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.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

16 Great TV Shows, Part 12: Gilmore Girls

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

It's fall of 2000 and I happen to leave the TV running after whatever I had just watched, resulting in my catching the opening of a new show I'd heard nothing about. I immediately recognize one of the stars as a woman who seemed to be popping up on EVERY show a couple years earlier: Newsradio, Law & Order, Caroline in the City, a couple failed sitcoms. I mostly remember finding her annoying (which in most cases, was her function on those shows), so my first thought was "Ah, another soon-to-be-dead series." She's having coffee with what I assume to be a friend of hers, a younger woman.

For a reason that I'm sure had NOTHING to do with her coffee companions stunning blue eyes, I leave the TV on while lazily surfing the web and then as a guy makes a pass at each of the ladies in turn, the twist of the show is revealed: This 32 year-old woman and 16 year-old girl are actually mother and daughter. "Okay, show, you had my curiosity... NOW you have my attention," I think. I think there was probably also a cynical musing on how The WB had finally found an organic solution to the problem that all their parent figures were too old to be interesting to their young audience.

My point is - what got my attention was the realization: "I haven't seen these characters before. No one's explored this dynamic - a former teen mom with a daughter who's now like a friend than a daughter, right when the mom is going to really have to step up and be in authority." You could see the potential from the first few scenes and as the rest of the pilot played out more and more unusual wrinkles emerged. So the mom was raised in privilege and ran away after giving birth? And she's been totally self-sufficient since, only is now forced to beg her parents for a loan to afford school for her daughter? We're adding class issues to this, along with the culture clash of small town people with high society?

Written by Amy Sherman-Palladino, the Gilmore Girls pilot does many things right, and it's probably one that's worth breaking down scene by scene at some point because you can learn a lot about character building and world-building. Pilots are written to sell a series. Sometimes that means you get a show with a lot of flash and eye candy. Other times you end up with a show that "lays a lot of pipe" (writer jargon for "puts out a lot of exposition"), but presents a fascinating situation despite itself. In the case of Gilmore Girls, while it has a lot of foundation to pour, it's done in such an entertaining and seamless way that it doesn't feel terribly pilot-y.

The secret sauce? Character. Every conflict is character driven. Every world we meet is rooted in character, and we're fortunate because they're generally characters we haven't met before. It doesn't feel like we're meeting people in terms of their functions so much as these players seem to pop onto the screen fully-formed and lived in. Remember, before I knew anything about the world or the eventual conflict between Lorelei and her daughter Rory about Rory being accepted into private school, I was hooked by the mother/daughter set-up.

Writing lessons:

Have a strong core relationship to your series. Bonus points for ones we haven't seen before. - I've beaten most of this lesson to death, so I'll just add that in the first scene with Rory and Lorelei, part of what stood out was how easily Rory slid into giving Mr. Pick-Up Artist some shit. (She teases, "Are you my new daddy?" after his pass at Lorelei reveals the mother/daughter relationship.)

The more formed your world is, the more comfortably you can explore your characters in it - The town of Stars Hollow is introduced with a number of regular residents who are depicted exactly as they would be for the remainder of the first season and beyond. True, it's not the familiar town EXACTLY (owing to shooting on location rather than on the WB lot where the rest of the series is filmed) but the spirit of the show is there. The same can be said for Lorelei's parents' home.

Show us there's a story there - All of the relationships are immediately fertile ground for years of stories. Lorelei and Rory butt heads in what seems to be their first major fight EVER. (And to Lorelei's horror, it's over a GUY of all things, when Rory doesn't want to leave public school after having just met the new boy in town.) Just from that moment it's evident that Rory's growing independence from her mother is going to be a running theme of the series. It also doesn't take too many leaps to see the parallels between that and Lorelei's own strained relationship with her mother. Generational tension is always good for a story, and between what's spoken and unspoken in this pilot, it's clear that all three generations have a lot of growing to do.

Characters we haven't seen before on TV - We've covered Lorelei being a former teen mom, but it bears mentioning that Rory was a pretty unique beast at the time. She was a smart girl who was neither a nerd, nor a popular queen bee. She also wasn't insecure about her brains making her an outcast. (Yes, she's looked down on when she starts at Chilton, but it's pretty evident from context that she's never been bullied or shunned for her brains or her love of reading.) The lead girl of a WB show is a book nerd who loves reading well above her age level - can you name ANY time that's happened before? I think my Rory crush was cemented right there!

