I started writing my first screenplay all the way back in 1975. Being the paradigmatic “late bloomer,” at the ripe age of 30, with a beautiful wife and three kids, I was just finishing my undergraduate degree at Northern Illinois University. On a whim, I took a history of film course and it changed my life. I had never imagined trying to make a film and back then to do so took some serious equipment which cost money. I had no money, so how could I get into this game? I had the vague understanding that films needed scripts. I could afford paper and I had a typewriter. (Yes, this was thousands of years ago.) I would write a screenplay. Sounds easy enough. The next problem was that I couldn’t find anybody at the second largest university in Illinois who could teach me how to write a screenplay. (Now you can find them at every community college.) In the library I couldn’t even find a script that would show me the correct form. Undaunted, I just started to work using a “form” of my own creation.
When I was finished, I didn’t know what to do with it. So what do you do when you don’t know what to do? Crazy things. I sent a copy to Pauline Kael at The New Yorker magazine. Arguably, the late Ms. Kael is the greatest film critic who has ever lived. She sent me a note saying that she thought I knew what I was doing. (I didn‘t. She was just being kind.) I wrote back to her and she agreed to be one of my references when I applied for grad school at USC and UCLA. (Of course, I chose USC.)
But I didn’t stop there. I sent a copy to Ernest Lehman, a legendary screenwriter who had been president of the Writers Guild. I can’t remember where I found his name. You can find his amazing credits on IMDb. They include The Sound of Music. Though Mr. Lehman did not know me, he was kind enough to read my bumbling script and send back a two-page, single-spaced critique. He ripped my script to shreds. What a gift that was! Like every novice writer, I didn’t appreciate it at the time, but he said things that I have never forgotten. One of them was that I didn’t really care about my characters. They existed as nothing more than little stick men mouthing what I wanted them to say. (He didn’t use those words. His were much kinder, but that was the message.) At the end he encouraged me to keep writing. And I have.
I spent most of my Hollywood career in network episodic television. So when I write about TV it’s from the perspective of having been an executive producer, a writer (a Life Member of the Writers Guild) and a network series showrunner and creator. Also, I write as a Christian. I love the potential of episodic television. There is no medium that offers such opportunity for a writer to create characters and then watch them grow over time. There is no medium that compares to it in its power to enter people’s homes and lives, molding worldviews and collectively changing the values of society. Consequently, there is no medium that is more dangerous. Those who claim that it is “just entertainment” are either lying or are blind fools.
Obviously, in the spectrum of television series on the air at any given time there is a range of quality. Also, there is a range of destructiveness. I’m going to mention what I consider to be the worst of the worst that have appeared during the past several years. I have said that I consider such ragingly popular TV series as House of Cards, Breaking Bad, Dexter, Sons of Anarchy, Game of Thrones, etc. as nothing more than modern freak shows, and evil, destructive freak shows at that. I consider them to be extremely important because of the quality of the productions and the dark influence that I believe they are having on society. How could I say such things about productions that are so well executed on every level?
Let’s start at the foundational level of creativity where the seeds are planted. I contend that the writers of these series do not really care about their characters. They exist primarily to pander and make money. At best, I think they consider them ugly curiosities – another way of saying freaks. Their writing “enjoyment” comes from the fun of the torture (and often from the lust). No matter how sophisticated it appears it is very much like boys who find pleasure in tearing the wings off flies. Now I am absolutely certain that the people involved would argue passionately that I am wrong. They would protest with great vehemence that they really do care and that I was insulting their integrity. Let me add to that insult. Not only do they not care, I contend that they are creatively lazy. I have known many Hollywood writers and employed my fair share, but I don’t know these particular writers, so how can I say all of that?
At this point, I’m going to talk about the way writers think, or at least the way they ought to think. (This may sound odd to those who are not writers, but you’ll have to trust me. We writers are a very strange bunch.) When we create the protagonist or hero for a story, we are giving birth to a character that becomes a real person in our minds. It’s important for this to happen. If it doesn’t, that character won’t become “real” for anyone else. In dramatic writing forms, the sense of reality is tremendously enhanced when actors inhabit our characters. Suddenly, that imaginary “person” has a very human face.
