Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Better Call Jamal

            Like a lot of other people who don’t work “in the industry,” my store of useless information includes some details of how television works on a business level. For example someone told me years ago, and this may apply to movies as well as to television, or may have actually been an anecdote about movies, if you run into a producer or star you have five minutes to pitch a plot or concept. If you can’t convince someone of a storyline in a few minutes or a few sentences, chances are that what you’re proposing is too complicated or too confused to be commercial, because Hollywood is a commercial endeavor after all.
            So, here’s my pitch for a new series, as briefly and succinctly as the above rule demands: the series would be about a government agency which we’ll call the Race Reconciliation Bureau, that sends out investigators across the country—from Manhattan to Manhattan Beach, from South Dakota to South Carolina—to deal with various ethnically-charged disputes, issues like gentrification or public education, basically anything related to race. Because most new television involves borrowing from old television, my idea is that each episode would see two agents, whose fictional careers are being dramatized, receiving instructions on a case that would be the subject of that week’s story, a la Mission Impossible back in the day. The agents themselves would be a biracial team but instead of the salt-and-pepper pair we’ve become accustomed to in cop shows, one white and one black, it would be salsa-and-pepper, one Hispanic and one Negro. A black guy and a Hispanic chick, actually. Instructions and a description of the case would be given at the beginning of the action by the agents’ supervisor, who we never see, named Mrs. Wu, who speaks in Hong Kong-accented American English. The show would be called Better Call Jamal. What do you think so far? If you’re still with me, and you approve the concept, a fuller treatment follows.
            Better Call Jamal: that’s the working title, even though it’s been shamelessly ripped off and is totally negotiable. The aforementioned Jamal is Jamal Washington, or Jamal Jackson, or Jamal Jefferson, one of those stand-up black guys whose family name reminds of us of a dead president—and of sobriety and security—who’s our title character. He’s a little like one imagines a young Barack, post his “Barry” phase but pre his political career, still working as a “neighborhood organizer,” paying his dues, picking up experience but not a mere neophyte. That’s not original now, nor is it likely to get any more original in the future, actors portraying a young Barack Obama, but remember that the small screen is not about originality, it’s about what sells and Barack was and is an attractive character, both in the flesh and in plot development. Jamal’s not a player, either, that’s part of his attraction, just like the original he’s married and faithful even though so much time on the road presents plenty of opportunities to stray. Part of his attraction is fidelity: as with Barack there’s flirting and awareness of his sexuality but never anything more because he’s a family guy. There’s a great scene in one of Obama’s books, just after he gets to Washington as senator, when he’s calling Chicago to speak to his kids all the time just because he’s lonely in D.C. That kind of vibe could be pretty effectively borrowed here. Jamal anchors the series, he has some moves, and a sense of righteous black indignation that can be called upon on rare occasion, for dramatic effect, but his professional cool is what keeps him going week after week. Besides, he’s not really the main attraction. That would be his Latina sidekick who we’ll call Lourdes, or Mercedes, something religious but not Maria. Anyway, Lourdes we’ll call her, has the ethical underpinning of a bottom-ho, not to be demeaning of women or anything. That’s what makes her interesting, she’ll do anything to close a case and fuck as many white people as she can along the way. Literally and figuratively. Sponsors might be a little wary at first but as long as people are tuning in to watch, what do they care?
            Lourdes is a couple of years older than Jamal, sure of her sexuality, sure of her game, and completely ruthless, which is what makes her a good partner for the almost professorial Jamal. In a pitch to a Hollywood producer, presumably you have to make things as simple as possible, not because he or she is dumb but because he or she doesn’t need every detail in order to say yes or no, only an outline, with pertinent possibilities, and to that end—while there are any number of young black actors to play Jamal—one big-name Latina positively screams for the role of Lourdes: Jennifer Lopez. She’s got the talent, she’s got the booty, she’s got the attitude and you can see her fucking over white people, like, no sweat. Throughout the show JLo’s whole facial expression, when dealing with The Man, or The Woman, says, “This can get worse but it won’t get better.” In fact that’s the Race Reconciliation Bureau’s motto, on the wall at the regional office Jamal and Lourdes work out of, a message to The Man, “This can get worse but it won’t get better.” It’s like a cop show where the veteran cop is dealing with a thug, cynical but offering a break if the criminal gets religion and cooperates. The point is that a lot of whites are ready to move on, on race, after 400 years of white privilege, but Lourdes is there to tell them, not so fast, we have some accounting to do. Jamal on the other hand is a healer and genuinely wants to help white people to accept change. What you end up with is a kind of good-cop, bad-cop routine which translates into a good-minority bad-minority thing but—and this is a departure from real life, where most often whites view Hispanics and Asians as good minorities, and Negroes as bad ones—the Latina is the bad minority and the brother is sympathetic. Surprise! Maybe it’s not realistic but this is TV.
