Friday, June 30, 2017

16 Great TV Shows, Part 5: The John Larroquette Show

Part 1: The Wonder Years
Part 2: The Simpsons
Part 3: Star Trek: Deep Space Nine
Part 4: Seinfeld

Show of hands, how many of you even remember The John Larroquette Show?

C'mon people, it ran for FOUR seasons on NBC!

To be fair, the reason the show is on the list is almost entirely because of its wonderfully dark first season. Created by Don Reo, the show starred John Larroquette as a recently-sober night manager of Crossroads, a depressing bus station in St. Louis. And let me be clear, this is a dark setting rife with tension. John spends most of the pilot trying not to drink as he deals with depressing crisis after depressing crisis. Darryl "Chill" Mitchell played the lunch counter owner who might have been stereotyped as an "angry black man" but became a fleshed out character as a comic foil for John. Liz Torres played John's assistant and the great Chi McBride was Gene, the station janitor who had no problem standing up to John. Their first encounter comes as a horrified John emerges from the bathroom and says, "It looks like you've really got your work cut out for you in there." Gene, in a "are you kidding me" tone says, "I don't go in there!"

Most of the characters had an edge of some kind, and for the first season, the show resisted softening them too much. John's 12-step recovery was a focus of several episodes, and you don't usually see broad laughs wrung out of a guy at rock bottom trying to put his life back together. It was also surprisingly literate. I'd be hard-pressed to come up with another sitcom that devoted a whole runner to author Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow.

I have this theory that NBC bought the show assuming that it would be another Cheers-like sitcom, with the bus station acting like the bar that all these quirky lovable losers hung out in. Cheers was a place where everybody knows your name, but Crossroads was where no one wanted to be. But it works because real comedy can come out of conflict - and it existed on every level on TJLS. Characters hated the depressing night shift environment, where you were just as likely to get shot as have to deal with the station's regular homeless bums and hookers.

The cast of people with color meant that the show could also address racial issues and tensions. No other NBC sitcom was trying to mine dark laughs out of the problems that a guy who looks like "Chill" has when driving his car through a white neighborhood while playing gangsta rap. The song's only lyrics, "Kill Whitey," is one of those jokes that I'm not sure I should laugh at for its naked antagonism or shake my head at for being too broad. On the other hand, when NBC had a full night's worth of sitcoms set in New York with nary a person of color in the cast, Larroquette stood out because it actually acknowledged race existed. I can't think of any other NBC shows that went to that well.

No, wait. There was the painfully unfunny Rhythm and Blues, which was about a white DJ being hired by an all-black radio station when he's mistaken for a black guy. I swear to you this was a real show.

A show like The John Larroquette Show couldn't last for long, and if you want to see a perfect example of how network meddling can rob a show of its distinctiveness, check out the overhaul the show got in Season Two. With a year of sobriety under his belt, John's recovery was far enough that his backstory as a former alcoholic receded into the background. Suddenly he was working the day shift, robbing the show of the darker danger and atmosphere it had. The elderly bum got cleaned up and started shining shoes at the bus station, and the streetwise hooker got clean and bought the station's bar. The edgy show about life's losers at a crossroads in their life morphed into just another show where funny people hung out in one location most of the day. That's the development process - take what's distinctive and make it acceptable to the masses.

I wish I could rewatch the first season, but it has yet to come to DVD. My memory of the show is that it boldly followed its voice that first year and was successful in spite of - perhaps maybe because of - it made viewers uncomfortable.

Thursday, June 29, 2017

16 Great TV Shows, Part 4: Seinfeld

Part 1: The Wonder Years
Part 2: The Simpsons
Part 3: Star Trek: Deep Space Nine

C'mon, as soon as I praised story density and pace in The Simpsons, you probably saw this one coming.

I came to Seinfeld at the top of its 4th season, which you might know as the one which kicks off with a trip to LA and eventually leads to a storyline about Jerry and George collaborating on a pilot. This was the year the show moved to the post-Cheers slot at midseason and EVERYONE discovered it. It had been a cult hit prior to that, but this was its breakout moment and it felt instantaneous. I'm not sure if that could even happen today with a network show.

Created by Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David, Seinfeld had been a timeslot competitor with Home Improvement, and that seems like the perfect metaphor for the instant switch in my sitcom tastes at the age of 13. I'd grown bored with family sitcoms that followed the same predictable formula each week, set largely in the same living room/kitchen stages, with the same stale conflicts. Seinfeld was like none of that. Instead of plots like "Tim forgets date night with Jill and goes to a monster truck rally" there were stories like "George jeopardizes the future of their pilot by staring too long at an executive's daughter's cleavage." If you look at those loglines, you can at least see how Home Improvement's story can easily breakdown in an A to B to C story. If someone tells you the Seinfeld conflict, you go, "Is there a show there? Is it funny?"

They found humor in all the little moments that everyone else overlooked, and so much of the comedy was specifically tied to character. During that year, NBC reran an early episode called "The Pen" that was about Jerry and Elaine visiting Jerry's parents in Florida. My hand to God, the first five minutes of the show - before we really hit anything resembling the A-story of the episode - was my grandparents to a tee. It wasn't even the dialogue so much as the tone and the nuances of their attitudes. And in true Seinfeld fashion, the main story gets instigated by a minor conflict. (Jerry admires an astronaut pen that belongs to his father's friend. The friend offers it to Jerry. Jerry declines saying he couldn't possibly take it. The friend insists, Jerry accepts. Problem: the friend didn't want Jerry to accept and word spreads that Jerry took his pen, setting off tension in the retirement community.)

So my first lesson from Seinfeld: you can find a story anywhere.

Second lesson: When you're mining humor from characters, the more specific and unique the characters, the funnier they are. This maybe holds even truer with one-off guest characters. Think of how many one-episode Seinfeld characters are instantly memorable.

Let's talk about story density. If you watch the series in order, you see the structure get gradually more complex and ambitious. Early episodes sometimes have two major plots that don't interact much, but gradually, the stories would start to converge in unexpected ways. Eventually, it got to the point where each of the four regulars had their own story and those stories would cross and interconnect in Rube Goldbergian ways. It's hard to find that much ambition on TV today, let alone 25 years ago.

Again, this was the period where the pace of television really sped up. Scenes were shorter, dialogue came faster, the entire rhythm of the scenes was faster paced. You could blame short attention spans, but what you're really gaining is the ability to tell more complex stories. With a lot of television, the rule is "Get in, get out," keep things moving. (There are exceptions, of course. Better Call Saul really luxuriates in its measured pace. You don't find a lot of leasurely-paced comedies, though.)

This was also the first time I can remember a sitcom that was more or less telling a serialized story across the entire season. Though there are a number of episodes that don't deal with the pilot, it's a recurring thread through much of the season. (And that's not even counting branching threads like George's relationship with Susan.) It was a nice novelty to be watching a sitcom that didn't mostly pretend that last week's episode didn't happen. I know my reaction to the NBC pilot subplot was, "Wait, you can do that?"

