Tuesday, May 23, 2017

13 Reasons Why - Side 6: Mr. Porter - Terrible Counselor or Worst Counselor?

Side 1: The Setting
Side 2: An overly contrived premise can present a challenge
Side 3: Hannah Baker
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

Is school counselor Mr. Porter a villain?

In following the reaction to 13 Reasons Why, one recurring topic is that the school counselor, Mr. Porter really misses the ball when a clearly distraught Hannah comes to him trying to speak up about her rape at Bryce's hands.

This happens right after she records the first 12 tapes, and the beginning of Tape 13 lays out where her head was at that point, "But a funny thing happened as I finished number 12. I felt something... shift. I had poured it all out and for a minute, just a minute, I felt like maybe i could beat this. I decided to give life one more chance. But this time I was asking for help."

That's what leads her to Porter. We know the stakes in this moment, but Porter doesn't. This is the last chance to save Hannah. A few days after my first viewing of this episode, I attempted to give Porter the benefit of the doubt. To play Devil's Advocate, it's easy for us to berate him for fumbling the ball because we have so much more context for Hannah's words here. We can't hold him responsible for lacking our omniscient perspective.

And then I rewatched the episode carefully. Even before we get to the moments I might argue are fair-play mistakes, Hannah has said this: "I don't feel anything. I don't care any more... about anything." 

Um. Red flag.

Then she says she's a problem to her parents and breaks down, saying "I need everything to stop. People. Life"

Red. Flag.

Throw out the rest of this scene, and you've still got an amazing case that Porter dropped the ball horribly here. Let's stipulate to that now.


Hannah steers the conversation to her rape. She finds it difficult to just blurt the truth out and instead comes at the subject obliquely, saying something happened at a party. The context makes it clear she's talking about sex and Porter's questions immediately seem to go to the issue of consent. Reacting to the mention of a party, he asks if she had "an encounter" there.

These are the questions he asks, emphasis mine.

"Did anything happen that night that you regret?

"Are you embarrassed by what happened?

"Maybe you made a decision? A decision to do something with a boy that you now regret?"

This is rape culture right there. He puts the burden on her. He say "by what happened" as if it was an act of God that occurred while all the players stood around passively. He implies she made a decision and is only now taking it back.

See what's missing in all of this? Any hint that the boy could have done something wrong. Now with that tone established, Porter fires questions at Hannah, and on a second viewing, it struck me how it had the feel of a cross examination. The questions are confrontational and "yes or no" type interrogatives, not open-ended questions.

"Did he force himself on you?"

-"I think so"

"Did you tell him to stop?"

-"No."

"Did you tell him no?"

-"No."

"Maybe you consented and then changed your mind."

-"No, it's not like that!"

His mind is on how to prove whatever allegations Hannah is going to make. The most generous reading of his failing in this scene is that he thinks Hannah has come to him as a pretense to any legal action.  He's focused on that big picture while completely missing the even bigger picture - the traumatized girl in front of him.

To Hannah, those questions sound like accusations. If she didn't try to stop it, well that must mean she wanted it, right? She was participating in it, and if she's changing her mind after the fact, well, who's gonna believe the school slut anyway? Hannah's tapes don't tell us these specific thoughts are going through her head, but the actresses performance makes it clear. Even if Porter's just seeking information, what Hannah hears is "Prove it. Convince me." She asks him if it's likely anything could happen to the person who did this.

"If you can't give me a name, if you don't want to press charges on this boy. If you not even sure you can press charges, then there really only is one option.

-"What is it?"

"You can move on."

-"You mean do nothing."

She leaves, despite Porter trying to convince her to stay. She turns him down, and I'll award him a slight bit of credit for realizing he should be doing more. When Hannah leaves, she lingers outside his office a moment, waiting to see if he'll go the extra step to come after her. He doesn't, both because she already turned him down and because he's gotten a phone call. It was her last straw - she went there to see if someone cared enough to help her and what she got struck her like a perfunctory meeting, accusations, and the certainty that Porter cared about nothing once it was outside his office.

If Hannah said the word "rape," at the outset, and if she recounted what happened exactly as we saw it, I want to believe Porter would have recognized he was dealing with something more serious here. The fact he completely misses huge depression red flags early on doesn't help support that theory, though. .

Of course, as we see the scene through Hannah's eyes, we fully understand why she doesn't say any of that. Porter's efforts to get more information read as skepticism, even more than he intends. This is the man she's supposed to be able to trust and his opening move is basically, got any evidence? It's an easy leap from that to what Hannah surely concludes, "No one will believe me. Ever." She can't go on if she has to pretend this didn't happen, and so when Porter tells her that the best thing to do is "move on," in her mind, suicide is the only escape.

I gave a lot of thought as to why 13 Reasons Why tells the story this way, and I concluded it was so that we know the first thing to do when we're in the same position as Mr. Porter - listen.
Hannah's pain is obvious to an audience that has enough context to hear the dog whistle she's using. In real life we don't have that. Our reactions to Hannah would be informed by what we know of her, our own experience with her, and what we've heard about her. 13 Reasons Why occasionally raises the possibility of Hannah being an unreliable narrator. Several people insist she's lying on the tapes, and indeed, we're given at least one outright contradiction between what she thought she saw and what happened. More than once, a character draws a distinction between "her truth" and "your truth."

Now let's bring the real world into it. The show apparently fudges a critical detail. Porter implies that he needs all the details before he can go to the police, but in truth, his obligation is much broader. If he knows a student is being assaulted, he HAS to report it. Thus, to be correct, his question to Hannah shouldn't have been, "Can you tell me everything?" He should have asked, "Were you assaulted?" It's a relatively small shift in the writing, but a critically important one. If Porter isn't making a big deal about "burden of proof," Hannah probably would have spoken up. Even if his first impulse is to wonder if this is all about a hookup she regrets, he raises the legal issue in a way that shuts her down.

I feel like we were supposed to believe that Mr. Porter had good intentions but his failing was his inability to look for "her truth." That's directly on theme for this entire series. Instead, he's shown to be dangerously incompetent, and that muddies any grey areas that could have been mined later in the scene.

The overall message about how we can all do better in seeking context for the behavior of people we know is an important one. As human beings, maybe 13 Reasons Why can help us do better in that regard.

Monday, May 22, 2017

13 Reasons Why - Side 5: Clay's tape leads to one of this year's most heartbreaking episodes

Side 1: The Setting
Side 2: An overly contrived premise can present a challenge
Side 3: Hannah Baker
Side 4: Clay, an outsider who isn't an outcast

[Extra warning on this: this is extremely spoiler-heavy with details of the 11th episode of 13 Reasons Why.]

Heartbreaking.

That was almost the only word I could muster after watching the episode of 13 Reasons Why devoted to Clay's tape. It's the eleventh episode, with teleplay like Diana Son, and it's an hour of television that really stabs you in the heart with tragedy and then twists the knife.

Hannah's tapes form the spine of the series, but it's the Hannah/Clay romance that gives it its heart. We've covered a lot of this backstory in the individual posts about Hannah and Clay, especially the significant moment between them on the dance floor in episode five. Those long seconds where they stare at each other, both of them clearly wanting to kiss, and then having that moment ripped away felt important on a first viewing. My second run through the episodes made me realize that moment is even bigger. It's the one point in the show where Hannah could have been saved.

I think the series does an able job of demonstrating that a multitude of factors and choices contributed to Hannah's downward spiral. Once she was in that tailspin, other incidents were catalysts for an even deeper depression, but I also get the feeling that rock bottom was an inevitable destination for her. Traumas like her rape absolutely accelerated it but Hannah's poetry and note to her teacher are pretty strong evidence she'd been depressed for a while already. She needed counseling and so changing one thing, one action wouldn't reverse it.

But her dance with Clay comes right before all that. And it's hard not to imagine if they had gotten together then, so much of what hurt her would be invalidated or have never happened. It's the one pivot point in Hannah's life that could have changed everything. Though it may be a problematic message to say that the love of a nice boy saves everything, there's a better way to look at it. Hannah's depression builds because she doesn't have a strong connection to anyone. There's a deep loneliness to her, no matter what else she tries.

During my first run through the series, it was around episode 8 I tweeted, "I'm at the point in the show where every time Hannah's alone with a male character, I'm bracing for the worst... You just want to give the poor girl a hug, but given her state of mind, that would probably be a terrible idea."

So if nothing else, I was perceptive, but we'll get to that shortly.

