Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Do I still hate this? A second chance for ONE TREE HILL's school shooting episode - Part 2

Yesterday I began a re-visitation of the infamous school shooting episode of One Tree Hill. For the first part of this series, go here.

Let's talk about Jimmy. When Colin Fickes was cast in the pilot in a role that had only a few lines, no one would have envisioned that less than three years later, that character's emotional breakdown would have to drive the series's most intense episode. For the most part, he fares okay. The script is not without its overwrought moments and in a few spots, it proves to be too tempting an invitation for the actor to go over-the-top. The extreme nature of the situation excuses some of this, but Fickes has one line-reading near the end of the show that always makes me wince. (I won't spoil it, but it comes when he confronts Lucas and Peyton.)

In spite of that, Fickes does a good job of conveying Jimmy's pain and the growing panic as it becomes clear to him that there's no good way to walk away from the situation he's responsible for. Unlike most of the school shooters we read about in the news, Jimmy doesn't walk into the school with the intent of mowing down as many of his enemies as possible. It seems he brings the gun for protection, expecting he'll be a target.

It's also notable that he brings a simple handgun and not any kind of assault rifle. That helps put a little bit of distance between this and the Columbine incidents, mitigating most charges that the show is exploiting those sorts of tragedies. Something else I hadn't considered until this rewatch: at no point does this storyline ever lead to any discussion of gun control. It's not an episode that's focused on America's gun culture. It doesn't want to say anything about gun control or the availability of firearms. It really wants us to be focused on the pain that might drive someone to do something like this.

When a teen show is in that territory, it's in immediate competition with one of the best episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, "Earshot." You might remember it as the episode where Buffy gets the ability to read minds and ends up trying to prevent someone from killing everyone in the school. When she confronts Jonathan, who she assumes is the would-be school shooter, the young man snorts at her claims that she could understand his pain. He can't imagine anything that could be bad about being beautiful and popular.

Buffy, who's spent the entire episode unable to block out the thoughts of everyone around her, exposed unfiltered to all their fears and insecurities, says, "My life happens on occasion to suck beyond the telling of it. Sometimes more than I can handle. And it’s not just mine. Every single person down there is ignoring your pain because they're too busy with their own. The beautiful ones. The popular ones. The guys that pick on you. Everyone. If you could hear what they were feeling. The loneliness. The confusion. It looks quiet down there. It’s not. It’s deafening."

One Tree Hill can't hope to top that, especially with as deftly as Buffy set up that moment, but it clearly wants to make that statement. I'll give them points for ambition, but too many other factors prevent them from earning that kind of moment.

I'm going to bring up something that couldn't have contributed to my initial dislike of the episode for the reason of "facts not in evidence" at the time. This is an episode that puts our characters in a room with a fellow student on the verge of shooting them, and asks us to feel HIS pain. We're absolutely preached to empathize with Jimmy and to feel that he's not a bad person so much as someone who's made terrible mistakes that he can't take back. He's clearly depressed and POSSIBLY suffering from mental illness. The show wants us to know "he - and people like him - need help."

In the following seasons, there will be no fewer than three antagonists who are depicted as, to use a clinical term, "crazy." The psycho stalker becomes an OTH staple thanks to:

Psycho Derek - stalker who claims to be Peyton's long-lost brother. He became obsessed with Peyton following a complete mental breakdown that was brought on by the death of his girlfriend in a car crash while he was driving. We eventually learn that his girlfriend bore a striking resemblance to Peyton, which led to him fixating on her to an obsessive degree. He becomes violent and unstable, but any effort the show makes at empathy comes far too late, and after several episodes of playing him as a violent deranged psycho.

Nannie Carrie - hired to look after Nathan and Haley's son Jamie, she gets fired after trying to seduce Nathan. She then attempt to kidnap Jamie and run away with him, determined to become his new mom. It's revealed that she too suffered a mental breakdown after her own child was kidnapped and murdered, thus eventually provoking her to "replace" her child with Jamie. As sad as this is, she too is treated like yet another horror movie stalker psycho and is the ONLY OTH villain to actually be killed by the "good guys" (well, Dan) in a sequence where we're supposed to cheer for her demise.

Katie - Katie is the only one depicted as already being treated for a mental illness and becomes dangerous when she goes off her meds. She becomes convinced she's Clay's dead wife, who she resembles (don't ask), and after an attempt to get Clay back fails, she shoots Clay and his girlfriend Quinn. In a later return she gets the same "horror movie psycho" depiction that Carrie got, with the difference being she gets captured and presumably treated.

