Thursday, May 24, 2018

Prosecuting and defending the big retcon in season 2 of 13 REASONS WHY

SPOILERS AHEAD FOR SEASON 2 of 13 REASONS WHY

The People vs. The Retcon in "The Smile At the End of the Dock."

For the facts of the case, check out yesterday's post.

PROSECUTION OPENING STATEMENT:

Ladies and gentlemen of the Court, it is the position of the Prosecution that the retroactive continuity established in Season 2, Episode 6 of Netflix's 13 REASONS WHY, "The Smile at the End of the Dock," written by Julia Bicknell, i.e., the aforementioned mutual-devirginizing of Hannah and Zach (hereafter referred to as "the Retcon," constitutes an egregious continuity breach that threatens the integrity of the entire series. The grounds for such a finding are:

1. It takes a simple, understandable story pillar and complicates it beyond comprehension. In the 11th episode of season one, discussed in this entry, Hannah and Clay start to hook up, only to have Hannah's PSTD triggered but the sexual activity. On the tape, Hannah narrated her breakdown thusly:

"I wanted you to do everything you were doing, so I don't know why my mind took me everywhere else and I thought of every other guy.... and they all became you."

At this point in the series, every contact of a sexual nature that Hannah experienced was some kind of violation or sexual molestation. To a first time viewer, the build-up to Hannah and Clay's hook-up and the subsequent reversal is brilliant because it utilizes all that history to quickly reverse Hannah's emotions in a fast 180 degree turn. It's instantly understandable and clear because OF COURSE she's been trained to have a negative association with that kind of touch.

The Retcon muddies this beyond belief. What was once a carefully built climax now has to account for an entire summer of Hannah being sexually active and enjoying it. Had the creators left the Retcon at merely an unsatisfying de-virgining, the story might have held, but the PTSD that Hannah invokes in the first season has been rendered confusing.

This confusion is even voiced in the show, when Clay wonders why she freaked out with him and not Zach. It's a question that has no answer and because of that, it compromises what was a carefully built and ingeniously revealed climax to the Clay/Hannah relationship in season one.

2. It undermines Hannah's integrity and calls into question the authenticity of what's on the tapes. Zach and Hannah spend months hooking up, getting close and generally being too adorable for words so long as you forget the events that landed Zach on the tapes in the first place. Then he breaks things off when his friends return to town, ostensibly to protect her from being teased by them. Given the scale of what Hannah's experienced, this should be a heartbreak that that rates higher than almost anything else on the tapes up to that point - she let herself be vulnerable and got hurt for it.

But there's not even so much as an allusion to it on the tapes. Zach's "reason why" on the tapes is a pretty severe one, despite what his defenders might say. He lashed out at her when she rightly asked him to leave her alone. Some side with Zach when he says that Hannah brings a lot of pain on herself, with others going so far to call her a bitch, but from her POV, why WOULD she trust the guy who hangs out with jocks who say shitty things about her and who is friends with the guy who just molested her?

Zach does two shitty things, but only one makes the tapes. Clay ends up on the tapes because her story's not complete without him, but Zach gets a free ride on the worse of his two transgressions? It can't be that Hannah limits herself to one tape per person because Justin gets two tapes covering separate points in the timeline.

What reason does Hannah have for keeping this story secret considering she spilling far more intimate and revealing secrets? If we accept this happened as Zach testifies to it, it calls into question everything on Hannah's tapes. There's telling the truth as she knows it and there's deliberately omitting relevant parts of the narrative.

The Retcon is not only a misstep for season two, but it threatens to ruin season one. The damage to Hannah's arc is that severe.

Thank you. Does the defense wish to make a statement?

DEFENSE OPENING STATEMENT:

The Prosecution throws around outrage quite dramatically, but the Defense is ready to challenge those claims. We contend that:

1. Dramatically speaking, the Retcon makes perfect sense within the narrative context for Season 2. Before Clay can move on from Hannah, he needs to move past the pedestal he's put her on. The entire season puts Hannah's perspective on trial and also reminds us that she was a more complicated person than even her tapes reveal.

2. As this is a show that reaches a lot of teenagers and speaks to the authenticity of teenage life, it's commendable that they showed a sex-positive attitude to contrast the slut-shaming common to the genre. Hannah has agency in her sexual choices and is shown to be proud of them. Exploring this and using a beloved character like Hannah to do so is not outside the realm of 13 REASONS WHY. Another excellent point is made by Justin, "Hannah: she sleeps with one guy. She has a crush on another guy, being me, and she kisses a third, being you. And it's whatever, it's all fine, right? All of a sudden, she's a slut? All of a sudden, you don't know who she is?" He notes that he's a player and celebrated for it, so why is Hannah judged for the same behavior?

3. The fact that the show has Clay voice many of the prosecution's own arguments shows that the creators were aware of the discontinuities and apparently were able to reconcile them in their own minds. Clay's anger at Zach does have a jealous twinge to it - which is not unexpected of a teenage boy - but in time it's clear that his anxiety is driven less by the jealousy that Justin calls out and more because the big question in Clay's mind is this: "She lost her virginity to Zach. I mean, Zach. Then, like, a month later, she hooked up with me, and then she freaked out. But she didn't freak out when she hooked up with Zach?

The show clearly wasn't ignorant of the implications of the continuity change. Thus, we have to assume the ambiguity is a deliberate choice and not a mistake.

4. Season 1 cannot be "ruined" by a subsequent plot twist. I checked my Netflix and the season 1 that was released last year is still there, just as it was. Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I, like many of you perhaps, was very much disappointed in the Star Wars prequels, particularly Hayden Christensen's portrayal of the future Darth Vader. In my youth, Vader was one of the great villains, and it's difficult to reconcile him with his younger depiction in the prequels. But as disastrous as it may have been, when I watch Star Wars, I don't think about Hayden Christensen or the prequels - Vader remains to me in my 30s the same person he was when I was 7.

By the same token, what Hannah and Clay experience in season 1 cannot be "ruined" by anything in season two. Season 1 will always be what the viewer experienced it as. The prosecution is being typically hyperbolic with this charge.

In fact, the Zach/Hannah revelation barely has any lasting implications for season 2 once it's out in the open.

The defense rests. Does the Prosecution wish to rebut?

PROSECUTION REBUTTAL

Yes, we do. Just to address the Defense points that the topic of sex-positivity is somehow a mitigating factor in this offensive and avoidable continuity violation - it would have been a simple enough matter to relocate the Zach/Hannah affair to a better point in the timeline.

There are three unaccounted for weeks between the party with the aborted Hannah/Clay hookup and the party where Hannah is raped. That would be more than enough time for Hannah to explore her sexuality with Zach, perhaps even doing that as a way of trying to get past whatever triggered her with Clay. True, that would remove the "summer love" of the romance, but three weeks is a long time in a teenage lifespan, and more than enough time for Hannah to develop feelings for Zach and be hurt when he hides the affair.

There were alternatives to making total hash of continuity, and the mere fact that the show acknowledges the inconsistency via Clay's unanswered question does not excuse it.

The Prosecution rests.

So which do you think is the stronger case? If you've seen the show, where do your opinions lie? What verdict would YOU render?

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

What is a retcon and how was it used in season 2 of 13 REASONS WHY?

Having given my overall thoughts in a fairly non-spoiler fashion for the second season of 13 REASONS WHY, this post will be rife with spoilers as I take on one of the more contentious reveals of season 2. If you haven't seen it yet, this is your warning - turn back now.

Season 2 of the show uses a trial as a framing device through most of the episodes, often interrogating characters about their perspectives and calling into question some of the things Hannah told us in Season 1. This is what's known as a "retcon," short for "retroactive continuity." It's what we call it when backstory is established or changed after the fact. In some circles, "retcon" is used to imply "bad retcon," as in an instance where a newly-established backstory actually contradicts and overwrites previously established facts.

In general, any time a new detail about a character's history is revealed, that's a retcon. I first heard this term in comic book circles, where DC Comics would often rewrite the history of their characters and pretend the new history had been there the whole time. (Hawkman's storyline became a mess because of this kind of thing in the 90s.)

Some TV shows have handled this elegantly. One of the best examples I can think of is ANGEL, where the 100 year-old vampire's history was revealed in many flashbacks over the course of five seasons. The flashbacks often challenged assumptions the fans had about Angel's history, but never actually violated what had been said before. For example, Angel is cursed with a soul in 1898 and fans assumed that he walked the Earth as a tortured soul until 1997 when he was given purpose and became an ally to Buffy.

We came to learn that wasn't the case, that even after he was ensouled, Angel struggled long and hard not to prey on people, with a relapse or two along the way that eventually propelled him to the rock bottom spot he was in just prior to meeting Buffy. It gave new dimension to what was known, but never compromised existing continuity.

