, if I couldn’t jump time, then he would need to be restricted to a fairly tight area or location for the bulk of the story.  Because the larger the area of the story, the more time it would take for our hero to get from one place to the other and, unless he was being chased—or racing to get somewhere—that wasn’t apt to be terribly interesting to watch.  And even racing and chasing can get old after a while.  Not to mention that racing and chasing happen to be the more expensive things to portray on film, requiring moving the crew and camera multiple times for which you only get a few seconds of actual ‘screen footage’ for each move.  And an easy budget-buster, at least for television.

What’s more, after a few episodes of that, the audience would soon realize they were going to be more or less stuck in one place for the entire hour.  And if they didn’t happen to feel like spending the next hour of their lives in that particular setting, all it would take was a little squeeze of their remote and our show would be gone.

Still, not impossible.  I could easily come up with a bunch of episodes that might fit the bill: the mine cave-in, the locked bank vault, the burning oilrig, the sinking submarine; you get the idea.  But, back then, for a series to be considered successful by the studio it needed to run for a minimum of five seasons.  That meant this concept had to be sustainable for more than just a season or two; it had to work for like 110 episodes!

And no matter how hard I racked my brain to find a way to make the ‘Hourglass’ concept work— like with extensive flashbacks, maybe of things before the key incident? Or by trying to see the same action repeatedly but from different characters’ points of view, (know in the biz as ‘Rashoman’ style after the Kirosowa film).  But whatever I considered just seemed so incredibly restricted that I couldn’t picture how anyone would pull that off for even one full season, much less five of them.

Bottom line: I simply couldn’t find a way to disarm the bomb I’d been handed, because this ‘Hourglass’ concept wasn’t just a challenge, it was a fricking straightjacket!  And I at least was not enough of a creative Houdini to wriggle out of it.

This then left with me an acute moral dilemma—yeah, I know, morality in showbiz, hard to believe, huh?  But there it was.  I knew if push came to shove, I could keep my mouth shut, write a single pilot that satisfied the ‘Hourglass’ criteria, and make it look like this concept would work.  And leave the bomb just ticking in the lunchbox for someone else to discover.

But this was my first pilot.  And in truth, they weren’t just asking me to write a single cool episode—but to create a blueprint for a whole series—that at least had a shot of lasting five seasons or more, right?  And, after a stern talking-to from my better angels, I knew there was no way in good conscience I could pass the buck on this one.

So after a few days of personal and creative struggling to make sure I had left no rock unturned, I finally bit the bullet and called Grant Rosenberg and Tony Jonas at Paramount to tell them I just couldn’t make ‘Hourglass’ work—and why.  And, despite the fact that we had a deal in place, I would bow out gracefully if need be so they could find another writer if they wanted.  Grant and Tony—(both of whom by the way eventually went on to be really successful TV producers in their own right)—just listened patiently and said they would discuss it internally and get back to me.

Certainly not the kind of call one likes to make, but at least the bomb was out of the lunch box and on the table and ticking away for all to see.

Next thing I know, I get a call from Henry Winkler’s office: Henry would like to meet with me—alone.  No agents, no studio execs, no other producers or ‘seconds’—just me and Henry, period.  Oh, man.  This cannot be good.

Now it might help you to know that Henry Winkler has a well-deserved reputation for being like the nicest guy in show business.  I don’t mean he just has good publicists or spin doctors, I mean everyone who knows Henry genuinely reports that he’s a prince among men.  He shares his time and wealth with a host of charities, he waits his turn in line despite the fact that he’s a major star; he helps old ladies across the street for real.  Henry doesn’t just talk the talk; he walks the walk of ‘niceness’ with a passion.  And it dawns on me that—more than likely—I’ve just managed to piss off the nicest guy in show business!…And he wants to see me, alone…now.

That bomb is ticking louder than ever.  And as I make that seemingly endless drive to Henry’s office, I can just picture my career going up in flames—what kind of imbecile must you be to invoke the ire of Henry Winkler!   My first pilot deal is going to be my last: no more assignments, no more TV shows—I will be banished from show business.

So I’m trying like hell not to picture my children starving as I drive through Hollywood, blasting the AC to keep the sweat from soaking through my clothes, and silently praying I haven’t just detonated that bomb under myself…

NEXT TIME: The Fonz: Up Close and Personal…

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