            There’s often a backstory in good TV, and Better Call Jamal’s is this: You’ve heard of African-American calls in past years for the government to pay reparations for slavery? In fictionalized history, in a prior Congress, certainly not this Congress, the law passed, $20,000 per person just like former Japanese internees from World War II received, but because of the problem of many mixed-raced individuals, and some wealthy African-Americans—Oprah for example, who doesn’t need the money—the law allows the cash to be administered by the Race Reconciliation Bureau, which means that in addition to jawboning, and pressuring outcomes, and bringing the two sides together, Jamal and Lourdes can write a check for up to $20,000 to any abused person of color. This hails back to an old show, back, back in the day, when an anonymous stranger used to go around handing out million-dollar checks to ordinary people. $20,000 may not seem like much today but, to some people, it is a million dollars. So, that’s Better Call Jamal, in a nutshell. There’s sex, race and money, the trifecta of American daily life, the only missing element is gunfire, and should make for great TV. Important to note that BCJ is not a continuous storyline, that stretches from one episode to another. Each show, that lasts an hour, is a different story, the way TV used to be. One possible addition is an assistant to Jamal and Lourdes, who is white and makes wry or snappy comments, like so many black or Hispanic assistants to white title characters in shows past. There also needs to be a theme song, something beyond my artistic sensibilities to describe, but instead of the usual catchy Hollywood tune my idea would be something “dark” and haunting, maybe based on an old Negro spiritual or the kind of music that slaves sang while toiling in the fields. That’s just an idea but definitely you don’t want Brady Bunch music, obviously, and you wouldn’t want something procedural, like for a cop show, because this is higher-brow than a weekly whodunit. This is about America evolving, not to get self-righteous or anything. The theme needs to have soul, not the kind of soul you can dance to, but something almost mournful. Not as a downer though, only to lend to the inevitability of the drama.
            Let’s see, about two minutes left for this pitch: An obvious question would be an example of an episode’s plot. Like music, that’s not really my realm, there would be well-paid writers for that, all they have to do is pick up the newspaper every day to get material, my responsibility is more the big picture. But it is a legitimate question. One idea for a script that has crossed my mind—we’re just brainstorming here—comes from my hometown, Austin. So, in the Texas capital city the biggest race offender, historically, has been the University of Texas which is what you can call a very non-diverse institution. And that lack of diversity stretches from the administration through the teaching ranks and student body but not to the football team or basketball team or track because where would any university sports program be without black athletes? But as regards sports there is one aspect that is almost totally segregated and that’s the cheerleading squad.
            My daily jog is at Clark Field on the university campus and sometimes the cheerleaders practice there and it’s an unnatural number of blonds, that’s the best way to put it, and maybe one sister or one Latina if you’re lucky. So, this particular episode begins with a really hot little Mexican-American co-ed, whose name is not Maria, “Brittany” let’s say, she’s got the looks, she’s got the moves and she’s got the brains, which is what cheerleading is about—having met a couple, back in the day, but never scored, because they were too smart to fall for my shit—but her position on the squad is taken by a blond sorority sister even though the Latina has bigger pom poms and more spirit. If you’re the Latina and you know you’re being screwed, what do you do? Better call Jamal. In the introductory scene, before the first commercial break, after Mrs. Wu’s instructions of course, my idea would be to rip off a movie, Up in the Air with George Clooney? Not the whole movie, just the part where Clooney and Anna Kendrick arrive somewhere, in an office in some city, pulling rolling suitcases and carrying briefcases, which are actually props, for the show and for life. The briefcases are like a gun or a badge in a cop show, briefcase-as-weapon, not that that’s new either. So, they show up at the university, and Lourdes goes one way and Jamal the other.
            There is possible tweaking here, but this is a serious pitch. So, in this episode, Jamal goes on to deal with the administration and the university’s “vice-president of diversity affairs,” who is an Uncle Tom, while the camera preferentially follows JLo who starts right off by meeting and fucking the captain of the football team and the university athletic director, who is a woman, which raises the question in the audience’s mind if JLo’s character goes both ways. Gradually, it becomes clear though that for JLo-aka-Lourdes sex isn’t about sex, it’s about power, and she understands what many women understand, that by screwing someone you have a better chance of screwing someone. Then, after a commercial break, Lourdes goes to the sorority, Kappa Kappa Whatever, to interview the girl who got the position on the cheerleading squad. And there’s this great scene, JLo walking into the sorority house and looking around at all the white girls doing whatever young women do in a sorority house—in my imagination, never actually having been in one, they walk around in their underwear, or read fashion magazines or talk about guys—and JLo dismisses them all with a glance. You can see the girls are completely intimidated by this hot, self-possessed brown woman. Lourdes then interrogates the white girl in question about her tumbling skills and how much spirit she really has. We’ll leave it to the writers from that point on because, like, what makes a good cheerleader, is it really all about the size of your pom poms? The conversation turns into a discussion of beauty and how the perception of beauty is influenced by race, something we’re just beginning to talk about in this country.
            There’s another great scene between Lourdes and the Mexican-American undergraduate who lost the position on the squad. What starts out as an interview, “for the file,” as Lourdes puts it, evolves into just two Latinas rapping, as they talk among themselves, without the need to be polite, without the need for some white chick to “translate” or hog the scene, about what pisses them off about white women or men of any race, or all the bullshit societal expectations that Latinas smile when they’re being screwed. Meanwhile, we haven’t forgot Jamal and there’s another good scene, not as good as with Lourdes, but with a certain gravitas, where he’s talking to the university Tom who asks what Jamal knows about life in the South, coming from Chicago as Jamal does, like Barack, and Jamal lets loose that his ancestors were slaves in Texas and left for Chicago during Jim Crow. Then, because there has to be a happy ending, the Latina still doesn’t get the position on the squad—although the captain of the football team is suddenly more supportive—but Jamal whips out the checkbook and pays for the rest of her tuition. That’s America. There may not be justice but you might still get a check.
            There’s at least enough material to last twenty seasons, like Law & Order. If that’s going to be too much stress on Jamal and Lourdes the show can go to a bullpen-type series where there’s a whole bench of investigators and a different pair appear each week. The plotlines are probably inexhaustible because there’s new raw material in America everyday. Throughout white privilege, and fundamental racial prejudice, that is still ongoing, whites remain in denial. They just want to move on, without necessarily giving anything up. What to do?
           Better call Jamal.

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