The Light from the TV Shows: A Chat with Alan Spencer (‘Bullet in the Face’)

I’ve said before – if not in this column, then certainly elsewhere on the ‘net – how a great deal of my long-term tastes were established during my teen years in the ’80s, and one of the shows that was must-see TV for 16-year-old me was the ABC sitcom Sledge Hammer!, created by Alan Spencer. As a result, my eyebrows shot skyward when I first learned about the IFC series Bullet in the Face, since the press release prominently featured Spencer’s previous credits. Too bad the network’s programming and promotional departments weren’t quite as enthused as I was: the show’s six-episode season was noticed by precious few, resulting in a quick departure from the airwaves.

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Thank goodness for Shout Factory, then, a company who knows a future cult classic when they see one: they released Bullet in the Face on DVD a few weeks back – sorry, I was at the TCA tour at the time, or I would’ve been able to promote it more heavily right as it hit the shelves – and were kind enough to set me up with an interview with the aforementioned Mr. Spencer.

After discussing his most recent endeavor in considerable detail, you will be unsurprised to learn that I took a bit of time to geek out as well, enjoying the opportunity to learn more about his friendships with Marty Feldman, Andy Kaufman, and Anthony Perkins, and to find out if we’re likely to ever see Sledge Hammer! return.

Bullz-Eye: How did Bullet in the Face originally come about? It seems to owe at least a spiritual debt to Sledge Hammer!, but from what I can tell, it appears that the project existed in some form – if only as a vague concept – before you ever came aboard.

Alan Spencer: Well, first of all, there’s nothing spiritual about Sledge Hammer! [Laughs.] Basically, the IFC network… An executive I knew at the IFC network said they had a concept in development that wasn’t working. It was called Dieter Horn in Night Port, and if you Google it or use any search engine, I think you can see information about it. They had made a two-minute trailer – kind of a sizzle reel, as people are wont to do – and a Canadian production company was behind it. The trailer shows a spoof of ‘80s tropes about a German cop called Dieter Horn, who was apparently a bad guy who became a cop, and it’s heavily rooted in the ‘80s. It’s never explained why it was German, by the way. I couldn’t figure that out. But it’s a spoof of a Miami Vice sort of city, and it was…  A lot of people are doing ‘80s parodies – MacGruber, and there’s a miniseries now (The Spoils of Babylon) – and it was an ‘80s spoof, and…that didn’t interest me. And I guess they developed scripts for it and it didn’t work, so it was a piece of… The term is “broken development.”

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Since I’m one of the few people that had done and sustained a successful half-hour action comedy, they came to me and asked if I’d be willing to supervise the writers and retool this. It was basically… I was given, like, carte blanche for whatever I could come up with to fix this. So, anyway, I took the one kernel, one idea from it, and threw everything else out. And the only kernel from it was the German, formerly a bad guy, turning into a cop. So that was it. I threw everything out, re-titled it, and came up with all new characters, an all new milieu, and the kind of a graphic-novel city I set it in.

I also threw out the ‘80s baby with the ‘80s bathwater, because a lot of people can’t reference the ‘80s. I lived through the ‘80s already, and that didn’t interest me to go through it again. I don’t have that hair anymore, I don’t wear the pastels, I wear socks… [Laughs.] So I didn’t want to deal with that at all. I wanted something new and fresh. Also, since I had some creative freedom, I really wanted to go for it, so they were kind of thrilled when I decided to write it myself. I just said, “Let me write it,” as opposed to going through the machinations that we would’ve to find some writers. So they were surprised and happy, but I think that was their agenda all along, to have me write it myself.

So I indulged myself. I didn’t imagine this getting made, so I wrote something very, very extreme, and going further than the restraints that I was used to working on in network television. And then, lo and behold, I was surprised. I got a call from the network saying, “We’re not going to make a pilot for this.” I said, “Oh, all right.” They said, “We’re going to go straight to series!” So it was a six-episode order with the contingency that I write them all. I knew something was up before I got that call, because on Facebook all of a sudden I was being getting friended by IFC executives. [Laughs.] That was kind of the hint that something was in the works. That’s how social media works now, right? If social media was existing during World War II, and if all my Japanese friends were unfriending me, I think I would’ve anticipated Pearl Harbor. That’s sort of how it works.

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The Light from the TV Shows: The Prequelization Principle

You know you’re a real fan of “Psycho,” Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 film adaptation of Robert Bloch’s 1959 novel, if your first reaction to hearing about A&E’s new series, “Bates Motel,” which premieres on March 18, was to grumble, “They’ve already done a TV show called ‘Bates Motel.’”

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True enough: in 1987, NBC aired a TV movie called “Bates Motel,” which starred Bud Cort as Alex West, a fellow with a few mental troubles who shared some quality time with Norman Bates in the state insane asylum and, as a result, finds himself the beneficiary of the Bates Motel in Norman’s will. The intent was to use the movie as a backdoor pilot for a weekly anthology series of sorts, following the lives of individuals passing through as guests of the motel, but when ratings for the movie proved disappointing, the plan for the series was abandoned.

But A&E’s “Bates Motel” isn’t a retread of that premise. Instead, it’s a prequel, revealing how Norman Bates became the kind of guy who’d grow obsessed with his mother that he’d take on her identity on occasion and kill anyone who looked at him sideways.

Oh, wait, you say that’s already been done, too?

Yep, it sure has: in 1990, Showtime produced “Psycho IV: The Beginning,” which pointedly ignored the aforementioned TV movie and showed a very-much-still-alive Norman (Anthony Perkins) calling into a radio talk show about – what are the odds? – matricide, using the conversation as a framing device to flash back to his youth and reveal the bond between Norma Bates (Olivia Hussey) and her son (played by Henry Thomas). It doesn’t exactly hew 100% to the continuity established by the preceding three films, but as a standalone film for casual fins, it holds up relatively well, thanks in no small part to Perkins’ performance.

Actually, A&E’s “Bates Motel” isn’t a retread of that premise, either. Not really, anyway. I mean, yes, it starts at approximately the same point in Norman’s life, and the general idea is the same, in that it’s looking into all the Oedipal-ness of the Norma/Norman relationship. This time, though, it isn’t a period piece. For better or worse, it takes place in present day, which means that it’s arguably not a prequel at all but, instead, more of a complete reboot of the franchise.

Don’t worry, though: the Bates Motel itself still looks just as decrepit and foreboding as ever.

But, of course, “Bates Motel” is far from the first occasion of an existing property has been turned into a prequel for TV. Heck, it’s not even the first time it’s happened in 2013!

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