We all obsess endlessly about television, but we don't really understand how those wavy images appear on our screens. The more we try to demystify the process of making TV, the more mysterious it seems. That's why it's great that veteran TV writer Javier Grillo-Marxuach has written an ultimate book of knowledge.
Grillo-Marxuach, who created the beloved show and comic The Middleman, and also worked on Lost and Helix, has just self-published a new book of essays called Shoot This One. It's full of brutally observations about the business of television, insanely revealing stories of how the sausage is made, and loads of wisdom about how to tell a story that people fall in love with.
Grillo-Marxuach tells the story of how he went from being a studio exec working on seaQuest DSV to an actual writer on the final season, when it was retitled seaQuest 2032. And he goes through three hilariously agonizing stories of pitching his own TV shows to various major networks, only to get completely hosed in network politics and skullduggery. He also goes into some detail about why he feels Lost was successful when so many similar shows failed.
(And then there are also Grillo-Marxuach's thoughts on Star Wars, as published originally at io9, and his scandalous history of plagiarism, and his feelings about the death of his arch-nemesis, an internet commenter who went by Gharlane of Eddore.)
Basically, if you've ever dreamed of working in television, this book will do one of two things for you:
1) Give you some helpful ideas about just how to go about making this happen, along with a healthy dose of reality to help you temper your completely outsized expectations
2) Innoculate you with a massive amount of schadenfreude towards those actually working in the industry, so that you can realize that you're way better off staying in Muncie and working at the public library, where you're happy.
But also, if you love the medium and want it to be better — and also want to understand why television has, in fact, gotten better — then this book is just an indispensible critical toolkit. Grillo-Marxuach breaks down exactly what's changed in television since the early 1990s, and why the medium has been maturing somewhat. And he pinpoints what a show needs to succeed — some kind of "operational theme" for the protagonist, that keeps her/him struggling week after week.
What makes Shoot This One such an engaging read isn't just the fact that Grillo-Marxuach is willing to spill all of the insane details (with some names changed) about his turbulent career in television. Or the fact that he's willing to be scathingly honest about his failures, including poor old seaQuest.
It's also Grillo-Marxuach's critical eye for storytelling and his soul-searching. [Full disclosure: Grillo-Marxuach, in addition to writing for io9, has read at my series Writers With Drinks, and we've hung out socially.] Grillo-Marxuach has had a ringside seat at the fall and rise of genre television, and reading this book is a lot like having drinks with experienced TV writers and hearing their war stories.
Along the way, Grillo-Marxuach talks about his attempts to create a brand new Marvel character, the Wraith, as well as a nemesis for the seaQuest crew who could have been their Klingons. And exactly what it's like to be part of a crew of people winning an Emmy. And why the wave of divorces in the 1970s and 1980s is the formative experience behind most television drama nowadays.
There are also a few essays on politics here, which skew very progressive and make some really strong points about the Iraq War and American exceptionalism — but which you can also skip, if you prefer to avoid political debates from a few years ago.
Honestly, even if you just want to rant more knowledgably about science fiction and fantasy, both on television and in other media, then this book will raise your ranting game. You will be armed with more sophistication about how the sausage is made, but also about the varieties of sausage and just how carcinogenic each type is. (Sorry, got carried away with sausage metaphor.)
As anyone who's watched The Middleman — all right-thinking people, in other words — already knows, Javier Grillo-Marxuach has a fearsome command of geek culture and a terrific grasp of what makes a great story. And that's what makes this book such a fun, illuminating read for fans and aspiring pros alike.
Contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.