Which brings me to 13 REASONS WHY. Via the trial, we hear testimony from several characters that adds to the story Hannah told on her tapes. Some - like Stephanie's tale of getting a willing kiss from Hannah - don't match what Hannah said, but it's easy enough to reconcile the differing recollections and find a way for both stories to be consistent.

That's not the case with three reveals on the stand:

1) Zach Dempsey reveals that in the summer before Hannah killed herself, the two of them became close. She decided to "get it over with" and lose her virginity to him, after which she initiated regular hook-ups with Zach over the course of the summer. It came to an end when his friends returned and he kept the relationship secret, claiming it would protect her from being harassed by his jock buddies.

When Clay finds out, he's heartbroken. He asks the spectral-Hannah he sees in his mind a question she could never answer, "If I'd been there [in town during that summer] would it have been me?" His old jealousy rears up, but his hurt is coming from a deeper place than that. As far as he - and we - knew, Hannah was a virgin. A month before she died, she and Clay almost hooked up at a party, but as they kissed and things got intense, Hannah's mind could only take her to all of the groping, sexual assault and humiliation she'd suffered up to that point. Freaking out with PTSD, she saw in Clay every guy who'd ever touched her without permission and told him to get off her.

So learning that Hannah not only had sex with Zach, but a LOT of sex, he can only ask, "Why did she freak out with me and not him?"

2) The second major retcon is a bit more minor. It comes out that Hannah's father was cheating on her mother, and Hannah found out about it last spring. She demanded her father come clean with her mother. He ended the affair and tried to work things out with his wife.

3) A third retcon is the discovery that last spring, Hannah and Clay spent all night with Jeff and a few other friends doing some trippy drugs. As they came down from the high, Hannah made some remarks to the effect that she was considering suicide.

As to the second one: There's no indication in season one that there had been any affair and especially no indication that Hannah knew. In fact, on Tape 6, when talking about Valentine's Day, Hannah talks about how her parents have the perfect marriage saying, "My parents were high school sweethearts. So shoot me: I still believed in romance." Though the flashback takes place before the cheating, Hannah's VO comes from a time after she knew about the affair. It's incredibly hard to reconcile that with what she knew to be true. It needlessly compromises Hannah's perspective in season one, especially since it would be easy enough to rationalize her parents breaking up in the aftermath of her death.

And the third one? Clay and Hannah seem a bit TOO familiar at this point in their timelines, but that's less of a blip than the fact that both of them spending all night with Jeff undermines Clay's angry "You didn't even know [Jeff!]" when an emotional Hannah approached Clay after Jeff died in episode 10 last season. If this was the only continuity hiccup it would be easily ignored, but the other retcons earn this one more scrutiny. In a big picture sense, it's not terribly severe though.

But the first retcon is a bit more complicated for me. It's revealed in the sixth episode of the season, "The Smile at the End of the Dock," written by Julia Bicknell. It's the first truly great episode of the season, which is not a surprise because Bicknell also wrote the fifth episode of the previous season, which I raved about here. The prior episodes are all pretty strong, but Bicknell's script instantly has more depth, nuance and complexity - with so much of the story driven by strong and relatable emotions from the characters.

But it IS a surprise because the Zach/Hannah relationship revealed within is a development that I have a strong objection to. I don't know if I've ever seen a plot point I disliked so much done in such fantastic way that I was still marveling at the quality of the writing, performances and the direction. I could probably eviscerate and defend this plot line in equally passionate measure.

So in the spirit of the season-long trial storyline, that's what I'm going to do. Today I'm going to prosecute this retcon, going into all the reasons why it's a massive misstep... then tomorrow, I'm going to defend it.

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Season 2 of 13 REASONS WHY is a different show, but still emotionally powerful

For my 13-part series discussing the first season of 13 REASONS WHY, go here.

Don't worry - I don't think I can get 13 distinct posts out of the new season of 13 REASONS WHY, but I am going to be talking about it this week, starting with this broad review - and I assure you, I've taken great care with this to discuss the high points of the season without including any spoilers that would ruin the experience.

Last season ended with Clay listening to the last of the tapes Hannah Baker made before her suicide, seemingly answering all questions as to why she took her life. (And showing us those heartbreaking moments in painful detail.) He confronted the counselor who failed to act on her suicidal behavior and got Bryce Walker, the star athlete who raped Hannah, to admit to that act on tape. Hannah's parents were delivered copies of the tapes, at last getting a window into what preceded the worst weeks of their lives, and Clay reached out to a depressed friend, Skye, literally driving off into the sunset with her.

It could have ended there, even with the two loose threads of creepy photographer Tyler stockpiling guns and the suicide attempt of Alex, both of who were named on the tapes as reasons Hannah killed herself. I wrote last year of these loose threads:

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

Welcome to Season 2, where indeed there are stretches where the reality is slightly heightened from what we experienced last season. At times it DOES feel like "just another teen drama," albeit a well-written and exceptionally well-performed and produced one. To be fair, this was pretty much the only option if the show was to evolve out of its old model

Season one had a tight focus, using Clay's journey through Hannah's tapes as its spine. Half of an episode was devoted to Hannah's fall while the other half was Clay's reaction to what he learned, which spilled over into smaller threads involving Hannah's parents and their plan to bring a lawsuit against the school, as well as other students determined to stop Clay from completing the tapes. Despite all that the show explored, Hannah's suicide was always the core, explored from both sides, with the emotional heart coming from the love story between Hannah and Clay.

In contrast, season 2 splits its focus amongst multiple subplots that make this more of an ensemble than season 1. The Bakers' lawsuit against the school goes to trial, which makes for the most unifying thread of all the stories, as the subjects of the tapes take the stand and testify about Hannah, often bringing new details that they remember differently from Hannah, or in some cases, that Hannah didn't disclose at all.

Most of the divergences from what we know of Hannah's story seem to play fair. I've seen some fans react to season 1 with the notion that any time a character's version of events didn't match Hannah's, that meant that she lied on the tapes. It's a notion that overlooks the idea that they other person's recollection is just as subjective and that Hannah is only telling the story as she experienced it. Most of what season 2 adds to Hannah's story fleshes out some relationships in ways that ring true - though two major discoveries (which I won't reveal here and will handle in later posts) threaten to change not only what we knew of Hannah, but also undermine some of the most resonant aspects of season 1.

Katherine Langford's participation isn't limited to just these flashbacks this time around, and by the end of the first episode, she's appearing to Clay as a sort of ghost. Ghost-Hannah personifies his developing conflicted feelings about the Hannah he thought he knew and the new truths he's discovering. Yes, it's a conceit to keep the excellent Langford around and in scenes with Dylan Minnette, but it works. At first, Hannah haunting Clay threatens to become too cute a concept, but in the back half of the run, Clay allows himself to feel more anger at Hannah, and an even later use of Hannah's ghost in an intense episode soon before the finale delivers a Minnette/Langford scene that's as haunting and heartbreaking as some of their best work last year. (Their interaction in the finale is about as perfect a conclusion to Season 1 as one could hope.)

Wisely, the writers never stray from the idea that whatever ghost-Hannah says is a figment from somewhere in Clay's mind. She represents whatever side of Hannah that Clay is fixated on, someone to confront with the hard questions that he can't really know the answers to. And her appearances remind us just how much what Clay experienced last year has left some permanent psychological scars.

Though Minnette and Langford both delivered Emmy-worthy work last season, the clear breakout was Langford, in her first major role. This year, it's Dylan Minnette who's leading the charge through the emotional grinder, with Clay's breakdown over the course of the season. I suspect he'll be overlooked again, but he has to go to some dark places this year. His journey alone makes this season worth it.

Season one trained us to expect that Minnette, Langford and Kate Walsh would break our hearts. One of the delights of season two is how every returning supporting player has raised their game. Alisha Boe is the standout among this faction of the cast, as her character Jess deals with the aftermath of her rape last season.

Also excellent is Justin Prentice as Bryce Walker, who is so good at being the intersection of white privilege and toxic masculinity that it could typecast him for years. Alternately charming and chilling, Prentice plays Bryce as the cool jock everyone wants to be while effortlessly letting the monster he is peek through the mask now and then.

Miles Heizer's Alex is dealing with memory loss after surviving his suicide attempt, and the frustrations that come with it and his relationship with Jess both play one of the season's core themes of healing. Ajiona Alexus is another returning actor who gets meatier material this year as Sheri and really stands out for it. Ross Butler brings some welcome depth and conflict to Zach, a jock who faces the struggle of being a nice guy amid a social group of sociopaths, and I underestimated Brandon Flynn, who gets a pretty powerful arc that takes him from Clay's adversary to ally and carries material I wouldn't have expected him to handle after season one.

Christian Navarro's Tony seems to get less interaction with Clay this time around, in a story that deals mostly with his anger management issues, but he really shines in scenes where he gets to play his devotion to Hannah. And I can't forget Sosie Bacon's Skye, who becomes the first overt echo of Hannah's problems in a season full of them.