In a strange way, all of the characters that we create are our children. Like little gods, we place them into “realities” that we fabricate. Once they are in those realities they speak to us. They make choices and we live with them through the results of those choices. We guide and manipulate, but we don’t “dictate.” A writer knows that there are many things that a character “just wouldn’t do.” Why? Because it goes against the true nature of his imagined personality. If you are not a writer, that’s going to be very difficult to understand. Where do these imaginary people and worlds come from? Obviously, they arise from within us and represent how we view the “real” world.
If you are a parent, do you want the best for your child? Of course you do. That natural desire should be in writers as well with regard to the imaginary people we create. We should want the best for them. A good writer really cares about the world he or she creates and the people living in it. They aren’t just pieces to move around on a chess board. That’s true not just about protagonists, but antagonists as well. There is an old rule of thumb, the antagonist always thinks he is the hero and for him to become real you need to write him that way. As his creator, you want the best for him, but his definition of what is “best” is warped by selfishness and leads to destruction. All that I’ve just written assumes one thing. That there is something called “the best” and we should want it. However, in our post-post-modern society there are many writers who don’t believe in an objective “best” for the characters they create. All that matters is what “entertains.”
It has not always been so. Historically, what has been considered “the best?” Someone once said that the greatest story you can tell is a story about the redemption of a person. Certainly this theme is at the heart of much of the greatest western literature over the past 2000 years. In storytelling, there are many ways that redemption can be found. A character may desperately seek redemption and never quite achieve it to his satisfaction. That was the theme of The Equalizer, the TV series that I helped write and produce back in the late 80’s. In the process of his own seeking and sacrifice, Robert McCall, The Equalizer, brought redemption to many people. I think I can speak for all the writers on that series when I say that we cared deeply about McCall and all of the other characters who appeared on the screen. Truly, we wanted the best for them. We lived with McCall in his quest for redemption. However it is defined and achieved, redemption transforms a person making him into a better individual than he was.
Now several questions: What happens if a writer gives birth to a character that can never be redeemed because he has determined that in his imaginary world redemption isn’t necessary or even possible? What does it mean when a writer creates a character with the conscious intent for him to live selfishly with no real concern for others and go down to destruction, a character who will make nothing but evil, selfish choices? What happens if this character is the main focus in a television series? The first thing we can say is that though he is being written with the values of an antagonist, to the audience he will become the de facto “protagonist,” because as a society we believe so much in redemption.
There’s something else we can say. The creator of such a character has no real love or concern for the child birthed from his imagination. He has consciously fathered an ugly freak for no other purpose than to torture and destroy him. It could be that like many post-post-moderns, he doesn’t believe in the possibility of redemption or the necessity for it in everyday life. Selfishness reigns “on the page,” because he has a selfish, cynical view of humanity. Or he just may be a lazy, cynical voyeur with a taste for sucking moral sewage, especially if he is paid enough to do it.
For a number of years, I have been on the advisory board of the Parents Television Council. (If you aren’t a member, I suggest you join. They do important work.) Very recently in their newsletter they quote Matt Thompson, the creator of FX’s animated spy series, Archer. He says about his series, “Yeah, it’s cartoon porn … It’s great! If you can get away with it, do it.”
About such creators, there’s something we know. They don’t care or at least think much about the psychological and spiritual well-being of their audience or society as a whole. They want viewers to become addicted to watching their porn. In the case of Breaking Bad and other shows like it, they want people to be addicted to watching them torture an evil character and see that character destroy other people week in and week out, perhaps for years. They desire for their audiences to share in the lust and horror that their characters perpetrate. And they want you to thirst for more. Your addiction is integral to their success. If you and countless others aren’t participating as voyeurs, the horror will stop because it must have an audience.