It feels true to life that Hannah's decline isn't a steady fall. At the top of the three episodes that flash back to events at an end-of-summer party, Hannah's decided to give herself a fresh start. She cuts off a lot of her hair, is determined to study more and get things back on track. When Clay invites her to the party, she declines, so committed to working on her academics.

Clay goes only because his friend Jeff - who's tried to help him with girls - insists he go. Let me tell you, if you want to know Teenage Me, just study everything Clay does at the party, up to the moment he kisses Hannah. From showing up too early, to nitpicking a baseball metaphor that Jeff uses to convince him to go talk to Hannah, it all felt VERY familiar to me:

JEFF
Take a swing.

CLAY
A swing?

JEFF
You got a fat slider in your sweet spot. You gotta swing your bat through the strike zone, man, and knock it out.

CLAY
Oh, see, I'm aware that those are baseball terms. And if I'm interpreting correctly, I think that given my batting average, what I would actually end up with is a strikeout and not a homerun. With that said, very good use of an extended metaphor.

It's uncanny.

Katherine Langford and Dylan Minnette have undeniable chemistry in this episode. You really believe these two are falling in love, or at least, are finally able to express what they're feeling for each other. I know fans of virtually every teen show get invested in their favorite character pairings, but I have to reach back pretty far to think of a coupling I really believed in, and was so emotionally invested in.

But we know how this story ends. Hannah's death hangs over the entire series, but it was this episode where I found myself trying to will another ending into being. She's going to be ripped away from Clay, she's going to choose to end it all. Every minute of cute, easy banter with Clay just makes the audience want to scream, "You didn't have to do this! He loved you!"

It also makes us empathetic to Clay's loss, and in another effective writing choice, this episode turns into the catharsis for Clay's grief. There's real purpose behind every choice in this episode. The writers didn't craft an hour that's an overt downer from start to finish. This isn't like "The Body" episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Here the highs of young love are exploited to make the fall back to Earth that much more impactful.

When the moment arrives, it's even crueler than we feared. The craziness of the party leads the two of them to slip into Jess's bedroom for privacy. It's innocent enough for a moment as they crack jokes about Jess's pet rocks and what they would be named. It leads to Hannah teasing Clay about his name, but reassuring him, "I like the name Clay."

Clay gives it half a beat and says, "I like the name Hannah." A small moment passes, where I'm sure Clay gathers the strength to do what he's likely kicked himself for NOT doing last year at the dance... and he kisses her.

They ease each other back onto the bed and though there's no doubt that Hannah's as invested in this as him, Clay asks, "Is this okay?" Through a smile, she replies, "Yeah, more than okay." Hannah's voiceover tells us, "At that moment, everything was perfect. And for the first time in a long time, I could imagine a future where I was happy, how good life could be."We're shown fantasies of what their life together could be like (where it seems significant that Hannah pictures herself with her longer hair and not her current cut.)

And then it turns, Hannah's tape narrates, "I wanted you to do everything you were doing, so I don't know why my mind took me everywhere else and I thought of every other guy.... and they all became you." The montage of them making out on the bed is intercut with every violation visited upon Hannah thus far on the show, the groping, the humiliation, the harassment. It's like watching a PTSD survivor be triggered and she quickly shouts at Clay to stop and pushes him off. She's practically in tears and a bewildered Clay asks if he did something wrong.

He asks if she's alright, his immediate concern not being the passion that was broken, but her well-being. She tells him to get out. He reaches out to her again and she says "Get the fuck out!" And because Clay's the type of guy who respects a girl's wishes, he leaves, more than a little confused bout what he did wrong and very hurt.

Those last several paragraphs were more recap than analysis, but the scene bears examining that carefully. We have enough information to understand both perspectives. Hannah's not a horrible person for making him feel bad, nor is she being a drama queen. And Clay, well, we understand just how hurtful and humiliating that must have been for him. It's simply beautiful writing, where two characters come into conflict over two totally justified mindsets. Neither one is "wrong." Both are completely true to the characters. We get why she pushes him away, even when she doesn't want to, and it's crystal clear why he leaves, even though he wants to stay and help her.

It's a defining moment for both their arcs, where neither character is sold out and every circumstance that put those two in that room comes together in a way that brings them both agony. Multiple layers of conflict are in play here. Hannah's heart vs. her depression, Clay's love for Hannah in conflict with how stung he is. Hannah in conflict with Clay because of what he's triggering in her. Clay's conflict with himself in deciding whether to stay or leave.

The show makes this look easy, but getting all those threads to come together in a perfect symphony? That's hard. Diana Son's teleplay is a master class in that kind of character writing. I'm in awe of this episode every time I've watched it.

And immediately this recontextualizes a moment shown in the previous episode, set after the party. Clay's friend Jeff is killed in a car crash later that night of the party, and Hannah knows circumstances of the accident that no one else does. The following week at school, a tearful Hannah approaches Clay to say she's sorry and ask if they can talk. Clay, still stinging from the party, snaps that she didn't even know Jeff and accuses her of being a drama queen about it to find a way to make it all about her.

When we first saw that scene, Clay's attitude seemed unusually harsh for him, but it was understandable. But once we have the full story of what he was also mad about and what she was trying to explain and apologize for, it becomes clear that was probably another breaking point for Hannah and another moment Clay regrets.

Hannah's tape continues: "Clay? Helmet? [Her nickname for him] Your name does not belong on this list but you need to be here if I'm going to tell my story, if I'm going to explain why I did what I did. Because you aren't every other guy. You're different. You're good and kind and decent. And I didn't deserve to be with someone like you. I never would. I would have ruined you. It wasn't you. It was me. And everything that's happened to me."

I've seen complaints that the show doesn't make it "clear" that Hannah suffers from depression. Bullshit. Listen to that monologue and tell me that's not someone who's DEEP in depression. It's one of the saddest TV character speeches in recent memory. Like Clay we're simultaneously shocked at the depth of her self-hate and realizing that it's a realistic conclusion to everything Hannah's been through.

Dylan Minnette acts his ass off in the next scene as this causes Clay to totally breakdown. At one point he stands on the edge of a cliff as Tony implores him to come back. Clay says he should have stayed with her. He knew something was wrong and he just left her there. It's wrenching to watch. He truly believes she's dead because of him. It doesn't matter to him that she wasn't in her right mind when she concluded this. He feels he had a responsibility to stay.

He imagines a different version of that night, one where he doesn't accept it when she tells him to leave. He stays, and when she reminds him that he thought she was a slut just like everyone else when he saw that picture, he tells her "I was angry for a minute because... because I was jealous of Justin. And I was mad at you for wanting him and not me. I was an asshole, and I'm sorry. I can never make it right, I can never say all this to you, but I love you, and I will never hurt you. I'm not going, not now, not ever. I love you, Hannah."

Langford's steely delivery makes her response wrenching enough on its own, but it's downright devastating knowing this comes from inside Clay's mind: 

"Why didn't you say this to me when I was alive?"

We return to Clay on the cliff with Tony, stepping back from the ledge as he weeps for what he'll never have back. He couldn't have saved her. No matter what he convinces himself of in hindsight a seventeen year-old boy in that situation would never have had the maturity and the insight to recognize what was going on and diffuse it.

He asks Tony how he's supposed to live with what he's learned. Tony says, "Any way you can," and pulls him into a hug.

Done wrong, the distance between Clay and Hannah in her remaining days could have felt contrived, a device to keep her from seeking help and keep him from reaching out. This show does it right. Everything from Clay's perspective reinforces his judgment that Hannah's being a drama queen and he reacts by withdrawing from her so he won't get hurt again.

Just like she withdrew from everyone else.

It all comes from character. These are complex people, with complicated emotions and reactions.

I thought of the Hannah's I've known, the drama queens, the attention-seekers who turned on a dime. From the outside, they seem bi-polar. They open up to you one minute and seem to distrust everything about you the next. More often than not, they'll exhaust you. For the first time I wondered if that was provoked by them having gone through something way worse than I imagined.

Clay didn't kill Hannah, but you'll never convince him there wasn't more he could have done. The depth of this tragedy is, well, like I said... heartbreaking.

Friday, May 19, 2017

13 Reasons Why - Side 4: Clay, an outsider who isn't an outcast

Side 1: The Setting
Side 2: An overly contrived premise can present a challenge
Side 3: Hannah Baker

As the character through whom we experience Hannah's tapes, Clay is very much the eyes and ears of the audience. One of the wiser things the use of the tapes lets us do is it gives us Clay as an audience surrogate while still letting Hannah speak for herself. There's probably a lesser version of this tale that's all about Clay's perspective on her. Hannah's POV lets us more readily appreciate the moments when Clay is in the wrong.