So three villains shown to be suffering from either some kind of mental illness or grief-indued psychotic break, but all of them might as well be Michael Myers. This is how the show normally treats its antagonists, and why if you're watching this episode in context with the rest of the show, it's probably going to feel like more of an awkward fit than for the "very special episode" watchers.

The show's anti-bullying message also takes a hit just a few episodes later when Brooke bullies Rachel fat-shaming her by digging up pictures of her pre-plastic surgery self.

The thing that really pushed this episode over the edge for me on a first viewing was the ending. Keith, who's Lucas's uncle (and soon-to-be stepfather) enters the school in a bid to talk Jimmy down. He ends up confronting Jimmy in the hall, trying to reach this broken kid, but all of his "it gets better" talk only pushes Jimmy further over the edge. The boy turns the gun on himself and takes his own life. Keith rushes to the body and looks up to see his brother, Dan Scott standing there.

Here's where I explain way too much backstory. Dan and Keith never got along much. After Dan abandoned Lucas's mother, it was Keith who was there for her. Dan resented this, and had an even more legitimate reason to hate Keith when Keith slept with Dan's wife. After he attempted revenge for that, someone drugged Dan and left him to die after setting fire to his car dealership. Thanks to Lucas, Dan survived, but Dan was convinced his brother tried to kill him. He was determined to take revenge.

This episode ends with Dan picking up Jimmy's gun and shooting Keith.

It's a moment completely out of tone with the rest of the "very special episode." A decent story about the pain of the bullied suddenly turns into a shocking soap opera twist of one man using a school shooter to cover up the murder of his brother. It's like if Buffy's excellent "The Body" suddenly dropped in a scene with Glory and her minions doing business as usual.

I know. I'm talking out of both sides of my mouth. Before I said part of the problem was that this episode was so removed from the show's usual soap opera antics and now I'm complaining when that reality snaps back and asserts itself. It provokes the question of if the problem really is the melodramatic twist... or how it's executed?

The whole rest of the episode is about the hidden pain of the invisible kids, the ones no one pays attention to except to bully. It's about the darkness that grows in silence. That's NOT Dan Scott by any means. He started the series as an asshole dad and by season three he was practically a comic book villain. There's no empathetic darkness there.

But Keith - the guy who's spent the two seasons (and presumably many years leading up to it) being bullied, tormented and manipulated by his brother - now that's a guy whose pain inspires some empathy. It would require a step or two to get there, but for the shocking ending to work thematically, it should be KEITH firing the fatal shot.

As it stands, when this episode becomes "the one where Dan murders Keith in cold blood," it becomes the point where no matter how much slack I give the rest of the show, I can't help but groan in frustration. When rewatching the episode, I ended up tweeting with a few people about it and several fans said that one thing they liked was that this episode had repercussions that were felt all the way up until the end. Well, yes and no.

The lessons from Jimmy Edwards's sad fate are forgotten pretty quickly, both by the show and the characters. Keith's murder lingers for a while. It's a full season and a half before Dan is exposed as the killer and the fallout from that keeps him estranged from his sons until the very end of the series. In other words, the fall out is all about Dan.

This isn't an episode about Dan. It's not even an episode that gives us particular insight into Dan. When Dan gets that gun, he's presented with an opportunity that the story failed to build up effectively. The turn comes too late to be anything but inexplicable.

So after two days of breakdowns and analysis, let's return to the original question: Do I still hate this episode?

You know what? No. It's not without its flaws, but it's not as exploitative or offensive as I found it on a first viewing. I'd have given it a D-,  maybe even an F back then. This time, it feels like a B-, maybe even a solid B if I'm feeling charitable. Schwahn makes some smart choices in terms of how he uses most of his ensemble. Even with the misstep of an ending, there are definitely TV writing lessons to be learned from this episode.

Does it deserve its reputation as the best episode of One Tree Hill? I'm gonna say "no." It's neither representative enough the series or transcendent enough to earn that title. My personal favorite is probably Season 1's "Every Night is Another Story," though a couple other episodes could challenge it.

Was it worth the revisit? Definitely. Aside from having a completely different perspective on the episode, it was a good reminder in general about how the context we bring to something at the time we experience it can inform our reactions. Some media will hit us differently under different circumstances. In my case, the hot button nature of the episode was probably a major factor in my initial disgust. I'm not the same person 11 years later, nor is the world the same place.

