Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Broken Projector tries to answer every screenwriting question ever

It's been a while since I plugged the Broken Projector podcast, but last week Scott Beggs and Geoff LaTulippe decided to take on the challenge of answering every screenwriting question you could hope to know.

More accurately, they created an archive of the questions they get asked EVERY TIME they open up for listener questions about screenwriting. It feels like they were had the same sorts of thoughts that led me to write this post last week about how to ask a useful question. Below is a breakdown of the episode question-by-question, with timecodes. It's worth a listen not just for the answers, but understanding the kinds of questions that get asked again and again, and why some of those questions will never have a satisfactory answer.

An intro note on methodology and where to learn formatting [0:00 – 4:15]
A way to rethink the questions you’re asking [4:15 – 9:10]
“Do I have to move to LA?” [9:10 – 11:28]
“How do I get an agent/manager?” [11:28 – 18:10]
“Where do I find scripts?” [18:10 – 20:45]
“What screenwriting books are the ‘right’ ones?” [20:45 – 24:00]
“How do I pitch?” [24:00 – 25:50]
“Should I go to film school?” [25:50 – 31:05]
“I just finished my first script. What do I do now?” [31:05 – 37:45]
“How do I get an actor/actress to read my script?” [37:45 – 44:35]
“How do I get a job as a TV writer’s assistant?” [44:35 – 50:05]
“How did you get your start?” [50:05 – 54:55]
“How do you come up with your ideas?” [54:55 – 59:10]
“What are agents/managers/producers looking for?” [59:10 – 61:05]
“What genre should I write?” [61:05 – 61:10]
“How do you impress a reader?” [61:10 – 63:15]
“How do you expose yourself personally in your writing?” [63:15 – 68:45]
Closing thoughts [68:45 – 73:30]

The podcast is embedded at this link, but you can also subscribe to One Perfect Pod wherever you get your podcasts.

Monday, August 14, 2017

Crossing the stream(ing service)s

This is probably gonna come off as one of those old man "get off my lawn" rants, but I've been thinking a lot about the cost of streaming services. I've had Netflix since before it WAS a streaming service. I've been an Amazon Prime subscriber for about three years now, but that was mostly for the free shipping and until recently they've never had any original programming that enticed me.

Hulu's been a thing, but until this year I never felt any pressing need to subscribe. As I'd never purchased a service JUST for the original programming, there wasn't motivation to start now. The fact that no real Hulu show had broken into the zeitgeist also lessened any urgency I might have felt.

This year felt like a real sea change, brought about by two factors: The Handmaid's Tale and the explosion of other streaming services. I want to be clear here - I think Netflix did the heavy lifting of legitimizing original content on streaming services, but when you already have that service for unrelated reasons, you don't really feel the shift as much. It still felt like the game was: Netflix - and then everyone else.

Let's take stock of the major players in that "everyone else," and their subscription fees:

Here are the monthly fees for the more notable streaming services:

Netflix - $7.99 (no HD), $9.99 HD, $11.99 HDX
Amazon - $8.99
Hulu - $7.99
YouTube Red - $9.99
HBO Now - $15
Showtime - $10.99
Starz - $8.99
CBS All Access - $5.99, $9.99 no ads
FX - $5.99
AMC Premiere - $4.99

The days of Netflix being a good one-stop shop for a deep library of content are numbered. As each of these networks and more launch their own services, they'll likely be taking back their content from other sites. It's the only way to add value to their product. Are you prepared to pay all of this and more a month?

Let's put the library aside for a while and focus on the value of original content. This is a list of all the Netflix shows which I watched in the past 12 months that I can expect another season of within the next 12 months or so:

Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt
Master of None
13 Reasons Why
Love
Stranger Things
Grace & Frankie
Glow
House of Cards
One Day at a Time

That's nine shows right there. You can also add the next season of Arrested Development to that for AT LEAST 10 originals that I'll watch. Marvel also typically has 2 shows in a 12 month cycle. This past year I skipped Iron Fist, didn't finish Luke Cage and plan on watching The Defenders. Odds are I'll watch at least one of whatever they offer, so let's bump the total to 11. My wife watched Fuller House, so adding that gives us an even dozen original shows in the next year.

Or we could use last year as a baseline. These are the one-off seasons that I watched in addition to the shows in the last list:

Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life
Girlboss
MST3K: The Return
The Seekers

So that supports the notion of about a dozen original series a year. At $9.99/month I feel pretty good about that value even before you account for binge-watching any of the licensed library, or the many Netflix documentaries and acquired features, of which there are a lot. Even with some of the licenses rotating out now and then, overall I feel really good about paying ten bucks a month for access.