Seinfeld blew up the sitcom formula in so many ways, many of which have been the topic of many books and thinkpieces, but these are the elements that mattered the most to me in learning about story. It's one of the few shows that I don't think I'll ever burn out from watching reruns. I'm sure there are some episodes that I've sat through 20 or 25 times and they never get old. It also is a clear forerunner of another favorite of mine, Curb Your Enthusiasm (which does not appear on this list.)

Other Seinfeld Posts:

"The Golf Ball" - building to a Seinfeld-like payoff
The Seinfeld finale and why putting your lead character on trial can backfire

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

16 Great TV Shows, Part 3: Star Trek: Deep Space Nine

Part 1: The Wonder Years
Part 2: The Simpsons

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine helped me recognize the authoritarianism of the Bush Administration for what it was.

That's quite a feat considering when the show left the airwaves, Bill Clinton was still in office, but by that time, DS9 (created by Michael Piller and Rick Berman) had devoted at least half of its seven-year run to storylines about ethics during wartime. I've already written two posts about how a 1996 two-parter called Homefront/Paradise Lost dealt with the debate of security from terrorism versus individual liberty. Produced during peacetime, it was easy to see that the right answer ALWAYS is "Side with your principles. Never embrace any fascist security policies against your own people in the name of fighting the enemy because then they've already destroyed you." It was all about how paranoia and fear can be misused by power-mongers for their own purpose.

I guarantee you that if this episode was produced in 2004, it would have been attacked by all manner of conservative media and Fox News for being "unpatriotic." It absolutely feels like a pointed and direct criticism of post 9/11 America, even though it preceded the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks by almost six full years. That is the power of storytelling, to confront social issues in a way that keeps them relevant even decades removed from the context that inspired them. Wartime ethics was such a focus of DS9 during the Dominion arc that it became surreal to see the same sorts of questions emerge about the Iraq War and the hunt for Bin Laden. I already knew which side I was on because the storytelling forced me to examine my own values years later.

And yet, one of my favorite episodes is "In The Pale Moonlight," where the message is almost unquestionably "The ends justify the means." At this point in the series, the Federation is getting hammered in the Dominion War. Captain Sisko realizes that their only chance might be to convince the Romulans to abandon their non-aggression pact with the Dominion and join the Federation and the Klingons in the fight against them. He hopes he can convince them that the Dominion is just biding their time and will eventually turn on the Romulans after crushing their other foes. And he's probably right. Problem: all efforts to turn up evidence of this plot come to naught.

So with the help of Garak - a Cardassian former spy-turned-tailor - Sisko produces fake evidence of the plans and arranges for a Romulan senator to visit the station in secret. There he offers his argument and a fake recording of a Dominion meeting where they discuss the invasion of Romulus. One problem: the Senator figures out it's fake and plans to go back to his government with the news that the Federation attempted to deceive them. If that happens, they might enter the war AGAINST Starfleet and the Klingons.

Fortunately Garak has a solution. He plants a bomb on the Senator's shuttle and blows it up, killing five people. Sisko's incensed when he finds out and confronts Garak, but Garak says that it's worked out perfectly. The Senator's meeting was secret, and so the Romulans will assume the hit came from the DOMINION. Better still, when they recover the data rod with the fake recording, they'll assume anything imperfect about the recording will be the result of the explosion. It will look like the Senator uncovered vital intel and was killed for it, adding to its authenticity. And aside from those lives, all it cost "was the self-respect of ONE Starfleet officer."

He's right. The Romulans join the Klingons and Federation, and their forces are enough to turn the tide. Because of this, the Dominion stands a better chance of being defeated.

Over the course of the episode, to make this scheme happen, Sisko has been a party to bribery, extortion, forgery and assassination. And as he tells us at the end. "I can live with it."

This never would have happened on Star Trek: The Next Generation, where the only lead character to come even close to making morally questionable choices was Worf. On TNG, either Picard would have swayed the Romulans with an unrealistically persuasive speech, or there would have been a last-minute recovery of a real recording. The Enterprise crew were good guys who never had to get their hands TOO dirty. Morality on Picard's ship is black and white, while Sisko lives in a world full of shades of grey.

And that's what made DS9 more fascinating to me as a teenager. It seemed determined to test the boundaries of what Star Trek could be, both inside and outside the narrative. Characters sometimes made horrible choices and weren't always exonerated by their circumstances. They failed, they learned, they grew. It made them feel more like people rather than stiff representatives of a point of view who rarely changed week-to-week. As a long-time viewer, it was rewarding to see long-term stories build. Seemingly disconnected threads would come together in a tapestry that eventually used the backdrop of the Dominion War to explore all sides of their characters.

Don't get me wrong. I love TNG. It has some of my favorite hours of TV. But if we're talking about the show that made me go, "Damn, I'd like to write THAT," it's Deep Space Nine all the way. Over the years, the show explored issues like terrorism, faith, religious fundamentalism, homosexuality, and much more.

DS9 also stoked my TV writing interest in another way. One of the writers, Ronald D. Moore, used to answer fan questions on an AOL discussion board on a fairly regular basis. It's hard to remember this in the age of Twitter, where every writer and writers' room has their own twitter account, but there didn't used to be this sort of ongoing dialogue with TV creators. Moore was one of the few, and DS9's Robert Hewitt Wolfe was one of the others. Beyond that, there weren't many peeks behind the curtain outside of magazine articles.

Moore ended up answering a lot of questions about the process of writing and producing TV. I learned a lot about breaking and developing story from those Q and As, lessons I applied a few years later when I started producing my own half-hour drama series in college. I wrote Ron Moore a fan letter at that point and was stunned a few weeks later when he tracked me down to call me at home. That full story is here if you want to read it.

And of course, Moore went on to create the revival of Battlestar Galactica, a show with absolutely became a commentary on Bush-era politics, this time intentionally. It's hard not to see BSG as a descendant of DS9, and a reaction to Star Trek: Voyager.

Deep Space Nine will always be a big part of my journey to becoming a writer. It's just great drama dealing with great ideas. Star Trek has never produced anything else like it.

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

16 Great TV Shows, Part 2: The Simpsons

Part 1: The Wonder Years

Bart Simpson and I are the same age.

Correction: Bart Simpson and I WERE the same age. When the show started, we were both in 4th grade. This is normally the part where I'd make some pithy remark about how he's aged better, but the fact is that I look pretty damn good and of the two of us, I got to go through puberty, so I'm calling this one for Team Bitter.

I'm trying to figure out how to explain the phenomenon of The Simpsons to a young audience that wasn't around at the time. Upon its debut, it was instantly one of the biggest shows on TV and certainly was one of the most talked about. Every kid was imitating Bart's catchphrases like "Don't have a cow, man!" I recall one of my classmates behind forced to turn TWO Bart Simpsons T-shirts inside out on separate occasions. One read "I'm Bart Simpson. Who the hell are you?" The other: "Underachiever and proud of it." (That last one is due to be re-purposed any day now by the Republican party as their "anti-elite" slogan.)

