"The timidity of American broadcast networks could end up being a theme of today's talk," producer and director Alan Poul warned towards the beginning of his recent Master Class at the Banff World Television Festival. It did, in fact, emerge as a recurring theme as he reflected on his career.
Poul's resume includes television classics such as Six Feet Under ("the five greatest years of my life") and My So-Called Life ("something extraordinary"), as well as the films Candyman and Woman on Top, among others. He's currently the executive producer of Swingtown, the CBS summer series about three couples in the swinging 1970s, which debuted to some controversy earlier this month.
The creator of Swingtown, Mike Kelley, brought the concept to Poul when the producer had an exclusive deal with HBO. The show seemed like a perfect fit. HBO didn't disagree, but with Big Love and Tell Me You Love Me already on their schedule, "they felt another show about multiple partners would be too much for them to handle."
"We thought, shit, there's no where else we can take this, except possibly Showtime." So, wisely, they took it to Showtime, who expressed interest but wanted more time to commit to funding the pilot. While waiting, they got a call from CBS indicating that network head Nina Tassler was interested. "Is it April Fool's Day?" Poul wondered.
He said Tassler had seen the script as a writing sample and "flipped for it." Turns out, not only did she have an affinity for the '70s herself, but "her aunt and uncle wrote a book called Open Marriage that defined the phenomenon we're depicting in the show. So she had a very intimate relationship with the material."
Most such meetings involve the producer and writer trying to convince the network why they should buy the show. This particular meeting involved the network trying to convince them they should sell the show to CBS.
"We said we're not going to sell it if they're going to turn it into a network show," Poul recounted, telling Tassler they had a list of non-negotiable demands: "The underage daughter still has to smoke pot, the crazy neighbour lady still has to do coke, our leading lady still has to take the Quaalude and we have to want her to take the Quaalude, and they still have to have sex with their neighbours. If you guarantee we can do all those things on CBS, then yes, you can buy the show. She said you have my word."
The pilot is proof that her word was good. But that doesn't mean Swingtown has the kind of creative freedom it would on a cable network, either.
Though he said he finds himself fighting notes to tone down the language or sexual content – and not always successfully – the limitations of a broadcast show can also be a benefit.
"On Showtime, where they really use sex as a calling card, it would have been 'how much sex can you show,'" he said. "We would have gotten caught in this trap of trying to up the ante every week. By going to a broadcast network, which has much stricter standards and is subject to fines by the FCC should they cross over into anything that is considered indecent, it forced us to really sharpen our narrative skills as storytellers."
However, the threat of FCC fines makes the network extra vigilant in order to prevent crossing those ill-defined lines into indecency. CBS in particular is still reeling from the Janet Jackson Super Bowl wardrobe malfunction in 2004. "They're spending more than the fine would ever be to fight it in court. It's a point of honour," Poul explained, decrying the hypocrisy of a system that seems unconcerned with brutal violence but that keeps close watch on indecency like "the sound of a zipper opening" or "how long a character's head dips out of the frame."
Two weeks before the Swingtown pilot aired, the network suddenly got cold feet over a scene where Grant Show's character was having sex with a flight attendant in the background while his wife walked out of the room to get a Tab. "I guess they were distracted by the Tab or something," is Poul's explanation for why the network hadn't previously objected to the fact that the stewardess's legs were wrapped around his body. It was too late in the process to cut the scene, so they performed a digital amputation of the woman's right leg. It cost the network $10,000, which they happily paid.
"They're kind of akin to a third world theocracy, the level of sexual puritanism," Poul said of the FCC. "On Desperate Housewives or CSI, there is a level of lascivious content, but the person involved usually gets punished or, preferably, killed. We love our characters. We don't judge them. There are no negative repercussions for the behaviour they're engaging in. They find that terrifying."
He clarified that there will be emotional fallout for the characters because of the changing mores of the time and their reactions to them. "'Nobody gets punished' is not the same as 'nobody gets hurt.' We're not visiting vengeance on anyone, nobody gets punished for what they've done, but inevitably there are casualties," he noted. "I think the show has a very nostalgic tone and tries to take in general a very positive approach to what was a period of experimentation, partly to counterbalance what I feel has been this wave of negative, revisionist looking back at the '70s through the dark prism of Reagan and AIDS."
"People were looking for personal ways to liberate themselves from conventions and dogma of the '50s and '60s. But you don't want to be rose coloured, so there will be consequences."
One of Poul's earliest efforts was Armistead Maupin's Tales of the City, and he sees parallels between the two projects. PBS had aired the first mini-series, but pulled out of the planned second despite the stellar ratings for "overtly political reasons." Showtime eventually came to the rescue and produced the other two.
Poul points to the PBS timidity as an early salvo in the culture war in the United States, the "aggressive division between left and right in what's acceptable as publicly funded culture or art." That early experience prepared him for the controversies of Swingtown, but the fact that the culture war hasn't progressed much on the television battlefield since then seems dispiriting to Poul.
"Both Tales of the City and Swingtown take place during the summer of 1976 and both of them are very open-hearted, all-embracing, and non-judgmental looks at certain subcultures that existed during that decade. So I think of both as being very warm and loving programs that are appropriate for anyone to see," he asserted. "But because of the weird double standards we have in our culture, both of them in their own day — Tales of the City was in 1994, Swingtown today — have been considered controversial or hot-button. It seems to me there's certain aspects of the hypocrisy that's intrinsic to American broadcast standards that haven't changed."
"And the other thing that hasn't changed is that I simply can't get myself out of the '70s," Poul added, slightly less seriously.Powered by Sidelines