CBS All-Access has two tiers. $5.99 a month for limited commercial interruption and $9.99 a month for no ads. They also don't follow the Netflix model of dropping all the new episodes in a season at once. This is important because if you want to see each new episode in a 13 episode season as it comes out, you MUST subscribe for four months. If you're paying for no ads, that means that new season is costing you $40, assuming that's the only thing drawing you to the service during those months.

By next year, they will have TWO original shows: The Good Fight and Star Trek: Discovery.

I've been a Star Trek fan since I was ten. I own most of TOS on blu, all of TNG on blu and all of DS9 on DVD, along with at least half of the films on blu, DVD or both. I've watched every new season as it's come out since 1991. Hell, I even own a ton of the novels and behind the scenes books. I'm laying all this out to make it clear that I am fairly representative of the audience that CBS is chasing when they used the Star Trek IP to launch this service.

I will not be subscribing to CBS All-Access. There are 15 episodes in the season, so we're talking about four months of subscription. At the cheap rate, that's $24 for one show. The economics of that don't work out for me, as that's how much the bluray will probably be. I'd rather just wait for the physical copy and buy something I'd actually own.

When a service's exclusive originals are so sparse, it falls to the library to be even more valuable. I can see the case being made, "We're the home for ALL the Star Trek archive!" You might see the problem brewing though - long-time Trek fans are collectors. Like me, they probably already OWN most of those hours of television in some kind of physical format, so there's no incentive there to subscribe for that. The service also includes all of CBS's current programming (99% of which I don't watch), and older CBS/Paramount shows like Cheers, CSI, MacGyver, and so on. For some people, maybe that's enough to get their fee. (I doubt it, but I want to put the possibility out.)

I'll also allow that for new fans who come into the Trek tent with Discovery, it's not a bad idea to have the entire rest of the franchise at their fingertips to binge. Having said that, with only two new shows, the odds of total TREK virgins buying CBS All Access and sampling Discovery seems pretty low.

And this is just the beginning. FX announced this week they're starting their own streaming service, featuring their catalog at $5.99/month and there's AMC Premiere for $4.99/month. Of course, for now they don't have any original programming that will be exclusive to those services, so the incentive to buy that to watch, say, Better Call Saul is rather low. (At least until that's the only streaming service where the entire series is available.) As cable declines the cost of these a la carte services will become more important. I don't know how keen I am to pay $6/month per basic cable channel, essentially. There's a certain point where that cost would easily exceed the cable bill total for all those bundled channels and more.

But it's inevitable.

I'm curious how some of you feel about this. Which streaming channels are essential and what is your calculus for the value of a monthly fee?

Monday, August 7, 2017

Reader emails and the art of writing a good question

I haven't done many "reader email" posts in the recent past and there's are reasons for that. Some of the questions I've gotten have been on topics that I've already covered a lot on the blog, so they're answered quickly with a link to an existing post.

What's left after weeding out those are emails that often fall into one of two categories:

1) An email that asks a question too broad or abstract to yield a useful answer. This would be something like "Tell me how to break into the business" or "what are all the things I can be doing to make my script attractive to an agent?"

Those are questions without any concrete answers, and if they DID have answers, they would require a great deal of effort on my part to answer them. Entire books have been written about each of those subjects. Any effort on my part to answer them in the confines of the blog would likely result in even larger broad and sweeping generalizations than you usually find.

In both cases, the knowledge you want is out there - but it will take some effort on your part to seek out and absorb. When I sought answers to these questions, I researched the lives and careers of people I admired. I went looking for the story of how they broke in. Everyone has a different story of how they attracted an agent or how they got their first job. That diversity speaks to how there's no single way in other than persistence and building up your portfolio to the point where your work will stand out.

2) Long rambling emails that tell me your life story and take many detours that might include the origins of your latest script, the depths of your anxieties, the many disappointments and setbacks you've suffered in your career, and so on.

I know I run the risk of coming of like a dick when I get glib about this, but I assume that if this is how you're composing emails to me, it's also how you're writing to other people who are FAR more important than me. If your email has more than three paragraphs (BRIEF paragraphs), you're doing it wrong. I've been known to open an email, see a wall of text and say, "I'll get to it later" without reading it and I'm much less busy than anyone who can actually do something for your career.

Introduce yourself in two or three sentences. Use another two or three to establish you're familiar with the person you're reaching out to and that you understand their time is valuable, then quickly get to the point of what they can do for you. Obviously if there's a connection you share, like a common friend or the fact you went to the same school, obviously mention that. The point is to be brief, and yet still establish a connection in a few lines.

If you're a good writer, you can do that.