When The Simpsons debuted, there was nothing else on TV like it. Prime time animated shows hadn't existed for decades since The Flintstones went off the air. This was a cartoon that hadn't been created with the assumption its audience was somewhere between the ages of 4 and 10. And it had an edge to its humor that most live action sitcoms didn't. Even in the beginning, there was actual social commentary, with plenty of shots at incompetent authority figures like politicians, police, religious leaders, business owners, television performers, lawyers, and the entire justice system. Nothing was sacred. If anything had any kind of authority, The Simpsons was there to take the piss out of it. I was just a bit young for SNL so the only other place I'd seen humor deployed that way was in MAD Magazine (an acknowledged comedy influence on many of The Simpsons's early writers.

The funny thing is that watching that first season now, it seems much more grounded, unsophisticated and tame compared to what would come in just a few seasons when stories shifted focus from Bart to Homer. This allowed for adventures like Homer going back to college or the family having to relocate in witness protection because Bart's arch enemy Sideshow Bob was determined to kill him. That episode is a great example of the density of pop culture references in The Simpsons. The story eventually turns into a riff on Cape Fear. I'd never seen either version up to that point, but enough of the film was out in the culture that I recognized the influences and some of the gags.

Pop culture jokes on The Simpsons landed with me one of two ways: either I got the reference and laughed at how perfectly placed it was, or I didn't get it and years later I'd be watching a classic film and realize "That's what they were stealing from!" The Simpsons parody of The Shining is so dense that it tells the whole story and hits every possible joke in about seven minutes. Years later when I saw the two-hour-plus film it was based on, I couldn't believe

The reference itself was never the entire joke, there was always a deeper point to it. They also proved that The Simpsons's writers were a well-educated bunch. How can you not love a joke about the "Ayn Rand School for Tots" (where they believe in "nurturing the bottle within.") And I'll confess that at the age of 12, the absurdity of a musical version of "A Streetcar Named Desire" blew right past me.

It was smart. It was literate. It was one of the first shows where I can recall regular "freeze frame" jokes that were on screen for a mere few seconds. The jokes were smart and they made you feel smart for getting them. This wasn't simple hack writing with basic cartoon plots. This show had a voice, and where it didn't match my developing comedy voice, it was certainly influencing it.

I'm also pretty sure it was my introduction to meta humor, or at least was the first time I'd seen it deployed on such a scale. There came a moment when I realized that every story about the making of Itchy & Scratchy was basically the writers' catharsis for what it was like to work on The Simpsons.

In its best seasons, beneath all the wit and satire were strong stories about the characters. It was weird at the time to realize that this silly cartoon had a lot of heart and emotion behind it. The flashback episodes dealing with Marge and Homer's courtship, marriage and journey into parenthood are some of the best examples of this. Also, you could never go wrong with a Lisa episode, particularly an episode that put Lisa together with Homer. Homer could be a complete idiot, but if you give him a story about how Lisa is totally disappointed in him and he tries to fix it, you really start to feel for the guy.

Heart. Joke density. Story density. Those are three of the things I took from The Simpsons. They had a habit of doing a first act that seemed to be going in one direction until a sudden zag in the story that sent things into a completely unexpected direction. That's more common now, but at the time it was revolutionary. I remember the experience of watching an episode I knew I'd seen, but not remembering what the yet-to-emerge A-story was. TV writing was in a process of getting faster and faster paced, and you can really see that building throughout the 90s.

The show also eventually built an entire world, populated with dozens of characters who the audience knew very well. Within a few seasons, Springfield felt like a real place you could visit with a history and culture all its own. It wasn't some generic animated town. Heck, even by the halfway point of the run, it felt like we had met most of its population.

I don't watch it regularly anymore. For me, the golden age of The Simpsons is probably Seasons 2-8, with the entire first 11 seasons being the era that I rewatched obsessively in syndication and pretty much know like the back of my hand. Had it ended there, with "Behind the Laughter" as the series finale, it would have been pretty much a perfect series. When I catch a new episode, it's generally still pretty funny, but you can't imagine the impact of the first few seasons of that show, when nothing on TV was remotely like it.

Monday, June 26, 2017

16 Great TV Shows, Part 1: The Wonder Years

Over a month after I finished watching 13 Reasons Why (a period which included three viewings of the series in the span of three weeks) I still felt like this show had struck a chord with me like few other shows. This one left a mark. Now I'm a big TV junkie. I watch a lot of shows and I enjoy a pretty broad range of shows, but the number of those shows that really stick in my gut and keep compelling me to seek out write-ups and behind-the-scenes interviews is much smaller.

It was one of those shows that I felt would leave an impact me as a writer nearly as much as a viewer. It took a familiar genre and told its story in such a unique way that it didn't feel like an imitation of anything else. When I look at 13 Reasons Why, I see a show that years from now will have spawned many antecedents in its wake, as well as being something we cite with "Wow, can you remember when Dylan Minnette and Katherine Langford really came out of nowhere to be some of the best actors of their generation?"

As an exercise, I sat down and tried to list all of the shows in the past that left me with this kind of feeling. I thought of the ones that made me want to write stories of the kind that fit into that kind of storytelling, and I scoured my brain for the series that had influenced my own writing. In the end, I was left with precisely 16 shows. This wasn't a list of my favorite shows, exactly. I left off a lot of shows with really terrific writing. This was more of a list of shows that were groundbreaking for me, or opened me up to new possibilities within the medium. Unsurprisingly, I found plenty of these had direct impact on my own work.

So my mission for the next month is to do short posts on each of those shows and explore what they mean to me. I'm going to go in (mostly) chronological order of when I discovered them, not necessarily in their order of release.

Check the "what about..." comments at the door. This is MY list, and one that is devoid of plenty of favorites that didn't fit the conditions of this exercise. Loved Cheers, but in the end, it didn't really change my understanding of the sitcom. Frasier was another painful omission. There were plenty of brilliant episodes and character arcs, but it didn't belong on this list. Also, I didn't hold a series's decline against it. If a show had one brilliant season that blew me away and three shitty seasons, the brilliant season got it on the list. 66 bad episodes don't erase the impact that 22 exemplary episodes made.

So let's begin with the first show I joined an online fan group for when I first got online in the 90s - The Wonder Years.

No, really. My senior year in high school was when Nick at Night started rerunning the series, just as my parents got an online account at home. For some reason it was THAT fan community I was drawn to, even before perennial favorites like Star Trek.

I had been familiar with the show long before that, though. To the best of my recollection, I began watching the series at some point in its second season, 1988-89. Before then, my experience with sitcoms was pretty much of the TGIF type. Growing Pains and Who's The Boss were in regular reruns after school, to the point where I probably saw all of those episodes many times. I was not yet old enough to reject Full House, Perfect Strangers or Family Matters, and I had also seen plenty of older shows from the 60s - Gilligan's Island, The Brady Bunch, Leave It To Beaver, etc.