The beauty of how I'm doing this 16-show list is that I'm not held hostage by later dips in quality. Yes, season 7 is a severe drop from what came before, and you can't be objective and argue that missteps in season 6 didn't make that possible either. My appreciation of the show's early days doesn't mean I'm not critical of where the show eventually took Rory's development. Believe me - I am.

But the first three seasons are consistently strong throughout. If you want to get a good flavor of the show in Season 1 beyond the pilot, I'd look at "Rory's Birthday Parties" and the two-parter "Rory's Dance." All of those make good use of the Lorelei/Rory/Emily dynamic, playing off the tensions that have either been long-simmering or newly-built.

It's in the second season that the show's rapid-fire dialogue really takes flight. The pace is amped up, and I'm still waiting someone to do a deconstruction of Palladino's dialogue and how it ONLY sounds right when delivered double-time. If you try performing some GG scenes at the speed of mere mortals, something assuredly feels off. I almost want to say there are dialogue lessons there, but Palladino dialogue works because they're the only ones who write that way. Imitate at your own risk. Be a first-rate you, not a second-rate Palladino.

The recent Netflix revival is a worthy conclusion to the show, and in almost every way, is a better note to depart the series on than the series itself. You can find my review of it here.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

16 Great TV Shows, Part 11: Buffy the Vampire Slayer

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

To discuss the next show on my list, I have to offer a few confessions.

It was the late 90s, and I was well on my way to becoming a TV snob. Having discovered "adult" dramas like ER, L&O and Homicide, I had little interest in ANY sort of teen soaps built around relationship dramas and the oh-so-intense problems of pretty privileged people. (Stop laughing. I'm being 100% sincere in my dismissal at the time.)

Try convincing THAT guy to watch a teen drama called "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," based on a painfully bad movie that died at the box office years ago. It didn't help that this was a show on The WB, which to that point was the terrible low brow home of such TV VD as Unhappily Ever After and Kirk. I ran from it like the plague, even after seeing a blurb or two in Entertainment Weekly about how it was "The Best Show You're Not Watching."

This is how my mother came to be a Buffy viewer before I did. I got exposed secondhand... but that viewing of "Inca Mummy Girl" did little to change my mind. It wasn't until I heard the hype about how the season two finale ended that I made it a priority to check out the rerun of that two-parter just before season three started. Angelus running amok, a second Slayer killed, Buffy forced to send a suddenly-good Angel to hell? I was hooked.

And then somehow Season 3 got even better. By then I was a freshman in college and Buffy was THE hot show in the dorms. It was the perfect show in the perfect environment at the perfect time. The dialog was witty, the characters were fun, and we were all still at the age where the metaphors of "High school is hell" still resonated. I've written before about how Season 3 of Buffy is one of the perfect seasons of television and I still stand by it. It pulls off a number of clever twists, like a major villain switcharoo mid-season. It justifies WHY our heroes and villains find themselves in holding patterns during the last third of the season, and it has one of my favorite "fall from grace" stories as Faith goes from ally to enemy.

And somewhere in all this I realized, "Holy shit! This is a superhero show and a coming of age drama all in one!" You can draw a straight line from Buffy to Alias to the excellent Greg Berlanti-produced superhero shows of the present day. This is why you won't find favorites of mine like Supergirl and The Flash on the list later. Both shows do their own thing, but when it came time to make hard choices, I couldn't dispute they were walking a trail that Buffy had blazed. (That said, I give those shows a LOT of credit for daring to put their leads in actual superhero costumes.)

That was one of the big lessons from Buffy, that one COULD translate the fun of the comic books I read into a TV series and not have to treat it entirely campy. At the time Lois & Clark was the most recent superhero show on TV and BATMAN & ROBIN was our most recent major superhero tentpole - both of which took the approach of somewhat mocking the material. Buffy lived inside its genre, while still being able to poke fun at the conventions of such a show. It never showed contempt for its audience or its mythology. It took the rules of its world deadly seriously and the irreverence came from the characters' reactions to the absurdity they encountered.