In the meantime, if you've got what you think is a good question, hit me up in the comments or at zuulthereader@gmail.com.


Wednesday, July 19, 2017

16 Great TV Shows, Part 16: 13 Reasons Why

Part 1: The Wonder Years
Part 2: The Simpsons
Part 3: Star Trek: Deep Space Nine
Part 4: Seinfeld
Part 5: The John Larroquette Show
Part 6: ER
Part 7: Newsradio
Part 8: The X-Files
Part 9: Law & Order
Part 10: Homicide: Life on the Street
Part 11: Buffy The Vampire Slayer
Part 12: Gilmore Girls
Part 13: Everwood
Part 14: The Office
Part 15: Breaking Bad

And at last we arrive at the final show on the list, which is appropriately the series that got me thinking about making this list in the first place. I wouldn't blame you if you wondered what else I could possibly have to say about 13 Reasons Why, considering I already devoted 13 posts to the series. As I indicated, this one burrowed into my gut. I was thinking about it for weeks after I saw it and it still is living rent-free right between my ears.

I can't help but be disappointed that Katherine Langford's incredible performance was overlooked by the Emmys last week. I freely admit that one of the problems of Peak TV is that I haven't seen everything, thus, I can't say which of the nominees should have been left off to make room for her, but considering Katherine started off in the first episode having to create two wildly disparate versions of Hannah, and then spend the next 12 episodes gradually bridging that gap, I'd be stunned if all six nominees beat that degree of difficulty. (And that's without bringing in the fact that this was Langford's first serious role.) She'll have a long career, for sure, but I wish her amazing work here was recognized. Dylan Minnette also gave what I consider an Emmy-worthy performance, particularly in the episode showcasing his tape, but I can accept his work was less singular in an equally crowded category.

Ignoring Kate Walsh's devastating turn as Hannah's grieving mother is another instance of insanity, but that's the way the Emmys go sometimes.

During my earlier series of posts on the show, I didn't cover the topic of how the adaptation compares to the original novel. Unexpectedly, when I read the novel, it gave me a deeper appreciation for the series. In every measurable way, the changes made for the show are superior to what they replace or add to. I've almost never seen that, where every divergence results in improvement.

I'm not going to list every difference, but a key change is that the "present" of the book all takes place on the night Clay receives and listens to the tapes. That means nearly all of the post-suicide scenes in the series are unique to the show. In the book, we never meet Hannah's parents, there's no lawsuit involving the school, and Clay never confronts any of the other people on the tapes. This makes a big difference in his arc, because he's generally passive. Also, book-Clay is a lot blander, kind of a generic nice guy. He lacks the rougher, more interesting edges the character has in the show.

But perhaps the most impactful change is that in the book, Clay barely knew Hannah. He crushed on her from afar, but they barely interacted. We're told they worked together at the movie theater, but the book lacks most of the cute interactions between the two at lunches and particularly at the school dance. The tragedy of the Clay/Hannah love story is the heart of the series and it's not present at all in the book. The two DO still make out at the party, and Hannah still freaks out, but so much around their characters is different that this event is recontextualized in a way that makes it less emotional.

In the book, it definitely feels more like Hannah made these tapes as a revenge plot. (As you know, I've argued that on the show, Hannah's motivation to make the tapes appears to be so that she can reclaim her own story.) Without the sweeter scenes between her and Clay, all we really know of Hannah is this person who was constantly wronged by her friends and has every reason to be bitter about it. Two other encounters also take on a different feel due to the changes. In the book, Hannah's rape is much more ambiguous in nature. She seems to put herself in that position know that Bryce will do to her and when he starts having sex with her, she doesn't resist. In fact, there's an inference that she's using him as a way of surrendering to her reputation. On the page, we're left with the impression she's trying to make her life horrible enough to motivate her suicide.

Yeah, it's pretty dark. And it speaks to a less likable (to use a word I know I just derided in the last post) version of Hannah. With this change also comes the feeling that she's really setting Mr. Porter up to fail when she sees him on the day she takes her own life. In the book, it plays almost like a challenge she throws down, like "C'mon, I've already decided to kill myself. Let's see if he can stop me." On the show, the motivation is similar, but more tragic. Hannah seems to be reaching for a life preserver that's never tossed.

So many of the elements that 13 Reasons Why a show I just can't shake either originated with the series or play completely different in the series. All of this speaks to the choices that showrunner Brian Yorkey and his staff had to make when writing the show. The book provides a great hook and a framework to hang the story on, but the TV writers really reached for the depth and emotion of the concept, and every change is geared towards achieving that end.