Plotwise, I wasn't too far off-target with some of my guesses. One of my private suppositions was that Clay and Skye might get involved in a relationship out of his desire to prevent another suicide, but that they ultimately were too different and Clay might find himself guilted into staying with her out of fear that leaving her would trigger another depression. It seemed like an interesting dilemma that could grow out of his survivor's guilt. It's probably also a bit obvious, which is season 2 front-loads this story and doesn't spend too much time dwelling on it.

The trial storyline unfortunately locks Kate Walsh's character into a plot where she ends up playing many of the same emotional beats as season one. She has more screen time, but a lot of it is eaten up looking tense at the plaintiff's table in the courtroom. When they hand her the ball, she drives it into the end zone, though, as with one moment where she recalls offering Hannah advice on her appearance and now laments, "Why couldn't I just tell her she was beautiful?"

For the first two-thirds of the show, the trial works better as a device to interrogate the players on the stand than it does in reshaping our opinions about Hannah. In particular, great use is made of Clay's more questionable tactics in season one, when his shadier actions compromise him on the stand and his anger at making things worse for Hannah leads him to do something that may be his most ill-advised action yet.

The Bryce Walker storyline soon expands to reveal a years-long buried history of sexual assaults involving the top jocks at school. Clearly taking its cue from rape cases like the Stubenville High School events, the show explores it as a mystery-thriller. Related to this are a series of mysterious Polaroids left for Clay, telling him "HANNAH WASN'T THE ONLY ONE." Someone seems to be targeting several of the people on the tapes, threatening them physically and with notes. This show isn't totally built to be a thriller in this way, and some of the creaks show now and then in the first 2/3 of the arc. Where it ends up is pretty effective, though.

Less successful is the running subplot surrounding the bullied Tyler. I've enjoyed the irony that this is a series about someone who was bullied and about how many of the characters learn they need to be more empathetic... and then proceed to shit all over Tyler at every turn. Not that Tyler hasn't done some stuff to earn their disgust, but it's interesting to see the "Be careful of people's feelings" get harder to follow when the victim isn't a pretty and charismatic teenage girl. But the fact remains that Tyler just isn't as compelling as some of the other characters and so his evolution into a potential school shooter becomes one of the season's lesser threads.

Throughout the season, the show finds ways to engage with criticisms levied at it. One scene threatens to make the subtext into text, as the school principal speaks of the damage that Hannah's tapes could do if people see them as empowering, while Clay counters that Hannah's suicide has started a much-needed conversation about things no one was talking about. In other occasions, Hannah's motivations for making the tapes is called out. Did she want revenge? Or was she just trying to tell her story? Did she lie? The show presents a counterargument to many criticisms of it without pretending there are easy answers, and without seeming too defensive.

And importantly, the show explores many alternatives to suicide - through Jessica's story and her friendship with another rape survivor, through Alex's recovery from his attempt, through Skye, through the grief of everyone touched by what Hannah did. If season one started a conversation, season two definitely makes an effort to deepen it in a way that should redress much of what people found missing the first time around.

Overall, while season two hits some powerful emotional heights, it's by design less often less intimate and personal than season one was.  One of the major exceptions to this is the season finale, which feels like an almost-perfect conclusion to two seasons of story. For those who find parts of season two too great a departure from the first, the finale binds everything together in a way worthy of the best episodes of season one.

There's a genuine sense of closure to a lot of character arcs in the finale. Minnette and Langford again share some powerful scenes where Clay finally sorts out his feelings about Hannah. If that doesn't reduce you to tears, a late callback to a significant moment from season one should melt even the most hardened heart. Without giving too much away, I'd argue THAT scene would have been the perfect conclusion to this episode and the series.

I don't know where a season three of this show can go, or even IF the show could go own, but this is a group of performers and creators who I will make a point to follow for a long time to come.

Friday, May 18, 2018

As 13 REASONS WHY returns I reflect on why you should write what you love

13 REASONS WHY returns at midnight tonight on Netflix and I'm very excited for season two. You might remember that I wrote a 13-part series on the first season last year:

One result of that was that my friend, GAWKER V. THIEL screenwriter John Gary, insisted it was past time that I write a teen drama spec pilot. To him, it was unbelievable I had done it yet. (The closest I'd ever gotten was showrunning my college drama while I was still in college, but I'd never written an original spec, or even a spec episode of a teen drama.) He said something like, "You watch all these shows! You know all these shows. You should WRITE one of these shows."

Despite John's advice to write what I love, I resisted this. I gave the same excuse Bryan Singer gave for not pursuing Star Trek, "I think I'm too big a fan of Star Trek. You'd feel like you were watching WRATH OF KHAN" again.  I knew the genre too well that I felt paralyzed by every wrong choice. With every notion, I either felt, "I've seen that, and they did it way better" or "This is exactly the kind of thing that I've railed against because the ways it can go wrong are A, B, C, etc."

He said, "No you have to do it."

So I did... and people really seemed to like the spec.

And then to compliment it, I wrote a spec 13 REASONS WHY and despite MUCH anxiety about if I could pull that off... my readers are liking that too. I forgot what a relief it was to hear "This feels like the show and everyone's voices are in-character." So if nothing else, I have two strong samples that weren't in my portfolio a year ago.

What I'm saying is, I owe John and 13 REASONS WHY a pretty big debt. I tweeted a few of these sentiments and John added his own thoughts: "Write your favorite genre. Write the thing you love to watch the most. Write what you know the best. Write who you are. Write you."

One thing I did while breaking the spec episode was go back and rewatch season one again. The internal timeline of the show is a couple of weeks, and we're given a couple hard dates to work with in there. We know that Hannah Baker killed herself on October 10 and that the deposition that is shown in the last episode happens on November 10th.

Given that Clay is said to take a few weeks to go through the tapes, and that the show starts a couple weeks after Hannah's death, I was curious if the timeline as presented on the show stood up to scrutiny. Turns out that it does! Here's the way the timeline seems to break down:





The biggest assumption you have to make is that Clay takes the weekend off between listening to Tape 4 and 5. (I'm referring to each individual side as a tape just for simplicity. I know that technically that's "Tape 2, Side B" and "Tape 3, Side 1." It's just easier to think of it as one tape per person.)

That weekend isn't depicted on-screen, but the first four episodes all are clearly back-to-back and would take us through an entire school week. When Clay gets to the fifth tape, it's ALSO a school day and it's a case where it's not directly tied to the end of the previous ep. Further, the episode dealing with Tape 7 ends up spanning a school day, a weekend and the start of the next school week. So week 2 of tapes has some wiggle room, just so long as we assume that episodes 5-7 cover one week of time for Clay.

It's neat to see the writers were clearly tracking this, and it drives home just how glacially clay must have moved through the tapes compared to the others. He's the 10th person to receive the tapes, so they passed through nine people in the span of October 11 to the 21st. (Clay receives the tapes via mail on Monday the 23rd, which means the person before him would have had to send them out on Saturday the 21st.) It's doable, especially if you assume that some people might not have mailed the tapes and instead delivered them to the next recipient personally.

[UPDATE: Season 2 has given fixed dates to details that had to have been worked out from context earlier:

- the date of Hannah's death is stated multiple times on screen to have been October 9th. I had presumed October 10th because that is the page we see Mr. Porter rip out of his planner. I'm guessing that the writers' notion was that was the back side of the page that he ripped out... October 9th. Originally, I thought this was a mistake because we see Hannah get the tape recorder from Tony at school and if she's getting it on that Monday, she couldn't have killed herself the same day, but...

- Episode 11 of Season 2 attaches the date of September 30 to the party where Hannah is raped by Bryce. This fixes one detail - giving Hannah an entire week to record the tapes and set up her plan. However, it also contradicts something Clay says in Episode 12 of Season 1, when he says that Hannah slit her wrists "less than a week after" that party.]

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Happy 10th anniversary, Go into the Story!

Scott Myers is the Cal Ripken of screenwriting.

Today marks the 10th anniversary of Scott's blog, Go Into The Story, a site for which no introduction will be adequate. Almost as soon as it came into existence, it was THE hub for everything screenwriting related. Scott not only has maintained a daily posting schedule since the beginning, he's maintained a routine of 4-6 posts a day for 10 years. These include features like The Business of Screenwriting, Reader Questions, Daily Dialogue, Script Breakdowns, Script Downloads, Interviews with working professionals, links and featured looks at the most important news in writing and the industry.... and much, much more.

It doesn't shock me that when Franklin Leonard was looking for an official blogger for The Black List, he went straight to Scott. I'd be hard-pressed to think of anyone who's given more to the aspiring screenwriter community so selflessly.

It's not easy maintaining a blog with a focus on writing. I've been blogging just over nine years and a few years ago I started feeling like I'd run out of things to say. Even just aggregating other articles and keeping the conversation going on some of these topics became too much to do while working full time and trying to advance my writing career.

