Sometimes I get the feeling that a boring show might have an interesting behind-the-scenes story. Such a show is NBC’s crummy summer burnoff 100 Questions. This was a show that started with a good script, and an original pilot that was well-received enough to get a pickup. Then the network went to work on it. They changed the title from the delightful “100 Questions For Charlotte Payne” to the boring, generic “100 Questions” — any time a title change like that takes place, you know the show is probably doomed. (Cf. “Let’s Rob Mick Jagger” became “Knights of Prosperity.”) And they ordered a completely re-shot pilot with new cast members and a new look. The show that finally emerged was a dead-on-arrival flop.
The eeriest thing about the show that finally aired is that, as Todd VanDerWerff noted in his review, it’s shot and lit exactly like a single-camera show, but it has little bits of multi-camera look thrown in, plus of course there’s a laugh track. What I’m assuming is that most of it is, in fact, shot single-camera and then played back to an audience. You can’t do this kind of lighting with an audience present. The episode I saw last night had even harsher lighting than this, the re-shot version of the pilot, and it abandoned all pretense of trying to look like a regular sitcom.
If NBC thought this was their way of mimicking the “hybrid” style of How I Met Your Mother, they got it desperately wrong. How I Met Your Mother doesn’t use an audience, but tries to look as if it uses one. As directed by British single-camera veteran Alex Hardcastle, 100 Questions has the lighting and look of a movie, albeit a low-budget one. Yet the actors are trying to pretend they’re on Friends, and the laughter on the soundtrack clearly doesn’t belong in this world. It’s a mess, because it’s not a multi-camera show, not a movie-style show, and not even the old-school single-camera with laugh track. It’s just a slightly creepy mess.
In the scenes from the original pilot, which appeared in NBC’s trailer for the show last year, we see that the show didn’t look like it was living up to the promise of the script, and perhaps it needed a re-shoot. But what clearly happened is that the network, in ordering changes, ordered all the wrong ones. It’s like they thought a show would have a greater chance of success if it looked more cinematic and less sitcom-y. (This is the opposite of the truth. In fact I’m starting to think one advantage mock-documentaries have over their single-camera compatriots is that they’re free from the pressure to “look like a movie” — except a Christopher Guest movie.)
So the network decided that the way to fix a pilot was to make it look and feel more like their little-watched movie-style comedies. That’s a bit weird. But I think it’s symptomatic of a generation of executives that doesn’t understand the advantages and disadvantages of certain types of shooting styles. There’s always a trade-off with TV comedy: you lose the energy of the audience, but you gain subtlety and the ability to do non-hackneyed jokes; you lose the ability to go outside of the studio, but you gain a certain focus on the story and characters. That’s why the decision to shoot multi-camera or single-camera is an important one that depends on what’s right for the material, and changes the nature of the show that emerges. But I get the impression with this show, that NBC thought they could have it all without any trade-offs: the final version of 100 Questions seems to be based on a theory that they could combine the greater accessibility of multi-camera/live audience with the cinematic look and feel of modern single-camera. It can’t happen. You gotta choose.