It was a tonal high-wire act, managing to be laugh-out-loud funny without sacrificing intensity. The show could tell a story one week about Angelus stalking and psychologically torturing Buffy, even killing one of her close friends, and then next week tell a silly story about a spell gone wrong that makes everyone fall in love with Xander... and both felt wholly appropriate to the series. It was a big lesson in the elasticity of the genre. Sure, The X-Files sometimes abandoned its deadly-serious tone for a goofy episode like "Jose Chung's From Outer Space," but what Buffy pulled off was on another level and it varied its tone far more frequently.

Creator Joss Whedon knew how to use the fans' expectations of the genre against them. There's an episode called "The Wish," (written by Marti Noxon) where Cordellia wishes that Buffy never came to Sunnydale. Instantly she finds herself in an alternate timeline where the town has been overrun by vampires for years and she's the only one who knows how it's supposed to be. She spends the first half of the episode shocked by the changes and trying to get help from alternate timeline versions of Giles and her friends. And then the show breaks a major "rule." Cordillia - the person who seemingly has to put everything right - gets killed. It was one of those "I can't believe they just did that! How do they get out of this?" moments. It was the kind of thing Buffy regularly did - it took the step that other shows would walk up to and then sprint away from.

Another good trope subversion is in the spinoff Angel. We get what appears to be a standard exorcism episode, with Angel and his friends trying to expel a demon spirit from a little boy who has been setting fires and threatening his family's lives. For much of the episode, it appears the tension is drawn from the fact the boy's parents don't realize Angel's a vampire himself. Also, since Angel can't handle a cross without it burning him, he's forced to stay out of the exorcism... until inevitably he has to take the risk. With the demon forced out, the show hits us with an incredibly dark ending - the freed demon is relieved to be out of there. He was trying to feed on the boy's soul... but the kid was souless. The demon confirms he never manifested until Angel detected him... which means all of the ugly stuff the kid did was NOT because he was possessed. He's just a dangerous kid.

Like I said, DARK.

I considered giving Angel its own slot on the list, but when it came time for hard choices, I had to concede that Angel and Buffy were too similar to merit separate recognition. Angel's stories tended to be darker, and often were more complex. Indeed, there are stretches of the spinoff that I prefer to the parent show. Ultimately, Buffy was more versatile and it made the impact on me first.

I've written a bunch of Buffy posts already, so be sure to check them out for more writing tips:

Buffy The Vampire Slayer's "The Body" - how to write a crying scene, part I
Buffy The Vampire Slayer's "The Body" - how to write a crying scene, part II
Buffy The Vampire Slayer's "Pangs" - PC or not PC?
Show, don't tell
My KsiteTV post: "What serialized shows like The Vampire Diaries should learn from Buffy’s third season." 
Buffy the Vampire Slayer turns 20 today! (We are all so, so old)

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

16 Great TV Shows, Part 10: Homicide: Life on the Street

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

Homicide: Life on the Street is the yin to Law & Order's yang. L&O is purely procedural, while Homicide thrives when the characters are front and center, their worldviews challenged or reinforced by the latest case in front of them. While L&O often turns its focus to institutional and societal morality, Homicide is more likely to explore individual morality. Though L&O's handheld style helps give the show its energy, Homicide eschews all rules of filmmaking staging and editing: jump-cuts, triple-takes, axis-crossing and everything a first year film student is told not to do is fair game so long as the emotional truth of the moment isn't compromised.

I remember a few Friday nights during the show's third season where I was in the room as my mother watched Homicide and I had an immediate visceral reaction: I hated it. (This would not be the first time my mother was attuned to a groundbreaking series before I was. She also came to Buffy at least a full half-season before I did.)

As I said yesterday, it took the crossover episode to make me give the show a second look. I think my tastes must have matured enough in the intervening year that everything about the show clicked with me. Andre Braugher rightly had grabbed the lion's share of media attention as the intense Frank Pembleton, but the hidden strength of the show was how well-defined and compelling all the characters were. Clark Johnson's Meldrick Lewis is the perfect example of an actor disappearing so casually into a role that everything he does is invisible. You don't notice Lewis so much because he doesn't do anything to stand out as inauthentic. (Hunt down some footage of Johnson out of character and marvel at how completely unlike Meldrick he is.) You could run down the cast list and say much the same for everyone.

