90210

The Emmy nominations came out last week, and two women directors were nominated: Lesli Linka Glatter for the series finale of “Homeland” on Showtime (of which she had been the producing director for the past six seasons,) and Mimi Leder, for an episode of “The Morning Show” on Apple.  I am so proud of my fellow female directors, and I’m proud of our business for accepting the idea that women directors are just as, and maybe more, capable than male directors.  After all, it’s about the imagination and the leadership, not the physicality of the director.  Men, women, white, black, gay, straight  – none of that matters.  What matters is how well the story is told. 

There once was a story of 90’s pop culture called “Beverly Hills, 90210.”  I’m watching numerous episodes right now, not because I’m bingeing it during the pandemic, but because I’m going to be speaking about it in a podcast this week and I had to reconnect and remember so that I could sound halfway smart.  I directed 14 episodes of it, from 1990-97 – probably more than any other director and it’s the most episodes I’ve directed of any particular show in my career. 

And I’ve always been slightly ashamed of that.  Ashamed that it was pop culture, it wasn’t critically acclaimed, in fact, it was derided. There was no way I was ever going to be nominated for an Emmy for that series.  But I did win a  different type of directing award for that show, something that in some ways is better than getting an Emmy.  It was called the “1993 Scott Newman Drug Abuse Prevention Award” for directing an episode of 90210 called “Perfectly Perfect.”  Scott Newman was the son of Paul Newman and his first wife Jackie Witte.  Scott died of an overdose in 1978 and the award was created to honor his memory and inspire storytellers, both writers and directors, to create TV episodes that might help audience members do better in their own drug struggles.  That episode featured Jennie Garth as Kelly Taylor, who overdosed on diet pills because she was feeling ashamed of her body image.  She was trying to be perfectly perfect, and learned that there was no such thing.  Since the show reached about 20 million viewers every week in season three, I have to believe that there were some young girls who were impacted by that episode. 

As I re-watched this series that I directed 28 years ago, I was pleasantly surprised. I was surprised by the depth and intensity of the scripts, and I discovered, with the objectivity of time, that I shot it surprisingly well.  I didn’t anticipate that, having lived for decades with the embarrassment of directing something so plebeian as a teenage drama for a struggling new network (which was Fox,) that was laughed at in critics’ circles.  This discovery brought to mind something that John Ritter confided to me at around that same time.  I was directing a short-lived show called “Hooperman” in which he starred, and we were discussing this very concept of art vs. commerce, of feeling proud or ashamed of one’s work as measured against the recognition or lack thereof within the entertainment business.  Good reviews? Awards? Ratings? Interviews? Pickups?  Ritter had a strong viewpoint on this, as he’d spent so many years acting in “Three’s Company,” a popular sitcom that had never been critically embraced.  He told me that, years after the cancellation of “Three’s Company,” a young boy from the Make-a-Wish Foundation wanted to visit John on set.  Agreements were reached, hoops were jumped through, and a ten-year-old boy in a wheelchair was introduced to John on the set of “Hooperman.” The boy whispered to John that when he was in the hospital, struggling to live and hooked up to all kinds of equipment, his one daily joy was watching reruns of “Three’s Company” and forgetting his pain as he laughed at John’s comedic chops and effortless pratfalls.  John said he realized then that there was value in his work, whether he won an Emmy or not.  Of course, one could argue that there was the value of longevity and financial rewards, but every artist wants to do elevated work, work that matters.

There was value too, in “90210,” which dealt with social issues unaddressed elsewhere on TV that appealed to teenagers: alcoholism, sex, drug use, death, love, abuse, school, cheating, faith, growing up and all that that means.  In the same period of time, I was directing eleven episodes of “Touched by an Angel,” another show that dealt with life-and-death issues.  Every episode ended with a message of how humans are surrounded and lifted by God’s love.  This was another show that critics smirked at, since their supposedly sophisticated taste rejected anything that reeked of sentimentality.  But I contend that it’s only sentimentality if it’s superficial.  If it’s authentically from the heart: the writer’s heart, the director’s heart, the actors’ hearts – then it is spreading a message of hope and faith.  And that show proudly owned its point of view, knowing that “Touched by an Angel” would never win an Emmy but it made a difference in peoples’ lives.  The production office received thousands of letters during its run from people attesting to their ah-hah moments and new perspectives.  We used to sit in the conference room of the production company in Salt Lake City and pass those letters around, fighting back our tears, learning perhaps that someone lived instead of died because of the TV show we were making. 

I work for broadcast TV, and I respond personally to shows that, like “90210” and “Touched,” tell stories that are from and for the heart.  Similar recent shows I directed include “Brothers and Sisters” and “Parenthood.”  I’ve never been hired (yet) by one of the streamers – Netflix, Amazon, Apple, Hulu, etc.  But Netflix had more Emmy nominations in 2020 than all the broadcast networks combined.  So the road is clear, if the goal is to be nominated for an Emmy: direct a show for a streaming platform.  But if the goal is to tell stories that are relationship-oriented, that tackle the problems and delights of being human, then I’m right where I need to be.  And as I tell my directing students, “Focus on what you have to give, not what you want to get.”  What we all want to get is approval: the awards, the reviews, the things that get listed in one’s obituary.  But what we have to give is our storytelling ability and the determination to help, to make a difference.   And that is what television is really good for, whether the TV Academy and its Emmys recognize that or not.  Because when you can reach 20 million people in one night with your story, you have a pulpit to spread your positive message far and wide.  And I am reminding myself to be incredibly grateful to have that opportunity.

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