It's surreal enough spending a few minutes talking show business with the guy who turned Forrest Gump and Woody the toy cowboy into cinema legends. But imagine how it feels when that guy — Tom Hanks, star of stage, screen and top dog HBO miniseries producer — turns to you and asks the million-dollar question about the TV Critics Association's summer press tour.
"So what do you learn after a week and a half (of schmoozing)?"
My response got a laugh — "The level of mediocrity has risen tremendously" — but it also rings true now, as I decompress after nine days in Los Angeles last week, soaking up the showbiz vibe everywhere from the set of FX's biker gang drama Sons of Anarchy to the "human zoo" set where CBS films Big Brother 12.
More than ever before, the TV industry is at a crossroads. Viewing by digital video recorder, websites and mobile devices is moving audiences to places where the big networks make a fraction of the revenue they once did.
And attempts to meet that reality with big changes — like NBC's disastrous decision to blow up its prime time last season for Jay Leno — fail so badly no one else will try something similar again.
So my laugh line was true; this year's crop of new network TV shows are better than in years past, taking careful storytelling chances while never wandering far from old formulas. Still, few seem poised to join the 15 percent or so of new series that actually survive to their second season. Here's a few more quotes and lessons learned from my time on the Left Coast:
Sometimes bad shows happen to good people, like Billy Gardell, star of CBS' Mike and Molly, a comedy about two overweight people who fall in love. Gardell was amazingly down to earth and perceptive, calling himself a "ham and egg" longtime comic who somehow landed on CBS' biggest new comedy.
"When you're a fat guy in Hollywood, you're the cop, the neighbor or the bad guy," he said during a press conference. Later, he explained: "All the (TV comedy) I admire came out of the '70s — All in the Family, The Jeffersons … and none of those people looked beautiful. You say 'I know that guy or a guy like that.' So that was always my dream as a kid, to be on a show that represented that." Gardell's attitude gives me hope the show will transcend the pilot's long string of forgettable one-liners.
No matter how silly the moment, some TV folks can explain away anything. Dana Delaney is a wonderful actress and a great interview; she worked the room at an ABC party with openness and good humor, talking about the irony of getting in a real-life car accident with a bus after filming a similar scene for the pilot of her new show, Body of Proof (the driver actually asked for her autograph, which she didn't provide).
But one of the pilot's most outlandish moments comes early when her character, a top neurosurgeon who becomes a medical examiner after a car wreck destroys her ability to operate, shows up at a crime scene in a designer dress, sharp trench coat and serious heels. "I was worried about that too, but when I had dinner with this neurosurgeon, she was wearing the dress I had on in the pilot," Delaney said, noting such doctors can earn millions annually.
True enough, but would that doctor wear that designer dress to look over a corpse at a crime scene?
Sometimes, producers start series with whack ideas just to get on a network. "The problem with television right now, is that it's almost impossible to get a TV show on without a big, hooky premise idea," said Bill Lawrence, executive producer of ABC's Cougar Town, explaining how the Courteney Cox-led comedy has morphed from being about a 40-something woman trying not to be a cougar to being a show about adult friendships.
"Your show's survival (with viewers) depends on finding that weird everyday life chemistry that people want to watch and live with," added Lawrence who also created Scrubs and Spin City, noting how shows nowadays quickly walk away from bold concepts. "It's a really weird burden … you see all these shows switching gears — 30 Rock, which I love, stopped being about the backstage at a comedy, late-night TV show about four episodes in, and became a character comedy."