Having said that, I always had great affection for Richard Belzer's John Munch, the sardonic quipper of the group. Soon after I began watching, NBC ran older episodes from season one, including a show where he and Ned Beatty's Bolander use a rigged copy machine to interrogate a suspect after telling him it's a (life-threatening lie detector.) I think that was the moment where it really clicked for me - "Hey, this show is incredibly FUNNY!" I even remember likening it to the relatively-recent PULP FICTION in how it found humor in places not seen in those kind of stories before.

The other Tarantino-like facet I credited the series for turned out to be false. Lifetime soon was running syndicated reruns, putting the episodes in order of their original airing. This meant that a show declaring that Detective Crosetti had died ran before the show where he was actually found dead. The reason for this was that NBC bumped the latter episode due to scheduling issues, the shows as produced had Crosetti's death happening first, as was the producers' intent. I've written about this episode before, and called it one of Homicide's most powerful hours.

In fact, that's one of the clearest influences on my writing. In college, I was showrunner for a half-hour drama series and in planning for the second season, I knew I wanted to do a powerful story that would shake up a lot of characters and hit them in their emotional core. By the time the script made its way to shooting, seven months later, Buffy had aired the emotionally raw "The Body" and everyone assumed I was trying to be Joss Whedon. (I was, just not here.) There were a lot of small things that - to my mind - I stole liberally from HOMICIDE on that show, but for the most part, the characters and setting are so different that the influence is less obvious.

A notable exception is an interrogation scene I featured in one episode. Though all the detectives were regularly shown breaking down a suspect in "The Box," few were more compelling to watch than Andre Braugher as Frank Pembleton. The pilot uses him to introduce the psychological nature of a police interrogation, demonstrating how suspects are broken down and then very gradually trapped by their own statements. It's a sequence borrowed largely from David Simon's book that spawned it, Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets.

And then there's this riveting sequence where Frank gets a confession out of an innocent man.



It was always a thrill watching Pembleton work "The Box," and one of the show's best hours focuses entirely on an interrogation run by him and his partner Tim Bayliss. "Three Men and Adena" finds the two detectives with 24 hours to get a murder confession out of their prime suspect or see him walk away for ever. The decompression allows writer Tom Fontana to show the different approaches between the two detectives. Early on, Bayliss seems to think the path to success is by hitting the suspect with all the evidence he has and browbeating him into admitting it. Pembleton seems to keep stepping on Bayliss's questions, giving the suspect relief from questions he'd find it very hard to explain. Gradually it dawns on us what Frank is doing. He's not undercutting Tim, he's trying to get the suspect to open up just enough that Frank can get inside his head and trap him.

An interrogation scene is not about information - it's as much about the person asking the questions as the person called on to answer. I remember that realizing it completely changed my view of how to write those scenes. And over the years, I've written a LOT of interrogations.

Homicide always knew how to use scenes like this to reflect the relationships of the various patnerships too. L&O's various detective teams were relatively harmonious, but Homicide's tended to go through more ups and downs that a marriage in a relationship drama. If the writers had Lewis and Kellerman working a particular case, there was a REASON they chose those detectives for that case. It never felt like you could swap detective teams and come out with the same story.

H: LOTS is another show I could probably do a whole week's worth of posts on if I put my mind to it. It was the rare show at the time that made me hungry to read other (intelligent) reactions to the material. This coincided with my joining Usenet newsgroups and there were only a couple TV fandoms I wasted my time reading about in there. alt.tv.homicide was always the most literate and interesting discussion board, and never failed to make me look below the surface of the writing. It made me aware of the kind of depth I'd have to strive for to compete on a professional level.

Other Homicide Posts:
Friday Free-For-All: Richard Belzer as Detective John Munch
Happy birthday, Homicide!
"It was a clean shoot" - HOMICIDE's most debated episode turns 20 today

Monday, July 10, 2017

16 Great TV Shows, Part 9: Law & Order

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

What can I say about Law & Order that I haven't already touched on in multiple earlier posts?