You come away from the book feeling like Hannah's story is shortchanged so that the focus can be on Clay's man-pain as he learns about this poor girl he barely knew. The book is more committed to making Hannah a real person rather than just an object of pity. The writers knew that Clay shouldn't be a stranger to Hannah. This has to be the story of their near-romance, with their dynamic ultimately making us aware of everything that was lost when Hannah took her life.

The other significant changes are more aimed at making it clear Hannah is broken, but not vindictive in her final days. Her depression and PTSD consume her until she can no longer fight. When the events that break her arrive, there's no sense that she surrenders to them. She merely has the will to go on beaten out of her. It sounds like a subtle distinction as I explain it, but when you compare the two, you'll understand just how vastly different they are.

The show understands Hannah's depression and suicidal choice in a way that I don't feel that the book ever communicates. Some of that is the advantage of being able to see an actress depict that transformation, but if I had to boil that down into a succinct writing lesson it would be this: Write from emotion, not plot. Write to make people feel.

After I put aside the novel, I couldn't help but ponder if I'd have been smart enough to make the choices that the TV writers made. I feel like I probably would have realized the Clay/Hannah connection needed to be more substantial, but I don't know if I'd have woven their flirtation through the series so perfectly and still found a way to be true to Hannah's breakdown that sends her spiraling.

When I tried to convince my wife to watch the show, I noticed all the ways this source material could have been less deftly mined. I told her the show dealt with a lot of real issues teens face, like cyber-bullying, rape, slut-shaming. Her reaction was to say, "Oh, like how Switched at Birth has been doing?"

Look, I've seen plenty of Switched at Birth due to my wife's appreciation for the show. I'll even give them credit for tackling issues like date-rape on their show. But nothing on Switched at Birth has the depth or the emotion of 13 Reasons Why. Ditto for the other show that my wife drew comparisons to as I explained the premise: Pretty Little Liars.

I'm not here to bash those two shows or the genre they represent. They're just a very different kind of product. Whatever darkness they have, it's contrasted by the aspirational artifice you find in most teen dramas. Teens in those shows often feel too much like mini-adults and visually, they aren't dressed and made up the way normal teens are.

When my wife watched, I was glad to see her pick up on some of these points without prompting. When Hannah goes to the dance, my wife's reaction was the same as mine - "They have her wearing a dress a girl that age would actually wear. It's not a sexy designer dress. It looks like she had to go to TJ Maxx and buy within a budget." She was 100% right about that. On PLL, that dress would have been three times as expensive, have a much lower cut to the top and a much higher hem on the skirt.

In general, 13 Reasons Why doesn't do much male gazing at Hannah. She's not overly sexualized in the way that teen protagonists often are. It's funny because at one point, Tony says that Hannah liked hanging with him because she could complain about the guys who stared at her boobs and her ass. Having watched the show, I feel pretty confidant in stating that Hannah's never dressed in a way that invites that sort of leering from the viewer. In fact, I'm reasonably sure there's not so much as a cleavage shot.

Even in a sequence where we know Hannah has stripped to her underwear and gotten into a hot tub, the action is staged with angles that don't show off her body at all. A couple other characters are put on display, but not Hannah. A running theme of the show is how her peers objectify and degrade her, and the show seems to take great pains not to make the viewer complicit in that. It's a restraint rarely seen in this genre.

What all of this adds up to is that the show creates a world that feels more grounded and believable than most of its contemporaries. It's very easy to imagine a version of the show that lives in that Freeform space. It might even be a compelling show with all the thrills and twists of Pretty Little Liars. But PLL never shook me to my core the way this series did. It lacked the rawness and the verisimilitude that made 13 Reasons Why such a potent tragedy.

Brian Yorkey and his team of writers, directors and actors worked hard to elevate their show above its source material. They found every possible emotional touchstone in the novel, and when that wasn't enough they invented more of their own. No short cuts were made just because this was a "teen drama" or a "YA adaptation." When I write something, be it an original or an adaptation, I will always think of the example this show sets, and how much power it draws from raw emotion.

Other posts on the series:
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
Side 13: Thoughts on Season 2

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

16 Great TV Shows, Part 15: Breaking Bad

Part 1: The Wonder Years
Part 2: The Simpsons
Part 3: Star Trek: Deep Space Nine
Part 4: Seinfeld
Part 5: The John Larroquette Show
Part 6: ER
Part 7: Newsradio
Part 8: The X-Files
Part 9: Law & Order
Part 10: Homicide: Life on the Street
Part 11: Buffy The Vampire Slayer
Part 12: Gilmore Girls
Part 13: Everwood
Part 14: The Office

Any screenwriter who's written long enough has probably gotten the dreaded note that their characters aren't "likable enough." As with anything, I'll grant there are probably circumstances where such a note is warranted. Often, though, the people giving the note are making a surface-level judgement and can't really back up the claim. Think about it - do audiences REALLY reject unlikable characters?