The Wonder Years, created by Neal Marlens and Carol Black, was nothing like those, either in terms of visuals or emotions. It wasn't three jokes on a page. The characters weren't exaggerated stereotypes, nor were they treated as either punchlines to the adult stories or wise-beyond-their-years smart alecs. They were just kids. Kevin Arnold and friends were about four years ahead of me in school (and 20 years BEHIND me thanks to the shows Vietnam Era setting), but their world was instantly recognizable. More than any other show I'd seen at that point, it seemed to understand what it felt like to be a kid.

I remember thinking, "Wow, you could make a TV show about my life - or anyone my age's life - and it could be interesting without any far-out gimmicks." Kevin was hitting the same milestones I and my classmates would soon hit. The writers would build entire storyarcs around his conflict, eventual respect for, and loss of his math teacher. Tension with friends and would-be girlfriends formed enough of a story to tell an entire episode. Week-to-week, The Wonder Years showed me what a show was like when it put character first. Even when the action was built around a plot like Kevin's first job, or being forced to perform in a piano recital, it's all filtered about what it meant to Kevin. It wasn't the A to B to C plotting you'd get when one of the Brady kids faced a challenge.

Later shows would push the boundaries more, doing higher concept stuff like being set entirely during a night of Kevin delivering takeout food, or building a half-hour around what happens during Kevin's lunch period.

And of course, there was Winnie Cooper, the girl everyone wished lived next door.

Weirdly, it's a show that holds up at multiple ages. When you're younger than Kevin, it's aspirational. When you're his age, it just GETS you and everything you're going through. And when you're older, you look at it like Daniel Stern's narrator does, "Ah, I remember when..."

The Wonder Years was the first time I encountered a show that was truly universal. It tapped into the shared experience of adolescence both through the milestones of youth and perfectly evoking how those felt. It was my first lesson in how to get an audience emotionally invested in a series. It was also the earliest I remember watching a show that felt like a mini-movie. You'd never mistake it for any other show on the air, and in hindsight, I can follow a straight line from this show to several of my other favorites that will appear on this list.

As I work my way through my twenty shows, see if you can come up with a list of the shows that influenced you as a writer. I'd be fun to compare results.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

David Mamet's Master Class is a good introduction to dramatic writing

(Note: This post contains affiliate links and I will be compensated if you make a purchase after clicking on my links.)

A writer looking for guidance these days has no shortage of services and tutorials looking to take their money. It's why a perennial bit of advice from me is to do your homework on anything that's going to cost you money. Even if you have allocated $200 of disposable income that you can burn without feeling it, that doesn't mean you should be reckless in casting it away. You want to get the best value for your investment.

The MasterClass brand has demonstrated itself to be a reliable one. I've reviewed two other MasterClasses: "Dustin Hoffman Teaches Acting" (available here) and "Aaron Sorkin Teaches Screenwriting" (available here.) In both cases I came away impressed with the insight and the utility of the classes. Hoffman's videos - though aimed at actors - actually gave me a lot of valuable tips about directing and working with actors.

The talent that continues to be involved with this site is also impressive: Shonda Rhimes teaches writing for TV, Gordon Ramsay teaches cooking, Steve Martin teaches comedy, Hans Zimmer teaches film scoring, Reba McEntire teaches country music, Werner Herzog teaches filmmaking, Kevin Spacey teaches acting, Serena Williams teaches tennis, Usher teaches performance, and there are still many more to come.

Which brings me to David Mamet Teaches Dramatic Writing . Fair or not, it's difficult to watch this and NOT compare it to the two prior classes I've taken. If I'm being honest, that did leave me with some disappointment.

The good news? That's the only metric by which this class falls short. I'll get into more specifics why later.

David Mamet has written 36 plays, 29 screenplays, and 17 books. He has directed 11 films, including House of Games, The Spanish Prisoner, and State & Main. His credentials aren't really up for debate and any chance to pick the brain of someone so prolific is bound to be a worthwhile one. No one running any of these MasterClasses are the kind of person who NEEDS to do this sort of project to stay afloat.

As with every other class, there are multiple elements: the video instruction, the interactive assignments, the community and the office hours, where you can send video questions to Mr. Mamet. My review is based mostly on the videos. I also have to admit as with all of these classes, I had to binge the videos over the course of a week. The recommended structure is provided and the class has been crafted to be done over six weeks.

For $90 you get what works out to about six hours of videos. Spread them over six weeks and you can call that an investment of $15 a week. Considering that's what it would cost for a ticket to hear Mamet speak for an hour or so, it's not too bad.

Let's talk about the course work itself. It struck me as being very Screenwriting 101, even more than Sorkin's. Mamet leans a lot on Aristotle's Poetics, so much so that if this was an actual college course, you'd almost certainly find that among your required textbooks. I personally didn't come away from this class with too many new insights into the process, but I've worked in Hollywood for well over a decade and I took Screenwriting 101 and Advanced Screenwriting in college. This isn't a class targeted at me, so I forced myself to look at it through the eyes of a 21 year-old Bitter.

Straight-up, this is at least as good as the first Screenwriting class I took in college. Frankly, there are a lot of basic principles of writng and drama that were better expressed here than by my instructor. Mamet starts off by talking about his theory of Drama and how it has rules. "We're given a premise. The hero wants something... Everything in our life is drama... we structure everything in our lives into cause and effect." And he goes into some detail about this, particularly when dealing structure and how each scene must be necessary or else it should go. He's also very adamant that "What the purpose of drama is not is to make people better... to teach. It is not the purpose of drama to be cautionary tales."

One bit of advice he gives that I don't believe I've heard before is that the story should challenge the writer, to the point where they may not know the resolution. "If you can't think your way out of it, the audience can't either," he says. So push yourself into the story crevices that seem impossible at first, just to see if you can worm your way out of it.

Plenty of his advice does tread well-worn ground. "If you think you can cut something, cut it," is pretty basic, though he owns up to the fact that this is a lesson his editor reteaches him every time when she makes a cut work by removing what is inevitably his favorite scene. It's painful, but as he says, there's "one rule: Don't be boring." He rails against the inclusion of what he calls "obligatory scenes," which are scenes that seem to be there only because we've been taught they belong. (i.e. the inevitable moment where characters stand around a room and explain what they have to do to save the world.)

I'm gonna quote from his workbook because the lesson is expressed more succinctly here:

A scene must contain an attempt by the hero to achieve a goal. That goal has to be part of a firm structure of his or her journey from point A to point B. You must be able to answer three questions about every scene of every play or film you write:

• Who wants what from whom?
• What happens if he or she doesn't get it?
• Why now?