Then I look at Scott, who's kept Go Into The Story running even after taking a job as Assistant Professor at DePaul University's School of Cinematic Arts, even as he takes time to be a mentor for the Black List Labs, and maintains private script workshops and Screenwriting Master Class. Heck, last year the man released 12 e-books about screenwriting. For free!

If it wasn't for Scott Myers, there's an excellent chance that far fewer of you would have ever been aware of me. I discovered Scott's blog almost exactly nine years ago, some four or five months after I started blogging. I think I was getting MAYBE 30-50 hits per day to the entire site back then.

I was trying to think of ways to extend my reach when I ran across GITS. I instantly recognized it as a treasure trove of screenwriting information. I was instantly addicted to this look behind the curtain from one of the writers of K9. He had a lot of great stories from his time in the industry and wasn't short on practical knowledge either. And back then, he was getting a lot of engagement in the comments. After reading for a few days, I noticed that Scott linked to other sites and would spotlight other screenwriting resources. I commented one whatever post was his featured post that day, keeping my fingers crossed that it would have the desired result.

It did. I soon got a email from Scott. As I hoped, my moniker caught his interest enough that he followed it back to my blog and saw the few months of posts. I guess what he saw made enough of an impression that he was interested in finding out more about me. I got bold and asked if he could do a shout-out to my site in a future post and he offered to go one better and feature a brief interview with me. I barely knew the guy, but he treated me like a friend. It was my first experience with making friends as "Bitter."

When the interview went live, my traffic immediately jumped to about 500 and then quickly 800 visits a day. Over the years, it would steadily grow higher, but Scott's spotlight was responsible for the biggest percentage jump in my visibility and engagement. He put me on the map and I will be eternally grateful for that.

It would be over four years until I actually got to meet Scott face-to-face. By then we'd traded dozens of emails, often conversing about some of the big changes in screenwriting that were affecting aspirings. It was good to have a sounding board to help make sense of whatever the heck was going on with the then-new Amazon Studios and more than once, our conversations were centered on "What can we do to help good writers get better?"

Scott's students are a fortunate group, indeed. But everyone who's read GITS for the last ten years can also count themselves as beneficiaries of Scott's generosity. A kinder gentleman you could not meet, and a more enthusiastic screenwriting teacher you could not hope to find.

I bristle at the term "screenwriting guru," especially when it's applied to me. (When the Grim Reaper comes for me, I BEG you to make sure that term appears nowhere near my obituaries.) I recognize it's usually applied with good intent, but even so, it feels wrong to use that phrase in reference to Scott. I prefer to think of him as our Yoda.

Congrats on ten years in the blogosphere, Scott! Here's to another decade of encouraging young screenwriters!

Wednesday, May 9, 2018

Interview with Amanda Pendolino, author of WEDDING PLANNING FOR THE BUSY FEMINIST

If you're familiar at all with this little corner of the screenwriting blogosphere, you're probably familiar with fellow screenwriter/blogger/reader Amanda Pendolino. Amanda's been a friend for a while, one of many people I first got to know through blogging and Twitter long before we met in person. She's also the ONLY paid reader I recommend, as she's always given me fantastic and thorough notes. The woman knows her stuff.

Amanda's first book is available today on Amazon, WEDDING PLANNING FOR THE BUSY FEMINIST. I'll let the blurb below set the book up:

Wedding Planning For the Busy Feminist is filled with practical, funny advice from real brides, grooms and vendors about how to plan your dream wedding on a budget. It's also an empowering survival guide that examines how modern women feel conflicted about outdated traditions and expensive social media fantasies but kinda want the perfect wedding anyway.


You're mostly known as a screenwriter and a script reader, what made you decide to write a book?

I used to have a blog about the journey to becoming a screenwriter, and I missed that sort of straightforward prose writing. (Ok, I admit it, I also like telling people what to do.) I also just wanted something different from the features and pilots I've been writing over the years. Sometimes I think it can be invigorating to use a different part of your creative brain.

Why did you choose wedding planning as a topic?

I have always been a fan of those pop nonfiction/memoir books from writers like Mindy Kaling, Tina Fey, Amy Poehler and Chelsea Handler. When I read them, I think, "I wanna write one of these!" Problem is, I'm not famous and I don't have a 20-year Hollywood career to talk about. So I couldn't just write about myself - I needed a topic. When my sister and best friend both asked me to be their Maid of Honor, amid a time in my life when I got invited to about 10 weddings in 2 years, I accidentally became a wedding expert. So it felt natural to choose wedding planning as my topic, and I thought writing about it from the Maid of Honor perspective could add something funny and different to that world.

The title is WEDDING PLANNING FOR THE BUSY FEMINIST and you say it deals with "modern wedding culture." What exactly does that mean?

I think a lot of women feel conflicted about weddings because they can reinforce traditional gender roles and values. "The busy feminist" is a modern, independent woman who has established a career and identity on her own. She's excited to get married (to a man or a woman), but she feels a little strange and maybe even guilty about wanting the perfect wedding. She feels like maybe it's backwards or not progressive to want such a thing... but she wants it anyway! So when couples get married, they have to decide what they want and how much tradition they want to include or exclude. How do they modernize things when family members of a different generation might have strong opinions about what weddings "should" have? So I wanted to dig into those feelings and try to help brides and grooms navigate the world of weddings.

When I say "modern wedding culture," I'm talking more about the performative and personalized aspect of it. It's no longer your parents throwing you a party when you're 22. It's two adults planning (and maybe paying for) their own wedding and trying to make it an expression of their specific relationship. With the internet - Instagram, blogs, Pinterest and specific wedding sites - a lot of couples feel the pressure to have a perfect, personalized wedding. Like, the table numbers need to refer to a shared hobby, the favors need to be the bride's and groom's favorite candy, the bar has to serve the couples' favorite cocktails, etc. Sometimes this is fun - I love signature cocktails! - but sometimes it feels like a nightmare of pressure that's fueled by unrealistic social media fantasies and companies trying to sell you products. (Have I mentioned that weddings are hella expensive?) How did we get here, and how do we deal with it? Those are the questions I find interesting and wanted to explore in the book.

You're not married, so was your perspective informed more by "This is what I'd want" or through observation and survey of friends and family at their weddings?

If you’ve been a wedding guest as many times as I have, you’ve probably already thought about whether you want your wedding to include a photo booth (yes!), dessert bar (yes!) or lobster (what am I, the carpet king of Wisconsin? My cousin's father-in-law is literally the carpet king of Wisconsin, so I learned at a wedding that I like lobster!). But I surveyed over 30 brides and grooms from all over the world about their weddings, so the book is way more about their advice than about my preferences. My motto is "you do you" - I don't pressure readers to include or exclude any particular tradition or to spend any more or less than they want to.



While the book is "for the busy feminist," do you think it has utility for the woman's partner as well? Will it help them better understand the bride's desires for the big day?

Absolutely! I imagine that most of my readers will be women, but plenty of men are deeply involved in wedding planning. And I would love for men to read the book! I try to be inclusive of anyone who is getting married, whether it's a heterosexual or same-sex couple and whether it's a traditional or nontraditional wedding. I also talk about smaller wedding and elopement ideas.

Does this cover the planning of the bachelorette party? What are the biggest rookie mistakes you can make there?

Yes, I have an entire chapter on bachelor and bachelorette parties! One thing I learned the hard way is that you should investigate flight and hotel prices BEFORE asking party guests about potential dates so you don't end up in a garbage fire of reply-alls; it turns out that Vegas flights and hotels are way more expensive when there's a UFC fight and a dentist convention in town the same weekend. I also found that I should have chilled the F out when it came to making sure that different guests were having a good time. The hardest part of a bachelorette party is trying to please party guests of different personalities and ages. I worried that a 8-month old pregnant woman was being scandalized when a shirtless Magic Mike dancer was all up on her. But she was fine! After all, she's the one who brought the giant inflatable penis to our hotel room. Ultimately, it's about making sure the guest of honor has a good time, and guests generally understand that. Another big tip is making sure you're upfront with guests about what things might cost - nobody likes having surprise costs sprung on them later. People getting married should also keep in mind that they don't HAVE to do some kind of traditional debaucherous party. The book includes a whole list of less traditional party ideas. Several people I surveyed also told me they skipped the party altogether - you do you!

One of your readers walks into Kleinfeld's - how much more informed will they be than the average customer faced on SAY YES TO THE DRESS, and will their appointment be so successful that they won't need to call in Randy to save the day?

Haha, I love that you have seen Say Yes to the Dress and appreciate its intricacies the way I do. They will be VERY informed! I have a whole chapter on dress shopping, including an interview with my friend who visited Kleinfeld as well as other bridal salons in New York City and upstate New York. I've been dress shopping with multiple friends/relatives, so I walk readers through the process of ordering a dress and have advice for people who are excited about it as well as people who are anxious about how they might look. I also give options for people who want to spend less than $500 and who may not have time to wait for a made-to-order dress. The book's appendix also contains links to 95 different bridal gown designers, since I love dresses.