So will I be revisiting other TV shows and movies that got a strong negative from me before? You bet I will.

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Do I still hate this? A second chance for ONE TREE HILL's school shooting episode

For a while, I've been keeping a list for some posts on pop culture "second chances." The concept was that I'd rewatch something that I notoriously hated, particularly something where my opinion ran counter to consensus and see if I would have to own up to missing the mark. The only reason I've not pursued this yet was that there's so much NEW content to consume and react to that I couldn't justify burning time on something I already was expecting to hate. Then about a week ago I ended up revisiting one of the items at the top of the list and found that - SURPRISE - my original, strong reaction had evolved. It took a couple of days of thinking about it before I realized, "Dammit, I'm gonna have to write this up, aren't I?"

I'm in the middle of writing a spec pilot, and for the first time, I'm attempting a teen drama. A few of my friends have been saying for a while (but especially after my posts on 13 Reasons Why) that it's shocking I haven't done one yet. The closest I ever got was the half-hour drama series I ran in college, but I've never tried a teen series formally. My fear has always been that I'm TOO much of a fan to bring anything to the genre but imitation. (It's similar to Bryan Singer's stance that he should never direct STAR TREK because "you'd feel like you were watching WRATH OF KHAN again.") I reasoned one thing that might help would be to revisit some of my old favorites that I haven't seen in a while that I didn't watch to death. (In other words, not The Wonder Years or Dawson's Creek.) I spent a week revisiting Roswell, which was surprisingly helpful in getting me started. Then, just as I hit a wall in development, I saw that One Tree Hill would be leaving Netflix at the end of the month.

I watched the series from the very first episode, mostly because I was still relatively new to LA, had very little money, knew very few people, didn't have cable OR DSL, and was very bored that Tuesday night. The first few episodes showed promise as the writers and the actors got a better handle on the characters, there was a decent part of the first season where it felt like it could have evolved into a thoughtful teen drama that we might have talked about in the same breath as Friday Night Lights. The show choose a different course, embracing a more soapy direction and becoming the very definition of a guilty pleasure.

Here, I'll prove it. If you're outside the target demo and you've heard of this show, you almost certainly know it as "the show where the dog ate the heart." (Be sure to check out this awesome oral history of that scene.)

I want you to remember this as I drop the following quote from Les Moonves, President and CEO of CBS, speaking about the decision to pick up One Tree Hill when the WB and UPN merged into the CW: "Qualitatively I think it was the best show the WB had." 

This was in a season that included Gilmore Girls, Everwood, Smallville, and Supernatural. Was Les Moonves seeing something that I wasn't? Had I been watching One Tree Hill wrong all these years?

I never watched the original Melrose Place, but I know the appeal that show had for its audience, and that's more or less what kept me coming back to OTH. (Okay, that and Bethany Joy Lenz as Haley, who was the show's best character, best actress and almost certainly in my Top 2 WB crushes.) I wasn't alone in this opinion in the internet circles I traveled in back there, but there was also a teen audience that watched this show in earnestness, and it's that audience that creator Mark Schwahn wanted to speak to in the third season when he wrote a school shooting episode.

The episode is the sixteenth episode of the third season, written by Mark Schwahn and entitled "With Tired Eyes, Tired Minds, Tired Souls, We Slept,"  It aired on March 1, 2006, placing it less than seven years after Columbine and in a time when the subject was still seen as being off-limits. Schwahn recalled in one interview that, "The studio and the network were scared to death of that episode. They tried to convince me not to do it."

They weren't the only ones. Cast member Hilarie Burton recalled the actors didn't like the idea much either. "None of the actors were into it, none of us wanted to do it. We got the script, we were very upset about it. Um, we were like 'This hasn't happened in so long. Why would we bring this up? We don't want to encourage or give attention to that kind of behavior.' Then literally while we're having this conversation with our creator and our bosses, two incidents happened. It was heartbreaking to know that stuff was still going on, it just wasn't receiving media attention that it used to."

For years after the airing, I've seen this episode cited as one of One Tree Hill's best episodes. I've even seen it place on other lists that cite intense, powerful or otherwise relevant episodes of TV. This always got under my skin because when it first aired, I hated this episode. I felt it was a story that the show wasn't capable of doing, that they had no business trying to touch it and that the whole thing felt very preachy and melodramatic in a way that cheapened the very message they were trying to send. And all of that was before the final moment of the episode, which threw away any goodwill the show had otherwise built up. I found the whole thing offensive and disrespectful to the real tragedies it was reflecting.