I offer my first exhibit into evidence: Breaking Bad.

It is indisputably one of the greatest TV shows ever made - and the lead character is a science teacher turned drug-dealer who becomes a meth kingpin, kills multiple people, puts himself and his family in danger again and again, and bypasses MULTIPLE opportunities to walk away. There is quite literally almost NO point in the series where Walter White is anything close to admirable, and definitely not even likable.

He is a horrible, selfish, bitter human being and that's what makes him compelling. Walt, of course, is the hero of his own story. The truly fascinating thing about the show is how it weaves a spell to delude the viewer into empathy for Walt's side rather than for his poor wife and family who are the true innocents being screwed by this.

I was a late-comer to the series. It wasn't until Summer 2013 (during the hiatus just before the final 8 episodes) that I sat down with the intent of catching up on all the episodes. I had a lot of time on my hands, so it took me maybe 12 days to binge the first five seasons. There's so much ground I could cover with regard to the show, but there just isn't time to do so. I'll merely let the speed of my binge speak for how addictive the series is. There were many a nigh when I had intent to go to bed after the episode I was watching, only to have that shows's cliffhanger compel me to stick around for "just one more."

When I started Breaking Bad, I only knew a few spoilers. I was aware that Krysten Ritter died in one season finale, I knew that Giancarlo Esposito had a memorable, violent exit, and that was really it. These were barely spoilers, and in a way, so misleading as to be useless.

Oh, and I knew the "I am the one who knocks" speech from the promos. But again, I was so devoid of context that it didn't undermine anything for me.

Once I caught up with the series, I dove into some of the fandom and that was where I made the fascinating discovery that some people saw Walt as the HERO of the show. I don't mean they understood why he did what he did, they defended him and attacked any character who got in the way of his fun - particularly "that bitch Skyler." This segment of fandom found it absolutely unreasonable that Walt's wife wanted him to abandon his dangerous and illegal activities, and that she often hated him for what he'd done. It was a reaction I found bizarre, and I recall one night getting into a very intense Twitter debate with someone who felt my contention that Walt was the villain of the series was insincere and wrong.

I'm struggling to remember the fight, but I think he was basically arguing that Walt wasn't villainous until very late in the run and that I was being disingenuous (and trying to look impossibly perceptive, the implication was) by finding him repulsive early on. My opponent was CERTAIN that Walt was a good guy who just made some bad choices after being in tough spots. He wouldn't even concede that Walt bore any moral culpability in Jane's death. For me, that scene was effectively the end of the debate that he was a bad person. He's done bad things before that, but that's a clear moral exit ramp. He allows someone to die in a preventable situation where he himself is in no way endangered.

But that wasn't where my "Walt is definitely an asshole" radar first went off. The scene that tipped me off to the fact we're not supposed to empathize with him comes midway through season one, and it's almost a throwaway. A stockbroker steals Walt's parking spot. Casting did their job because the actor screams "Douchebag" on sight, right down to the bluetooth he's yammering away on in his bro-ish tone. Walt later spots him at a gas station, and while the guy with the punchable face is again occupied on his phone, Walt messes with his car and causes it to blow up.

On one hand, "Yeah, fuck that guy!" On the other... isn't this retaliation a WEE bit disproportionate? I feel like this was a very deliberate choice on the part of showrunner Vince Gilligan. It's a moment that we're tempted to cheer, but really is quite horrifying. I call it the "Off-Road Rage" moment. Walt goes to an ugly moment of violence over a minor slight.

(Look, when I was younger it took me all of three seasons to realize Dawson Leery was an asshole and on a rewatch I was embarrassed I blew past SO many warning signs so let me have this one, okay?)

"You shouldn't write unlikable characters," my ass. Walter White is proof that people will cheer for them. Walt earns that trust because he's given a sympathetic reason for embarking on a life of crime. He has cancer and he needs money for his treatment and for his family. Meth is the drug of choice in the area, so much so that really stupid people are cashing in, so why can't someone smart like Walt get in on that for the right reasons? Doesn't he deserve that money more than the lowlifes? Walt's not a lowlife, he's a teacher for crying outloud.

That's the first step. The second step is how they trap Walt in a situation where he HAS to sin. Some meth dealers get wind of Walt's new operation and suspect Walt might be a narc. They confront them at gunpoint and Walt kills one of them (with science!) acting in self-defense. The other one, Crazy-8, survives, which makes Walt's dilemma more difficult. He has the dealer at his mercy, which means killing him is more of an "in cold blood" thing rather than a "it's him or me" heat of the moment call. He takes him prisoner, locking him up in his partner Jesse's basement. At one point, Walt makes a list of "Pros & Cons" of killing him. There are many reasons not to - both moral and legal - but they're outweighed by the one item in the other column: "He will kill you and everyone you love."