Assuming WEDDING CRASHERS is a documentary, do you offer tips on identifying and avoiding the slick guys just attending the wedding for some action?

Haha! I was always a fan of that movie - I think Owen Wilson's speech advice (I also have a chapter on How to Write a Speech) is pretty solid: "People want something from the heart." Nobody I surveyed said they had a wedding crasher, but the book includes a funny disaster story from a bride whose Best Man wouldn't leave the couple's hotel room after the wedding! That might be way worse! Also, a wedding coordinator I interviewed said that one upside to having your wedding at a hotel or other venue that does a lot of weddings is that its staff members do this for a living and know how to deal with situations like crashers. If you choose a campground or public space, you have no idea what you might encounter, and if you don't hire anyone to deal with it for you, YOU'LL be the one dealing with it on your wedding day when you'd rather be downing Prosecco and basking in your lifelong commitment. This also gets into why you might want a wedding planner or coordinator - I have a chapter on that, too!

I'm gonna pose a hypothetical: you have four friends who are getting married within an 18-month to two year span. Each of them wants not only a bachelorette party weekend out of town and also a bridal shower. Does your book offer any tips in politely dealing with the fact these brides' friends are not made of money?

I think the biggest thing is that if you want to have an expensive bachelorette and shower, that's fine - but you have to be OK with it if people decline. It's better to have someone decline to attend something (or even be a bridesmaid) than to have someone accept and then complain to you or make passive aggressive comments about money for a year. If including the most people is what you value, then you should make more inexpensive decisions - it's just up to you what your priorities are. These costs really do add up, so couples should be cognizant of what they're asking of people. You can also be definitive about things like gifts - you can tell people that you specifically do NOT want gifts at your bachelorette, you do not want people to pay for your drinks/dinner if they're spending money on flights, etc. You can also explicitly tell people that you do not expect them to hop on a plane for a shower AND a bachelorette AND a wedding.

Follow-up: And also, two years later, when the remaining single friend gets married and all four prior brides bow out of pre-wedding events because of "kids and money," how justifiable IS the resulting multiple homicide?

Hahah - This can definitely be a bummer. I hope couples remember that their friends supported them and spent a lot of money on them when the tables are turned! But also, don't assume that married parents don't want to attend things. One married bridesmaid I know loved attending an out-of-town bachelorette and wedding solo because she got to sleep in a bed by herself with no husbands, kids or dogs - something she hadn't done in years!

Anything else potential readers should know?

My aim is to be legitimately helpful - I break down confusing caterer gratuities, offer wedding day timelines and provide lists of ideas for themes, favors and unorthodox registry items, for example. But it's also a humor book with advice like "Nothing sexes up a ceremony like a hot usher." Because that is 100% true.

You can purchase WEDDING PLANNING FOR THE BUSY FEMINIST here on Amazon, in both softcover and Kindle versions.

Thursday, May 3, 2018

Reader question: how to get writing feedback before submitting for class?

Jason writes in with a question:

I'm currently in a graduate program for English and Creative Writing and am finishing up my first screenwriting course. I appreciate your blog's very helpful information about what not to do to get a script read. In our class, we're told to get our work reviewed and critiqued by friends and family before submitting it. However, since the readers are friends and family, most of the feedback is a very unhelpful "I like it. Good job. Very interesting. Didn't know you could write." 

What I'm hoping you have is some advice for those in school trying to figure out where to focus their efforts and what to work on so their money isn't a complete waste. It seems that getting read by industry professionals would be the right picture, but as you've stated in many blog posts, industry professionals are understandably busy and there are legal concerns with reading scripts. So my question is, is there a format or opportunity to gain industry insight on a script without submitting it for filming consideration?

There are reading services, but most of them charge a lot of money for feedback and - in my opinion - most of them aren't terribly reputable. I have a hard enough time finding places to recommend for writers looking for feedback as they submit professionally - I don't think I know of any places that would be useful for writing students just needing feedback before they turn something in for a grade.

Is it at all possible for several of you in class to start a writing group where you exchange work amongst yourselves and provide feedback? That kind of peer review can be useful. Yes, you're being critiqued by people who are still on your level, but by virtue of being your classmates, they'll be a bit more informed than friends and family who merely can offer the obligatory "good job."

In your situation, that's what I'd be doing.

Wednesday, May 2, 2018

The EVERWOOD and 13 REASONS WHY pilots show how to make hurtful choices empathetic

I've been preparing to address the notes on my teen drama pilot and it brought to mind two pilots that were touchstones for me as I wrote: Everwood and 13 Reasons Why. And I hadn't noticed before they not only share similar scenes, but they're KEY similar scenes.

13 Reasons Why's pilot has two moments that I think are essential to getting the audience invested in the story. The first is an interaction between Hannah and Clay at the basketball game. There's a little bit of banter exchanged that halts when Clay realizes she's there to check out one of the players. "Don't be jealous, Clay" she teases. It's clear on the page he's pining for her, but the way the scene is played is essential. Hit just the wrong note, and her teasing seems mean-spirited. Instead, it's a cute moment.

The second moment is when she seeks refuge with him at lunch when rumors spread lies about her being promiscuous. Instead of being supportive, he's cold and hits her with a jealous barb about how "maybe it's better to wait." Clay looks like a dick there, but THAT was the moment that made me lean forward and say, "Go on..." You get a lot of notes in a pilot warning how you need to keep your characters "likable" but having someone be clearly wrong for human reasons is often more effective. He's not a bad guy, but he's having a teenage boy reaction. he was rejected, he's hurt, he's jealous, and in a moment he instantly regrets (also an important component), he does what a lot of boys would do in the same situation: act like an immature dick.

And here's the rub: on the page, both those moments play harsher. You don't have the performances of the actors to soften the blows or really make you feel the subtext. But that's no reason NOT to write the scene. As for EVERWOOD, there's a similar kind of moment...

Setup: Ephram has just been forced to move to a small town by his widowed brilliant brain surgeon father. he hates it, but popular girl Amy seems to take an interest in him. But Ephram is crushed when he finds out Amy has a bf and apparently was using him but then she explains herself. Her bf is actually in a coma following an accident. The doctors can't do anything for him. Amy befriended Ephram because she was hoping he could get his father to do something. It felt like fate that a world famous brain surgeon came to her town.

So you can't hate her after that moment. Was she manipulative? Sure. But it was for a good reason. You get why she would have done it and you get the sense that she's a nice enough person she might have been friendly to Ephram anyway. You empathize with her, you empathize with Ephram because he likes her and now WE like her too... and now you want these two to get together. But they can't get together and get everything they want because her coma boyfriend complicates everything. It's a perfect knot.

So fuck writing "likable" characters. Write human people who make human mistakes and make bad choices that have empathetic motivations behind them. When Clay hurts Hannah, it's awful, but I also thought, "I've done that. And it didn't feel good."

Tuesday, May 1, 2018

Breaking down the pilot of REVENGE

Previous Pilot Breakdowns:
Veronica Mars
Alias
The Office
Homicide: Life on the Street
Everwood

Continuing our Pilot breakdowns, here's REVENGE, created by Mike Kelley. Original tweet thread is here.

I picked REVENGE because it's a good blend of a procedural within a serialized uber-arc. There's a pattern to every episode - Emily takes down a different person who wronged her father each week - but within a larger advancing story. As someone who rebels against that every new series needs to be "more of a 13 hour movie, really" I like a show that can tell a longer story and make its episodes feel like individual chapters. Also easier to get an audience jumping in if they miss the first few eps.

I also recently wrote a pilot that I'm loglining as "REVENGE meets 13 REASONS WHY so this feels like an easy and relevant breakdown for me to do.

The pilot starts with a trick we all hate, but we've all used. A scene set some time in the future with a dramatic climax, then a flashback so the series will now show us how we'll get here. To be honest, the first time I saw this, I felt like it was a weird start.

A gunshot on the beach. A body falls. In the distance, a Labor Day party in the Hamptons. Victoria Grayson's holding her "Fire and Ice Party" to celebrate her son Daniel's engagement to Emily Thorne. We meet Emily, establish its her party. Daniel's walking on the beach. NOLAN walks up to her: "You shouldn't be here." she says. "That makes two of us," he retorts.

We also see Victoria's daughter Charlotte, who gets her bf Declan out ont the beach. Jack is hiding right near the body, right where the two teens strip and hit the water. Emily dials a number, Jack's cell rings, alerts D & C, and when they investigate they find the body. (They REALLY want us to think it's Daniel who's dead.)

Meanwhile, Victoria is giving a very dramatic speech about how she approves of Emily. It's clear she doesn't like her much, and Emily's acting makes us think it's mutual. C's screams from the beach draw her mother who assumes the body is Daniel... and we flash 5 months back. Honestly, I think this is the kind of intro you do when you're foregrounding the mystery, but nearly ever character gets a better reintroduction later when we meet them in the past.