I very much like that 13 Reasons Why depicts Clay as an outsider but not an outcast. Outcasts tend to be the "weird kids," the strange ones who are subjects of bullying and ridicule, the lowest on the food chain. Outsiders are different - they've chosen to stay out of that particular social ecosystem by forming few attachments within it. It affords them the luxury of being apathetic about the usual high school drama because it doesn't impact them. It's easy to be indifferent to something that you don't have any investment in.

It's demonstrated he's not an Outsider because he's disliked. When he goes to buy tickets to the school formal, he's recognized immediately and their shock at his interest is not because he's a loser, but because he avoids those things. Later in the series, when he goes to a house party, he shows up three minutes before the scheduled start time, not realizing that no one will be there for at least an hour. He's welcome at any time. Clay has just chosen to exclude himself from the narrative.

This is one of the biggest distinctions between Clay and Hannah. She's part of the whole social web so it wields a power over her than it can't over Clay. The embarrassing photos, the rumors, the "Hot List" where she is named "Best Ass" - all of it has the power to destroy her whole world because the dynamics she's bought into are woven into that. At one point, I believe Hannah says something to the effect of the fact that she envies Clay because he doesn't care what people think. Hell, that's easy when you keep everything at arms length. Nothing can hurt you.

Go listen to Simon and Garfunkel's "I Am A Rock." That's Clay right there.

That's not to say that Clay doesn't pay a price for being so distant. For one thing, it gives him a HUGE blindspot in realizing just how devastating Hannah's humiliations are to her. This is most noticeable when he's oblivious about how awful the "Hot List" is even though She got the "compliment" of "Best Ass."

There's also a huge tell in Clay's line in the first episode about how "I can be myself around her." Clay doesn't care what people think, but he's always got his armor up. Hannah - when we meet her - is the opposite of that. She's open and welcoming and vibrant and flirty... but without any kind of judgment. I hesitate to use this term because it's not a 100% fit, but early Hannah definitely has some traits of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl. She's very full of life and easy-going. In an indie rom-com, she's the carefree girl who's meant to bring the loner out of his shell.

I recognize a lot of my younger self in Clay. He takes being an Outsider to a greater extreme than I did, but I definitely kept most of my high school classmates at a remove. My relationship to them was more akin to how you think of your co-workers. You see them for seven hours, and then you go home to your life, they go home to theirs and rarely do the twain meet.

I was more involved in school activities than Clay, as editor of the school paper, as part of the Quiz and Mock Trial teams and other stuff of that nature. (I was NOT an athlete.) I was a better student than Clay. (Valedictorian, actually) And so I didn't quite fade into the background the way he does. Still, there's enough similarities between us that I recognized a lot of his psychology.

Clay falls hard for Hannah, and wisely the show explores the darker side of that along with its endearing moments. There's a moment where a racy picture of Hannah circulates, leaving everyone to assume she's a slut who hooked up with Justin. In truth, that night was her first kiss, so the audience finds it pretty safe to assume she's a virgin.

When Hannah seeks refuge with Clay, he's cold to her. It's pure petty jealousy. He likes her, he's been in her orbit for a while and it hurts him that she chose some other guy. So he lashes out with a pointed remark about "waiting." She's hurt his feelings and he wants to hurt hers. He gets what he wants, at the cost of a vulnerable Hannah seeing how petty he can be.

I don't want to lump Clay in with the "nice guy" trope. I don't think he literally believes that Hannah owes him sex because of all the time he's hung out with her. I think he feels a genuine connection with her and he's hurt when that's not reciprocated. But again, he's got a blindspot. His jealousy provokes him to be cruel to her at the moment when she really needs her buddy from work.

It's important to give Clay these faults. If he's too saintly, too perfect, he's less interesting. Hannah's tapes force Clay to revisit moments he was certain he misunderstood. It forces him to confront his own failings and his own role in driving Hannah to depression. It's a good writing rule in general - don't leave your main character clean. Especially when writing the "normal guys" in an ensemble, it's important to give them relatable faults. Watching Clay was an infrequent tour in "Oof. I've done that."

I pointed out yesterday how Hannah is given less quirky dialogue than most other teen protagonists, and Clay is given even less of that. He's a much more internal character than her and he doesn't even have the benefits of a device to expose his inner monologue. The audience needs to be able to project onto him and his performance has to trigger our own experiences. The more we relate to him, the more we can understand his character without being told things outright.

There's a cute moment in the fifth episode when Clay goes to the school formal. We're shown a fantasy where he confidently asks Hannah to dance and shows the bold ballroom dance moves of a professional. This is contrasted with the reality, when he finally musters enough nerve to approach Hannah. He stammers through asking her to dance, and when the music finally switches to a slow song, he awkwardly takes her in his arms. There's a great series of shots of him looking at other couples where the guys have their hands on their dates' hips, some of them even on their butts. Clay, with hesitation, positions his hands somewhere in the middle of Hannah's back.

They take a long look into each other eyes. It's one of those pregnant moments where they should be kissing. You can tell they both want to kiss, but no one is ready to make the first move. It feels like the moment where a lot of things would have been different had they made another choice. Alas, the moment is broken by one of the jerk jocks, who spreads a rumor that Hannah is gay. She leaves embarrassed and Clay is left alone. If there's a sequence that really gets the audience invested in the Clay/Hannah pairing, it's this one, and so much of it rests on the actors being able to play emotion without the crutch of words, and being endearingly nervous with the few lines he has.

Dylan Minnette is exactly what this role needs. He's got an expressive face and knows how to play a scene where his thoughts are plainly visible on his face. He says more with a blank stare than a lot of actors his age can say with a monologue. Honestly, it would be far less effective if he HAD been given a Dawson's Creek-esque speech that laid his feelings bare in entirely too eloquent dialogue.

You have to really trust in your own writing to leave that much unsaid. Over the course of the show we see that his failing with Hannah early on was his inability to be bold, to tell her how he feels except when he lashes out. His inaction all sets the stage for the night when he actually does decide to be bold and...

You know what? Let's cover that in the next post. Suffice to say, he finally puts himself out there, something happens and he totally misunderstands the situation... until long after the fact.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

13 Reasons Why - Side 3: Hannah Baker, from joy to despair

Side 1: The Setting
Side 2: An overly contrived premise can present a challenge

From moment one of 13 Reasons Why, we know that Hannah Baker is dead. A shot of a locker decorated with clearly memorial trappings opens the series. The camera pulls back until a classmate, Clay, is in frame. He looks off, and through his eyes, we see Hannah appearing to him in a vision, smiling. From his wistful reaction, it's already clear what one of the major threads will be - Clay's feelings for Hannah.

The beautiful long-haired Hannah of the picture and vision is immediately contrasted with a brief flashback Clay has to a later encounter. She's chopped her hair short, appears tired and tense. He awkwardly tries to compliment her new look and with a distant expression and nearly hollow eyes, all she can muster is "Thanks, Clay."

13 Reasons Why is the story of how that vibrant girl in the memorial picture becomes that sad, troubled person who takes her own life. The more I think about how the show accomplishes this, the more impressed I am. She's not some dressed-all-in-black grim goth wannabe, nor does she have a grim outlook on life. When we meet her, she seems like the last person in the world who'd take her own life.

And that's the point.

The pilot shows us Clay's first meeting with Hannah as she trains him at the movie theater where they both work. She's new to town, and banters easily with Clay. She's quippy, but not in the heightened sense of a Joss Whedon character or a resident of Dawson's Creek. Their early meetings are full of her playfully teasing him, maybe even slightly flirting with him. On the whole, the dialogue generally avoids trying to impress us with its own cleverness, and that's part of what makes Hannah and Clay so relatable - they don't have the awesome comebacks we wish we had at that age. They don't have the clever lines that make someone fall in love with them.

I'm guilty of this as much as anyone. I fall in love with writing snappy, witty lines. I sometimes catch myself trying to be quotable. Some times it's appropriate and other times I'm aware I'm using the humor as a shield to keep from putting raw emotion into my words. 13 Reasons Why is a show I would have struggled with writing because it takes some real bravery to dig into yourself for the vulnerability those characters demand.

(Okay there's one big exception to this: a scene early in the second episode where Hannah and Jess meet in the counselor's office. Their peppy repartee wouldn't be out of place on Gilmore Girls. It's not a bad way to make the two of them fast friends, but on a rewatch that scene really sticks out because it's so different from every other moment on the series.)

So how do you take Hannah from being the kind of girl our hero falls in love with at first sight to someone who slits her own wrists? You put her through hell. That's a mission statement with its own risks. Can the audience endure 13 episodes of "kick the puppy?" Is there a limit to how many bad things can believably happen to one girl?

