What if the Buddies are girls?
What: An upscale neighborhood is being systematically robbed; the disappearance of an illegal maid threatens to upend the campaign of a local politician; and a “June Cleaver” soccer mom has too much time on her hands.
Who: Brooke Benning, the perfect suburban mom we all wanted as kids and hate as adults, was running her own one-woman neighborhood watch even before her neighbors were being robbed blind in a series of daring daylight robberies. Curious, some would say nosey, by nature, Brooke takes a walk each evening, strolling the neighborhood, a habit her husband calls spying.
Ed: …you’re one step from turning into Mrs. Kravitz from "Bewitched".
Brooke: To be fair to Mrs. Kravitz, there was a witch next door. And Darrin did turn into a monkey.
This particular evening she spies a beat up Volvo that doesn’t belong in the area. Taking things into her own hands she harasses its inhabitants – Dana, a mom, and her two kids, Jack and Molly. Not only does Brooke force them to leave but she also reports the license to the police. Imagine her chagrin the next day at the local elementary school when Dana, a fellow mother at the school, confronts her. Dana, an ex-cop whose husband is in jail for fraud, is now a private investigator and Brooke had interrupted her stake-out, her livelihood. Furthermore, because Brooke had reported Dana’s car, Dana is no longer able to enter the neighborhood and finish her job.
Brooke: You were on a job? Who were you watching?
Dana: (showing her card) See the “private” in “private investigator?” That stands for “private.”
At this point, both worlds collide as Dana’s son runs up to her and reminds her that she forgot to make him a lunch.
Brooke: Here – I made an extra lunch, he can have that.
Dana: …What do you mean, you made an “extra” lunch? Who packs a spare lunch, that doesn’t even make sense.
Very remorseful, and extremely intrigued, Brooke offers to lend her the family van and takes care of Dana’s children while she works. Unable to resist the call of the gumshoe, Brooke visits Dana on her stakeout (bringing a plate of dinner and calling attention to herself yet again).
Brooke: Okay, you’re watching the meeting, so whoever you’re sitting on must be inside, am I right? I bet I can guess. Is it Daniel Haven? Because I always thought there was something funny about how he suddenly “came into” the money to put in that pool.
Dana: I’m sorry, did you say “sitting on?”
Brooke: I know the lingo. So who’s the mark?
Dana: (laughs; tough talk) The mark? No can do, sister – I rat out the mark, they’ll lam it outta here toot suite.
Brooke: (embarrassed) Never mind. (They sit in silence, as Dana eats. Beat.) Okay, I’m already bored. How do you do this? And where do you go to the bathroom?
If Oscar and Felix of “The Odd Couple” were women, they would be Brooke and Dana, although unlike Felix, and potentially more annoying, Brooke is preternaturally perky; but even though we all hate perky, it’s impossible not to like Brooke.
Dana: Oh, god, don’t tell me – you’re one of those families that eat around the table every night.
Brooke: Yes, we are. I think a family should all talk to one another at dinner.
Dana: Then how do you hear the TV?
Brooke soon finds a new case for Dana, one which Dana, when she sees the $2,000 retainer, is unable to refuse. Dana, grateful, falls into that syrupy trap of “be careful what you wish for.” Enormously pleased with herself, Brooke soon insinuates herself into the case and Dana’s life.
No Meaner Place: Again, this wonderful script was produced as a pilot…over and out. I have no idea what happened, but whatever it was, it wasn’t the writing. Crisp, funny, with clearly defined and visualized characters (Shelly Long and Bette Midler played similar characters to perfection in “Outrageous Fortune” in 1987); a male-dominated genre written perfectly with originality for women with the potential for endless stories told humorously. For any woman who has ever had to find her fulfillment as a suburban soccer mom, this is Walter Middy-land with that sexy bit of danger. To a certain extent, each of us wants the potential excitement of Dana’s life and some (god knows not all) the perfection of Brooke. There are those of you out there (you know who you are) who always brought extra orange sections to the games in case, god forbid, that week’s soccer mom brought apple slices instead.
Todd is skilled at understanding the vulnerabilities and traps into which middle class women often find themselves. He has always written interesting female characters, most recently on “Samantha Who?” and “Ugly Betty;” as well as another unproduced pilot entitled “Robin’s Nest.”
I could care less if a network or studio stays ahead of the curve or behind it. It’s useless to anticipate what the audience will want. Something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue (that would have to be on cable), but do it well and let the audience decide. The audience will often surprise you. Why program for 14 year old boys? This isn’t the tentpole business where you only need two weekends and a lot of noise and special effects; 14 year old boys aren’t watching TV and “Knight Rider” didn’t bring them back. I’m watching TV and eventually advertisers will learn, if they haven’t already, that brand loyalty is a thing of the past and they should aim for that part of the audience that still has money to spend. This is a show I want to see and if the first pilot didn’t work, for whatever reason, do it over!
Life Lessons for Writers: Beware the Upset Price and negotiate your separated rights (it can’t be said too many times) because as near as I can calculate, if they still exist those rights to “Soccer Moms” should be reverting any day now, allowing for a return to the market.
Neely: I have been a big fan for a long time. Everyone I’ve talked to absolutely loves you, something that is rare in this business.
Don: Keep digging, you’ll find plenty of detractors. It’s always that way, some people love you, some people don’t.
Neely: Your comedy bona fides are incredible dating back to “Alf.” You’ve come a long way – please tell us how you got started in the serious business of comedy.