Demonstrating my point, Emily's buying a beachhouse. Flashback to her childhood shows us she lived her with her father. There's also a double-infinity symbol carved into the post. We see it had meaning for her and her father. This house also is within sight of Grayson Manor. Even without the flashforward, we can get from that scene that Emily's up to something, Grayson Manor is her target, and it relates to her father.

Re-introduce Victoria, checking out Emily's arrival from a distance while her husband Conrad takes care of work. Charlotte comes in and is busted by her parents for sneaking out. Dad tries to defend that "She got straight As" Victoria: "No one's accusing her of being stupid."

Now we meet the blue collar Porter boys, Jack, who's Emily's age and Declan, teenager. Ultra-rich Nolan offers to buy Jack's boat "Amanda." Jack doesn't want to sell, doesn't like Nolan much. Again, it's a lot of people to set up so you do what you can to get their POVs fast.

Case in point, we now see Victoria presiding over a meeting of all the Hamptons wives, prepping the Memorial Day party and charity auction. Exposit that her friend Lydia is going through a divorce. She owns the house that Emily's renting.

That was about 13 minutes to establish everyone. And with the execption of the opening, most of those scenes work as character beats more than plot beats. With an ensemble like this, you need to get us into the characters first - THEN set up their schemes.

Backstory time: Emily is watching old news footage of her father being convinced of funneling money to terrorists to took down a plane and killed 246 Americans. We also learn that her father worked for the Graysons. Flashback to the FBI raid of their house. Young Emily... who is called Amanda here... screams.

One person who testified against her father: Lydia. And Amanda has taken photos of Lydia having a tryst with Conrad, V's husband. Guess what, that's our ACT OUT! So we know what Emily's avenging, and we know who she's after.

Hotel room - Mid sexcapade with Lydia, Conrad has a heart attack.

Jack and Declan are working at their father's bar. A guy from the bank comes. We know that's usually not good. Charlotte and her friends come in, trying to buy drinks while underage. Declan busts them, so she offers her phone number.

Outside the hotel, Conrad is taken to an ambulance. Lydia looks concerned, and in a sneaky move, Emily runs up, "My god, is this your husband?" She offers to help. Great way to put Lydia on edge without being suspucious.

Emily sees Jack playing with his dog. Flashback reveals Jack and Emily/Amanda were friends as kids. She even recognizes the dog, Sammy. (How OLD is that dog?) Present-Jack is clearly taken with Emily, and doesn't seem to realize she's Amanda. Gotta build out the relationships

Victoria meets Conrad at the hospital. the Dr. mentions Conrad should stay away from the "spicy bisque" at the South Fork Inn. V's no idiot. She clocks why he was at the inn. Tells him "Don't do it again." ACT OUT.

I like the dynamic we see there.

ACT UP. Memorial Day party - Emily's friend and V's party planner guides Emily through the party, dropping exposition. Important stuff, Nolan's richer than all of them put together, and Daniel is a party boy who paralyzed a girl in a car crash last summer. If you're writing one of these shows, you end up writing a LOT of party scenes, so get used to juggling action here. That means giving people a lot of conflicting agendas and cross purposes. Find the conflict. Here's it's that Lydia is dodging Victoria, trying not to be exposed.

Emily is introduced to Victoria. E also says hi to Lydia, manages to say "We met yesterday at the South Fork Inn. I hope your husband's feeling better." Madeline Stowe does a FANTASTIC job of playing every emotion you expect as she processes that. And she does it silently.

That's another writing lesson. Way better than a "you fucked my husband" blow-up AND it builds tension. We KNOW Victoria isn't gonna let this slide and she seems like the type to make Lydia stew, terrified of how she'll get even.

Meanwhile, Emily "accidentally" spills a drink on Daniel to manufacture a meet-cute meeting. I should also mention that Emily VanCamp is good at playing every scene like a cat that's toying with a mouse. Really sharp at switching to dead eyes then putting the mask back on.

Victoria kicks off the art auction, saying Lydia won the art auction for her Van Gogh. That painting was a gift from Lydia. Message sent. She also announces Lydia will be selling, not renting her home. Another message sent. Stowe has a sweet/evil delivery on "I hope the Van Gogh is a constant reminder of the friendship we shared." Emily locks eyes on her with this. Daniel comes by to offer a drink, and we ACT OUT.

So Victoria is fully established as the Queen Bitch of the Hamptons, and we've seen Emily as the ruthless avenger eager to make her pay. First time I saw this I was like, "I can't wait to watch these two play chess against each other."

Conrad later tells Victoria she was cruel. Victoria says he could have had anyone, and he chose her best friend. he says he proved himself years ago. Victoria says, not without tears that she helped him destroy a man. Conrad says she did it to save herself.

Nolan/Jack subplot. Jack needs money for his father's bar, decides to sell to Nolan. Nolan goes through his pics from the party and clearly recognizes Emily.

Nolan is waitng for Emily when she comes home. "Welcome home Amanda." She manhandles him like someone trained in combat. He offers to help. She says, "You're not a part of this." He says he saw firsthand what these people did to her father. When she declines, he says "I can be just as powerful an enemy as any one of them." That was the line where I knew I liked Nolan.

Another flashback: teenage Amanda released from juvie, ten years after her father's arrest. Nolan is there to meet her, bringing the news that her dad died six years ago. he's got a box for her. Amanda thinks her father was a murderer and a liar. Nolan says he wasn't. The box has many journals and a lockbox for an account in Zurich. David invested in Nolan's company and Amanda is a 49% owner of it now. (Remember what I said about his wealth?) The journals tell the whole story of how David was framed.

David's VO says he wanted her to know the whole story and that she needs to forgive. Instead, she uses it as a roadmap for revenge. There's a picture she has of a company picnic. She makes a red X over Lydia's face.

"This is not a story about forgiveness." Emily's there to takedown EVERYONE who framed her father, especially the woman he loved who betrayed him. END PILOT with the two women staring across the beach at each other, Victoria in her house, calling someone to look into Emily Thorne.

Okay, that was harder than I expected because I forgot how plot heavy things get in there, but let's recap the important pipe that was laid:

Emily has come back to the Hamptons under an assumed identity. She's incredibly wealthy and the only person who knows the truth about her and her father is Nolan. She's there for payback and has a ton of info that can be used to destroy everyone complicit.

Victoria is the ultimate target, but she's also the queen of the Hamptons and incredibly formidable. She's not an oblvious dupe, nor is she a one-dimensional villain. This is important. Emily is cunning, almost Batman-like, and V is equally ruthless. If you're setting up an ongoing chess game between hero and villain, I don't want the villain to be some vapid dupe waiting for her turn. It also helps if she's got SOME humanity. That scene where we see regret about what they did to David is critical for this.

So what else? Well, Emily still seems to have feelings for Jack, her friend back when they were both 10 or so. Jack DEFINITELY is still somehow carrying a torch for her. Here's the angsty triangle: she loves Jack, but her mission requires wooing Daniel. Also, there's built-in conflict about how he'll react when he inevitably finds out "Amanda" has been back and lying to him the whole time. (The show later has a great story about someone assuming "Amanda's" identity coming back and falling for Jack)

Nolan is the bridge between this romance and the revenge uberplot. For whatever reason, he wants to befriend Jack. (he's Team Jemily for sure). As a tech genius, Nolan also fits the hacker every show needs. BUT I like he's not overtly geeky like every crime scene lab tech.

So we have:
Conflict: (E v V)
Romance: (J/E, E/D)
Secret Identity tension
Procedural element (weekly takedown)
Uber plot (All takedowns lead to V)
Opluant setting: Hamptons

Oh, and lets go over the mysteries the flash-forward gives us:

Who is the body on the beach?

Why is Jack near the body? Did he shoot the person?

Why are Emily and Nolan showing signs of tension?

How did Declan and Charlotte become an item? (okay, maybe we care less about that.)

If Daniel ISN'T dead, where is he?

(Like I said, I personally don't think you NEED that flash-forward. The rest of the pilot does a good job of laying all the pipe and putting balls in the air. But if you can raise questions your audience cares about, go for it.)

And I can't BELIEVE I forgot to mention this but REVENGE is a modern (very loose) adaptation of THE COUNT OF MONTE CRISTO. You can imagine "a modern TCoMC in the Hamptons" would work as a high-concept pitch. Also, public domain, folks.

Monday, April 30, 2018

Breaking down the pilot of LIFE

Previous Pilot Breakdowns
Veronica Mars
Alias
The Office
Homicide: Life on the Street
Everwood


Fair warning before I begin LIFE, if there's a pilot live-tweet I'm gonna fuck up, it's this one. Haven't seen it since it aired. I do not remember the resolution to the mystery, so if I miss something planted deep in the pilot, forgive me. I bumped this up in rotation when I saw it was leaving Netflix.