The worst case scenario: Hannah starts as the most perfect lovable girl in school and is treated unrelentingly like a punching bag until she ends it all. There's no drama in that, and there's no challenge in getting an audience to feel bad when you're beating up on a helpless person. Well, not at first. Keep going to that well and the viewers get desensitized to the treatment.

We watch Hannah's world taken from her piece by piece. One boy takes a revealing photo of her and another one is responsible for sharing it around school, giving her a reputation as a slut. She loses one friend in a misunderstanding over a boy, but smartly, the writers give her a few wins. It's not an arc if the direction is always downward.

A good example of this is when classmate Courtney offers to help Hannah catch a peeping tom. The two girls hang out at Hannah's, bonding over drinks and a game of Truth or Dare. For a moment it really feels like Hannah's found a good friend... until the game leads to a kiss and the discovery that Courtney is gay and closeted. Naturally THAT is the moment the peeping tom photographs and when the photo - which doesn't fully reveal either girl's face - makes it around school, Courtney sells out Hannah to deflect people from discovering her own secret.

In general, most of the people who wronged Hannah are also people she trusted at one point, and the episodes work hard to show us why she keeps finding these connections even though they end badly. But we also see them take their toll, and they're constructed in a way where some betrayals set the stage for later relationships, keeping the show from feeling less episodic than it might have. This isn't just "13 bad things that happened to Hannah." It's the story of one journey with 13 related turning points. The distinction might seem small, but it's critical.

But the real backbone of the series is Hannah's relationship with Clay. Other characters come to the foreground and recede, but Clay is a constant presence. Their dynamic seems easy from the start. Clay even confides to a friend that he likes her and that he feels like he can be himself around her (aka "The Ballad of the Smitten Lovesick Teen.") She even seems aware of his attraction and isn't put off by it.

When she suffers her first humiliation - the circulated racy picture - it's Clay who she seeks refuge with. And ironically, he's withdrawn and out of jealousy, he takes a cheap shot saying "sometimes it's better to wait." It's a stupid teenage boy reaction to have, but we see for Hannah it's no minor slight. It really hurts her feelings to have someone she considered a friend judge her as harshly and wrongly as everyone else does.

I'm going to deal with Clay in the next post, but I want to underline this about Hannah - it's important that she's not some anonymous wallflower when we meet her. This isn't the case of an ugly duckling being plucked from the crowd by some jock who then humiliates her. She's not introduced as an outsider with trust issues who has her loner nature validated. That would be too easy. Hannah is easily someone who could be the popular girl, the ray of light in every room that she enters.

Some writers would find that the harder choice because it requires a more subtle decline for Hannah. You don't take away everything at once. You need to see her slowly building her walls, gradually protecting herself by withdrawing. Her trust has to be violated in so many different ways that we understand why she sees her previously carefree attitude as weaknesses.

There's a great scene in the second episode where she's meets Jessica and the two of them instantly fall into an easy banter. Once it establishes that they're on the same wavelength, the two of them quickly bond. It's like a non-sexual meet-cute and in rewatching it, I was struck how it showed a degree of ease and openness that neither Jess nor Hannah would be capable of several episodes later. They evolve more over those few episodes than most teen drama characters do in a season or two.

There's not one smoking gun in this arc. Hannah Baker dies from a thousand cuts well before the final two that are self-inflicted. A writer in this kind of story needs to find those small moments and also discover ways to layer in hope among those moments. There comes a time when she has to spiral downward as things get really bad, but before then the indignities can be both big and small.

I'm in awe of the character that actress Katherine Langford creates here, working under showrunner Brian Yorkey. This is Langford's first professional role and she's got the challenge of burying her natural Australian accent. I would have guessed neither of those facts on my own. She's charged with creating at least three distinct versions of Hannah, and a lot of intermediate steps between those versions. This story doesn't work if we don't feel immediate empathy for Hannah. Langford's open-hearted portrayal of the happier Hannah does that immediately, ensuring we feel the absence of that light when it is gone.

One reason I think the tapes are a necessary conceit of the show is that we need to experience this through Hannah's eyes. I can imagine a version of this that was Clay trying to make sense of his friend's suicide, talking to his friends and piecing the story together. It probably would have given us an idealized version of Hannah, one filtered through the male gaze. But that would make this Clay's story, with the focus being more on his pain than hers. What Hannah does in making the tapes is that she reclaims her story from the rumor and innuendo surrounding her life.

Some have taken her final act as one of revenge. It's interpreted as a spiteful way of hurting those who caused her pain. The more I consider Hannah, the less I see this as an F-you. The tapes are Hannah pouring out her sadness and for once, refusing to be defined by everyone else. Everyone on the tapes wronged Hannah by not just inflicting pain on her, but by passing judgment on her in some way. They all believed the lies about her, even when they were close enough that they should have known better.

She's not telling them she wants them to hurt like she does. She's telling them "You don't get to tell my story. I tell my story."

You know back when I assume the tapes were contrivance? Yeah, I was full of shit. The tapes are everything. It means that suicide isn't Hannah's final statement - the life she lived is.

I think one reason this show has lingered with me so long is it made me think about all the Hannahs I've known. (None who killed themselves, fortunately) It's easy to judge Hannah's friends for failing her when we have the whole story. In real life, dealing with a Hannah can be confusing and frustrating, at least when you're a teenager. An adult typically has a little more emotional maturity to recognize someone in pain. A teenager can find it as hard to deal with a Hannah-in-pain as Hannah would find it to deal with her pain.

I don't know if I'd have processed this show the same way when I was in high school, but I'd like to think that a teenager would come away from this show with a bit more empathy, perhaps even some more patience and understanding for victims like Hannah.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

13 Reasons Why: Side 2 - an overly contrived premise can present a challenge

Side 1: The Setting

13 Reasons Why gets away with a stunt that would be a crippling blow for most other shows - it has a premise that smacks of contrivance just to ensure the show exists.

We're asked to believe that a suicidal girl would record 6.5 tapes (13 sides) detailing her slide into suicide, meticulously structured so each side targets a specific participant one-by-one, then arranged a convoluted scheme to have those tapes passed to the targets one-by-one as a final "fuck you." Further, she claims to have a contingency that will be implemented if the tapes aren't listened to or passed on. If people shirk their responsibilities, a second copies of the tapes go public, destroying the reputations of all involved.

When I first heard this hook, I joked that it sounded like THE RING in reverse. Instead of watching the tape and dying, you listen to the tapes or face punishment. It feels way too contrived just to force Clay, our lead character, to endure each tape in episodic fashion, thus providing the series writers with a convenient structure upon which to hang the series. (Impressively, the fact that 13 reasons fits into the typical 13-episode order is a neat coincidence, considering the series began life as a book)

You have to think about the character who would conceive this suicide revenge scheme. She has to be in such despair that going on is painful, but she engineers a plot so complex that it should be the work of a Bond villain (or a screenwriter.) Here's every step you have to buy into:

- That Hannah would record an overlong suicide note... (Verdict: Credible on its face, and even more credible when the series casts it as her final effort to make sense of everything and even suggests that letting it all out was briefly cathartic enough that she reconsidered her plan. It was only after her conversation with the school counselor that she made the final decision to end it.)

- ...on cassette tapes... (Verdict: Sloppy. Never mind the trick of having to get equipment to record them, how could Hannah be sure that her targets would have tape players of their own? We see that Clay has to resort to stealing his friend's walkman in order to hear the tapes, which means he might not be the only one with such a problem. It might have worked better if Hannah had included a walkman inside the box of tapes. I mean, the girl plans for everything else and not THAT?)

- ...to be passed one by one or else they get released. (Verdict: Contrivance, but a necessary one. Tony is all but stated to be the accomplice who will execute that last part of the plan, as by the time the final episodes roll around, he seems to be the only person in a position with the means to do so. Early on he leaves Clay with the impression that he's ignorant of the mechanics of how the tapes would come out, but it's easier for me to believe Tony is telling a convenient lie than imagine Hannah somehow trusted another off-screen player to carry out this part of the plan.)

The writers were smart to be somewhat vague on the execution of that final clause. The only reason to dig deep into how that works is if the threat was a Chekhov's Gun to be fired in the latter episodes. Since things never deteriorate to that point, I'm comfortable assuming it was part-bluff, part-Tony's responsibility. But that's a perspective you only get with hindsight. When we're asked to swallow it right away, it sound pretty far-fetched.

