Posts Tagged ‘Maximum Byers’

Over the last few years I have been lucky enough to be invited to contribute to eight volumes of ATB Publishing’s Outside In series (two on Star Trek, two on that British fantasy show I don’t talk about any more, and two on Buffy and Angel, plus their forthcoming diptych on The X Files and related series). For the second X Files volume I was assigned an episode of one of the spin-offs, The Lone Gunmen. What follows is the piece I initially came up with, which the editor liked – but discussions about it led us to have another go and something radically different and slightly more offbeat resulted, which is what will be appearing in the finished volume. I present the first draft here, mainly because I hate to see a nice bit of writing go to waste.

Outside In Wants To Believe will be out before the end of the year (or so they tell me, anyway). 

The main running gag in Maximum Byers comes from the fact that the Gunmen are essentially recreating an exploit previously done on TV many years earlier: namely, sneaking into prison. That the experience turns out rather differently to their expectations produces many a cry of ‘It wasn’t like this on The A-Team!’

The A-Team episode being referenced here is Pros and Cons, first broadcast on February 8th 1983. Space precludes me going into too much detail regarding the story, but in true A-Team style it concerns an underground prison fight club, someone making his way from Florida to Los Angeles on foot between scenes, Hannibal pretending to be a very camp hairdresser and our heroes escaping over the walls of the prison using a hot air balloon made out of trash bags.

You can sense a sort of sniffiness towards The A-Team from the writers of The Lone Gunmen, with Langley getting dialogue about how sneaking into prison is the kind of tired old plot every bad TV show rolls out four or five seasons in, when the writers start to run out of ideas. This seems to me to be rather unjustified for a number of reasons: firstly, the Lone Gunmen writers haven’t done their research properly (Pros and Cons was broadcast early in the first season of The A-Team); secondly, hanging a lantern on the fact you’re reusing of a corny old plot premise doesn’t actually excuse the fact you’re reusing a corny old plot premise; and thirdly, in this case at least, The A-Team has a much better idea of what kind of TV show it wants to be than The Lone Gunmen, and as a result is much more entertaining.

Oh, let’s be clear: Pros and Cons, like most episodes of The A-Team, is dumb and silly, lacking in any kind of sophistication or subtext. But once you get past that, it is at least fun to watch, with engaging characters and a sense that nobody involved is really taking it too seriously.

The elevator pitch for The Lone Gunmen probably sounded more or less the same: a light-hearted conspiracy-thriller and perhaps semi-spoof of other shows like Mission: Impossible. The best episodes of the series do stick pretty close to this idea and engage with well-known ‘conspiracies’, although taking care to avoid the kind of explicit SF-tinged notions the parent show dealt with.

Maximum Byers, on the other hand, is about characters on Death Row, which establishes a pretty dark overall tone. Things get even bleaker when the midpoint twist of the episode is the reveal that the supposedly innocent man they’re attempting to help is actually guilty as charged, at which point the focus switches to helping an African American man with psychological problems who’s been wrongly sentenced to death. The story ends on a profoundly downbeat note despite their apparent success.

Well, it wouldn’t exactly be to my taste, but I guess you could put together a decent if rather dour episode from this kind of material: there are serious issues to be touched upon here, involving the American judicial system and capital punishment, while on some level even the episode-as-broadcast is a character piece for Byers, as the least ‘street’ of the regular characters is required to go well outside of his comfort zone in the service of his ideals.

Byers with a bedpan. This episode almost reviews itself sometimes.

The problem with Maximum Byers is that someone involved in the production appears to have looked at this bleak, dark, serious story and realised it bears very little resemblance to the show they’re supposed to be making. As a result, it seems various attempts have been made to ensure it is a bit lighter and funnier, although this has taken the form of just inserting comedy bits rather than toning down the original story.

So, in addition to a conspiracy to murder, prison beatings and an execution, we get a sight gag pinched from the Marx brothers, Elvis impersonators, the A-Team running joke, Yves pretending to be married to Jimmy, and the concluding montage featuring the opening of a hospital for sick cockroaches – from which we go straight to the final coda with the execution sequence.

The tonal dissonance at this point is almost enough to give you whiplash, but it’s a consistent feature of the episode. You constantly find yourself wondering just how seriously you’re supposed to take it, and it’s tempting to conclude that even the makers of the episode weren’t entirely sure. There is a real sense of the episode being a bit too desperate to get its laughs – it’s almost impossible to imagine a show like this being commissioned today anyway (the main cast are four straight white dudes and a frequently objectified younger woman), but especially not an episode doing throwaway gags about whiteface make-up, speech impediments and convicts with mental problems.

As noted, the episode suggests that this kind of plot is the kind of thing writers resort to when they’re running out of ideas – well, I doubt that was the case with The A-Team’s take on the premise, but I’m not so sure about The Lone Gunmen. This show doesn’t have the well-defined and flexible format of its parent programme, nor the ability (it would seem) to achieve the same kinds of shift in tone from week-to-week: it’s locked in the same slightly silly, slightly knowing mode all the time, rather like The A-Team itself. The difference is that the writers of The A-Team recognised this and ran with the ball, while The Lone Gunmen team seem to have been slower to accept it. Self-knowledge is the beginning of wisdom, apparently: which would mean that while The Lone Gunmen is probably the wittier, more imaginative and more sophisticated show, The A-Team is the wiser.

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