Don: It was like the Butterfly Effect – how small actions on one side of the globe create huge changes on the other. In my case, I was cold one night. I was a staff writer on a show called “Misfits of Science” that was filming out by Magic Mountain. Staff writer, but more, because we all did everything. The hours were incredibly long: 16 hours a day; a lot of the filming was outdoors and it was freezing. One day when we were waiting for Magic Hour (finding just the right lighting for the shot we needed), and all of us cold as hell, I was talking to Burt Brinkerhoff, one of our directors, and he said, “You know, there are jobs where you work indoors all the time.” I landed the job on “Alf” and didn’t look back.
Neely: Almost all of your credits were in half hour and then you transitioned to one hour. How did that come about?
Don: Multi-camera shows never alter. Table read, rehearsal, film in front of an audience; repeat. It all felt the same and I needed a change. I was working on “The Hugleys” and realized that I no longer enjoyed the process. I wondered if it was the show, and would it be any different if I were working on “Friends,” and I realized that it was the format. So, I wrote a drama spec pilot to show that I could work in one hour and made the jump. I was lucky enough to write a pilot for Greer Shepherd and Mike Robin entitled “The Boneyard” about an obituary writer. Working with them was a great experience, and by shifting to drama right before the comedy business collapsed, I felt like a stunt man who jumped over the speeding car. The strategy worked so well, that during the press tour for “Samantha Who?” a critic asked me how a drama writer like myself could hope to write a comedy.
Neely: Any favorite experiences outside of the shows you created?
Don: This is going to sound strange, but one of my best experiences was getting fired off a show. I created something with Danny Jacobson for the WB called “Simon.” You never want to get fired, but being sent home and then paid off for the rest of the season is a great job. I got to spend time with the woman I’d started dating who eventually became my wife. She was a dancer and I was able to travel with her. So I owe my life and family to the WB. “Thanks, WB, sorry you’re dead now.” I also really liked working on “Dave’s World.” It was a great writing experience. Some of the best scripts I ever wrote were written for that show. Oh and then there was the time Farrah Fawcett handed me a tennis ball. I was working on “Good Grief” and my bungalow was next to the bungalow of Farrah Fawcett and Ryan O’Neal who were also working on the lot. I watched them batting around a tennis ball and when they were called to set, Farrah turned to me, smiled and tossed me the tennis ball. And when I was working on “Brother’s Keeper” I got to put Jack Klugman and Tony Randall together for the first time since they did “The Odd Couple.” We basically cast them as the odd couple.
Neely: You have a gift for writing women. Any comments or explanations?
Don: Three marriages, maybe. The “women’s voice” is not a problem – it’s getting them out that’s the challenge. I started out writing male buddy comedies and then just started writing women because I enjoyed it more. I really enjoy working with female stars. I have to say no writer could ever ask for more than to have Christina Applegate and Jean Smart say their lines. To paraphrase Jim Brooks, “They make me want to be a better writer.” Those two could sell anything, but if the scene isn’t working, it isn’t because of them.
Neely: Let’s talk a bit about “Soccer Moms.” How did you pitch it and to whom (i.e., did the studios get it, were you under an overall, was there any kind of competition to produce this)?
Don: The idea was pitched by Rick Copp who has written several mystery novels. Marla Ginsberg got on board and took it to Francie Calfo at ABC. I met with Marla and Francie and liked the idea and wrote the pilot. Francie was a big supporter of mine. Like “Soccer Moms,” the idea for “Samantha Who?” also came from a novelist.
Neely: At the studio level, what kind of notes did you get?
Don: It must have been a cooperative experience because I really don’t recall.
Neely: How about at the network level?
Don: I was working on “life as we know it” which was filming in Canada, so the whole development process was over the phone. And in Canadian, which made it tough.
Neely: In terms of production, how involved were you at the various levels? Did you have a say in choosing the director? How about the cast? How much time did you spend on set?
Don: As the showrunner, I was fully involved. I spent a lot of time on set, I was there every second -- to the extent that it might have even hurt my other project, “Testing Bob” starring Peter Dinklage. “Soccer Moms” was a satisfying experience all the way up to production; the product didn’t come out right. Eventually the network wanted to see a very cut down version just to see cast chemistry. Then I think Steve McPherson accidentally taped the Super Bowl over it.
Neely: Did what happened on this show influence you when you worked on “Samantha Who?”
Don: Any showrunning experience should inform and improve the next one and the bad experiences inform the most. I learned that I don’t have an interest in working with difficult stars.
Neely: I so love “Soccer Moms” and would still love to see it. Who owns the rights? If ABC was willing to redo “Eastwick” (and that’s all I’m going to say about that show), do you think there’s any way to convince them to retry this one?
Don: If the network loves a project, then they’ll run with it again. I’d really hesitate to do “Soccer Moms” at this point. I have kids and I realized something: if the character has kids in school or at home you can’t put the Mom in real danger and because of that you immediately take away the drama. If I redid “Soccer Moms” it would have to be very light and no one could carry guns.
Neely: What’s the pilot process like?
Don: The wonderful thing about doing pilots is it’s great for the ego. During casting, you have people coming in all day telling you how great you are.
Neely: Well onward and upward. Can you tell me what you’re working on now?
Don: I have two pilots in the works, one for CBS and the other for ABC. The ABC pilot was my assistant Correne’s idea. She was a lawyer before trying her hand at writing and she’s co-writing the story; I’ll write the teleplay. It’s a half hour comedy about Millenials (the 20-26ers). These are the Trophy Kids the ones who got trophies for anything they did – you know, the “everyone’s a winner” kids. What happens when these entitled but very happy kids, the largest generation, hits the work place? The CBS pilot is a domestic comedy about the many versions of me – I’ve been single, married, divorced, married, divorced, married, a stepfather, an adoptive father, a biological father, and so on.
Neely: I’ll look forward to reading and seeing those shows.