I first came upon Dick Wolf's ubiquitous crime drama during the summer after Season 5. At that point, it was to me little more than another legal show to pass the time. It had the virtue of being easy to catch a random episode of, being entirely episodic. Half of the hour is the investigation of the crime, half is the prosecution.

It took me a while to fully appreciate the genius of Dick Wolf's design - half the show was a murder mystery, half was a moral mystery. In other words, we explore the whodunit, and then the case brings out the social issues around the whodunit. It was a brilliant way to inject social commentary, whether the issue was abortion, abusive parents, racial tension and bigotry, corruption, or even female circumcision. It was a structure that demanded each episode be ABOUT something.

Two circumstances made me a regular viewer in season 6. First, the show did a crossover with Homicide: Life on the Street, which I also was a casual viewer of but hadn't really taken to yet. At this point in time, sitcoms were doing crossover stories pretty regularly, but you didn't see TV dramas - let alone dramas from completely unrelated creators and producers - doing that. It was a gimmick, but it worked. After that I was a regular viewer of both shows.

The second circumstance: A&E had just begun airing the first five seasons of the show in reruns - two episodes a day. I spent much of the next several months taping each episode and watching them when I had a chance. (Kids, before DVRs and streaming THIS was how you binge-watched.) The show was known for its cast turnover. Each season saw the departure of at least one actor and the arrival of a new one. The cable channel didn't run the episodes in order, so you never knew if that night's offering was going to feature Jerry Orbach or Paul Sorvino as the lead cop, or Sam Waterston or Michael Moriarty as the lead prosecutor.

One virtue of the writing was that the cases were often so twisty that I could catch a rerun I'd seen just six months earlier and have no idea where that particular case was going to lead and how anything ended up. Only The Simpsons had proven that complex in reruns and it made the vast majority of episodes almost addictively rewatchable. And rewatch, I did. In college, I'd do my best to schedule my college classes around the A&E reruns.

Given that, it's no surprise that the show's influence was keenly felt on the first feature screenplay I ever wrote. It was an assignment for my screenwriting class and as my classmates read my pages, two consistent reactions emerged - they really liked my twists and fast pace. And it TOTALLY felt like a Law & Order story.

So here's the impact that the series had on my writing:

- Get in scenes as late as possible, leave as early as possible. I already wrote a whole post on this, but it's worth repeating. Because of the story distance the show has to cover so quickly, there's not a wasted moment. This is a great series to teach you about efficiency.

- Story density and complexity. Few episodes are straightforward. There's always a left-turn in the story that comes out of nowhere, but also feels organic in the moment. The best way to do this is by plotting backwards. Know where you want to go and find the most circuitous way to get there that still lets you lay pipe for the rest. Keep upending expectations.

- Use the procedural framework to explore several sides of an issue. Let those issues provoke debates among your characters. Through that you can define the issue AND the players.

Law &; Order is an incredible accomplishment in television. Just look at the stats:

- 456 episodes
- 8 spinoff series. (Special Victims Unit, Criminal Intent, Trial By Jury, Law & Order: LA, Law & Order: UK, Conviction, the non-fiction Crime & Punishment, and the forthcoming Law & Order: True Crime.)
- a collective 59 seasons of television from those shows!
- One Emmy win for Outstanding Drama Series.

Earlier Law & Order posts:

A Farewell to Law & Order and Jack McCoy, TV's greatest prosecutor

Start late, get out early - Law & Order: LA

A salute to the greatest procedural ever as Law & Order turns 25! (Includes a list of best episodes)

A tribute to Law & Order's Adam Schiff, Steven Hill

I'm a guest on the Law & Order podcast "These Are Their Stories!"

Friday, July 7, 2017

16 Great TV Shows, Part 8: The X-Files

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


The X-Files is a show that I often compare to one's first serious girlfriend. You become infatuated with her, you give her everything and in the end she breaks your heart into a thousand pieces.

Despite that, your car keys are in your hands within seconds of receiving a "U up?" text, no matter how bad it ended last time.

By my count, this series broke my heart AT LEAST four times:

1) The revelation of what happened to Mulder's sister. Seriously, what was that?

2) The finale, which somehow managed to spend half its running time in a courtroom and still offer no real answers that hadn't already been revealed by the show. This was capped off with the Smoking Man coming back AGAIN, and a really unsatisfying open ending with Mulder and Scully on the run.

