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Peter Rogers's Blog
Artist-in-Residence at Chez Firth

Tuesday (11/11/08) 12:10pm - ... wherein Peter sketches out a TV show that he'd like to do.

Huh -- I can't believe I never got around to posting this.

Earlier this year, I read Rip It Up and Start Again at the same time I was toying with the idea of writing a TV spec pilot set in a recording studio.  About a zillion conversations with minimalrobot later, this was the result:



Desperation Studios



Logline
In 1981, a small-town recording studio loses all its old clients; to stay in business, the studio must work with off-the-wall New Wave bands, and do whatever it takes to keep their new clients happy.


Overview
It’s 1981.  Punk has come and gone in a whirlwind, blowing away all the old traditions of how to make music, and now there’s a feeling that anyone can do anything.  People from every walk of life – art-school kids, calculating businessmen, burned-out bohemians – they all suspect that they could be the next Ramones, the next Clash.  It’s a time of optimism and experimentation.

In Akron, Ohio, Destination Studios employs a small, prickly-but-devoted staff.  They do a good business recording tribute bands, voiceovers, and commercial jingles.  But then the studio’s star producer leaves.  What’s worse, he takes the studio’s clientele with him.

Suddenly they have no clients, the landlord is threatening to evict them, and the bank wants to repo their equipment.  They have no choice but to bring in the only people who’ll work with them:  fringe artists who have no idea how to be a proper rock’n’roll band, and who have… problems.

Their drummer disappeared.  Again.  Or:  they want to fill the studio with feral animals, for ‘proper ambience’.  Or:  their brand of performance art involves setting things (like the studio) on fire.  Or:  they’re part of Akron’s only street gang, and are really only there to try and rob the place blind.

Our heroes have two choices:  fix these problems, or go out of business. 

There’s no way in hell they’re going out of business.


Cast
Our central cast comprises the four people who work at the studio:

Dennis (Manager, mid-30s)
Impulsive and naïve, Dennis does his best impression of a suave music-industry executive – optimistic, self-confident, affable, cool – but under that façade he’s very much a deer in headlights.  He’s in over his head.  He doesn’t know much about music.  He used to be a middle manager at a rubber manufacturer; now he holds on to his work at the studio just so he has some identity besides “failed assistant production manager”.  He’ll learn let go of that and he’ll become excited about the music itself.  But in any case, he’ll do anything – lie, cheat, steal – to keep the bands happy and keep the business afloat.

Lars (Sound Engineer, late 20s)
If it’s possible for a twenty-something to be ‘crotchety’ at such an early age, that’s Lars.  He’s guarded, superstitious, set in his ways, and possibly crazy.  But he knows the equipment backwards and forwards, so the studio is lucky to have him setting up microphones and such.  He’s not the most well-socialized person either; in particular, he has an infuriating habit of ‘arguing by repetition’, making the exact same point over and over.i  But he gradually warms up to other people (and these newfangled musicians and their fancy ‘synths’) as the show progresses.  Deep down, he’s an old softie.  Even Cynthia instinctively holds back a little when she feels like she’s hurting Lars’s feelings.

Cynthia (Mixer, mid-20s)
Cynthia is the resident wit who operates the control-room equipment.  She says exactly what we’re thinking, only better than we could ever express it.  She moved to Akron from Georgia, and she’s taken on a job that, especially at that time, was traditionally done by men.  But she’s decided that if she isn’t going to fit in, she’s going to stand apart, and make wry observations from that comfortable distance.  She’s usually knocking Dennis down a peg, bickering with Lars like an old married couple, or encouraging Sharon to go do something embarrassing.  But she’s passionate about new music and the new direction the studio takes, and always stands up for the musicians’ crazy ideas, even as she mocks the musicians themselves.

Sharon (Intern, 19)
Sharon is a wide-eyed British exchange student who embodies the audience’s attitude of “wouldn’t it be cool to work in music?” – for her, everything at the studio is new and exciting.  She insists she’s not naïve, which only highlights how naïve she is.  As an unpaid, inexperienced intern, she gets stuck with receptionist duties and financial work.  But she slowly works her way closer to where the action is.  Honestly, we the audience worry a bit about her, tossed in amongst these loonies. 

Bands
Each band will show up for a few consecutive episodes, and then more or less disappear.  Many of these fictional bands will be based on existing bands of the era.  We could have businessmen intent on using rock albums as part of an overall corporate strategy (like PiL), or scatological performance artists who want to make their instruments sound like industrial machinery (like Throbbing Gristle), or intellectuals who present music as a mere supplement to their tome-like political explications (like Scritti Politti).  For the music, we can license covers of obscure songs from the era,ii or commission musicians to come up with music that sounds appropriate to the period. 