The simple fact is that without this contrived hook, there would be no series. That makes this what we call the "buy-in." It's one of those things where the show all but says outright "These are the roles we're playing under. Take them or leave them." I feel like you can get away with silly notions - but only if they're introduced early. As the writer, you have a window of only so long before the audience's conception of the world's rules solidifies. At that point, if you suddenly hit them with a giant contrivance, you won't have the benefit of the doubt.

 I wouldn't blame someone if they felt the set-up was overly complicated. Also, when you're asking for that big a buy-in, you have to earn it. 13 Reasons pays that mortgage through stellar acting and really well-written characters. But if you make me choke down a ridiculous concept and you don't even have the decency to make it good? You will earn my wrath.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

13 Reasons Why - Side 1: The setting

I've been mostly an absentee landlord here of late. After eight years, it's hard to come up with new takes that don't feel like something I've written already, and when you couple that with the time I've been spending on other projects, there just hasn't been much motivation to keep up with perfunctory posts. That changes today, with the first of a 13-part series of posts delving into things to take away from the Netflix series 13 Reasons Why. The show's been released to Netflix for over a month and a half, but I only just finished it. I've seen some of the cultural conversation about the show, but this is a series that's lingered in my brain well after I finished it and so it seemed appropriate to make a return with this run of posts.

Warning: I will be spoiling plenty about the show, and I'll make an effort to make these "lessons" accessible to those who haven't seen the show and perhaps don't have the time or interest to watch it.

There are plenty of remarkable aspects to 13 Reasons Why that we'll explore in this 13-part series, and one that I've seen little attention given to is the grounded world it creates.

It surprised me to realize this, but there really aren't that many grounded teen dramas on TV at the moment. Everything is in a heightened reality of some kind, and that adds an extra veneer of artifice to the tone and characters. I had a great deal of praise for how Riverdale was able to deftly deal with bullying and slut-shaming this season, but as relevant as it was to the age we live in, it still took place within the Twin Peaks-y reality of the show. That grounded storyline existed alongside nighttime soap trappings like land power plays, street gangs, incest, family rivalries, and of course, murder. That's not a knock on the show, which eventually came to remind me more and more of Veronica Mars with the soap quotient cranked up a few notches, but just an observation on how the teen world is reflected and translated in media today.

13 Reasons Why is different in that it feels like it could all be happening in the school down the street, or a neighboring town. Yes, this despite the high concept premise that builds the show around a series of tapes left behind by a recent suicide victim named Hannah Baker. There are 13 sides to the tapes in all, each one devoted to a different person whose actions eventually pushed Hannah to take her life. If you're on the tapes, they get passed to you and you have to listen to them all and pass them to the next person or else Hannah has arranged for a second set to be released. The presumption is that what's on these tapes is so horrible that none of the 13 would want that to become public knowledge. The show is structured so that we experience the tapes through the perspective of Clay, a classmate and friend of Hannah's.

The hook is certainly high concept, but the world in which it happens isn't and that's a crucial key to 13 Reasons Why's success. The story's impact comes from recognizing how this could be (or could have been, if you're like me and are a number of years removed from high school) happening right now in your school. I tried a number of times to imagine other teen dramas dealing with this sort of storyline. A show like Dawson's Creek could never have sustained this because of the darkness inherent in accusing the main cast of being complicit in a chain of events that led to suicide. The narrative would have to "protect" too many people from actions that are difficult to forgive, even after accounting for obvious villains. One Tree Hill might have embraced the melodrama more readily, but again, that's a world where the teen characters get instant careers as pop stars and fashion designers.

The vast majority of teen drama is about wish fulfillment and escapism. We don't want to see OTH's Haley James struggle with the real consequences of becoming a teen bride, or being a forgotten sibling in an overstuffed family. Instead, we want her to follow her dreams of being a musician, see her somehow make her young marriage work (after an obligatory struggle), wear awesome clothes and be loved. Surround her with familiar archetypes we all love, cast them with insanely attractive people all wearing the clothes you wish you could afford and tune in every week to have your feelings affirmed by a pleasing soundtrack.

And by the way, there's nothing wrong with liking a show like that, or making one. (Though the better ones find ways to play in that kind of sandbox and create interesting characters at the same time.

The world of 13 Reasons Why is not that sort of comfort food. One of the earliest things that struck me is that while familiar archetypes show up (the popular girl, the BMOC jock, the awkward outsider hiding behind his camera), we never got what I call "the gerrymandered lunchroom." You know the scene I'm talking about. It's in most teen movies, where the new arrival to school is basically given a map to the way all the lunch tables are divided by cliques, as if these were tribes that never interact. ("Here are the jocks, the burnouts, the nerds, the popular girls, the emo girls... etc."). It's not a Saved by the Bell reality where everyone also neatly and immediately fits into their particular clique on sight.

That feels true to my own high school experience, where everyone certainly had identities that could fit some of those identities, but it was more common for them to be straddling several different types of social circles. Life there was more likely to be explained by Venn Diagrams than a strict hierarchy. And in the series it works this way too. Clay, who's something of an outsider, is able to move pretty freely among the groups when he wants to. Even Hannah, who isn't one of the popular girls, still pops on the radar of most of the boys, to the point where the alpha jock seems impressed she came to his party. (As opposed to the "what are you doing here, loser" that the teen movie outcast is often faced with.)

In the movies, the Regina Georges of the world announce themselves in every deed and action. And because of this, the morality is simpler, even when we understand why she is who she is. Regina is bad and if you're around her, she either corrupts you or you resist her and become the hero by default. 13 Reasons Why shows a high school where the villains are less self-aware in their malevolence, and the heroes aren't given an easy path to doing the right thing. It makes some of Hannah's friends into even scarier villains because we can see how good people contribute to another good person's pain through action or inaction.

We're shown Hannah's world, and it's built in a way that we understand how from her perspective, every aspect of that world seemed to be set against her.

And then we realize her world is our world. Not Capeside, not Beverly Hills, not Tree Hill... a community very much like ours.

It can happen here.

Side 2: An overly contrived premise can present a challenge

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

"It was a clean shoot" - HOMICIDE's most debated episode turns 20 today

"It was a clean shoot."

I must have seen those words several hundred times during my time reading the Usenet group devoted to Homicide: Life on the Street. Within that community, it referred to a plot point so notorious that no further context was needed - the climax of season 5's "Deception." (Teleplay by Debbie Sarjeant; Story by Tom Fontana & Julie Martin & James Yoshimura.)

Today, that episode turns 20.

I've thought of that episode and its fallout a lot over the last few years, as we've seen more and more police-involved shootings gain prominence in the news. I can't help but reflect on how much those Usenet debates taught me about police procedure long before the larger zeitgeist was arguing when it should be legal for a cop to shoot someone.

The Homicide episode was the resolution to a subplot that had run through several episodes over the course of the prior year. Detectives Lewis (Clark Johnson) and Kellerman (Reed Diamond) had long been trying to get the goods on local drug kingpin Luther Mahoney (the fantastic Erik Todd Dellums), who'd managed to slither out of every attempt they made to nail him. In this episode, they finally crack the case when circumstances lead them to intercepting one of Mahoney's incoming heroin shipments. One swap of fake drugs for the real ones later, and Luthor's dealers face a lot of angry customers. Luther himself knows he had to have been betrayed by either his own lieutenant or his suppliers.

So he agrees to a meeting in a public place. Things go bad, Luthor kills two people and escapes to his penthouse. Lewis and Kellerman are separated and by the time Kellerman gets to Luther's penthouse, Luther has gotten ahold of Lewis's gun and is aiming it right at him.

Kellerman issues three warnings to drop the gun. Luthor turns to Kellerman, gun arm extended 45 degrees at his side and with a mocking laugh, says, "Go ahead Detective. Read me my rights." Kellerman, advancing on Luther, says "You have the right to remain silent" and then shoots him in the chest.

Debate: is this a clean shoot?

In the strictly legal sense, yes. So long as Luther has the gun, he can be considered an active threat. Kellerman has warned him twice to drop it. Law enforcement professionals who frequented the group confirmed that this factor pretty much makes Kellerman's actions defensible. (Despite the questionable act of beginning a Miranda reading before shooting the suspect.)

Here's where Homicide muddied the waters a bit. Before Kellerman arrives, Lewis is the first one to catch Luther. And when Lewis pulls a gun on him, Luther immediately puts his hands up and says "I'm unarmed. I'm surrendering."

Lewis responds by holstering his gun and giving Luther a beatdown for all the murders over the past year that he's escaped justice for. During this struggle, Luther gets Lewis's gun and that's the point where Kellerman enters.