So Walt kills him. It's a clear murder, but he justifies it to himself just as the audience justifies it for him. After all, what choice did he have? What would you have done? (Of course, he's in that position due to circumstances almost entirely of his own making, but we've already justified that.)

Once you have the audience on board with that, you can start playing the "wish fulfillment" end of things. Walt quickly makes money and a reputation. He - a pathetic science teacher who seems like he never stood up at anyone in his life - now gets to walk into a drug den and act like a bad ass by standing up to the worst in society. Because we've determined Walt's not like all those other "thugs" we get to read it like he's only "playing gangster" and he makes it look fun. Another sneaky subversion is that Walt is frequently shown to be smart and able to work his way out of many difficult spots. It's like watching Batman or Sherlock Holmes out-think his opponents. Walt has to earn every victory and that makes us even more eager to see him win, like watching a heist in Ocean's Eleven.

And Skyler? The woman who just wants her ailing husband to accept money from his wealthy former partners and give up this life of crime? Well she's the wet-blanket bitch who's getting in the way of the party! Sneaky how we got turned against the person who HASN'T murdered anyone, right?

I'm not discounting the role of misogyny in the "I Hate Skyler White" fandom, but I feel I should point out that fandom often revolts against the supporting character whose function is it get in the way of the fun antics that the show's premise promises. A good example: During season one of Alias, fans really hated Bradley Cooper's character Will. He was a friend of Sydney's and a reporter who kept digging into the murder of Sydney's fiance. He also was generally a good guy and likable (I mean, it's Bradley Cooper!) The complication is that since he didn't know Sydney's secret, the more he dug, the more he risked unwittingly exposing her cover and putting her in danger. Though he was a friend, he wasn't an ally and he kept getting in the middle of situations that compromised Sydney. Once the writers figured this out, they developed the storyline in a way that brought Will into the fold and he was suddenly much more acceptable.

All of that is just a very long way around calling out this "unlikable character" terror as the bullshit it is. If you can get your audience to root for a murderer, you can get them to root for anyone. The path to doing it is by appealing to the lizard brain in all of us. Walter White is appealing because he's depicted as an underdog who's sticking it to everyone who the audience would really like to get even with. (There, I also just explained Trump's appeal.) No one will cheer Walt blowing up a soccer mom's minivan, but a financial dude-bro's penis-chariot? Oh yeah, they're in.

People love assholes. Ari Gold's appeal is almost purely in his fearlessness at telling his enemies to fuck off. Dr. Cox on Scrubs is a massive prick, but we usually see that energy directed either at the boss who needs to be taken down a peg or the sorts of fools that we'd all love to cut into, if we were not restrained by societal norms.

There's a lot to take from Breaking Bad, but for me, it will always be a show that proved you can dupe the audience into rooting for the worst of humanity.

Monday, July 17, 2017

16 Great TV Shows, Part 14: The Office

Part 1: The Wonder Years
Part 2: The Simpsons
Part 3: Star Trek: Deep Space Nine
Part 4: Seinfeld
Part 5: The John Larroquette Show
Part 6: ER
Part 7: Newsradio
Part 8: The X-Files
Part 9: Law & Order
Part 10: Homicide: Life on the Street
Part 11: Buffy The Vampire Slayer
Part 12: Gilmore Girls
Part 13: Everwood

Like Seinfeld, The Office finds much of its humor in the mundane. A lot of its appeal comes from the little moments that all of us can relate to as being part of our own jobs, whether it's dealing with a co-worker who makes a nuisance of himself by flaunting every bit of his limited authority, or the silent battles waged over the thermostat setting.

For me, the earliest connection I made was that the office manager I dealt with daily was EXACTLY like Michael Scott, right down to the fact that he saw himself as an entertainer as much as he did a supervisor. It was so spot-on that it was almost painful, but it's not one of the reasons this show is on the list.

For the first season of the show, Michael Scott seemed like a clueless, self-centered buffoon... and those were in his better moments. In his worst ones, (the sensitivity training session in "Diversity Day" comes to mind) he was a straight-up asshole and incompetent. It took little time to provoke the question: "If he's so stupid, how did he get this job?"

The Office brilliantly answered that early in season two, with an episode called "The Client." Michael and his boss Jan have to take an important client to dinner. It's impressed on us that this is an account they can't afford to lose. This client covers their entire county and if they lose him, it could force Dunder-Mifflin to downsize the branch. Yes, that means everyone's jobs are essentially in Michael's hands.