3) X-FILES: THE TRUTH IS OUT THERE, when they tried to tell a movie about paranormal investigates working a case with no paranormal elements.

4) The finale of the recent revival. Another open ending, this one a major cliffhanger, coming on the heels of mytharc stories that only made the conspiracy even MORE incomprehensible.

But it's coming back again next season and I can't wait.

I'm not sure even I appreciated how different The X-Files was when I started getting into it at the top of its third season. I knew that it was cooler looking than most shows on TV and had a vibe and a concept that hadn't really been done before, a sort of sci-fi procedural about FBI agents who investigate the paranormal. The more I learned about TV history, the more I realized that at most points in the past, if a show like this had been done, it would have leaned into the silliness. (EERIE, INDIANA - another excellent show - is probably a good citation of how the paranormal was usually treated with a wink rather than solemn seriousness.) There are a lot of things that define The X-Files, but it's serious-as-hell tone probably ranks near the top. It's determined to take its cases as seriously as Clarice Starling takes hunting Buffalo Bill.

Another rarity for the time was the utter lack of closure that many cases got. Try to imagine the reports that Mulder and Scully must have filed each week and you realize that rarely do they even get as far as taking a suspect into custody or finding an explanation for events that would be taken seriously by any bureau. This is probably the cusp of TV challenging its audience by not tying up everything neatly.

Genre TV had been ghettoized for a long time. Look up the history of any genre show from the 80s or early 90s and odds are that most of them were relegated to first-run syndication. Network TV wasn't inclined to take sci-fi seriously, nor did they see their audience as particularly sophisticated. The X-Files changed all that. Not every attempt to clone the series worked (Fox had a LOT of stone-serious sci-fi failures in the back half of the decade), but it seemed to let the genie out of the bottle. You can draw a straight line from The X-Files to LOST, and in turn, the wave of genre TV that the latter show spawned.

So what keeps me coming back to The X-Files despite increasing dissatisfaction with the creative direction? David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson. I was never a hard-core Mulder and Scully "shipper" in that I was desperate to see them hook up, but their relationship was always the core of the show. Mulder never met a circumstance he didn't have a bizarre left-field explanation for, a complete opposite to Scully's conviction to finding answers in science. In retrospect, it's notable that though they had a conflict of methods, they were always professional. Today I wonder if writers might make the mistake of amping up the conflict between the two to the levels of a buddy cop movie. These two were partners, first and foremost, and that harmony was always more fascinating than whether or not they were schtupping. Also, on all counts, its the more interesting and less obvious tone for their dynamic. Conflict is the essence of drama, but that doesn't mean that opposing characters need to be irrevocably polarized in order to be fascinating.

Personally, I always preferred Scully to Mulder and though I'm in the minority, I really liked Season 8's notion of finally making Scully more of a believer and pairing her with the no-nonsense former cop John Doggett. I could have seen that partnership lasting a few more seasons had the show been able to make a clean break from the Mulder era.

So this leads perhaps to one of the biggest impressions the show made on me: Know when to resolve long-running storylines. What really caused the show to stagnate was its insistence on tying EVERYTHING back to the main alien mytharc. Thus, each subsequent year, that mythology acquired more baggage and more detritus. Had they tied off the storyline definitively in season 6 with the end of the conspiracy, the show might have moved forward. Certainly the full-time departure of Mulder at the end of Season 8 should have been the cue to tie off the uber arc and let next season begin with Scully, Doggett and Reyes investigating entirely new paranormal storylines.

The X-Files's lack of closure once made it a breath of fresh air. By the end, it was just an exercise in frustration. The show is scared to leave an element this big behind and so it makes the storyline confusing and impenetrable for even those of us who've followed it from the start. It was a little like if Buffy spent seven seasons with The Master as the Big Bad behind it all. At a certain point, a writer has to be willing to close the door on some threads and play a few new notes.

When I was younger, it was the mytharc episodes I loved the most. Those were the episodes that really seemed to matter because they dangled the possibility of revelation and change. In reruns, however, knowing that the path that show takes leads only to a lot of red herrings and narrative cul-de-sacs, I now favor the well-crafted standalones.