Last week I rewatched it and much to my shock, my reaction was significantly distant from my earlier encounter. I still think the ending risks throwing the whole thing in the trash (more on that later), but the route there didn't get under my skin nearly as much.

The setup: In the previous episode, the school's time capsule was released 20 years early and among the video confessions was that of Jimmy Edwards, a minor character who'd appeared in the first couple episodes. In his confession, the nerdy outcast laid into all the jocks and the popular kids, which only made him a target for bullying. The episode opens with Jimmy returning to school, and when he gets hassled in the hallway, he pulls out a handgun and fires a wild shot. Lockdown is declared, everyone who can flee does while others barracade themselves in classrooms.

From here, the story follows four tracks, and as some of this is teachable with regard to television production, I'm going to break them down. In writing for television, you always have to be thinking about budget. In the case of this particular episode, it also helps to know that it was not a popular episode on the network end. From the stories I've heard over the years, Mark Schwahn was a very savvy man when it came to managing the network and finding ways to do the show his way without running afoul of them. My theory - and this is only a theory - is that he wrote this episode as a relatively cheap bottle-show so that the budget couldn't be used against him to extract creative concessions.

Fortunately, a school shooter standoff can easily lend itself to the sort of limited location tense thrillers that I'm so fond of. I'm also gonna guess Schwahn's next creative decisions were based on two and seasons of knowing his cast's "strike zones" when it came to acting. As a showrunner, you figure out what your cast can and can't do and you write to that. As seriously as the show was going to take this scenario, it demanded that some actors not be taken too far out of their comfort zone. There are four locations, and so you want to place your MVPs where they can get the most out of those story tracks.

Outside the school - For most of the hour, this is where the adult actors are, as all the parents get to show concern and argue with the police that enough isn't being done. This part probably has the most extras - which don't come cheap - but more than likely was knocked out in a single day of location shooting.

The school hallway - This is where Jimmy fires the gun while everyone's at their lockers. After that one scene, there's no need for extras and we only return to this location at the end of the hour, in a confrontation featuring far fewer actors.

The Library - Peyton (Hilarie Burton) is hit by a bullet and in the commotion, ends up hiding alone in the library. Lucas (Chad Michael Murray) actually joins his brother Nathan (James Lafferty) to sneak back into the school and help. He gets to Peyton and this turns into one of those stories where two people trapped and afraid of dying end up confessing their feelings for each other. At this point in the series, Lucas is dating Brooke (Sophia Bush), Peyton's best friend. Brooke/Lucas/Peyton was the show's big love triangle almost from the start.

So the show basically uses this to restart some tensions. That's one reason for isolating these two (two of the bigger leads of the show) in what's basically a B-story. The other reason might be that Burton's efforts at conveying terror are often pitched at soap opera levels, and I'd go 50-50 if Murray was the guy I'd want to bet on when it comes to delivering tension in a hostage scene. Could they have risen to the occasion? Maybe, but Schwahn lobs them easier pitches and plays to the relationship fans at the same time.

The Gym - After evacuating, the students are taken to a nearby gym to await pickup from their parents. This is Brooke's story to carry, and again, it feels like Schwahn made sure one of his better players was the anchor for this. This part gets a little preachy with the message, as Brooke realizes she doesn't know a less popular student who's nonetheless in her grade. That same student also hides when her mom arrives, saying she wanted to see if her mother even would miss her if she was gone. The show feels like it's trying to use this plot as an appeal to reach out to kids who feel unloved or like they don't belong.

I remember this subplot seeming ridiculous to me at the time, and so I was perplexed by my non-reaction on the rewatch. I didn't revisit any of the immediately surrounding episodes, so my best guess is that maybe Brooke's empathetic attitude didn't quite mesh with whatever her current storyarc was. The sheer earnestness of this plot is also likely easier to taken out of context from the show. It's a series often about beautiful people doing horrible things to each other and escaping consequences, so a story about "hey, we should all be nice to the unpopular kids" might mean well, but it's coming from the wrong messenger.

But as I said, if you're not coming to this ep as a hard core viewer, that's gonna blow right past you.

The Tutor Center - When lockdown is called we see Haley lock the door after some kids take shelter. She tells everyone to get down and the camera pans past the six students in there before finally coming to rest on.... Jimmy Edwards. It's an effectively chilling moment, as no one in the room realizes the shy, awkward kid they've known for years is the guy who fired the gun.