The show opens with sort of a documentary style. It's an infodump. Charlie Crews was a cop wrongly convicted of a triple murder - his business partner and the partner's family. DNA gets him off after 10 years behind bars. You might be noticing that a lot of these pilots have infodumps. Some use VO, some use flashback. Some use both. Some drop it at the start. Others wait until the top of Act Two.

After that, we pick up 4 months after his release. Crews is a detective on his first crime scene with partner Dani Reese. Notably Reese was what broke Sarah Shahi's type-casting as "the hot girl." She's good as a hard-edged detective and meshes well with Damian Lewis.

We're at the case of the week part of the show, murdered kid. Charlie shows his unusual approach to investigation, examines a nearby dog everyone ignored, finds a bullet. And then he finds a finger.

Top of ACT ONE - Charlie's financial advisor and lawyer do a documentary talking heads. We learn that Charlie got a HUGE (undisclosed) settlement for wrongful imprisonment. After the mythos tease, we're back to the case. Talk to the kid's, John, murdered stepfather. Charlie does the quirky cop thing to intuit the guy's high. His method pisses off Reese, who already doesn't like him.

Reese: "I'm the superior detective, I'm responsible for your actions. You get jammed up for this, I get jammed up." CONFLICT. Then there's a fun bit where Charlie doesn't know how to use his cell (because they didn't have them when he was put away).

Case-of-the-Week shows often become what I call "clue trails." Risk of "And this... and this..." I'm not gonna recap every step of the investigation. Investigation takes them to the prison where the kid's father's doing time. A few throwaways from the guards taunt Charlie about his past there, suggests they don't like him much. Look for these little moments in a pilot, stuff that reminds us who characters are.

Guards provoke Crews again. He responds with some zen platitudes. It's not the sort of lead character we see in a cop show. (I mean, the quirky cop thing has been done more often lately, but Crews feels unique.)

END ACT ONE - Crews pulls over his ex-wife's new husband, hassles him.

TOP OF ACT TWO - cops interview kid, Crews and Reese clash again. He says he knows she had to fight in this job "I'm not gonna fight with you."

Kid says John was offered information from someone who said that it could get John's dad out on a technicality. Met him online, claimed to be a lawyer. "John just wanted to get his dad out of jail and now he's dead." Possibly wrongly-accused convict is an obvious, but effective way to use the case to thread out Crew's history and issues too.

And now we meet two patrolmen who knew Charlie when he was on the streets, one of them is Stark, former partner. Helped take Charlie down.

Reese checks in with her LT. Making sure Reese is "working the program." (i.e. rehab.) Lt thinks Crews is trouble. "He got screwed and he's gonna get even." Nice scene between two female cops raising the issues they have to deal with because of gender. (Before I said so, did you default to imagining the Lt. as a man?) Lt. also is looking for an excuse to get Crews bounced. Reese admits he tipped off the kid's stepdad that a search might be coming and he should flush his pot. More conflict. Lt hates Crews. AND Reese seems to show whose side she's on.

Charlie's buddy Ted handles his settlement money, ex-CEO, put away for insider trading. They met inside, helped each other, now he lives with Charlie. The documentary lets us learn all this efficiently. Neat trick, right?

ACT OUT on a case scene, interview the mother, confirm her son stole money to pay the mysterious "lawyer."

ACT UP - Charlie gets call from his lawyer telling him to come tonight.

Next, Ted shows Charlie Google. (Remember, that didn't exist when he went inside either). Charlie: "Google me." Ted: "You don't want to see that." Montage of Charlie's "criminal" history.

Charlie's lawyer bugs him to call his father about his new wedding. Charlie says that his mother is dead because "He killed her when he wouldn't let her come see me." Charlie isn't inclined to forgive him that. Also, they're definitely setting up sexual tension between Charlie and his attorney. Then, more fun with Charlie and tech, this time bewildered by the Bluetooth in his car, and the fact his phone gets pictures "It's like living in the future."

Top of the next act: Reese asks why he became a cop again, he says the whole time he was inside, he still felt like a cop. She probes if he's going after the guys who set him up. he says no.

Aw crap. I missed how their investigation led them to the guy who killed the kid. Guy lost his finger to the dog, then "I watched Arthur kill that kid." He shoots, Crews has to find a position to shoot back from. in the shooting, bullet hits a packet of coke. Gets all over Reece (remember, she's recovering). she freaks out. he helps her into the shower to wash it off. Crews later asks her what that was about. she doesn't answer. Clue trail leads us to Arthur. Arthur is brought in for questioning. They jack him up on a parole violation. ACT OUT.

NEXT ACT starts with Reese and Crews. Offers her fruit. they bicker, but it's more friendly. We start to see how this chemistry is gonna work. They get a confession out of Arthur with the threat of putting him in the prison yard with the kid's father. Tense scene as he's being led there. He confesses.

Lt comes to Reese, says dept is ready to move forward with her complaint on Crews. Reese takes it back. So she's been won over by Crews. Seemingly. It's as small journey for her in the pilot, but a necessary one.

Charlie goes home, and we see him going through confidential files. Hidden in his closet, he's got one of those HOMELAND "Wall of Crazy" things, following the trail of events that led to his conviction. Suspects on the board... including his ex-partner and his Lt.

So he lied to Reese. does that mean he doesn't trust her? And is that because he doesn't know her? or because he DOES know her and that he shouldn't trust her?

You'd think we'd go out on that scene, but we get a small bit of Ted going to drive a tractor and accidentally running over Charlie's expensive car. (Don't ask).

Okay, so let's recap mythology:
-Wrongly convicted cop.
-back on the force
-RICH
-secretly looking to figure out who framed him.
-EVERYONE's a suspect.

We actually only know bare bones here. There's a lot later eps have to flesh out in the backstory.

Relationships:
Crews/Reese - the core partnership, moves from outright tension to some measure of respect. Kinda reminds me of early Mulder and Scully, with Crews's quirky ways being like Mulder's investigative leaps.

What makes these characters different:
Crews - the zen thing, and his befuddlement of modern tech (which only goes so far.)
Reese - recovering addict. Could be a cliché, but it feels like there's a big story there.
Comic relief - Ted, former inside-trading CEO turned Crews's buddy and money manager. Gives us another world for Crews to go home to that isn't just him staring at his Wall of Crazy

Other stray tidbits that can be story fuel:
- Crews's father and the tension with him over his MUCH younger fiancé.
-Crews's history with his partner, barely touched here, but clearly will be important.
Lt's kinda pulling the "woman card" on Reese to get her on her side.

Format: We have a contained case-of-the-week, like every other procedural, but unique thanks to these characters. And presumably the long arc will advance each week, with the documentary helping exposition dumps when needed

(I legit don't remember if we ever find out who's making this documentary or how that comes into play. In the pilot, it almost feels like it could just be a storytelling device, like Modern Family's talking heads.)

Hopefully after the pilot, you either want to know who framed Charlie and why, OR you want to see him solve crimes each week. Ideally both.

Other Pilot Breakdowns:
Revenge

Friday, April 27, 2018

Hear me discuss the crazy LOIS & CLARK episode "Lucky Leon" on a Superman podcast!

A few months back, I met Matt Truex at a party for a mutual friend of ours, where it took only a few minutes for me to determine that not only were we both Superman fans, but that Matt was one of the hosts of a LOIS & CLARK podcast I had listened to somewhat frequently: Lois & Clark'd: The New Podcasts of Superman.

So by the end of the evening, Matt had invited me as a guest for one of their upcoming episodes, leaving the selection of episode to me. They were in the middle of the second season and - knowing that the show basically drove off a cliff during season three - I wanted to get in for one of the shows in what I remembered as the glory days.

"What I remembered," being the operative phrase there. I watched the show when it first aired, beginning in 1993 and abandoned it about a third of the way into season four. Every now and then I'd catch a few episodes in syndication, particularly from their first season, but by and large, I've not revisited most of the series since it first aired.

With a couple choices off the table, I looked at a list of upcoming half-dozen or so eps and narrowed it quickly to two choices: "The Return of the Prankster" and "Lucky Leon." I recalled that Bronson Pinchot was the Prankster and that at the time it was fun stunt-casting, but between that, and some of the goofiness of the episode, I feared it was one that wouldn't age well. I didn't want to go on a podcast and spend the entire time tearing the episode apart.

"Lucky Leon" on the other hand, was one that I recalled as an exciting and important episode. It had Lois and Clark's first real date and it ended with the shocking death of district attorney Mason Drake in a car explosion. I recalled this set up a really terrible follow-up, but I also was pretty sure the follow up was such a letdown because the set-up had been great. The choice seemed obvious - "Lucky Leon."

This is how I came to learn that you should not trust your memories of what was good in 1995 if you haven't revisited it recently. "Lucky Leon" has the feel of an episode hastily pieced together by the writing staff over a weekend, as they abruptly try to set-up and pay off several threads that should have been threaded over multiple episodes. Dramatic plot points are dropped in and forgotten and the villains' scheme doesn't really hold up to logical scrutiny.