Episode One
We open on a recording gauge.  Dennis makes an impassioned speech about music, and why it matters to him; the equipment records it.  Dennis finishes his speech.  He looks nervous.  This is not surprising, as their star producer, Paolo, has a gun trained on him.  Paolo says, “You don’t believe that.  You’ve never believed that!”

Dennis replies, “You’re right.  Frankly, I’m just babbling now.  Please don’t shoot me.”

Paolo storms out, confronting Lars, and Cynthia, and Sharon along the way, and claiming that he was the only reason for the studio’s success, and he’s sick of carrying them.

Shortly afterwards, the whole community finds out what happened; Dennis pleads with one of ‘their’ cover bands, but every one of their clients is following Paolo to his new job with another studio.

Reluctant but desperate, Dennis calls in a college band – friends of Sharon’s – that he had laughed out of the studio the week before, when they’d wanted to record an EP there.  They are utterly unprofessional, and the first crisis is to keep Lars & Cynthia from trying to kill them.

And then the band insists on getting the mayor of Akron to do a spoken-word intro on their first track, which is apparently absolutely necessary for making the appropriate political statement.  Solving that problem occupies the rest of the A-story.

Meanwhile in the B-story, we find that Cynthia and Dennis have just broken off a short, ill-advised relationship, and Cynthia wants to quit at the studio.  Dennis tries everything to get her to stay (including trying to get Sharon to lay a guilt trip on her), but nothing really cinches it until she sees the band recording good music – new, interesting music – in their main recording room.

With the mayor there, of course.

Over the credits, the band does another take of the song. 


Setting & Style
Akron is a smallish, industrial city (mostly rubber manufacturing) in the middle of Ohio.  Its music scene boomed and then busted in ’79 and ‘80, and all the great successes – DEVO, the Waitresses, the Pretenders – had moved on.  It’s the small time, but there’s still a feeling that maybe some crazy new group could make it on its own terms, starting in that little town.

The studio occupies part of a run-down, two-story building in an old, cheap office park.  The front foyer of the ground floor is the receptionist/business area, with stairs down to the basement.  The basement is always a bit damp and claustrophobic.  The ceilings are a little low.  There's no natural light.  Down there is the main recording room, the mixing booth, and the green room.  It’s all very lived-in and full of grubby detail – walls are papered over with posters of fictional bands, thumbtacked fliers, photos.  Everywhere you look, there’s boxy, mid-70s equipment, beat-up furniture, and rabbit's nests of wiring. 

Later episodes will move beyond the studio to other music-biz locations in Akron.  Characters name-drop these locations early on, so it feels like a payoff when the locations show up later.

The shooting style is, again, single-camera.  It’s almost all interiors, to the point of mild claustrophobia.  It’s more cinematic/heightened than documentary/found footage; you're clearly watching scripted television.  References to consider:  Freaks & Geeks, Almost Famous, and the video for Spoon's "The Underdog".


Show Structure
Desperation Studios  is a half-hour single-camera comedy.  A typical episode contains an A-story, in which the central cast has to solve some problem for the current band, and a B-story , which centers on an interpersonal conflict in the central cast.  Every few episodes, staff resolves some deeper problem with their current band, and we move on to the next band. 

Will the studio stay open?  That question drives the season.  Sometimes it will look like they’re doomed, other times it will look like they’re destined for success.  In addition to the usual episode-to-episode scrambling, our cast encounters complications that affect this season arc.  Along the way, the central cast goes from grudgingly taking on these crazy bands to realizing they're doing something less profitable, but far more important and exhilarating.


The Podcast
This material would lend itself well to a weekly audio podcast.

It could be ‘found footage’ of people talking during a recording session at the studio.  We can use the same cast of characters and just present a short scene (three minutes or so) every week.  This could be a good way for the show to ‘find its feet’ before diving into lengthy scripts and costly video production.


i For an extreme example of what I’m talking about, see Hugh Laurie in the “Grand Prix” sketch.  The script is here:
        http://www.geocities.com/mmemym/bits4/fal0199.htm. 

ii For example:  ever heard of Doug Derek and the Hoax?  Probably not, because they released only one album in 1981 that didn’t get far outside their hometown of New Haven, Connecticut.



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Honestly, I'm happy with what I set up here.  To my eyes, it looks like a show, on paper at least.  Still, I've had a bear of a time coming up with story ideas for it; I don't know how much of that is weaknesses in the setup and how much is my ignorance of how studios work.  If I ever get over my phobia of pilot specs, I should write the first episode of this show.

Anyway, I *finally* dusted this project off and finished a draft of its first podcast ep (as in, a little three-minute audio thing), which I'll post presently.

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Mood: [mood icon] ambitious · Music: none
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