The Tutor Center is a perfect setting for this story for a lot of reasons: it's a small, producible set; there's a built-in reason why no adults might be there; it can strand some of our regulars with new characters who MIGHT turn out to be cannon fodder... and it's a very logical place if you want to put Haley at the center of the action.

As I said before, Bethany Joy Lenz (billed in this ep under her then-married name Galeotti) is the clear MVP among the cast. Also, the Haley/Nathan relationship is pretty clearly the show's most popular pairing and Schwahn himself has said, "I think Haley is probably the most beloved character." If you're doing an OTH story with a lot of emotion at its core, Lenz is someone you're gonna want to send in.

It's also pretty obvious that you'll need to put Nathan in there, as James Lafferty tended to do his best work in scenes with Lenz. The characters got married at the end of the first season (yes, while they were both still high school juniors), and it's interesting to note that this episode doesn't hang a lantern on that fact. I don't think there's a single direct reference to the fact they're married. Nathan doesn't say anything like, "My wife's in there!" when he charges into the school. 

I very much suspect this was intentional and that the creators, knowing this episode would get extra attention, decided to downplay one of their more absurd developments. This is the rare episode where these characters ACTUALLY feel like students and not mini-adults or college-aged. They're not running fashion lines or touring as music superstars. They feel like regular kids stuck in a terrifying situation.

That's another case of something working within this one-hour confine, but throwing the whole series off-kilter to do it. The following week, things are business as usual and one story has the teens throwing a late night kegger at the site of the shooting as a way of coping with their feelings. Even Lucas calling that out as inappropriate can't mitigate the sheer insensitivity of the scene.

But damn if the scenes in the Tutor Center don't make it easy to forget all of that for a while. In addition to Haley and Nathan, two other characters in there have close ties to the shooter. Mouth and Skills were his buddies at the River Court until they drifted apart, and the actors do a decent job of conveying their disbelief and horror at what their friend has started. There are also two other characters never seen before on the show who are there to more or less add other pressure on Jimmy.

For crying out loud, even RACHEL - possibly the worst character on the show up to that point - gets in a strong moment or two.

Tomorrow: I dig deeper on the big themes of the episode and if the show's big twist is as much of a miss as it used to be for me.

Monday, September 25, 2017

Writing a season of television using only the most time-tested tropes

A new fall season is upon us, and with it comes many new (and returning shows) that have to fill 22-24 episodes. It's a heavy chore and you can't help but notice that there are plenty of familiar tropes that shows rest on while finding their way. Plenty of these also bubble to the surface as the staff's energy might be spent enough for them to need an easy week to recharge.

As a public service not just to the viewer, but to those beleaguered writing staffs, I've complied a list of some of the most common ways these trope can be deployed throughout the first season. I came up with nineteen, so long as the show's a genre show that can take advantage of all of them. (In other words, some of these won't work on NCIS.)

With everything below, you could write almost an entire season of TV. I just don't promise it would be a GOOD season. And without further ado, an episode guide composed entirely of these tropes:

1. Pilot - You're in luck! This one's already done if you're a first season show! For later season shows, this is basically a reset ep. Standard case of the week, dressed up with explanations for character arrivals/departures, hairstyle changes, new sets, and foreshadowing the big plots of the season.

2. Do the Pilot Again - On a first year show, you're gonna be repeating the pilot dynamics for the first few eps, only with less money. If you have ANY kind of procedural element to your series, this is gonna be a case-of-the-week thing.

3. The Naked Time riff -This is mostly a convention of genre TV. The entire cast gets hit with a drug or a spell that removes inhibitions. I've named this one for a classic episode of Star Trek, which used this concept to get at the core of several characters. Most uses since then have been about getting the characters to act drunk and horny with each other. (TNG's "The Naked Now," Lois & Clark's "Pheromone, My Lovely," Buffy's "Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered.") So pick your poison - hint at buried depths to your characters, or get them mostly naked and send them to bone town.

4. Shady Character Loyalty Tested by Crooked Friend from the Past - You don't have a character with a shady, possibly illegal past? Get one! Every show needs at least one morally ambiguous player. This is the ep where you hit and their past sins while they get a chance to affirm to the team that they're on the side of angels now.

5. The Undercover episode - Your lead actors are getting bored of playing the same beats every week, so this week's caper has them assuming new identities to go undercover.