Another quote I wrote down and underlined has to do with forcing a change in the character - "To manipulate the character is to manipulate the audience and I never manipulate the audience." I'd love the chance to press him on that further because I think some of my favorite films have expertly manipulated the audience. However, I presume his intent is to deride unfairly cheating to manipulate the audience and with that, we are in lockstep.

The assignments tend to be fairly standard Screenwriting 101 material. A typical one might be: "Take a character from a film, play, or television show, and deconstruct him or her. Do not compile a list of traits. Rather, identify individual actions that make up the character. What is their objective? Think about what he or she does to achieve that objective and how that informs his or her character."

In later chapters, Mamet discusses some of the process behind his works like American Buffalo, Glengarry Glen Ross, and Oleanna.  There are also some solid discussions of dialogue and exposition. Again as an introduction to dramatic writing, this is as good as any college lecture course you could take.

So where does it fall short? Unlike the Hoffman and Sorkin courses, these videos are entirely lecture-based. Mamet doesn't interact with anyone else, and a genuine highlight of both the earlier videos I viewed was seeing these men have to act as mentors. A sizable percentage of Hoffman's videos were acting workshops with two students and it really helped drive home his philosophy by seeing it put into practice.

Sorkin went so far as to assemble writing students for a mock writers room and then also gave critiques of their original works. Both situations forced him to reveal something about his process and his philosophy that didn't automatically come across in the lecture videos. I realize that by its nature, Mamet's process tends to be less collaborative than Hoffman or Sorkin's but I definitely missed that extra element that would have broken up 24 lecture videos.

Sorkin and Mamet also cover some similar grounds, so if you've already taken Sorkin's class, be prepared that Mamet's is intended for the same level of screenwriter. Obviously different teachers will have different philosophies, but it probably would be a bit like taking Screenwriting 101 twice from different instructors. College-age me would have eaten both of these classes up, and so I imagine it comes down to preference. If you're more into Mamet and really want to take a look under the hood, maybe you'd favor this over Sorkin's, despite my own critiques.

That's the biggest "buyer beware" here - be honest with yourself about how trained you are as a writer and what you're looking for to get to the next level. There's value here for the right audience. $90 is a decent amount of money, but not outrageously so when compared to a lot of other screenwriting resources.

You can access every MasterClass at

Dustin Hoffman's MasterClass on Acting

Aaron Sorkin's MasterClass on TV Writing

Monday, June 12, 2017

Farewell, Adam West

This weekend saw the passing of Adam West, famed actor known for his starring role on the cult TV series Lookwell.

(Okay, I know very few people know Adam West from Lookwell. I just wanted to give him ONE obituary that didn't start the way he knew it always would: "Holy Tragedy Batman! TV's Caped Crusader hangs up his cape for the final time!")

I summed up my history with Adam West's Batman just a few months ago in this Film School Rejects review of the recent animated movie BATMAN: RETURN OF THE CAPED CRUSADERS:

My first encounter with the 1966 Adam West Batman TV series came at the age of either six or seven. A local low-power station was running twice-nightly reruns and as my family did not have cable, I recall the frustration of having to orient the rabbit ears just so in an effort to reduce the “snow” obscuring the weakly-transmitted picture.

It occurs to me that a good chunk of that paragraph is completely unrelatable to anyone under the age of 25. And this was just two years or so before the Tim Burton Batman came onto the scene.

As a first-grader, the “camp” of the show completely flew over my head. A kid accepts Batman for what he is, so there’s nothing ridiculous about a man running around in tights with an underage boy sidekick. When a villain threatened to turn them into snow cones, or trapped them with a giant man-eating clam, a 7 year-old’s reaction is not “What were the writers smoking when they came up with this?” but rather “Oh man, how are Batman and Robin going to escape this serious peril!”

The genius of the ’66 Batman is that the creators knew they were always aiming for two audiences – the youths who saw it as an adventure series, and the adults, who understood the deliberate humor that turned this semi-faithful adaptation of Batman into a parody. It’s an incredibly difficult needle to thread – the kids shouldn’t be able to perceive any mocking of their cherished characters, while the adults need to be able to tell the show isn’t accidentally “so bad it’s good.”

Virtually every adult I've had a conversation with about BATMAN '66 - whether they saw it first-run or discovered it in reruns. Loved it as a young kid, embarrassed by it as a teen and pre-teen, rediscovered it sometime in our twenties and found it hilarious. The first part of that cycle is pretty common for most shows we watched at the ages of 5-9. Have you ever tried to rewatch Transformers? That shit does NOT hold up.

But West's BATMAN does, and that's because it was always smart enough to play on two levels. Both the adventure seeking preteen and the savvy adult were being catered to. The series wasn't a hit with older viewers because it was "so bad it's good." It was legitimately funny, and it's not easy to write something that straddles two different worlds without collapsing on itself. And while the writing is a huge part of the equation, it's merely the tightrope. The actor is the one who has to walk it.

Adam West was brilliant at being in on the joke while playing it like he was oblivious to the same. In the pilot, he visits a restaurant. The Maitre'd offers to seat him, but he declines saying "I'll just take a seat at the bar. I shouldn't wish to attract attention." In a cape and cowl. Right. West plays the line dead series, with zero awareness on Batman's part that he's being absurd.

Alas, West's perfect characterization was mistaken for bad acting and he spent much of the next two decades trying to escape typecasting. It seems he needed to wait for his audience to grow up, so that the kids who were thrilled by his Batman could become the TV showrunners and writers who were eager to work with their Batman. When West's renaissance came, it was at the hands of Family Guy's Seth MacFarlane and The Simpsons's Conan O'Brien.

Just last year I was remarking how wonderful it was that Adam lived long enough to see BATMAN '66 reach its fiftieth anniversary, just one year after the series finally was released for the first time on beautifully restored bluray. (I have the set - it's stunning and you should make every effort to view these colorful and gorgeous episodes.) Complicated rights issues had blocked an official release of the show for decades, but I'm certain that an aggravating issue was that the show's humor and silliness made it a red-headed step-child in the "grim and gritty era."

Even at the time I discovered the show, it didn't reflect the Batman I was reading in the comics. This was the era of The Killing Joke and A Lonely Place of Dying, a dark tale of how losing one Robin sends Batman over the edge, and how a young man named Tim Drake tries to get the original Robin, Dick Grayson, to save Batman from himself by becoming Robin again - a task made more complicated by the strained relationship between Bruce and Dick. There was no room for camp and silliness in these stories, and BATMAN '66 became something to reject if you wanted to be taken seriously as a comic reader.

BATMAN '66 cast a long shadow at a time when comics as an art form in general and Batman specifically struggled to be taken seriously. When I was growing up, readers resented that this over-the-top relic made them look immature for liking Batman. But as time moved on and other, more serious interpretations from Tim Burton, Bruce Timm and Christopher Nolan showcased the full depth of the character, West's Batman was less of a threat. It was acceptable to enjoy it on its own merits again and not burden it with representing 75+ years of mythology.