I didn't need The X-Files to tie everything up in a neat bow, but the occasional resolution would have gone a long way to restoring audience goodwill. This is probably one of the few shows on this list that has nearly as many "don't do this" lessons as "steal from this."

But what do I know? As I said, I'll be there on premiere night for the next limited-run revival. I just can't quit Mulder and Scully.

Thursday, July 6, 2017

16 Great TV Shows, Part 7: Newsradio

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

It occurred to me that this post might be a bigger hit if I had it translated into Japanese, and then translated back from THAT to English.  And if that joke makes no sense to you then you're probably not cool enough to have seen today's show: Newsradio.

Why Newsradio? Why not Cheers or Frasier or Friends or any other sitcom that lasted nearly a decade and was at the top of the ratings the entire time?

That's a good question. All three of those would definitely make it into my TV canon, but when I took a good hard look, I couldn't honestly find the mindblowing "holy shit" moments that I got with some of the other shows on this list. All of those shows are examples of the sitcom at the peak, and frankly, all of them probably endured longer than Newsradio.

Created by Paul Simms, Newsradio is set in a New York AM radio station. As with most workplace sitcoms, the characters drive the story as much as the workplace, and man does this show have some great characters.

Writer Lesson 1 - You don't have to make "the straight man" the boring foil for other characters. Dave Nelson has just started at WNYX as the news director and immediately has to deal with kooky billionaire boss Jimmy James, ambitious reporter Lisa Miller (who thinks SHE should have Dave's job), pompous blowhard radio personality Bill McNeil, abrasive radio personality Catherine Duke, flighty assistant Beth, useless and spazy reporter Matthew Brock, and surly handyman Joe. Writing logic that Dave then should be the "normal" guy who we relate to and empathize with while he navigates these loons, right?

If you watch the series in order, Dave relaxes pretty quickly. He seems like an all-business type at the start, but the writers gave him a nice sarcastic side, particularly when dealing with Jimmy James and Bill. There's the expected comedic exasperation, but he's capable of getting in a good zinger and it not feeling out of character. This opened the door to later reveals like how Dave is an accomplished tap dancer.

Writer Lesson 2: To hell with "will they or won't they" - TV loves unresolved sexual tension. It lets characters dance around their attraction for each other for months, maybe entire seasons on end while keeping the audience in suspense about if these two crazy kids will get together. Generally, shows delayed this as long as possible because Moonlighting went down the drain once the lead characters hooked up and the sexual tension was dissipated. (I've heard convincing arguments that the show's decline was unrelated to the story turn and that the two merely correlated.) Dave and Lisa hook up in the second episode, immediately upending the will-they-won't-they of Ross and Rachel and letting any romantic tension between them come from that existing relationship. It's a good lesson in breaking sitcom rules.

Writer Lesson 3: Egotistical characters are fun to write for, and the more pompous you make them, the more outrageously awful behavior the audience will accept.Technically Bill should be the office villain, but Phil Hartman (RIP!) plays him with such an overblown attitude that it utterly diffuses the nastiness of moments like rudely smoking around his co-workers, being an utter jerk with his cane, getting pushy with Jerry Seinfeld during an interview, openly insulting his guests on the air and basically attacking Dave at every turn. Making your bad guys funny can be a good antidote to viewer hate, but Hartman's overblown genial delivery somehow turns Bill McNeal into the "I don't give a shit" office asshole we all secretly wish we could be. It also takes the character far enough that we believe the rest of the staff would put up with him because he's basically toothless.

Writer Lesson 4: Don't be afraid to go very weird and broad. They did one episode that was "What if the station was on the Titanic?" and another one that remade the setting as a sci-fi premise. Those are the most extreme examples of weirdness, but there are other out-there plots like a comatose Jimmy James being kept in the breakroom while he recovers, Jimmy deciding to run for President, Lisa having serious federal crimes on her RAP sheet (all offenses are SAT-related). Jimmy James always seemed to exist on another plane of reality from the rest, and so he could lead the show into weirder corners that Dave and the others couldn't. Some of this is about not being afraid to go weird, and some of it's about having a character that gives you license to go there. Jimmy James is a comedy gift for those reasons.