6. The Pre-Pilot Flashback - We all know how it started on your show, but what about before it started? If your characters knew each other in the pilot, what was their first meeting? Since most pilots are about a shake-up in a character's life that disrupts the status quo, what was the previous status quo? Frasier has one of the best ones of these, showing Frasier's earliest days in Seattle before his father moves in with him. Friends went to this well several times, most notably in "The One With the Prom Video." This Is Us did one of these last year too.

7. The Body Swap ep -There are few things more fun that watching one actor have to imitate another. It's another trick that helps alleviate actor boredom and gives the straight-up good guy get to play bad in most cases. (When you're in genre TV, these kind of personality-altering tricks are a regularly deployed tool. I think there was a season of Smallville with more episodes where someone acts out of character than ones when everyone was IN it.)

8. Bottle Show I: Interrogation - "Uh, guys... we spent a lot of money on the season premiere then really blew our wad on Episodes 3 and 6. Gonna have to be a cheap one just to to get us back on track. Whatta ya got?" Yep, you're gonna have to do the "bottle show," a cost saving episode that takes place 80%-90% in one location - preferably an existing set or a cheap/easily redressed set. Here's the good part - with the right actors and story, the interrogation show can be an intense pressure cooker of an ep that lets your best performers act their pants off. One character has something the other character wants, and it becomes a psychological chess match to get them to break. Two gold standards: Homicide's "Three Men and Adena" and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine's "Duet."

9. The Fight Club - this is a less successful genre stable where your characters are captured and forced to fight in gladiator fight club-type settings. I'll never forget the season where Angel and Voyager both aired similar eps within weeks of each other and neither one was all that good. Last season, Supergirl did one, proving the trope is alive and well.

10. The Character-Driven Road Trip Episode - ER did this a lot, usually to good effect. Doug and Mark took a road trip to handle Doug's father's funeral and the story detoured into visiting Mark's family.The result illuminated a lot about the characters that wouldn't have been revealed within the confines of the ER. It also works as a fish-out-of-water way to throw different challenges at your characters.

11. Bottle Show II: Real-time in one location - Usually a hostage ep. It's a cousin to the interrogation bottle show, as you're still putting a few actors into one location for the duration. The extra wrinkles are the time pressure added, by real time. This is a pretty easy ep for genre and procedural alike. Comedy versions of this usually drop the jeopardy aspect and just tell a story in one space. Seinfeld's "The Chinese Restaurant" probably is the most notable, but there's also a Mad About You shot in real time about trying to sleep-train the baby. The dramatic version of this is not to be confused with....

12. The Die Hard episode - What makes this different from the Bottle Show version? You usually have a higher budget for stunts and gags. The previous version is designed to be fast and cheap to shoot while this is all about being an action episode. Sometimes it's a trade-off, "We get the action, but we're staying on-pattern by only shooting on a few sets."

13. The Evil Twin Ep - Like the body swap ep, it lets one of your actors stretch. (Note: if making ORPHAN BLACK, this is basically every episode.) The fun part of evil twin shows? You get to put your actor side-by-side with themselves, i.e. every actor's dream scene partner. Again, my favorite part of these is when the actor playing the evil twin has to play that character imitating their normal version of the character. This is where you separate the pikers from the pros. Tatiana Maslany could give a master class on this, as she's had episodes where, say, Allison has to pretend to be Cosima, forcing her to nail the nuances of how Allison would embody that imitation, not how Tatiana usually plays Cosima. She's usually good enough that even if we haven't been explicitly told about a switch, her performance has a small tell. Another great example of this fun: Williow having to pretend to be Vamp Willow in Buffy's "Dopplegangland."

14. The Alternate Timeline Ep - Another "out of character" concept favored by genre shows, but also finds its way into sitcoms. In genre, the change is usually the result of characters messing with history and needing to put it back (TNG's "Yesterday's Enterprise," Buffy's "The Wish.") while in comedy, it's more likely you'll get a dream/fantasy explanation, such as when Friends explored alternate histories for the gang

15. The Rashomon Ep - Something happens and each act of the show is another character's version of how events came together. I've seen versions that are just a Tarantino-esqe non-linear way of telling the story (though Quentin is really ripping off Kubrick's THE KILLING), but to be totally true to the concept, the action should be presented in subjective flashbacks that reveal how each narrator is coloring the story. (I maintain there will be no funnier example of this trope than The X-Files's "Bad Blood.")

16. A Day in the Life ep - For some series, this is baked into the premise. Most early ER episodes all take place in one day, though it was rare that the experience would be filtered through one character's POV. A good way to do this is to pick a second-tier character and follow them for the day. Not to be confused with...