Someone's in the wrong here, but it isn't Kellerman. As you might expect, though, the cops sanitize their statements to keep Lewis in the clear. It's an interesting bit of ethics coming from the characters we're expected to see as "the good guys."


Does what Lewis did change any of the facts about what Kellerman did? In terms of if Kellerman was right to do what he did, I say no.

And yet, this shooting would have repercussions through the following season. A new arrival to the squad, Falsone (Jon Seda, playing a character I so disliked it took a solid decade not to react with disgust to his appearance in any other series), kept picking at this scab, convinced that Kellerman was the dirty one. It didn't help that Kellerman wasn't in a good place. Prior to the Mahoney shooting, he'd been accused of corruption when he was in fact the only member of his old squad not taking payouts AND he'd come close to committing suicide over his distraught reaction to another of Luther's victims.

And Lewis ends their partnership, basically cutting Kellerman out of his life as much as he can. Kellerman takes none of this well, drinking heavily and is clearly compromised on the job. By the end of the season, when what's left of the Mahoney organization has more or less declared war on the squad, Kellerman finds himself being interrogated over the shooting by Falsone... and the squad's biggest gun and best interrogator in the box: Detective Pembleton (Andre Braugher.)

When the big interrogation goes down, Lewis doesn't directly implicate Kellerman, but more or less lets Pembleton know that going after Kellerman wouldn't necessarily be on the wrong track. Thus, Kellerman finds himself defending this shooting again a year after the fact, with Pembleton and Falsone seizing on Kellerman's reenactment of the scene where he shows Luther had the gun down. Kellerman continues to insist that the suspect had a gun, but the others act as if "but the gun was down" trumps that.

This ends Mike's career. His lieutenant says he'll toss the confession if Kellerman resigns. thereby sparing the unit from further scrutiny.

In the real world, it doesn't. And it's interesting to me that Homicide chose to tell the story in this way. There are three options:
1) straight up ignorance of police procedures - unlikely
2) disregard of real procedures in the name of dramatic license - possible, maybe even probable.
3) we're meant to look below the surface to understand WHY everyone as they do.

As 3 is the most interesting to debate, that's the line of thought we're gonna follow here.

At the end of this arc, arguably the most significant example of police conduct goes unpunished, and really not even acknowledged. Lewis beat up a surrendering suspect and put himself in a position where that suspect took his weapon. And to the bitter end, Lewis never acknowledges that or even gives the dramatically satisfying speech of telling Kellerman, "I'm sorry I put you in that position, Mikey." Hell, he never even acts grateful for what was done, instead, more or less gaslighting Kellerman into taking all the blame.

I used to hate how this ending sold out Kellerman. He was one of my favorites, and Reed Diamond was vastly underrated in that role. To this day, when he shows up on my TV, I'm excited to see him. Andre Braugher's departure that season sucked up most of the press, but Kellerman's exit also left a massive hole in the squad. I would moan about the "bad writing" of this ending and let myself get sucked into the "clean shoot" debate. It was years before I realized I wasn't giving the writers credit for the hidden depth of the story. Deep subtext wasn't often present in network drama, and certainly not when the characters assert something about the story that is actually directly antithetical to the meaning of that story.

And so we return to Mike Kellerman, the loyal friend, the good cop, the guy who wouldn't even rat on the dirty cops in his old arson squad despite the fact doing so would have instantly saved his skin. His reward for this was that the stink of being dirty hung over him so much that witnesses even recognized him as "the dirty cop" from the news. The guy who tried hard to do everything right, got punished for it at every turn. The way the Mahoney saga went is entirely keeping with that. Kellerman's tragic fall comes not from something awful he did, but from the corruption of others around him. It's his lot to wear the scarlet letter that belongs to others. He's not the guy to throw others into the fire and not even two corruption scandals will take that last bit of integrity from him.

It was a clean shoot. It could never be anything BUT that given the circumstances.

Kellerman doesn't go down because he's defending the shooting. He goes down taking the bullet that belongs to Lewis's sloppy takedown, because as long as the debate stays on the shooting, no one's really out for blood there.

Kellerman is the cop he was trained to be. And this is a story about how the system and society destroy him, while less noble "good guys" thrive for far longer.

It was a clean shoot.

Friday, April 21, 2017

Consider With Reservations: The Stars of Quantity Over Quality Cinema

A recent viewing of a few direct-to-DVD type films gave me flashbacks to my reader days. I explore that in this post for Film School Rejects:

In my prior life as a script reader, I certainly read a lot of bad scripts, but at times, an even more common occurrence was a script that seemed to do a great many things right, but somehow fell just short of being something you wanted to champion as a movie. As draining as the terrible scripts were, there’s something pure about clear-cut bad. It takes little effort to explain why they’re unfit.

The real challenges were the scripts that had kind of a decent premise, kind of an okay twist or two, and a lead character who wasn’t bad so much as he or she was just… there. The raw materials are there for what COULD be a script. They just happen to be assembled in the least compelling way possible. It’s competent enough that it feels close to being a movie, but it’s raw enough that you won’t want to put your job on the line to tell someone else to read it. Scripts like this often got the “Consider with Reservations” ranking. If you’ve worked in Hollywood, you’ve probably read a number of scripts like this. If you’re not in the biz, it’s hard to find a good analogy to explain these scripts that need more time to bake.

Then, after a trip to Netflix one recent afternoon, I realized there’s an easy series of examples I can point to. In their library at any given time, you’ll stumble across a ton of recent films you’ve never heard of that star former mega-stars like Nicolas Cage, Bruce Willis, John Cusack, and Pierce Brosnan.

The men who headlined some of the biggest films of the eighties and nineties now film entire movies that no one knows exists until they show up under the heading “Because you liked Con Air.” Just going back five years, here are the films of just ONE of those aforementioned actors: Stolen, The Croods, The Frozen Ground, Joe, Rage, Outcast, Left Behind, Dying of the Light, The Runner, Pay the Ghost, The Trust, Snowden, The USS Indianapolis, Dog Eat Dog, Army of One, Arsenal, and Vengeance: A Love Story. That’s SEVENTEEN films! How far into that list were you before you were sure I was talking about Nicolas Cage?

Read the rest of Consider With Reservations: The Stars of Quantity Over Quality Cinema over at Film School Rejects

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Ten Years Later, ‘The Hoax’ is Even More Timely in the Trump Era.

Ten years after it's release, the little-seen Richard Gere film THE HOAX remains a fascinating film about truth, outrageous lies and why the bigger the lie, the more people believe it. Based on the real story of a man who convinced his publishers he was working with recluse Howard Hughes on the latter's biography, eventually becomes a great study in tension and paranoia too.

And, in showing how people rationalize even the most unbelievable lies, it seems more relevant today than ever, in the Trump era.

This is the topic of my latest piece for Film School Rejects:


But to return to The Hoax, there’s something appropriate about the uncertainty of historical fidelity in a film about a writer pulling off the mother of all lies. It’s 1971 and Clifford Irving (played with wonderful desperation and cunning by Richard Gere) has just had his latest book rejected by a publisher. Unfortunately, the commercial failure of his last book — about an art forger — has killed his hopes for another project. Like many writers when faced with a “Pass,” he doesn’t take it well and barges into a company meeting to say he’s got the book of the century, something they’d regret passing on — an autobiography of the reclusive Howard Hughes.

It’s an utterly implausible and grandiose lie and — in a manner less surprising in the Trump presidency of 2017 than it was in 2007 — the brazenness of the lie gives it credibility. Who in their right mind would lie about something so easily impeached? Putting the experience of his last book to use, Irving expertly forges notes from Hughes (and it is true that in real-life, handwriting experts said that the odds of being fake were “less than one in a million.”) Hughes’s reclusiveness and erratic behavior also ends up selling the lie. The man was known to be unstable, so bizarrely, and attempt he’d make to disown involvement with Clifford would lack enough credibility to expose Irving.

The real Clifford Irving complained bitterly about the liberties the movie took with his life. Screenwriter William Wheeler agrees with my notion of truth in film, telling The New York Times, “I almost feel like I would not be servicing the material correctly if I didn’t have some mischief in my attitude. I wanted to stay true to the spirit of the things that happened, and the motives of those doing it, and within that, construct my own tall tale, based on Clifford’s tall tale, which is based on Howard’s tall tale. And [director] Lasse [Hallström] did his own spinning on top of mine. And then, Richard.”

