Books
9:35 am
Thu February 17, 2011

"Billion-Dollar Kiss"and "Fireworks Over Toccoa: A Novel"

"Billion-Dollar Kiss" gives a long, knowledgeable insider's look into the lunatic bin known as the Writers Room, glimpsed in "30 Rock," and the process and huge pressures of a weekly show. The dialogue in "Fireworks over Toccoa" is unimpeachable and each scene is drawn as camera-ready for the folks at Hallmark or Lifetime as a seasoned television professional can make it.

Audio ?2011 Alabama Public Radio

In 1989, Jeffrey Stepakoff finished a graduate degree in playwriting at Carnegie Mellon University and then, even though he was an "artist" presumably headed for Broadway theaters, and even though he and his classmates barely admitted to watching television, he got an opportunity to write television scripts in Hollywood, and he took it.

Stepakoff did this with great success, especially financial success, until May of 2004 when he sold his house, moved with his wife and daughter and redirected his residual checks to Toccoa, Georgia.

While he was in Hollywood, Stepakoff wrote for 14 different series, including "Simon and Simon," "Sisters," "The Wonder Years" and "Dawson's Creek."

"Dawson's Creek" provides the title. As almost none of you will remember, the show was failing when a brilliant writer thought up the not exactly new idea of a love triangle. Pacey kissed Joey?Joey being a girl in this case?and the show ran for 128 episodes and went into syndication worldwide and everybody made a fortune.

That is the most astonishing element of this book. Lots of people were paid a fortune, and we're talking millions here. When the youth revolution took over TV in the nineties, lots of very young writers made fortunes.

Young people, it was assumed, knew what entertained even younger people and young viewers are powerfully coveted. Children and youth have, to say the least, undeveloped tastes. They haven't yet decided which shampoo, beer and soft drink they will use for the rest of their lives. Those of us over 35 probably have.

After various writers' strikes and threatened strikes, explained by Stepakoff, reality TV?that is to say, more or less unscripted TV?took over and fewer writers made fortunes.

Although the writers were already making thousands a week, the strikes were not just greed. With satellites, globalization, the privatization of TV in many countries, and the opening of Eastern Europe, the studios and networks were making tons, and were of course, reluctant to share.

This book will sit next to William Goldman's "Adventures in the Screen Trade," the book about writing for movies. It gives a long, knowledgeable insider's look into the lunatic bin known as the Writers Room, glimpsed in "30 Rock," and the process and huge pressures of a weekly show. "Billion-Dollar Kiss" is a truly good read.

Stepakoff explains how ideas are pitched and developed and explains why movies are in fact director-driven while TV shows are writer-driven. He recounts how writers become producers, more and more in charge of running the show.

In good TV and bad TV, writers will pilfer from anywhere--movies, current events, the private lives of their friends--anywhere.

Possible stories are actually pitched as variants on previous stories It's "LA Law" on speed, or "Thirty-Something" with 20-year-olds. Entertainment, not originality, is the point.

This leads me to Stepakoff's novel, "Fireworks over Toccoa." Imagine "The Bridges of Madison County" in Georgia, near the end of WWII, but the visiting hunk is a fireworks artist instead of a photographer and the girl's husband is still away in the war, soon to return. There is undeniable passion and real guilt. There is no "Snow Falling on Kudzu" but the hero's dad, an Italian-American, is interned as a suspicious foreign national.

Throw in a pinch of "The Notebook" and other Nicholas Sparks and you get the picture.

The dialogue is unimpeachable and each scene is drawn as camera-ready for the folks at Hallmark or Lifetime as a seasoned television professional can make it.

Why are the really serious love stories written by men like Erich Segal, Nicholas Sparks, Robert James Waller and David Guterson? Are men finally the real romantics?

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