Saturday, May 14, 2011

On the topic of Wonder Woman not getting picked up by NBC

There are many kinds of people in this world and these different people have different sets of tastes.  There are also many kinds of stories in this world, and many ways of telling stories.  Mass media, especially television and its model of "who is watching now (and please don't skip the ads)" doesn't deal with either of these facts particularly well.

don't fear, America.  You will never see the latex-clad Wonder Woman on your TV screens.
I am a fan of the Wonder Woman character (albeit, not as big a fan as some).  I am not a fan of much of the work of David E. Kelley, most famous for his role as the creator of Ally McBeal, but also creator of Boston Legal, Snoops, Girls Club, Boston Public, The Wedding Bells and a dozen other projects.  I will confess that I liked Lake Placid.  I always like movies about giant alligators.

This is stating the obvious, but its curious how little I've seen anybody just outright say it:  David E. Kelley is a bad match for writing a warrior Amazon character who is more about action and far less about spending time talking about her feelings with her pals.

Also:  If you don't have faith in the character and story as it exists, changing it to meet the needs of people who aren't interested in it will not serve the audience that is interested.

And:  Hey, maybe you could try just doing this straight, since that's done pretty well for Marvel and the Batman movies.

Its surprising this went so far before someone in a position to say so asked WB, DC Entertainment and NBC to stop.

The two articles I read about the show's cancellation pointed out that (a) the show had received backlash just seeing the blue costume pictured at the top of this column, and (b) I guess test screenings went poorly.  But its also hard not to imagine that NBC, a faltering network, didn't want to deal with a big push around a show that was likely not going to please anybody.

I don't blame Kelley for wanting to try his hand at this job, and, frankly, I don't blame him at all if he applied his usual repertoire to the character and it didn't work out.  He wanted a chance to make the big super-hero bucks Hollywood likes, they asked him to apply his magic, and he did.  But you don't hire a guitarist to sit in on drums just because they're both musicians.

1)  Hollywood is a funny place, where people talk about people who are clearly not all that talented as if they were talented because it is good for business and sometimes just saying positive things does indeed make things happen in a world of magical thinking.

2)  Producers, networks and studios also make bizarre leaps of logic when adapting all sorts of properties in order to make as many people happy as possible (get as many eyes or sell as many tickets as possible), and even they must know there's a place where this practice ultimately stretches too thin, and the membrane, pulled at all sides, breaks.

ah.  one of my favorite topics.  Wonder Woman running.
So, you get an semi-outsider like Geoff Johns assigned to DC's live-feature division, and tell him "well, we can use your writers and maybe nobody will even fund a pilot, or we can hire this guy whose name may convince housewives in Muncie, Indiana to tune in because of the nostalgia factor plus David E. Kelley's brand recognition.  We'll ignore all the expensive FX stuff and add some trademark Kelleyisms, and that means we think we can pull in another few points on the ol' Neilsen ratings and we can write our own checks".

Johns, wanting a hit on his hands and to prove he's a savvy Hollywood player, is going to nod and acknowledge that he needs a bit of that David E. Kelley magic, and that it would be good to try to corral a demographic that's usually averse to action shows.  And if he convinces himself just right, he's going to be the one who brought superheroes to an untapped demographic, and that's pretty good, right?

But, of course, you can always push a concept just so far.  Such seems to have been the case with Wonder Woman.

Over 70-odd years of DC's existence, I'd argue that the multiple false starts demonstrated that Wonder Woman only bends so much (whereas Batman is amazingly and uniquely flexible to the point where he's become virtually every living person's personal avatar.  Who doesn't love Batman?).  Moreover, its also notable that this is the third Wonder Woman attempt at TV that failed (and the attempts to change her significantly in the comics have been mostly unsuccessful).

In 1974, prior to the Lynda Carter-starring series which we're all familiar with, Cathy Lee Crosby starred in a Wonder Woman TV movie that was likely intended to be a pilot.  Its mostly now forgotten, because it followed the concept of a de-powered, blond Wonder Woman who is a lot closer to the controversial Denny O'Neil version of the character that got all the bad press from Gloria Steinem.

I don't know if the show is all that good or bad.  By today's standards, even the classic Lynda Carter Wonder Woman is a bit rough to watch.*  I do think the clip above is not really Wonder Woman. Don't blame the blond hair or even the track suit, but the lack of powers and grace that's required to be a superhero and not just the lost member of the Charlie's Angel Squad.

And, of course, there's the 5-minute test pilot for a live-action comedy version of Wonder Woman (not too shocking when you consider when Adam West's Batman was on the air).

You can see the entire thing here (its not very funny or watchable):

So the version that actually took off, the 3 year run (I guess 3 years used to respectable when you only had three networks) of Wonder Woman on network TV starring Lynda Carter, was the one that may have had some camp value, but actually stuck pretty close to its comic roots:  Wonder Woman as a stranger coming to the US with Steve Trevor and deciding to stay and preach peace and protection of the innocent.  With the occasional gorilla thrown in for good measure.

Tiara.  Bracelets.  Lasso.  Focused on stopping evil do-ers.

Check that out! She's running all over the place, stopping two moving cars at once, jumping a round like a rabbit in zero Gs and working a computer with an utterly baffling light display.