The blurays coincided with a marketing effort that gave BATMAN '66 a second life in comic books, action figures, and merchandising. The animated BATMAN: RETURN OF THE CAPED CRUSADERS soon followed and another animated film, featuring West, Burt Ward and William Shatner as Two-Face is set for release later this year.

I'm glad Adam West lived to see his Batman's resurgence, and I'm glad his late career gave him so many opportunities beyond Batman. He left this world at the age of 88 and no one can say he didn't live a full life. His work made a lot of people happy and he continued to delight fans on the convention circuit for years. By all accounts he was a kind and gracious man, witty and fun until the end.

We should all be so lucky to have a life like Adam West's. Tonight, this is how I think I'll choose to remember him.

So long, old chum.

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Free screenwriting e-books from Go Into The Story!

I realized this week that while I've tweeted about this, I have yet to put up a post dedicated to Go Into The Story's year-long plan to release a new free e-book about screenwriting each month.

Scott Myers, the architect of Go Into The Story, should need no introduction in the screenwriting blogosphere. He's a professional screenwriter, with his credits including K-9 and TROJAN WAR. He's been blogging about screenwriting for the better part of a decade while teaching the craft at UNC and currently, at DePaul University in Chicago.

You'll find few better resources for screenwriting online than Scott and his blog. The books are sort of a "greatest hits" compilation series from the best of his blog. They're all worth a read and they're FREE. Yes, the same sorts of material you'll pay $15 for at Barnes & Noble is available at no charge here - and it's the work of someone who's been both a Hollywood writer and a teacher. It's the best of both worlds!

In a post several months ago, Scott said:

As always, I don’t claim to be the world’s greatest expert. Everything in these eBooks and on this blog is what I guess one could best call ‘informed opinions’. I’m not an A-list Hollywood writer, but I have written 30 projects for every major movie studio and TV broadcast network, have had 4 movies produced, I have created and produced TV series, and I have taught about the craft and business of screenwriting for 15 years, so I have my own unique perspective on things. If you connect with anything I write, great. If not, feel free to ignore. Each writer needs to figure out their own approach to the craft and as I always say: Every writer is different. Every story is different. There is no one way to write.

My vision in hosting the blog and with this eBook series is simply to contribute to the conversation and hopefully provide writers with some insights and inspiration along the way.

Vol 1: 30 Things About Screenwriting

Vol 2: So-Called Screenwriting Rules

Vol 3: Writing a Screenplay

Vol 4: Rewriting a Screenplay

Vol 5: A Screenwriter's Guide to Aristotle's Poetics

Vol 6: A Screenwriter's Guide to Reading a Screenplay.

Enjoy the books! There are six more volumes to go!

Monday, June 5, 2017

WONDER WOMAN takes its place among the best comic book movies ever

WONDER WOMAN is the best film in the current DC comics film universe.

It occurs to me that this statement could be taken as a backhanded compliment. I really enjoyed MAN OF STEEL, but I know many did not. BATMAN V. SUPERMAN was a disappointment in both its theatrical and Ultimate Cuts, and SUICIDE SQUAD was almost unwatchable. So to fully express how good WONDER WOMAN is, I'll put it this way: Patty Jenkins's feature is up there with Richard Donner's 1978 SUPERMAN, and Christopher Nolan's THE DARK KNIGHT and BATMAN BEGINS as some of the best that the DC canon has to offer.

Wonder Woman herself is a hard character to get right even if you discount any extra hurdle in getting an audience to the theater. At various times in the comics, she's treated as a warrior, an ambassador, a naive innocent new to the ways of Man's World, and a female Superman. She's part-Little Mermaid, part-Xena, and if you lean too hard in one direction it utterly shatters the balance.

Patty Jenkins, star Gal Gadot and screenwriters Allen Heinberg, Jason Fuchs, and Zack Snyder make it look effortless. Having grown up in isolation with the Amazons on their secluded island, Diana is naive about many aspects of the outside world, but she's never played too child-like in that regard. She's curious about babies and ice cream, but fully capable of standing up for herself in a room full of men ready to disregard her opinion. The script wisely doesn't turn her into ENCHANTED's Princess Giselle, wide-eyed at everything that doesn't match her view of the world. It's a perfect example of pointing not just that Diana would come into conflict with the world around her, but the tone of that reaction as well.

Diana's first encounter with a man comes when Chris Pine's Steve Trevor crashes near the island and draws the attention of the German army. After an awesome action sequence where the Amazons completely annihilate their attackers (the only way this could be more awesome is if it were Nazis that the warriors devastated,) Trevor reveals he's a spy who has to get critical information to London in order to end "the war to end all wars."

Diana helps him escape back to the outside world, convinced that the war has been masterminded by Ares, the last of the Gods left after a battle that sent the Amazons into seclusion with "the God Killer," a weapon forged by Zeus before his own untimely passing. Convinced that the war will end when she kills Ares and frees man from his influence, Diana is determined to get to the front. Steve, takes a darker view of the situation, believing that the war is entirely of man's making. However, their goals align and soon they're headed behind enemy lines to stop German weapons and poison development.

WONDER WOMAN is aided by a fairly straightforward plot. Frankly, it's a model of efficiency. We know what Steve's trying to accomplish, we know what Diana's out to do, and the script puts obstacles in front of those paths rather than trying to throw in a 90 degree twist every fifteen minutes. A lot of superhero movies of late have come off as over-plotted, but WONDER WOMAN shows the value of simplicity - particularly when it allows character interaction to take center stage.

The Gal Gadot/Chris Pine love story is what propels the film, and it proves to be one of the best romances in modern superhero films. The actors have great chemistry together and it's supported by a script that makes their affection credible and developing throughout. It never feels like they fall in love just because she's "the girl" and he's "the guy." We see them earning the respect and admiration of the other throughout.

Pine is really good at playing shock and bemusement every thing Diana does something beyond mortal abilities. In the comics of various eras, I've often seen Steve Trevor as something of a boring stiff. Pine's version seems to owe a little bit to Nathan Fillion's Trevor from the WONDER WOMAN animated movie, with perhaps a little less overt swagger. He's positioned as the straight man against Diana and Pine's comic timing is able to get some sparks flying we wouldn't see if this role was filled with a charisma vacuum like Jai Courtney.

Outside of BvS, I've seen Gadot in the FAST & FURIOUS movies and KEEPING UP WITH THE JONESES. For the most part, those films didn't demand much of her than handling action/stunt training and looking great. In WONDER WOMAN, Gadot gives Diana so many more dimensions than her previous roles have allowed and there's never a moment where we don't look at her and aren't believing in Wonder Woman.

It's impossible to give too much praise to Jenkins's action scenes. All of the combat is staged so well that we're completely convinced that it's Gadot we're seeing with every punch and spin-kick. There are none of the obvious digital doubles that Zack Snyder's films favor. (I'm sure they're there, but they don't announce themselves as they do in the Snyder films. The effect that we're seeing Gadot (or a well-concealed fight double) pull off everything with the aid of wirework and good blocking is entirely convincing.

