Catching The Mood: How Writers Hit Or Miss
There’s a writers’ saying; If you try to jump on a bandwagon, it’s already too late too board. This is because writing is like slow cooking or gardening – it takes a long time to see the final result.
Yet some writers manage to ride the national mood. There’s a simple reason why fantasy films are huge these days. Back in the late 1920s musicals became popular because the US economy was shrinking, and escapism was a pressure valve for many. Now, with entire continents beset with uncertainty, that mood is back and escapism is king.
Yet with the rise of the right came a jump in the sales of George Orwell’s ‘1984’. ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ added a powerful feminist message that proved timely. The virtually incomprehensible ‘Westworld’ has tapped into current fears of identity loss and AI (coupled with constant sexual bouts legitimised by the presence of A-list actors). ‘Game of Thrones’ ceased to be a cheesy R-rated version of ‘Lord of the Rings’ when it veered from the books and reflected realpolitik concerns. Escapism could cloak some genuine modern themes.
Show commissioners look for work that reflects the mood, and showrunners keep series on track, but what happens when they misjudge the mood?
I stumbled across ‘BrainDead’ by mistake. It aired last year and was cancelled after one season before turning up on Amazon downloads. A lousy title, an absurd premise, an uneven tone. But it had been made by Ridley Scott’s company, Scot Free, so I gave it a go. The concept; ‘The West Wing’ meets ‘Invasion of the Body Snatchers’. The tone veers from laughs to satire to horror. It’s cheap looking. The US senate seems to consist of about six people. But it was quirky (the weekly recaps are sung) and smarter than it first appeared. As the hard right and left (but more right) get taken over by brain bugs, the US senate morphs into a nightmarish ‘Brazil’-like hotbed of Mccarthyism, with the FBI ready to torture and implant the innocent.
But the show-makers had misjudged the national mood, which is still pro-Trump. Yesterday the POTUS told the police it was okay to rough up anyone they arrested, and the same scenario is right there in the show – although even the writers didn’t go that far.
And there’s the problem. The ‘BrainDead’ creators admit they made one huge mistake – getting the series onto the CBS network instead of cable, where it could go so much further. There’s no question that it would have flourished there, running ahead of the current administration’s concerns instead of having to appease advertisers.
For a while the fate of ‘BrainDead’ hung in the balance – its figures were weak (network is not the home of fictional satires these days) but it looked as if it would go to a second season. Then the axe fell.
‘Brazil’ famously bombed covering the same ground. Satire never gets mainstream figures. As writers we take the offers we can get, at the times we can get them – and if we get a little too quick-witted or find ourselves swimming upstream when everyone else is headed down, we fail.
As for the hits – given the ever-elongating gestation times under which we operate, it’s a matter of luck.