17. The "Lower Decks" ep - Named for a 7th season TNG episode where the focus is on the lowest-level officers on the ship, giving us an outsider's perspective on what it would be like to work for our heroes. Crucial point here is that most of these characters are new, previously unestablished characters. Part of the thrill of this is that they don't know the main characters well and we're placed at something of a distance from them.

18. The Dream Sequence ep - Can your actors sing, but have no credible reason to do so on the show? Put it in a dream. Have you wondered what it would be like to take your workplace show and set it on a spaceship? Put it in a dream.

19. Bottle Show III: Therapy Ep - Then after you spent all that money on an episode that technically doesn't "count" in terms of the story, you'll need to save some with another bottle show. The therapy ep is a cousin to the interrogation episode, but with (slightly) less confrontation. Still, it has the same virtues, particularly being a dialogue-heavy actors' showcase that lets them emote rather than run around with gun, or play out the same old rhythms of the show.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

An awful Inktip "success story" - how one writer's script got ruined

Weirdly, one of the older posts that is most prolific in generating new comments or emails is something I wrote ages ago about InkTip. InkTip is a site where users can post loglines for their scripts - and even complete scripts - in the hopes that some of their producer and manager members take a liking to it.

I'm gonna be blunt. In all my years out here, I've not heard of any significant deals made from this site and I don't think any of the companies I worked for ever used InkTip. (And one of two of those DID go to Pitchfests, which I also advise against.) I don't foresee a situation where my answer to any question about Inktip is gonna be, "Spend your money HERE to jump-start your screenwriting career.")

The story I'm about to link to doesn't have TOO much to do with Inktip, aside from the chain of events starting there. I'm just aware that putting "InkTip" into a post will increase the odds of people finding it via Google, so maybe the above paragraph will save them an email or comment.

Almost 20 years ago, A.J. Via put one of his first scripts on InkTip. There it sat for 15 years until it was discovered by Chad Ridgely, who'd scraped together money to produce a film. It took another year and a half, but finally the project started to come together... just as that professional relationship fell apart.

As the AV Club notes:

By the time of the premiere, almost two years later in November 2015, at the Buffalo Dreams Fantastic Film Festival (where it somehow ended up winning Best Comedy Feature against other no-budget competitors that had names like Frankenstein’s Patchwork Monster and Valley Of The Sasquatch), contact between Via and Ridgely was essentially nil, to the point where Via felt uncomfortable even attending the premiere. (Via describes that email exchange thusly: “I’d write, ‘Where and when would I go if I was actually coming to see this movie?’ And he would reply back, like, ‘Yeah, maybe we’ll see you. That’s great!’ And that would be the end of it.”) Thus, it wasn’t until months later, when the film finally came out via digital platforms like iTunes, that Via had the opportunity to see it. His wife alerted him to the fact that his movie was coming out after she saw a notice online saying Massacre On Aisle 12 was now available for purchase.

That night, Via plugged in his Amazon Fire stick, sat down on the couch with his wife, and finally got to see the results of a script he had written roughly 15 years earlier. To hear him describe it is an experience roughly akin to having a next-door neighbor recall in intimate detail an eyewitness account of their own child being slapped around. He says his wife fell asleep after about 20 minutes and he didn’t wake her, so happy he was for her to miss the film. “The first 10, 15 minutes of it, she turned to me five or seven times and said, ‘Did you write that?’ And I said, ‘No, no, no. I didn’t write that. I didn’t write that.’ To the point where as jokes were happening, I was turning to her saying, ‘I didn’t write that. I didn’t write that.’” He watched it in silence, blank-faced, until it ended. Then he put it aside, the way a shell-shocked mugging victim will often have a delayed response to their encounter. Via couldn’t even process what he had seen.

After several weeks, he felt ready to watch it again, and actually engage with the material. It was almost as bad as the first time. “I don’t want to come out sounding like I’m on a high horse. There are things that can be offensive that I’ll laugh at,” he stresses, before singling out the bombardment of gay panic humor that is laced throughout the film as his biggest issue with it. “And I don’t mean to make it sound like I wrote Casablanca. It was a horror comedy that was really designed to be dark, you know, kind of in poor taste. But I looked at it and was like, ‘This is such schlock. This is stuff a 10-year-old would think was funny.’” It really depressed Via to see his name on something he so profoundly disliked. He warned friends to stay away—the same friends he had proudly boasted to a couple of years earlier about the movie he wrote that was getting made.