She's also fond of Steve, but she's never quite mooning over the guy in three years of the show.**

And I don't think its that David E. Kelley necessarily took that all away from Diana (although I've heard she was somewhat de-powered). If the reports are to be believed, it was that the character had been so fundamentally changed as to be unrecognizable.  At heart, Kelley's Diana was just a girl who wants to gab with her pals about boys and eat ice cream.  And while I'm not saying there aren't superheroes like that, its an uncomfortable truth that Wonder Woman may be more Clash of Titans than Ally McBeal, and writing that character may involve risk...  Re-characterizing an icon to stretch that membrane serves nobody, just as we wouldn't forgive anybody for taking themselves totally seriously and recasting Superman in a show like Gossip Girl.***

No doubt this move was intended to make Wonder Woman relatable, but the issue is:  if you want to relate to most DC characters, their day-to-day is not the place.  Turning Wonder Woman into a corporation misses the point of the early Mindy Mayer stories from the 1980's, and ignores the rest of the 70-years of Wonder Woman's existence.

When you stray too far from that formula (and I'd argue that the post-Infinite Crisis Wonder Woman has never quite gotten Diana back to where she needs to be after the "let's make her a government agent!" debacle), the story falters.  That's not a weakness of the character, that's a problem with vision for the character and trying to add layers that simply don't make sense just to do something different.

Woe to Ms. Palicki, who's Wonder Woman has been consigned to bootlegs at Comic Cons
I'm disappointed I will not get to see Wonder Woman on TV or at the movies, sure, but I am thrilled that this thing died on the vine if it was going to be on TV just because of two name brands merging their houses.  DCE is under better stewardship than its seen in a decade, and I'm a bit befuddled as to exactly what directives are getting handed down or what control DC is trying to exert over its third best-known property.  This looked like a rookie mistake, and with 75 years in media, DC needs to quit getting excited every time Hollywood smiles their direction.  Marvel has done a great job of actually bringing their characters to the screen as they are, and there's a lesson in there.

Witness:  DC is lining up an amazing roster of talent to participate in the next Superman film, just as they were able to do for the 70's-era films.  People want to be associated with these characters.  I can't imagine a young actress out there who wouldn't want to be Wonder Woman or be a part of what Wonder Woman could be on the big or small screen.  If DC were to bite the bullet and just try to show that wish fulfilled, I have a hard time believing that the project would fail.

And let's take a moment to feel badly for Adrianne Palicki.****  She's now been cast in two DC pilots that didn't take - this and the Aquaman pilot.  Yes, she was in that.  She was also the original Kara on Smallville before they decided to add a real Kara and brought in the always-wooden Laura Vandervoort.  Producers obviously see something super about her, but they can't seem to find material good enough for her.  And after her three seasons on Friday Night Lights, I'm the first to say - she really is very talented.  Its a damn shame.  She's now relegated to the Brandon Routh purgatory of actors who rose to the challenge of playing a superhero but got stuck with material people didn't want to see...

*in its way.  I can watch Lynda Carter run around for hours.  And have.
**Probably another lesson the Smallville writers could have used
***oh, wait...  sorry.  That was seasons 4-8 of Smallville.
****The terribly, terribly good looking Ms. Palicki

My pitch:  I've said it before and I'll say it again: Rucka and Jimenez's take was probably the best bet for a TV show or movie.  If you're looking for a comparison, it would likely have been closer to The West Wing meets Clash of the Titans meets Modern Day East Coast US.  It was Wonder Woman with a supporting cast, completely retaining her mission, retaining the mythic part of her story, and the conflict between how she lived and the rest of the world was part of the story.  And it gave a superhero to the world that was both complex and bad-ass, to boot.


Simon MacDonald said...

I'm not quite sure why they continue to try and push Wonder Woman to TV. If DC really wanted to launch a successful TV show they adapt Gotham Central. A police procedural with occasional super heroes would totally work. People wouldn't realized it was a comic book show until it was too late. The scripts are there to pick up on and it would play great on HBO or AMC.

The League said...

My guess is that its a question of demographics. The movie audience is considered to be male, between 18 and 35, and when it comes to attending movies with female leads, it doesn't often serve those movies terribly well. Now, the WB's data points on this include stuff like "Catwoman", so... I find the conclusion slightly dubious.

Women are a stronger force in TV markets (I believe Nielsen will say that adult women watch more TV than adult men), and I'm guessing Wonder Woman on TV is and attempt to capture that population. And if theyw on't turn up for Wonder Woman throwing cars, they might turn up to see her wrestle with romantic problems, thus: David E Kelley to the rescue.

Unfortunately, a lot of money is at play, and TV is not a place that encourages real risk. Its worth saying that since the early 00's, movies REALLY aren't the place for risk.

Keep in mind, NBC also canceled "The Cape" after 3 episodes and I'm nots ure "Bionic Woman" made it a whole season a few years back. To me, this looked insanely risky.

I'd guess the relative failure of Watchmen, a movie intended to bring those "adult" sensibilities of comics to a mass audience,is going to stop anyone from thinking they can and should develop a "serious" superhero program. So I won't expect any "Gotham Central" any time soon. Superheroes need to be seen as light, fuzzy family shows for mass audiences.

Simon MacDonald said...

See I agree with you it is hard to get people to buy into super heroes on TV but that is why I think Gotham Central can work. They shouldn't even mention Batman for a bunch of episodes (or at all) so that people will get hooked on a gritty police procedural show.

Speaking of comic book police procedural shows they are trying to get a BMB Powers TV show off the ground as well. That was a series that I used to love until it got too superheroey.