Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Tom Fontana, Christina Wayne at the Charles Bank Gallery

Yesterday I ventured downtown to hear a TV panel with industry superheavyweights Tom Fontana ("Homicide: Life on the Street", "Oz") and former SVP of scripted programming at AMC TV Christina Wayne ("Mad Men", "Breaking Bad") moderated by Variety's Sam Thielman at -- of all places -- the Charles Banks Gallery and sponsored by-- of all organizations -- the The Swedish-American Chamber of Commerce, Inc.

It was a serious conversation about a serious subject: television. I am a TV geek of the first magnitude; I agonized, but was ultimately happy that "Mad men" beat "Game of Thrones" on Sunday night. And the topics discussed last night ranged from how digital devices impact television, cable-versus-the-broadcast-networks and getting "St. Elsewhere" made. Fontana recalled that both Cheers and St. Elsewhere were at the bottom of the Nielsen's at their debut. But "Grant Tinker" -- then at NBC -- "believed," giving them a chance, one that ultimately bore fruit in both cases. "It is interesting to see if (new NBC head via Showtime) Bob Greenblatt will do the same for Playboy Club (which has a cable/"Mad Men" sensibility)," wondered Christina Wayne aloud, because it made a debut to low ratings." Time will tell.

Both mused about the nature of television. Fontana noted that if you pitched to executives a show about DC politics before The West Wing, the suits would "stare at the floor." Fontana laid out how Sorkin's "The American President" -- and its success -- paved the way for the West Wing (and, arguably, Barack Obama). And in the intervening time there were shows on a Senator, interns and the Supreme Court. But now, Fontana noted, if a DC politics show would stare at the floors again. It's come full circle.

Christina Wayne, who has a show about the UN presently in the cable bumper, wondered aloud how curious it was that certain ideas for shows achieve a certain zietgeist at a specific point in time. She noted how she is seeing a lot of shows about the UN now. And there was never such interest before. This side note came out of a discussion about the much-imitated "Mad Men" nostalgia/style style that is everywhere on broadcast networks -- a cultural trend for which Ms. Wayne bears a great deal of the responsibility for starting.

On the "Mad Men" nostalgia/style, Fontana's theory is that the show's period -- the 1950s -- represent a time when America was a fast-rising world power. Fontana suggests that we like bossy men smoking on elevators unapologetically because of the underlying suggestion of the power. And that we miss those times now, as America is in decline.

Towards the end of the discussion, Wayne said that her two favorite shows -- Boardwalk Empire for its lavish photography and Game of Thrones for the pitch-perfect dialogue -- were both on HBO. Tom kind of copped out of the question, loyally (Christina was sitting next to him) naming two AMC shows.

Afterwards, I met Tom -- who has a period drama "Copper" coming out on BBC-America -- and his brother, who is a teacher in the South Bronx. An interesting family, the Fontanas.

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