Read the rest at FSR: Ten Years Later, ‘The Hoax’ is Even More Timely in the Trump Era.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Reactions to my FSR post "An Aggregated Oral History of 2009 Films Ruined By the Last WGA Strike"

With two weeks to go on the WGA's contract with the AMPTP, I've got an already hot new post on Film School Rejects taking a look back at the consequences of the last Writers Guild strike:

Hollywood is facing the threat of another Writers’ Guild Strike, one which would immediately stop all writing and rewriting on guild signatory productions — essentially everything from the major studios. So far, negotiations have been contentious, with the WGA arguing that though the business has seen record profits, the average writer’s income has declined in this boom period. And yet, at the bargaining table, the AMPTP — who represent the producers — came offering not gains, but rollbacks. They basically asked the writers to accept less than their current contracts.

The total cost of what the writers are asking for is not particularly excessive. For instance, the cost to Disney would be $21.2 million a year — barely more than half of Disney Chairman and CEO Bob Iger’s $43.9 million salary last year. I don’t want to get too far into the weeds on this, but if you’re interested in the particulars, this post from TV writer Ken Levine lays it all out pretty well.

So if the writers demands aren’t that excessive, is it wise for the AMPTP to force a strike by playing hardball? A long strike would have the result of impairing production in television and film. In TV, the fall season would be delayed and on the feature side, the major tentpoles set for 2019 might have to begin production without complete scripts. And under Guild rules, no writing or rewriting can be done on those scripts for the duration of a strike. This would include Marvel’s Captain Marvel and the sequel to Avengers: Infinity War, the ninth Fast and the Furious film, the next Spider-Man film, Transformers 6, and at least one or two yet-to-be announced Warner/DC films.

In looking back at the old strike, I aggregated an "oral history" of sorts, compiling the quotes of what writers, actors and directors had to say about how the strike affected the production of several 2009 releases: Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, X-Men Origins: Wolverine, G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra, Star Trek, and Quantum of Solace. Just about all of those were critically panned (save for Star Trek, which I actually think is a fantastic film) and the strike was frequently cited as a factor in their quality.

There was a little blowback on Twitter about the title of the article, "An Aggregated Oral History of 2009 Films Ruined By the Last WGA Strike." It was accused of being anti-writer propaganda, which I strongly dispute. The writers don't WANT to have to strike, but they are left with no choice if the AMPTP won't make a fair offer rather than instead coming to the table with rollbacks. So if you as viewers don't want your anticipated tentpoles of the next two years to be terrible, support the writers so that they can get a fair deal from the AMPTP.

I also faced some snark on Twitter from people saying "these movies were going to suck anyway." Frankly, I think that sentiment is far more anti-writer than what my headline was accused of being. As noted, Star Trek actually turned out pretty good, Wolverine had two sequels that were very good, The Bond films immediately before and after Quantum were also great, and even Transformers was considered pretty decent until the sequel. It's not impossible that more of these films could have been good.

Let's not forget how much we scoffed at sure-fired duds like 21 Jump Street and The Lego Movie before we saw them. Ergo, saying these films were going to "suck anyway" is assuming facts not in evidence.

Anyway, take a look at how things went down on those films in the post here.

Monday, April 17, 2017

Why Are We Compelled to Rank Movies in a Series with Each New Release?

Got another post for Film School Rejects that sort of branches off of my earlier The Films of Frank Capra III, Ranked post. This one examines the pathology behind the relentless ranking lists we get each time a franchise releases a new chapter.

The ubiquity of practice certainly suggests the writer and the readers must be getting SOMETHING out of it. Is it that in our society, we find it less satisfying to praise a winner if we’re not simultaneously mocking and debasing the losers? I’ll plead guilty to relishing the act of putting HOOK at the bottom of every “Spielberg Movies, Ranked” list I’ve ever been a part of. Would others argue that the list serves the purpose highlighting the cream of the crop? If that was so, why not just write a post called “The Five Best Marvel Movies?” 

Read the rest of "Why Are We Compelled to Rank Movies in a Series with Each New Release?" over at Film School Rejects

Friday, April 14, 2017

Fate of the Furious: The Films of 1st AD Frank Capra III, Ranked!

I have another new piece at Film School Rejects. This week, the lastest film in the Fast & Furious series has been released: The Fate of the Furious. As is required by law, when a franchise unleashes a new chapter, there must be some measure of ranking the previous entries, or the previous works of a collaborator.


Friday brings us the release of The Fate of the Furious, the eighth film in The Fast & The Furious series. Thus, there could be no better time to look back and rank the previous works of one of the films most notable craftsmen, a man whose name is legendary. I speak of course of First Assistant Director Frank Capra III.

Capra III is the grandson of director Frank Capra, a Hollywood legend whose work includes It Happened One Night, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and It’s a Wonderful Life. How did that pedigree fare two generations removed? This exhaustive look at Mr. Capra III’s 1st AD career will tell the tale.

While the film’s director often gets the lion’s share of the credit, the First AD is one of the most critical positions on set. In fact, it’s the most important person “below the line.” (In other words, the most important of the people who aren’t “important.”) He or she is the one who keeps the trains running on time, the taskmaster who sets the schedule and then keeps everyone on it. They oversee the entire crew and essentially do all the hard work so the director can focus on the minutiae of their job. A true student of film can probably stop the distinctive work of an AD everywhere without even checking the credits.

21. Oscar (1991) — Mr. Capra the Third’s maiden voyage as 1st AD was the rather unremarkable mob comedy from Stallone’s brief foray into lighter fare such as this and Stop or My Mom Will Shoot! Capra’s background directing seems stranded in the stagy production design.

See if you agree with the rest of my rankings and check out the entire list at Film School Rejects.

Thursday, March 30, 2017

RIVERDALE is one of the most interesting new shows of this season

It recently hit me how unusual it is what RIVERDALE has been able to pull off. Can you imagine the CW hyping a new SUPERMAN show and then delivering a series based on SUPERMAN: RED SON, a graphic novel that posits what would have happened if Kal-El's rocket landed in Russia and he was raised Communist? Or perhaps promise a JUSTICE LEAGUE series and then unveil it as an adaptation of KINGDOM COME, a series that casts most of DC's heroes in middle age and in conflict with each other and a much darker world around them? Even given the popularity of those stories, it feels like Warner Bros would deem it too risky to make these outlier stories into the mainstream face of their properties.

Yet that's just what RIVERDALE is pulling off by transplanting the familiar Archie Comics characters into a new Twin Peaks-eque teen drama. When I first heard about the project, I suspected they might push Archie Andrews and friends to a more slightly mature DAWSON'S CREEK world, but the creepy atmosphere and darker vibe goes far beyond that. The archetypes the characters from the comics represent are there, but they've been complete and consumed into this unsettling world where one of the classmates has been murdered and no one - not even his family - seems above suspicion. Themes of corruption hang in the air constantly, whether they're wafting from the storyline of Veronica's mother cutting backroom deals with the mayor, or from the more personal corruption in progress as Archie's duplicitous teacher seduces him. This is a RIVERDALE so corrupt, we've seen local gangs established as influencing the town politics.

The weird thing about this is that it works rather effectively. Maybe for me that's because I'm aware of the Archie universe without being especially passionate about it. When I was growing up, Archie comics were usually the books that relatives got me when they didn't really know what I liked to read. I'd been reading Superman since the age of 6, but every now and then an Archie one would slip in. I remember them being fairly simple stories, the same kind of pre-teen comfort food you'd get from the animated DENNIS THE MENACE cartoon and SAVED BY THE BELL. There was no edge to Archie, but that was the point. They were easily defined archetypes: The Normal Kid, The Rich Girl, The Girl Next Door, The Best Friend, The Jock and so on.

These were comics aimed at 8 year olds so you're not going to find a lot of nuance. In fact, I'm pretty sure that I recall Betty and Veronica often changing places with regard to which one was the sympathetic "good" one and which one was more self-absorbed "wrong" choice in the love triangle. Because Archie didn't change and mature, I found it pretty easy to leave behind, even as my Superman, Batman and JLA-related collection grew to beyond 15 longboxes. It never even occurred to me that Archie meant THAT much to people until soon after I moved to LA and befriended a girl who was working for a director who was DEEP into geek culture. She didn't relate to her boss much because while he was into the DAREDEVILS and BATMANS, her passion was to be a producer on an ARCHIE movie. (The most recent comic book film around the time I learned this was CATWOMAN, so no one had much expectation at all of seeing Archie and friends appearing in live action.) At the time it struck me as odd that the simple stories resonated so much, but every now and then I'd find more people around my age with the same affection. The fanbase was disproportionately female, so perhaps this was an audience that conventional wisdom overlooked because of the assumption that "comic books are for boys."