But what about their audiences? How do people relate to an evil “protagonist” that has been created? At the beginning, most are confused. The concept of redemption in some form is so deep within us that initially we don’t understand the character and the world in which he has been placed. We choose to “believe” the best about him or her, because we want a hero. The character may be making horrible decisions, but we hope this will change. It takes a while for us to realize that we have entered a world without hope and that the creator’s intention is for us to watch a person’s slow, agonizing, moral and, perhaps, physical destruction. Because of the slickness of the storytelling and the overall excellence of the production, before we do realize what is happening we are hooked and fascinated with the slaughter. The more sophisticated we consider ourselves to be, the more sophistry we will use to justify our addiction.
I have said that this kind of cynical storytelling is pandering. What do I mean by that? What is pandering? It’s providing something that people want or demand though it isn’t right or good for them. Our culture is addicted to exciting violence and scintillating evil. We want to watch it and enjoy it, but we want to be given an excuse for doing so. Shows like Breaking Bad and Dexter pander to such tastes. How does it work? The writers make certain that those whom their evil “protagonists” murder are worse than they are. That gives viewers “permission” to watch and enjoy the killing because the victims “deserve” it. This puts the audience into the strange position of wanting a murderer to get away with his crime (he is the de facto protagonist) and finding themselves cheering him on “for the greater good.”
(In the case of Dexter the system finally broke down and the murders became almost indiscriminate. By then the audience was hooked and there was no danger that the most heinous acts would disgust them enough to stop watching. But there is a level of hell even below this one. It is found in the pornography called Game of Thrones where there are heroes, but every one of them is created for a single purpose, to encourage the audience to care about them so their brutal murders can be even more devastating. And all of them die. Clearly, the author and writers take great joy in this. Game of Thrones is nothing more than vile ejaculations from a perverted mind.)
Is all of this sophisticated storytelling? Is it excellent writing? Should these storytellers be rewarded for their outstanding craft? It is the cheapest, crassest form of storytelling. It may be slick, clever and addictive, but sophisticated and excellent it isn’t. For a skilled writer it is simplistic and lazy. In the evil little cosmos he has created he doesn’t have to worry about the messiness of our world. When you wipe out the possibility of redemption, gone are repentance, forgiveness, restitution, mercy and self-sacrificing love. Gone is the hope at the heart of the human race that a very bad man can change and become a different person. Those kinds of stories are messy and risky, and I can tell you from personal experience that they are not easy to write. But without those elements there can be no great storytelling, no great drama. Why? Because they are the wonderful realities that actually do transform human life. One more thing, without them there can be no heroes, for heroism depends on self-sacrifice. What would our world be like without any heroes? It would be hell. And I mean that quite literally.
As a class, we writers are lazy. Writing is very difficult. We always search for the easiest ways to do it. It’s not easy to write about mercy, redemption and forgiveness. It’s not easy to write about self-sacrificing love. It challenges us to the depths of our souls and pushes our creative skills to the limit. It’s never slick. Always, it is self-revealing. So why bother with it? The creators of these series don’t bother with it. Week in and week out, all they have to do is search for new horrors for their characters to perpetrate on their way to hell. For a clever, experienced writer this is not a challenge. It’s a form of storytelling masturbation.
Significant periods of my life have been spent in Hollywood “writers’ rooms” where stories and scripts are born. I know exactly how writers think. TV writers spend months and years living with their characters. As a viewer, you watch an hour here or there, maybe even binge for a weekend. TV writers live with their characters almost 24/7. Imagine spending your life trying to find new ways to go ever deeper into unmitigated evil and violence? What kind of person would want to do that? What would it do to you if you were to live that way? What would it do to your creativity? Does endlessly focusing on hopeless evil change you? Would it desensitize you and make you ever-more cynical? What does it do to an audience?
This isn’t theory for me. Anyone who has read my novel, Angel Fall, knows that in that story I take the reader into a pit of hell. However, as hideous as it is, we don’t stay there. At great price, it ends with redemption. I wrote that novel about 40 times over a period of many years. I spent many months living with my characters in the darkest chapters. It was awful. I can’t imagine leaving a character in such horror or simply letting him die like a vicious dog as a result of his evil choices. It would be brutalizing to readers and to me. But I will tell you a truth. If I were to commit myself to the kind of writing in the series we’ve been discussing I could take a character to the depths of a hell that those writers have not even imagined.