I have to think that a lot of this is helped by the fact Jenkins doesn't use many shots that feel physically impossible to obtain. The camera obeys real physics and is treated like it's moving through real space with the help of rigs and cranes. There's nothing to pull us out and remind us that we're seeing an illusion. The No Man's Land sequence is one of the best superhero action sequences of the last ten years. It's kinetic, crowd-pleasing and not a moment of it is lost in a flurry of cuts or CGI orgy.

Ares proves to be a less interesting villain than The Joker, or even either iteration of Zod. That said, he's miles ahead of The Enchantress because he has an actual motivation and a characterization that goes beyond one-dimensional evil. The backstory is that after Zeus created man, Ares, the God of War, was convinced that man would be the ruin of earth. He used his power to set mankind against each other and was only defeated after a clash that claimed the lives of all the other gods.

[Spoilers for the climax ahead. Last chance to bail now]

When Ares is revealed, it's exposed that he did NOT control the men involved in this war. His influence was limited to essentially whispering weapons and poison designs in their ears. They were the ones who decided to escalate their conflicts to a global level. His plan: Basically let the humans destroy each other and then he can remake Earth as the paradise it once was.

He confesses this while under the influence of the golden lasso, so we know he's totally sincere in it - including the part where he sees his actions as righteous. In a bit of a Darth Vader moment, he invites Diana to join him, and the offer is extended at a time where she might credibly take it. Through the entire film, Diana's insisted that the war happens only because Ares is controlling the armies. When she's confronted with the fact that it's in man's nature to do horrible things to each other all on their own, it shatters her faith.

But she finds the strength to oppose Ares, and that gives their battle actual resonance because it's a clash of ideals as much as it's a clash of titans. Ares represents the ideology that all men are evil and should be wiped out, whereas Diana's optimism wants to believe in the capacity of mankind to choose peace. BATMAN V. SUPERMAN came close to using its heroes as avatars for different world views, but thematically it falls apart because of how they're manipulated into that fight. It's not perfectly executed here either, but emotionally it feels right because Diana's participation in the battle is linked to her emotional arc and beliefs.

Or to put it another way, she needs something to fight FOR.

At this point, I'm more hyped for any WONDER WOMAN sequel than I am for JUSTICE LEAGUE, which is only about six months away. Among the many things I love about this film is that it puts character first. Hopefully future DC films will learn from this example and this had better not be the last DC movie directed by Patty Jenkins.

I understand MAN OF STEEL 2 needs a director, for one.

Friday, June 2, 2017

13 Reasons Why - Side 13: Thoughts on Season 2

Side 1: The Setting
Side 2: An overly contrived premise can present a challenge
Side 3: Hannah Baker, from joy to despair
Side 4: Clay, an outsider who isn't an outcast
Side 5: Clay's tape leads to one of this year's most heartbreaking episodes
Side 6: Mr. Porter - Terrible Counselor or Worst Counselor?
Side 7: Do depictions of suicide provoke imitation?
Side 8: Generating tension that stokes viewer intensity
Side 9: Keeping storytelling clarity in non-linear structure
Side 10: Alex's storyline hides parallels in plain sight
Side 11: Fleshed out parents help deepen the other characters
Side 12: Episodic structure makes a comeback

I understand the original concept for 13 Reasons Why would have been as an anthology series like American Horror Story or True Detective, where the cast and storyline would be reset each season. This would have made sense, as the series uses up all the material from the novel on which the story is based. However, with the announcement of the renewal came confirmation that the cast and characters will return.

In an interview with Entertainment Weekly, showrunner Brian Yorkey discussed some of his plans for season 2. The creators did such an incredible job with season 1 that I want to give them the benefit of the doubt that season 2 won't have a sophomore slump. That said, some of his ideas are not the direction I would have taken.

Yorkey confirms that we WILL see Hannah again. "I think one of the things that is still hanging out there is this question of is someone responsible for Hannah’s death? Is the school responsible? Who is responsible, if anyone is? One way we’ll explore that question is through the trial and also through all of these kids reflecting on where they are a few months down the road and what other secrets are being uncovered. That’s going to take us into the past, into Hannah’s story. We’re going to get some new context for events we already know about and we’re going to see a lot of things we hadn’t even heard about yet that fill in some really interesting gaps in our understanding of who Hannah Baker was and what her life was."

I think I've been pretty clear in early posts about my utter admiration for Katherine Langford's performance as Hannah and how I've found her to be one of the most compelling female protagonists of late. So it's not a reflection on the actress or the character when I say that I feel incredibly strongly that we should never see Hannah again. To resurrect her, even via flashbacks, would compromise the integrity of her storyline.

In season one, the very last time we see Katherine Langford on screen is Hannah's suicide scene. That's no accident. Other shows might have given us a Hannah appearance later, just as a way of getting a slightly happier or wistful final scene. But there's no comforting voiceover from Hannah. Clay doesn't have any adorable flashbacks to good times with Hannah, so that we can end the show with a sad smile. We don't even get a silent hallucination of Hannah waving goodbye to Clay or some other way to let us feel she would have been happy for what he did.

No, the last we see of Hannah is a girl in immense pain, slashing her own wrists and dying before our eyes. There's real power in that moment and the show doesn't diminish that with anything to soften that statement.

As Hannah herself says on the tape at the start of the first episode: "No return engagements, no encore and this time absolutely no requests."

The second pass through the series plays very differently. We've already discovered everything there is to know about Hannah. The tapes hold no surprises for us and so it really sets in at that point that Hannah's story is both literally complete and emotionally complete. Having experienced Hannah's deepest lows, there's an even greater sadness to the moments of joy in her life. I'm not sure if there's a good way to explain this, but there's a real sense of loss that hangs over the series after we have the full context for anything. She's as dead to us in those moments as she is to Clay.

I hope that when she turns up in Season 2, Hannah's used sparingly. There's real power in that character's reappearance. We shouldn't see Langford on-screen again unless the story demands that specific emotional sucker punch. It needs to mean something to revisit Hannah, and the worst thing the show could do would be to use her in a scene where she's merely a continuity checkpoint. Even though flashbacks are going to take us to other pivotal moments in the characters' lives, I feel Hannah can easily be kept an off-screen presence.

The other concern is that in using Hannah again, the show will reveal something about her that will compromise her arc from the first season. By the time she died, most of the main characters considered Hannah a drama queen, and it's a label that was somewhat understandable when you consider their limited point of view. We've seen through the tapes that a lot more was going on with Hannah and it was a very sympathetic and empathetic portrayal.

But once we're telling the story from, say, Jess's perspective, we're back to dealing with "drama queen Hannah." That feels like a lot less interesting use of the actress and the character, and again, it would only mar our memories from season one.

A year from now, I hope I'm eating my words and saying I can't imagine season two without Hannah, or Hannah's story without season two. For now, put me down as concerned.

