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Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Mediocrity - the Insidious Enemy

By PJ McIlvaine

1. of only ordinary or moderate quality; neither good nor bad; barely adequate.
2. rather poor or inferior.

Thus does the dictionary define “mediocre”. I hate this word. Just saying it aloud, it even sounds...”mediocre.” It’s not a word you hear a lot, usually, but sad to say, recently I’ve been hearing it a lot at one of the message boards I frequent concerning a long running TV show that I happen to have a very strong affection for.

The new season has just begun, four shows in, and as much as it pains me to admit it, I’m just not feeling the love. The episodes aired thus far have been, well, to put it kindly, in my humble opinion…mediocre. The plots have been paper thin, the mystery as transparent as John Edwards on Nightline, the core characters have become caricatures and the humor has bordered on the infantile. In other words…mediocre. Yes, that’s my opinion, and I’m sticking to it.

Unfortunately, on this message board, when I (or others, because I’m not alone), express this belief, we’re derided and castigated and branded as “nit-pickers” and told to go away. Apparently, you can’t be a loyal fan and point out the flubs, gaffes and logic inconsistencies without being tarred and feathered.

Hey, don’t cry for me. I’m a big girl, I know how to take care of myself…and then in the midst of one these “discussions”, the comment came up to the effect that even if the show was, ahem, mediocre, it was still better than most of what was airing. While this might be true, (I mean Charlie Sheen has a hit show, apparently, I’ve read that he’s the highest paid comedy actor on TV, but I don’t know anyone who watches his show, and Dean and Tori are still going strong with the un-reality show), it still made me sad. And it got me to thinking.

Since when did mediocrity (or being imperfect, deficient, no great shakes, not much to boast of, fall short, barely pass muster, incomplete, indifferent, ordinary, average, so-so, not very good, inferior, bearable, passable, second rate, one horse, one trick pony) become acceptable? Or dare I say, the norm? The new standard to achieve?

I want to be many things as a writer. Mediocre isn’t one of them, and this is why. Many moons ago, I fancied myself the next Stephen King. So inspired, I wrote a horror novel about a woman carrying some kind of demonic killer spawn. I knew, just knew, that it was the best thing since CARRIE.

My husband’s boss at the time was good friends with a highly respected horror-sci-fi publisher/editor/writer. As a favor to me, he asked his friend to read it. In short order, my novel was returned to me. I don’t remember much about the rejection letter (time and memory has a way of being kind) except for this: while he thought I was a talented writer, the subject matter, and the execution thereof, was “mediocre”. I cried and cried and cried. When I stopped crying, I put the novel away and started writing again, with one thought burning in my mind: to never be mediocre again. Now, years later, I may be many things, but mediocre isn’t one of them.

So when I hear someone say that being mediocre, being ordinary, just skimming along, hell, that it’s okay, hell, even something to be applauded…I shake my head in disbelief. Why would any writer want to be just ordinary? Why on earth would you waste time on something that just makes it? Barely.

Because if mediocrity is the new standard, why should we aspire to be anything more? Because it pays more? Because our mug gets plastered on TMZ and Perez Hilton even though we have discernible talent? Paris Hilton may be a very nice girl, but she’ll never get an Academy Award. Yes, mediocre scripts get bought and made all the time. Blockbuster and Netflix are full of them. I can’t speak for anyone else, but I would rather have my name and reputation associated with a good movie that made little or no money than be associated with a mediocre one that made lots of moolah.

You know what else? I’d rather be flat out awful, just suck eggs and pickles, be so bad that you burn my script after reading it…rather than have someone tell me politely that it was just, you know...blech. Like how you feel after you’ve had a bout of the flu.

I don’t want be blech. Neither should you. Take a risk. Rise to the challenge. Flex your muscles. Don’t crawl when you can run. Repeat after me: down with mediocrity!

And as for my TV show…hope springs eternal every Friday night.

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Anonymous said...

Hi PJ,

Mediocrity is the future.

A retired studio reader from the 70s and 80s told me that the landscape of screenwriting has changed forever and Hollywood is full of mediocrity.

Reason --
Writers are too affraid to live as true artist.