By now, we've seen Michael's immature antics screw up enough times that we completely empathize with Jan's cringing when Michael interrupts her "all-business" pitch with entreaties to order an "awesome blossom" for the table. By the time he's singing the "I want my baby-back, baby-back, baby-back ribs" jingle, Jan looks like she wants to crawl under the table in embarrassment and we're right there with her.


It's not until near the end of the meal that we look at this moment and Michael in a new light. The client keeps falling back on "budget cuts" as a major concern for him. We come into a conversation later in the night, as the two men are apparently bonding over their local histories.

MICHAEL
Spent my whole life right here in Lackawanna County and I do not intend on moving. I know this place. I know how many hospitals we have. I know how many schools we have. It's home, you know? I know the challenges that this county is up against. Here's the thing about those discount suppliers, they don't care. They come in, they undercut everything, and they run us out of business. And then, once we're all gone, they jack up the prices.

He's spent the whole night getting the conversation to this point. The client agrees. Jan tries to interject and Michael promptly shushes her. He knows that her help isn't needed, and seconds later, the client agrees to meet them halfway. And all of that is because Michael knew how to appeal to the guy on a personal level, not a business one.

That moment takes the oddity of Michael's leadership and immediately explains it. No matter how bad he is as a manager, he knows how to read people and spent the whole night softening the guy up for that pitch. We understand that he must have been a great salesman and that this success is probably what got him promoted to branch manager. It's the Peter Principle in action - he got promoted one level past his competence.

Michael's characterization now had an internal logic it was lacking before and the show would play off of that many times in the future. It underlined how there was real thought that went into the crafting of these oddball characters and that the show wasn't writing purely for the joke.

The Jim and Pam relationship is an even more potent instance of that. I recently had a conversation with my wife about the faction of fandom known as "shippers." These are fans that are intensely devoted a particular pairing on a TV show, generally to the exclusion of interest in any other aspect of the show. Some of these fans take the show particularly seriously, which leads them to attack competing couplings and often attack the writers responsible.

My wife couldn't comprehend being so invested in a show's couples that a person would react that extremely. We tried to figure out if there were any shows where we felt an intense connection to a particular couple's storyline. As I said, "With Dawson's Creek, I preferred Joey with Pacey and really hated the idea of her with Dawson, but it never mattered enough to me to go on the attack about. On Buffy, I think the idea of Buffy and Spike is sick and degrading her her character, but I'd never send a writer death threats over it."

And she came back with the one couple she remembered being really invested in: Jim and Pam.

Jim and Pam's relationship is one of the perfect TV slow-burn love stories. It starts as Jim's one-sided crush on his engaged officemate, then gradually shows interactions that hint that Pam might be in love with him and not realize it. The writers break that stasis by having Jim confess his feelings and leave and then spend an entire season rebuilding that relationship before following the courtship through to marriage.

It felt real and relatable. I think everyone's had feelings for someone who was unattainable at one point and so Jim's agonizing crush struck a familiar note with most viewers. The show's documentary style also invited the viewer to feel a certain intimacy with each of the characters. We're seeing stolen moments, some where the players don't know they're being filmed and some when they don't realize what they're revealing. There were times that we'd see something Jim said or did that he didn't realize was caught on camera, and then he'd either lie about it or minimize it in a confessional interview.

The Office - at its best - understood people in general and its characters in specific. The humor had to feel more naturalistic than in a typical sitcom and many of the laughs were observational in nature. Dwight's point of view was always so different from everyone else's that it would be impossible to reassign most of his lines to any other character. Same goes for Michael, or Phyllis, or Kelly, and so on.

It's a lesson not dissimilar from Seinfeld's ethos - find the little things. If there's a difference in execution it's that Seinfeld would mine minutae for story, whereas The Office did so for character, which in turn would drive story, and long-running story arcs. There are few relationships as perfectly built as the Jim/Pam trajectory in Season 2. That's how you make an audience fall in love with a couple.

Friday, July 14, 2017

16 Great TV Shows, Part 13: Everwood

Part 1: The Wonder Years
Part 2: The Simpsons
Part 3: Star Trek: Deep Space Nine
Part 4: Seinfeld
Part 5: The John Larroquette Show
Part 6: ER
Part 7: Newsradio
Part 8: The X-Files
Part 9: Law & Order
Part 10: Homicide: Life on the Street
Part 11: Buffy The Vampire Slayer
Part 12: Gilmore Girls

The further I get from Everwood, the more I realize it was something of a sneaky Trojan Horse that used some of its conventional trappings to slide through development on a network that really doesn't seem like the most obvious home for it. This Greg Berlanti-created show debuted on The WB in 2002 and at first blush, seemed to have one foot in the "family drama" groove held by 7th Heaven and another foot in the "teen drama" one.