There’s another bit of writing strangeness that I should share with you. In a very odd and disconcerting way, when you write a character for years your mind and his or hers become one. I wrote many scripts for The Equalizer. During those years when I wrote Robert McCall, his mind and mine were the same. His thoughts were my thoughts and mine were his. We had the same intuitive understanding and view of the world. We cared about people in the same way. We wanted the same kind of justice. His strategies and choices were the ones I would have made in those circumstances. Every series needs at least one writer who has this kind of camaraderie with a character. The Equalizer had more than one. For me, it was especially wonderful because Edward Woodward who played The Equalizer shared all of my understandings and values. But what if McCall had been a character of unmitigated evil and his mind and mine were one? There would have been hell to pay.
Watching a television series is an odd experience. It doesn’t take long before viewers become invested in characters and the worlds in which they live. Though these characters are less “real” than the wind in the trees, fans become passionate in their commitment to them. Some are so addicted that when the series ends they write new episodes called fan fiction, just to keep the stories going. They don’t want to give up the relationship. And the impact of a series can be very great. A few years ago I received a letter from a woman living in Australia. She told me that she had watched The Equalizer when she was only seven years old. (It was never intended for children.) She said that her home life was so horrible that our series was the only thing that gave her the hope that somewhere out there might be a father who cared.
Every TV series preaches a worldview. What is presented as moral “truth” within a series enters into the minds of viewers in ways that few understand. The worldviews of many TV series are morally warped. Some are downright evil. This includes everything from so-called “reality” shows (yes, they are “written” too) to talk shows, late-night comedy shows, sit-coms and dramas.
I have spent years studying hypnosis. In particular, I have studied the work of the late psychiatrist, Milton H. Erickson, who was one of the greatest hypnotherapists who has ever lived. He didn’t write a single book, but books have been written about him. Over a thousand pages of his research papers are in my library. What I have learned is that the human mind is far stranger than we could ever imagine. What has been called the “subconscious” mind or the “child” mind that exists in all of us relates to information in a very different way than our conscious or “executive” mind. This child mind that is in us throughout life cannot differentiate between what is real and what isn’t and is easily manipulated. This is the basis for post-hypnotic direction and every cult that has ever existed. Everything appears to enter the subconscious mind as an undifferentiated memory. Your experiences at school and within your family, a novel that you read, a film or TV episode, a hypnotic suggestion from a highly skilled therapist, literally everything is stored in the subconscious memory as “real.” Without our knowing it, all these pieces join together to form our views of the world and how we should live within it. They form our views of what we consider right and wrong.
Through hypnosis, Dr. Erickson discovered that he could create new “memories” that would be perceived as absolutely real and would change a client’s whole life. He believed it was possible to completely reconstruct a person’s memory of specific events in order to give that individual a new set of memories. Those “memories” would be “false,” but they would be “remembered” as true. This re-creation of “reality” was not just theory for him. He claims to have actually done it many times. By all accounts, he was a very ethical and dedicated scientist and no questions have ever arisen about his truthfulness and integrity.
What kinds of things did he do? A young woman came to him unable to have a normal relationship with a man. She simply had no ability to invest her trust, therefore there was no basis for enduring love. Dr. Erickson determined that her condition could be traced to the fact that she had never had a single kind, loving man in her life the entire time she was growing up. He embarked on a very unusual therapy. Over a long series of sessions, during hypnotic trance, he reconstructed significant memories of her childhood, inserting himself into them as a kind, loving man who came to visit her in her home on the most special days. Over time, this allowed her to have the “memory” of a mature, father-figure who cared about her. This established the foundation upon which she built a real relationship with a man who became her husband.
In his records is the story of a young man who came to him tormented by homosexuality. (If I recall, this was in the 1940’s.) He wanted to be married to a woman and raise a family with her, but he just couldn’t do it. Dr. Erickson states that through hypnosis he went back into this young man’s memories and completely restructured them, changing his sexual orientation. According to the report, the young man married, had children and, from that point on, no longer struggled with homosexuality.