I'm almost as wary of Clay's storyline continuing as I am of seeing Hannah again. There's always the risk that continuation will ruin what felt like an appropriate ending to season one. On the plus side, there's a lot of fertile ground to work with. Surely Clay's relationship with his parents could stand some development, as well as whatever happens between him and Skye. It also wouldn't be a surprise to see him dealing with some kind of survivor's guilt, especially considering what he learned on Hannah's tapes. The poor kid got a lot dumped on him that he shouldn't have to deal with at his age. Alex's suicide attempt can only aggravate that.

As far as the other cliffhangers, I feel like Alex probably shouldn't survive his suicide attempt. If I was writing it, I'd probably have him brain dead on life support with the deadline looming for when his parents are planning on pulling the plug. Through Alex, the show could address the issue of suicide contagion and perhaps give voice to some of the issues that have risen in the wake of the show's release.

I think we all agree that Bryce needs to go down. With his confession on tape, maybe the storyline would deal more with the ramifications of the popular kid being revealed as a rapist. I have a hard time seeing the show turn into "The Trial of Bryce Walker."

Yorkey says, "a different sort of analog technology that plays a hugely important role in season 2. So the cassette tapes aren’t at the center of it — those two boxes of tapes are still hanging around and matter to people — but there will be a new piece of technology for 13-year-olds to Google and try to understand what it was." That feels like a reference to Tyler's photographs. The finale showed that Tyler had a number of pictures of the main characters hanging in his dark room. (13 pictures, 13 reasons why, perhaps?) It certainly felt like a hit list, considering he took down Alex's photo after recalling Alex stood up for him against a bully.

In the same episode, we also saw that Tyler was stockpiling guns. If that's foreshadowing a school shooting story, I'm gonna get nervous. Part of the appeal of season one is how universal many of the traumas felt. If we get to school shootings and rape trials in season two, a little bit of that verisimilitude gets lost and this could become just another teen drama. As a writer, I get the appeal of "13 Reasons Why... I shot up my school" though.

It feels like the writers have proven a number of times that they're capable of handling sensitive subjects. I'm here for the character drama. The two biggest assess of season one - Katherine Langford and the Hannah/Clay relationship - can't be deployed in the same fashion in season two.

The next season will ultimately live or die on the strength of its character arcs. It feels like there's a lot more to be said with some of these characters. As I see it, the real challenge is figuring out which kid gets to be the emotional anchor for season two in the way that Clay and Hannah were in season one. What I wouldn't give to be a fly on the wall for a few days in THAT writers room.

Thursday, June 1, 2017

13 Reasons Why - Side 12: Episodic structure makes a comeback

Side 1: The Setting
Side 2: An overly contrived premise can present a challenge
Side 3: Hannah Baker, from joy to despair
Side 4: Clay, an outsider who isn't an outcast
Side 5: Clay's tape leads to one of this year's most heartbreaking episodes
Side 6: Mr. Porter - Terrible Counselor or Worst Counselor?
Side 7: Do depictions of suicide provoke imitation?
Side 8: Generating tension that stokes viewer intensity
Side 9: Keeping storytelling clarity in non-linear structure
Side 10: Alex's storyline hides parallels in plain sight
Side 11: Fleshed out parents help deepen the other characters

13 Reasons Why is the rare Netflix show that feels like it might have been just as strong had it aired week-to-week rather than being dropped all at once. We've talked before about some of my dissatisfaction with the binge model, and Netflix shows like House of Cards and Jessica Jones both have fallen into habits I'd like to see less of. With House of Cards especially, the show has been prone to following the "10-hour movie" model of breaking their episodes. The show takes advantage of the belief that viewers will start watching and keep watching. Thus, there's less of a need to make individual episodes self-contained or even as distinct components of a larger whole. That would be like making sure that minutes 45 to 62 in a film should have their own identity even as they fit into the larger whole.

The result of this is that a lot of House of Cards episodes fall into a trap of continuing the action from the prior ep, and moving around plot points to get to the next ep. At its worst (season two springs to mind), each chapter feels less like a story unto itself and more like a collection of subplots. When I think about certain seasons of House of Cards, the episodes all blend together for me. There's no bending to an operational model that is designed to make week-to-week serialized stories a satisfying experience on their own.

I want to make it clear I'm not pining for a purely episodic model, where everything is reset each week. There's a middle ground between the L&O and NCIS procedurals that dodge ongoing storylines and the House of Cards series that are so tightly linked that you can't dip in for an episode here and there. I've gone on before about the lost art of the standalone episode, so I won't repeat that here, but for a while, that felt like it was going to be a casualty of streaming services. JESSICA JONES might have benefited from an ep or two less closely tied to the show's mythology in favor of a standalone case-of-the-week that could have built out that part of Jessica's world more. I get frustrated with episodes that play as a montage of subplots, with characters making a lot of moves that don't ultimately feel like there's weight behind them.

13 Reasons Why isn't an episodic series, and yes, it has a running storyline about everything that led to Hannah's suicide and all the fallout that comes from that. Structurally, it works beautifully for an episode-by-episode model that gives each chapter its own identity. Clay has been given 13 tapes Hannah recorded before she killed herself, and each tape tells a different story about a person who pushed her to it. Obviously there's a structure to the stories on the tape, so that each one leads into the next, but by design, each one HAS to tell a complete story: "This is what Jess did to Hannah, this is what Marcus did, etc." The present day has serialized elements that advance at their own pace each episode, but there are usually enough connections between the tape-of-the-day and the present storyline that a satisfying story is told in both timeframes.

You can describe episodes with shorthand like "Sheri's Tape" or "Clay's Tape," and the action of that hour is instantly memorable. Try talking about House of Cards and doing the same with "that hour where Kevin Spacey and Major Dad get ticked at each other." There can also be a greater tonal variance among the episodes because the flashbacks leap around in time. It means that something traumatic can happen in a Hannah flashback last episode, but if the next flashback is months later, there's enough of an emotional reset that this emotional agony doesn't have to feel fresh. (Hannah clearly is on a downward trajectory, though one with peaks and valleys rather than a straight slope.) Mostly, it means there's a good chunk of the episode that isn't forced to occur just minutes after the previous show's fade out.

Stories are supposed to have a beginning, middle and end, and the serialized streaming model pushes every episode to be mostly "middle." In the past, I've pointed to Buffy The Vampire Slayer season 3 as the platonic ideal of how to tell standalone stories while still advancing an uber plot. I recognize how for a number of reasons, that might not be as viable as it once was.

The 13 Reasons Why approach feels like it CAN be embraced though. It shows a series need not sacrifice greater connectivity in the name of individuality. It's episodic structure at its best - smaller stories that feed into a larger whole. It takes effort to make that work. When breaking a larger story it can be easier to treat it all like one A story and construct every beat relative to that. There's greater reward in construction more complex pieces that work on their own and fit into the larger picture at the same time.

Side 13: Thoughts on Season 2