I like that RIVERDALE is a big swing. There are no half-measures here. No punches pulled in the name of keeping the characters wholesome. The makeovers the characters get often draw on their history, but spun a completely different way. For instance, the blandly wholesome "good-girl" Betty is revealed to have a domineering mother who demands she be the perfect daughter. It makes Alice Cooper (the mother, not the singer) into the kind of paternal figure who'd be the villain of some indie movie about a teenage girl who cuts herself because she can't live up to the pressure to be perfect. Alice is rarely affectionate to Betty and even had her other daughter committed to a home for troubled youths (supposedly out of concern but CLEARLY more out of Alice's desire to keep the pregnant teen hidden from public view, thus protecting the facade of the perfect Cooper family.)

Jughead also is radically re-contextualized here. I recall him as the goofball who eats a lot of burgers. Here, his relationships with most of the gang are strained, particularly with Archie. Jughead is positioned as the outsider, the one who scribbles pseudo-profound observations about the others and the ongoing mystery in the true crime book he's writing. He's closed off, and likely appears perpetually sullen and alienating to most of his classmates. (Recent weeks have seen him open up and relax around the others, particularly Betty, but a newcomer to the town would never mistake the old Jughead for this guy. Perhaps the most interesting wrinkle is the fact his father is the leader of the Southside Serpents, Riverdale's motorcycle gang.

Veronica might be my favorite, and a lot of that owes to the fact she's allowed to be fun. I've been trying to pinpoint exactly why this works. She's got as much family drama as anyone: her father's in jail following an embezzlement scandal and her mother is having an affair with Archie's father. Oh, and she also forged Veronica's signature on company documents after Veronica refused to abet her mother's schemes. I think what let's Veronica be the sparkplug is that she seems to actually enjoy being with her friends and participating in all things RIVERDALE. So many of the show's relationships are fraught with tension and Veronica cuts through that. With her peers, she tries to resolve or cut through tension rather than be a prisoner of it. During a storyline about the guys on the football team slut-shaming the girls of the school, it's Veronica who spearheads the revenge scheme rather than pout or stew over it. When Betty is on the outs with Betty over (who else?) Archie, it's Veronica who works to clear the air and actively works to save the friendship. At its worst, the teen drama can turn into a lot of pretty people whining to one another "I can't believe you would do this to me!" over that week's misunderstanding. Veronica is defined by her refusal to be a prisoner of those cliches.

Which is not to imply that the others don't confront their conflict and demons, they just go about it in different ways. Several other characters push back against their parents, but lack the self-confidence Veronica displays. Surely there will come a time when fortunes will reverse (it's just the nature of drama) and Veronica is the one being kicked while she's down, but for now I'm enjoying this dynamic. I didn't expect that at this particular time in our culture that it would be easy to empathize with the "poor little rich girl" but RIVERDALE's finding ways to deepen the character beyond her two-dimensional depiction without making her unrecognizable.

I guess this brings me to Archie, who I'm finding to be a much more loaded character to discuss. In any ensemble like this, the central "normal guy" character is deceptively difficult to get right. Some of this is unfair. They have to be flawed in order to make good drama, and as the central figure, they don't often get a week off from screwing up or making mistakes. With extreme examples like Dawson Leery, the character tips too far, and one too many ventures into unlikability could cause us to question everything we enjoyed about the character in the first place. (Though I don't agree with it, "Kevin Arnold is a Dick" is a pretty good example of this kind of evidence logging.)

Thus far, the show has been cautious about wading into the Archie/Betty/Veronica triangle. There's plenty of groundwork for the show to use later, but it hasn't been foregrounded to the degree many other teen dramas would have by this point. It's a wise move that let's the characters be more fully formed before the triangle consumes them (and it almost always does.) By developing Archie/Betty, Betty/Veronica, Archie/Veronica on their own first, it'll give more weight to when the series decides to go full-hog into that romantic drama. To use a DAWSON'S CREEK example, think of how much better season 3's Dawson/Joey/Pacey triangle worked than the initial Joey/Dawson/Jen one did.

But it's impossible to discuss Archie without touching on his initial big plot. We learn in the pilot that he's been hooking up with his music teacher, Miss Grundy, since the summer. This kind of plot is always going to be a hot button for me. I absolutely loathe the romanticizing of teacher/student affairs on TV. Everyone jumps to Pacey and Miss Jacobs as their comparative, but I'm not someone who wears rose-colored glasses for DAWSON'S CREEK season one. It was an awful plot then and it hasn't aged any better in the years since. That show had nothing interesting to say about such an affair or the emotional impact on the underage participant. It was cynical shock value, with the novelty being that the teenage Pacey was the predator. "DAWSON'S did it" is not a good enough answer to pursue this kind of story.

My wife watches PRETTY LITTLE LIARS, and so I've seen a fair amount of those shows, which contains a teacher/student affair where the student is a teenage girl. This one raises my hackles because this pairing is eventually presented as one of the couplings we should be rooting for. It normalizes statutory rape and really seems to brush past the wrongness of such an affair. I don't think you have any business writing this story unless you're willing to acknowledge you're writing about statutory rape - and treat it seriously in that context. (Contrast PLL with LIFE UNEXPECTED, which seemed to be taking the wrong path with their teacher/student couple, only to throw in a late twist that forced the adult player to question the morality of what he'd done.)

I'm mindful that there's still plenty of time for RIVERDALE to throw such a twist at us, so I haven't let this one plot put me off of the show. To their credit, early on it was lampshaded that Miss Grundy was a sinister, predatory person, negating the PLL problem. With the affair exposed in Episode 4, most of the character reactions were horror and concern. No one cheered Archie with an "Attaboy!" (Or to use the vernacular of SOUTH PARK, "Niiiiiice.") However... we've not seen many emotional consequences for Archie either (yet.) This plot has all the hallmarks of something that's gonna pop up in the final three episodes to redefine the central mystery, so I'm willing to be patient.

I just question if this was the wisest plot to throw at the central character while he's being established. I've felt disconnected from Archie, and I suspect this is the culprit. He's gotten a couple interesting beats throughout, notably a story dealing with Jughead and the tensions between Jughead's father and Archie's father. The show has also done some interesting things with him trying to write songs and perform with one of the Pussycats (of Josie and the Pussycats), so I have faith that by the end of the season he'll be rounded out to better effect.

Josie and the Pussycats are also being treated with some unique shades. When Archie tries to write songs for them, they call him out on "cultural appropriation," questioning what a white teenage boy could have to say about the lives of black females. We also learn that Josie's father - a famed musician in his own right - doesn't think much of pop music and disapproves of his daughter's band so much that he can't even sit through an entire performance at the school talent show. (His anti-pop stance had me contemplating fan fiction where he meets Ryan Gosling's jazz purist character from LA LA LAND.)

So many words and I feel like I've barely scratched the surface of what makes RIVERDALE so compelling. There's a reason the show is titled "RIVERDALE" and not "ARCHIE." The creators have been establishing an entire canvas, gradually fleshing out many corner of the town. It helps the setting feel "real" in a way few shows manage early in their run. Did Capeside feel this fleshed out six episodes into DAWSON'S CREEK? Did GILMORE GIRLS get very far into establishing Stars Hollow as more than a generic quirky small town this fast?

Creator Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, working under Berlanti Productions's Greg Berlanti and Sarah Schechter have established so much Riverdale culture that a broad variety of storylines can be launched from these origins. Arguably, this is helped by some clever casting in the adult roles, as virtually every senior member of the cast has a notable teen role on their resume. Luke Perry (BEVERLY HILLS 90210), Robin Givens (HEAD OF THE CLASS), and Skeet Ulrich (SCREAM) are just a few of the names to be dropped there. (Mädchen Amick is the overachiever, with her TWIN PEAKS history giving a link to one aspect of the show's lineage, and her DAWSON'S CREEK stint linking to the other half.)

And even though RIVERDALE seems to have an engine that could power it for five seasons or more, I wonder if - in the spirit of some ARCHIE reboots - we might find that each season completely reboots the context around the iconic characters. If this year is "ARCHIE meets TWIN PEAKS," what's to stop next year from being "ARCHIE meets THE WALKING DEAD" aka "AFTERLIFE WITH ARCHIE." (Yes, this exists - a comic miniseries about Riverdale being overrun by zombies, and it's written by series creator Aguirre-Sacasa.)

But for now, I'm more than happy to take in the shady, sinister vibe RIVERDALE's putting out this season. If you haven't checked it out yet, give it a look, and odds are you'll find something that appeals to you