It is easy to say, “That’s impossible. It can’t be true.” But that very assumption is based on a collection of stories that have been told to us and that we accept as reality. These stories have caused society to believe without further investigation, that such transformations are impossible. In fact, to believe they are possible marks you as a cretin or a religious fanatic. Dr. Erickson was neither. I have seen no record that he had any personal religious interest or moral view that homosexuality was wrong. He was a total pragmatist. What does a client want to achieve and what is holding him back? How quickly can the barriers be removed? As difficult as it may be to accept, it is clear that he was telling the truth both as a therapist and scientific investigator. Over the years, many students observed his work and came away believing that he was a genius. Many, many clients benefited from his unusual hypnotic therapies. Though his practice ended decades ago, his work is still studied today.
What does this tell us about humans? Built into us is a powerful psychological and spiritual mechanism that leads us to believe in stories and be profoundly influenced by them in every aspect of our lives. No matter how sophisticated, intellectual and scientific we may appear, our commitment to specific stories controls everything. Collectively, they control our entire society. Obviously, some stories are true and some are false. What happens in a society when the majority believe untrue and evil stories?
In human history there have never been more powerful storytelling mechanisms than those of modern media. They are avenues for stories that are both emotionally addictive and trance creating. Yes, to sit in front of a screen, deeply engrossed in a production is a form of light trance. The child mind is open. Unfortunately, too many of the people who wield the mechanisms of modern media are themselves controlled by lying stories. The proof of this is the fact that, in Hollywood, the love of power, prestige and money rules everything. People are pawns to be played and thrown away. Selfishness and narcissism twist and destroy relationships. Where did these values come from? Lying stories about what success means. Consequently, we are living in the most dangerous period of history as far as the potential influence of destructive stories is concerned.
So what is the moral cosmos of “modern” television series, what are the core truth claims? What is the “reality” that enters the subconscious mind and is integrated into the personal moral universe? That’s very clear for anyone who is seriously looking and questioning. As far as shows like Breaking Bad, Dexter, Sons of Anarchy, etc., are concerned, at best that core truth is karma. What you sow you reap. Eventually, the evil central character is destroyed (or left standing alone in a forest), but in the process he takes down untold numbers of people with him, even people that he cares about. At the worst, the evil character simply goes on, ever more powerful, unchecked and rewarded, while taking into degradation everyone around him and destroying those who stand in his way. (House of Cards)
The cosmos in which these characters exist (I refuse to say live) is one in which true redemption is impossible because it would destroy the series. Why are these characters locked in such a karmic hell? Because a little writer god has determined that it shall be so. He or she has consciously decided to create a cosmos full of titillating, violent despair. As a viewer, from the time you enter that world you must abandon all hope. But which of us can live this way? Only psychopaths and corrupt writers making lots of money. I contend that the longer you accept the “reality” of these hellish worlds because they are entertaining, the more despair and cynicism will seep into your life, which will push you into spiritually dangerous forms of escape. Also, it will push you into accepting more lying stories. This isn’t just The Matrix. It is The Vortex. Where is the proof that what I am saying is true?
LOOK AROUND YOU.
Look at generations lost in hopelessness and despair addicted to brief moments of pleasure that they are told is happiness. And when they realize it isn’t, because their worlds are built on false stories, they refuse to believe that anything better is possible. What then? “What then” is the world that is growing darker every moment as the vicious circle grows wider. Within The Vortex exist only the choices of hell, a world of raging sex and violence, a world without the possibility of redemption, in particular spiritual redemption, because redemption is not needed or wanted, nor does it exist.
I’m going to make a very harsh statement. When you choose to be addicted to watching television shows that are filled with lying, destructive stories and you are willing to overlook all of the lies and destruction because those shows entertain you and you have justified watching them with some specious rationalization, you are participating in your own destruction and the destruction of our culture. When you let your children watch them it is a clear indicator that you are too lazy or ignorant to care about their future and what kind of adults they will become.
Stories rule everything.
And evil stories are ruling you.
Where is all of this going? I believe it is in preparation for the appearance of the Greatest Lying Story of all.