In retrospect, Via wonders how he could’ve been so naive about what the results would be. He had really gotten along with Ridgely at first, had considered him someone who understood what Via wanted to do, who loved the same jokes, the same beats in the script, and the two had appeared creatively simpatico. But as the partnership eroded in tandem with the original screenplay, Via started to investigate Ridgely’s output further, and kicked himself for not looking more closely at the outset. “He’s a very sex-obsessed—I mean, you can see for yourself [on Ridgely’s site]. His biggest things on there are songs about boobies and movies he’s made that are—he does a whole fake game show, Gay Or Not Gay? And it’s supposed to be this hilarious thing of trying to guess if an actor is queer or not.” 

The whole article is worth a read. Check it all out here.

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Bad Pitch: Alicia and Liv in "Still CRAZY After All These Years"

If you follow me on Twitter, you've likely seen a version of this pitch before. Every now and then I like to forecast the most unlikely piece of existing intellectual property to be revived like The X-Files, Will & Grace and Roseanne all have been or will be. (To say nothing of Rocky's resurrection via Creed, Star Wars's resurgence, Blair Witch, Tron, Terminator... the list goes on and on.)

Is it really so impossible that 90s nostalgia would eventually lead to the rebooting of music videos? I'm honestly shocked we haven't already seem SOME kind of re-visitation with the two women who were - for a time at least - synonymous with Aerosmith: Alicia Silverstone and Liv Tyler.

Okay, listen up everyone. An old man's talking. Back in my day, we didn't have YouTube, where every music video was on-demand the instant we had the urge to see it. No, the only way we saw a music video would be to happen to be watching MTV or VH1 when it played. And if you were a teenage boy in the mid-90s, chances are one of the clips you were willing to wait all day to see was Aerosmith's "Crazy," starring the future Clueless and Lord of the Rings icons.

Silverstone's entire career was launched from the three Aerosmith videos she did. There was about two years there where she was known as "the Aerosmith chick." I don't think I totally realized until reflecting on this that my generation didn't really have many "teen idols." The ages before me had Tiffany and Debbie Gibson. Britney, Christina, and their ilk - despite being about my age - were mostly idols for the teens slightly younger. When I was in high school, if you were looking for the female teenage sex symbols, they'd probably be Alicia and Liv.

Both of these women just turned 40, which I found unbelievable before I saw recent pics of them and now I find it even more inexplicable. 40 really IS the new 30.

And who could pass up the perfect title? "Still Crazy After All These Years." Hell, half of you can probably already picture the trailer just off of this information and that name.

The pitch: Now 40, both girls are married with teenage children. They've remained close and outgrew their wild ways long ago. However fate sends them on a cross-country roadtrip when Liv's daughter (Bella Thorne) runs away from home with Alicia's son (Dylan Minnette.) The specifics of the trip? This ain't rocket science. Just replicate the music video beat-for-beat.

I'm putting this here mostly so that when this project is announced within the next few years, I can say "TOLDJA!"

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

"How Do You Talk To An Angel?" turns 25 today!

Today is the 25th anniversary of one of my favorite one-hit wonders of the 90s, "How Do You Talk to An Angel?" It's not one of the big hits of the 90s, but left enough of a footprint that the lyrics are instantly memorable upon mention.

For me, I have a very clear memory of that song's hook being used in every one of the ubiquitous promos for the TV show it belonged to, The Heights. As I recall, it was an NBC show about a struggling band. The show itself barely lasted longer than the song's run on the charts and is all but forgotten today. The show premiered on August 27, 1992, but Wikipedia says the song itself was released on September 5, 1992 so that's the date we're going with here. It climbed the charts through November, when it hit number one on the Billboard Hot 100.

The song was the show's theme, but also seems to have played a part in the premiere episode. This scene below showcases one of my favorite tropes of a band movie or TV show - the initial jam session where every one meshes PERFECTLY and turns out an impossibly perfect first run of a song where all band members magically know their places and when to come in.

I remember seeing an interview a number of years ago where Jamie Walters, who sang lead vocals on the single, indicated that the single's popularity caused a little tension between him and the cast because he was the one getting all the recognition from it. Walters would have a solo hit of his own a few years later, called "Hold On."

The song comes up pretty frequently on my iTunes shuffle and when I've mentioned it on Twitter, I'm always surprised to find there are a few fans. So on its birthday, let's pay tribute to a song whose shelf life well surpassed that of the show that birthed it.