The backstory: Treat Williams plays Dr. Andy Brown, a world famous neurosurgeon who's left to raise his two kids teenage Ephram (Gregory Smith) and 9 year-old Delia (Viven Cardone) after his wife dies in a car accident. In a sudden, seemingly spur of the moment decision, he quits his Manhattan practice and uproots his kids to a small Colorado town called Everwood. There, the predictably quirky locals buzz about the arrival of the new doctor who's been on the cover of TIME, though his new (free!) practice leads him to quickly butt heads with the town's family doctor Harold Abbott (Tom Amandes.)

Ephram, who has long butted heads with his distant father, finds himself in another complication. The cute girl he likes, Amy (Emily VanCamp, in one of the best teen drama "teenage girl" roles ever), wants him to convince Andy to do brain surgery on her boyfriend, left comatose after an accident. As if competing with a guy in a coma wasn't enough for Ephram, Amy's father is Dr. Abbott.

It soapy when you lay it out like that, but the pilot is one of the best examples of how to introduce a complicated ensemble with a lot of connections to each other. If there's a core relationship in the pilot, it's the tension between Ephram and Andy, which at once point devolves into a shouting match where Ephram says (and means) "I wish you'd died instead of [Mom]!" It's raw, painful stuff, and it's not fixed by the end of the pilot. The two spend years rebuilding their relationship with a lot of one step forward, two steps back moves. There eventually comes a time when Andy does something unforgivable and an entire season is spent waiting for Ephram to discover it, with the viewer knowing that neither of them can come back from it.

It's a teen show where the main character is a man in his fifties, and about half of the ensemble is his age or older. It's a family drama where even a detente between parties doesn't lead to any resolution. It's a show that doesn't take the easy route of demonizing the manipulative popular girl OR the brash bully that's her brother.

Oh, I forgot to mention: Chris Pratt is in this, playing Amy's brother Bright. NOW will you check it out?

The seemingly simple tropes that each character falls into upon introduction belies the depth revealed as the story goes on. There are entire seasons where Amy Abbott is frustrating and exhausting but it's always compelling because Emily VanCamp and the writers sell the shit out of it. Same with Ephram, there are so many times where you know you should want to smack him but you can't help but understand his point of view. And Andy... this is the story of Andy Brown learning to be a father and a human and I like that it's not easy in the least.

Is there another WB show where one of the main cast relationships was an interracial marriage between a couple in their 70s?

This is another one of those "character first" shows where the writers found wonderful ways to weave in social issues and hit them from all sides by using their entire ensemble. A standout from the first season is "the abortion episode," where Dr. Brown is asked to terminate a pregnancy and the request sparks tension between not just him and the conservative town, but Harold as well... and not for the reasons we'd expect.

Some of the social issues were "hit and run" topics for one episode. (Television Without Pity had a fantastic moniker for these "Medical Epidemics Of the Week" or MEOW.) Here they'd hit topics like "teen sex parties" or "teen pregnancy." Other topics provided fodder for an entire season, as when Harold's sister returns from Africa and joins her family practice... not revealing until much later that she's HIV-positive. It stokes concern and mistrust in the town and destroys Harold's family practice entirely.

The Ephram and Amy relationship provides the expected amount of teen angst, but unlike other series, that plotline doesn't exist in its own bubble and so the ripples from that will touch and affect other plots like the Abbotts' marriage and the dynamic between Andy and Harold. This is one of those writings things that's generally invisible when it's done well.

If you watch most shows carefully, you'll start to sense divisions between various plots or "pods," as I call them. Supporting characters may have parallel stories, but you won't often see a lot of butterfly effect where one subplot knocks over major dominos in another subplot. (This is particularly true of The WB at the time. On Gilmore Girls, it was rare for anything happening with Rory at school to somehow impact anything going on with her grandparents.)

Everwood was never afraid of emotion, or of showing flawed characters who took time to evolve out of those failings. The writing always seemed to come from genuine emotion and this is an incredibly strong ensemble cast. I'm a big fan of Greg Berlanti's work in the DC Universe but for my money, this is is masterpiece.

The entire series is available to stream for free on CWSeed. Season One is that rare beast where I'm not sure there are any duds at all. Watch the pilot - study how it efficiently introduces such a large ensemble and let that pilot force you to watch everything that follows. If this show premiered today on Netflix, we'd be holding it up as another example of "Peak TV."

For further reading, check out this Oral History of Everwood from EW.com.