Here is a short list of screenwriters who were true artists....

1.Paul Schrader
2.Francis Ford Coppola
3.Woody Allen
4.Oliver Stone

As long as we write in our comfort zone we will always have mediocrity.

The above artists wrote excellent screenplays because they were not affraid of losing it all.

Are you willing to do that?


R.A. Porter said...

Interestingly, if you look at your mediocre show in the mirror of its sibling on that same network and evening, you'll see the opposite effect. That show is trying to stretch its wings a bit and it's meeting some resistance from its fans who just want it to be always cute, always funny, and always spouting '80s popculture references.

Personally, I'm happier to watch that show, even as it occasionally misses its targets with its modest attempts at growth. It takes balls to change a formula that works.

Dave Shepherd said...

It's not that the writers are afraid to live as artists, it's that the people who have the most control are the ones with the weakest creative sensibilities.

It's not a fluke that of the past 13 Oscar winning films all 13 of them had only one or two writers. (Can't remember who's blog I read that on).

It's not the writers that are lacking creativity, it's the people in power.

Unfortunately, power trumps ability. Until that changes, mediocrity will rule.

PJ McIlvaine said...

Does mediocre sell? Abso-tootin-lutely. Does that make it right?

meg said...

Aren't you assuming that what airs is a direct result of the writers' efforts?

I used to have this same conversaton with my friends but not so much any more. I guess I've gotten a bit cynical. Mediocrity is in the eye of the beholder. It is shaped by expectations and tastes.

For me the question isn't whether I would rather write greatness and receive no money or take money for crap. I put my heart and soul into everything I write. I only have one standard and that is to push myself to be the best storyteller I can be. It will be others who decide its worth. Whatever "they" decide if it gets me cash and access to more work I'm not turning it down.

E.C. Henry said...

What the f(followed by three common letters) does "living like an artist" mean? Are you saying the only way to be a creative is to be dirt poor? Cuz, I beg to differ if that's the case.

I think the blame for all the mediocrity out there lies with THE BUYERS not the writers. The buyers dictate what's seen and what isn't. I think there are a lot of tallented writers out there, it's just the system needs to HAVE THE BALLS to let the good stuff get made.

"Pan's Labryinth" was very creative. A VERY TALLENTED screenwriter penned that story. So why aren't we seeing more kick-ass stories like "Pan's Labryinth?" It all goes to a lack of immagination by those at top of the pecking order. DON'T BLAME THE WRITERS!!

- E.C. Henry from Bonney Lake, WA

Julie Gray said...

I think what PJ is saying, EC, is that while buyers do control the inventory, so to speak, writers should not settle for generating mediocre material in the first place. More and more, writers think that because they see mediocre stuff on tv or at the theater that this in some way is a free pass to try to break into the business with mediocre ideas and material. Wrong. Just because bad movies get made does not mean you can break in with a bad script. Mediocrity is never something to aspire to.

Luzid said...


Regarding your last comment, I think this is the perfect time to introduce (or remind) readers of Rossio and Elliott's great column on this subject:


meg said...

Is it even possible to break in with a mediocre script? ( Unless of course you're related to someone.) But it does seem possible once you're "in" to turn out mediocre work such as PJ's tv show.

Anonymous said...

Hi all........

Stop trying to explain yourself and just become a true artist. Don't blame the producers. 99% of scripts out there are mediocre.

A screenwriter is not an artist.

A screenwriter who directs the final product is a true artist.

Just watch Woody Allen's new movie.
And study his personal and work ethics. He's indeed a true artist.

Do we have any Woody Allens among us. Maybe?

And some of his work is never mediocre.

I find it hard to understand when writers think their writing is great and want producers to make their movies.

Write and direct for heaven-sake and stop thinkin your script is great. That's the producers job.

PJ McIlvaine said...

Good question. Yes, you can break in with mediocre work (why do you think some movies have upteen credited writers and tons of uncredited rewriters).

Julie hit it right on the head with her cupcake. Medocrity is nothing to aspire to, to value, to want to achieve. Anyone with access to a computer and Final Draft can churn out a mediocre script. Do you want to be that person?