I feel like you can kinda draw a straight line from this show to 30 Rock, which elevated this sort of surreal style to an art form. (I almost considered putting 30 Rock on the list, but all of the reasons I came up with pretty much traced back to here.)

I miss this show, but not as much as I miss Phil Hartman. And Stephen Root needs to be working more often.

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

16 Great TV Shows, Part 6: ER

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

I've searched my memory as best I can and it appears that ER is the first true one-hour drama that I watched regularly (so long as you exclude the Star Trek shows.) I came to the show somewhere in the middle of its first season, after it had already cemented its place as the number 1 drama on TV and one of the most buzzed about series. It's another point in my history where I can firmly mark my changing tastes, as ER proved to be the gateway drug into further dramas like Law & Order and Homicide: Life on the Street.

I've written several posts on ER already, which I'll link at the end of the article. In the interests of not repeating myself, today I'll focus on what initially got me into the show and kept me watching all the way until the end. (The first four years are the best, season 5 is a major step down, but it gets its mojo back in season 6 and mostly sustains quality until Anthony Edwards departs in Season 8. After that, it became a steadily declining show for me, but it recovered immensely in season 15, which stands with the best of the run.)

I had no interest in medicine, so I didn't think a show about a hospital had anything to offer me, not even one created by Jurassic Park writer Michael Crichton. Stupid me, good characters can be found ANYWHERE. That's a pretty basic lesson, but as a 14 year-old I was still learning the distinction between where a show was set and what it was about. I didn't need to understand emergency room procedures or surgery in order to be drawn into how the day to day life affected the characters. Best as I can recall, the first character I was really drawn to was Eriq La Salle's Peter Benton. Between him and Homicide's Pembleton, I wonder what it says about my high school years that I identified with the guy who stands apart from the flock and often acts like he's suffering fools on a regular basis.

I've been beating this drum in earlier posts but pace also played a role here. If you watch the ER pilot now, it feels almost sedate, but at the time it seemed to race from scene-to-scene. TV was becoming more cinematic on every level, writing, directing and acting. I sometimes wonder if the most significant development to happen to TV in the 90s was the prevalence of Stedicams. Being able to race alongside the actors for longer takes completely changed the staging and urgency of scenes, and encouraged a more natural performance style. It really help translate the urgency of an emergency room to the screen in a way that wouldn't have been feasible just a few years earlier.

This was where I also started noticing how the writers would relate what was going on in a character's medical cases to what was happening in their personal lives. Sometimes it would be subtle, other times it'd land with the conspicuousness of an anvil. Either way, it was generally deeper writing than I was used to seeing, particularly when a story arc stretched over several episodes and it only gradually became clear how an experience was meant to change, say, Carter.

Another lesson - the audience is smarter than you give them credit for. The show rarely stopped mid-trauma to translate the obtuse medical-babble, and in doing so, it revealed how much can be gleaned from context and inflection. If Dr. Greene went from being a soothing voice of calm to an urgent, clipped tone, we knew whatever he'd just seen on the read-out was grim. If he gives an order and two med students look up in disbelief, we know that he's going out on a limb. The dialogue is speaking the language of the medical professional but the performers are speaking the language of drama. How you build a scene is just as important as what the scene's about.

My "I didn't know they could do that!" moment was when the show's writers would build one of the episode's major plots around a critical patient we got to know and like... and then kill them. In the era of Peak TV, this is a lot less novel, but back then, medical shows didn't regularly kill off the patients we cared for. They might be put in jeopardy, but one way or another they'd pull through. Equally unusual was when we WOULDN'T find out the result of a critical trauma case. (The Season Four finale is a good example of this, with an entire family's life hanging in the balance as we fade to black with their fates forever unresolved.) Basically, ER showed me it was safe to not wrap everything up in a neat little bow, even if it had its own way of playing safe.

There are a great many 90s dramas that should be required viewing for writers who haven't been exposed to them. Shows like ER were a critical evolutionary step on the way to the darker, morally ambiguous cable dramas of the 21st century.

Other Posts:

A Look at the ER pilot - Part 1
A Look at the ER pilot - Part 2
A Look at the ER pilot - Part 3
A look at the episode where Carter and Lucy get stabbed