And all the stuff I remembered about it being awesome? Yeah, that was five minutes of the episode.

So it didn't end up being the lovefest I was hoping for when I picked this episode, but fortunately the episode is entertaining in such a WTF way that the podcast itself is fun listening. Check it out below or access it here.



Thursday, April 26, 2018

Breaking down the pilot of EVERWOOD

Previous Pilot Breakdowns:
Veronica Mars
Alias
The Office
Homicide: Life on the Street

Find the original twitter thread here.


NOTE: So the @CWSeed version of the EVERWOOD pilot is apparently the syndicated version. I'll be doing the Extended DVD version, which is about 5 min longer. I'm doing this one because it's my favorite Greg Berlanti pilot and I wanted to do another ensemble drama pilot.

Like a lot of pilots, EVERWOOD starts with narration, and this is accompanied with sort of a montage info-dump. The storyteller is not the lead, Dr. Andy Brown, played by Treat Williams. It's Irv, who we'll meet later.

Meet Andy Brown, who in the first scene, forgets his son's piano recital. Scene 2 shows that he's one of the best neurosurgeon in the business, and is everything you'd expect of a New York City doctor. He tells a patient, "Don't thank me now. You can thank me when I save your life."

Dr. Brown misses the recital. Police arrive at his office. We don't hear what he's told. Irv fills us in. Car accident killed his wife on her way to the recital. Andy's left alone to raise 15 year old Ephram and 9 year old Delia. We have to cover a LOT of ground, particularly in making the wife someone we care about.

Five minutes in, Andy's doing his second consult. To our surprise, he tells a patient to forget surgery, go live his life in the time he has left. "I can't save your life. At most I can prolong it... so this hospital can brag about its success rate."

Andy's made his own choice. Smash cut to "MOVING WHERE?" from Ephram. Andy's moving them to the small town of Everwood, Colorado. Ephram doesn't want to leave NYC, thinks his dad is crazy. Andy puts it to a vote and buys Delia's vote with the promise of a pony. Act one took 6:45. Ends with them moving out of their New York City home.

Act two kicks off as we arrive in Everwood. Irv drops some local exposition on us. It immediately comes off as a folksy small town in the middle of nowhere. Oh, and Andy's grown a beard.

Delia gets on the bus and we meet Irv in the flesh. A large friendly African American man.

Ephram's off to school. Andy offers to drive. E: "Appreciate the offer but it's about ten years too late." They don't get along.

Another character intro: Andy meets his neighbor Nina. She already knows who he is. See, Time Magazine wrote an article about Andy leaving medicine. He's kind of a big deal.

At school. Ephram mouths off to some would-be bullies. And IMMEDIATELY seems to catch the eye of Amy, every guy's teenage crush. She knows who he is too. They banter easily. Ephram's shown as witty and snarky. Amy invites Ephram to eat lunch sometime. Ephram clearly thinks she's into him.

Next scene: new info is that Andy's planning on opening a new general practice. There's already a doctor in town, he's informed.

Transition to Dr. Harold Abbott. A local asks him to "just check me out" here on the street for an ailment. Dr. Abbot gives a long speech about how he could misdiagnose something and expose himself to a malpractice case. It's a very efficient way of showing that Dr. Abbott has a bit of a rod up his ass. Big thing about this pilot: EVERYONE's voice is instantly clear.

Both Andy and Abbott speechify, but they do so in different ways. Looking for office space, Andy is intrigued by the abandoned and dilapidated train station. he's decided this is the perfect place. END ACT TWO

Top of Act Three: Ephram and Amy. Ephram is gassing on about manga. She's into it, cooing "Who knew comics could be so hot." Makeout music comes on. And if you haven't guessed by this point, Ephram's clearly dreaming. And when he wakes up, it's THAT kind of dream.

(This is probably what's cut on the online version, which is followed by a scene where Ephram tries to wash his sheets as Andy asks what he's doing). Andy ends with another attempt at an olive branch, "I'm making pancakes, you want some?" Ephram: "Go to hell!" Ah, fathers and sons.

Dr. Abbott confronts Andy about parking in his spot. "I'm sorry I didn't see a name on the curb." "It's implied." Abbott doesn't take kindly to another doctor in town. This whole scene is gold.

Abbott boasts his golf club belonged to Tiger Woods. Andy: "I'll have to tell him." Yep, Andy knows Tiger.

Abbott sneers that he's been there for 15 years, "Before me it was my father." Joviley, Andy inquires, "Was it your father's father before him? Because that would be cool!"

The script has to NAIL this relationship and that scene's a good microcosm. Abbot is arrogant and confrontational. Andy is breezy and friendly. Sets the tone that you can instantly build on. From here, we get to the OTHER major relationship the pilot has to nail Amy/Ephram. She asks what it's like having a doctor. Ephram's response is revealing, "He misses your birthday. You want to hate him, but he's in the paper for separating Siamese twins." So yeah, Ephram has issues.

Showing he's not entirely blinded by his crush, Ephram asks, "Why are you hanging out with me?" "You've got kind of a tragic, lonely thing going on," she deflects. As they split up, her brother (Chris Pratt!) tells her dad's not gonna like them hanging out. She blackmails him into silence.

Andy sets up the office and an older woman named Edna Harper shows up. Calls Delia "Private," she has "40 years nursing experience, includes 2 tours in 'nam." She also drops that she worked for Dr. Abbott "Senior and Junior." Again, another intro, another info dump.

Back at the house, we learn Ephram hasn't played the piano since his mother died. Andy's concerned, Ephram says "Like you ever cared if I played or not." We hit this note a lot, but it's a big one.

Andy now imagines/recalls a conversation with his wife. She suggests he grow a beard (Ah! so THAT'S why he grew a beard!) The talk is the "what would you do if I died" talk. Andy deflects. He imagines dancing with his wife, and when we pull back, we see that Delia is watching him dance alone.

ACT OUT: Dr. Brown is not well, and his daughter is concerned.

Act In: Two doctors park side by side, Andy is cheery. "My first day, you gonna wish me luck?" Harold: "If you're done blathering, one of us has patients to attend to." Andy, unfazed: "Have a nice day!" I'm SURE there's fanfic about these two. (See what I mean about what's conveyed just in dialogue? Especially in a pilot, you've got to be efficient in getting to the heart of character's attitude.)

At the office, Andy persuades the town gossip to consent to an exam, comparing her to Elizabeth Taylor (whom he has operated on. Because OF COURSE he has.) Andy's very charming, even with the name drop, but he clearly knows what he's doing. Treat hits the PERFECT genial note.

After an Irv/Delia scene that shows Irv as the wise man of the town, we're back at Andy's office. He says "I'm not charging. My services are free...I was a brain surgeon for 15 years. I have a few pennies tucked away." I liked that way of revealing Andy's not just rich, he's RICH.

Amy's brother Bright - played by CHRIS PRATT -  confronts Ephram. It's hate at first sight. Amy arrives, and Bright says, "Tell him why you're really hanging out with him." Also mentions she's got a boyfriend. This starts another mini-mystery. They fight. Lands them at the principal's office. Andy shows up, as does Bright's father... Dr. Abbott.

So the girl Ephram likes has a bf and her dad hates Ephram's dad's guts. That almost sounds like... conflict!

And now we finally get the big Ephram/Andy confrontation. Ephram calls him out on losing his mind. "I knew her! You were never around! I wish you died instaed of her!" Andy volleys right back, "I wish I did too, you little bastard!" It's a pretty raw ugly moment. Smartly, Berlanti has Ephram refuse to go in the house as ordered while Andy impotently says, "At some point you're going inside." Nina sees all this. Andy, dryly, "I run a tight ship." Look for those moments. You can't just have your characters say they hate each other. You need to have a way out of that scene.

Andy/Nina talk: he says Julia was better at parenting. Nina asks if the reason he came there has to do with Julia. "I need to prove I can be the kind of doctor and father she wanted be when she was alive." - Mission statement for the show.

Top of the next act: Harold and Andy bicker. Andy again tries so hard to be his friend. Andy also shows him up with a correct diagnosis of Nina's son's illness, which he clocked in the last scene. "Not bad for a nutbag. You should see what I can do with my hands." There's some silly banter as people show up for Andy's free services. Dr. Abbott confronts Edna, calling her "Mother." Ah, more family conflict between the Abbott and Brown clans.

We're seeing all parts of the engine that drives the series and the next scenes give us a big one. Amy gets Ephram to see her boyfriend Colin. He's in a coma after a car accident on 4th of July. He was Bright's best friend. Bright was actually in the car with him but doesn't remember anything. "Every night I pray for a miracle.. When I heard your dad was coming to town I figured if anyone could help him, it would be him." Emily VanCamp sells the HELL out of this scene. Has to make us forgive Amy's manipulation and we're totally with her.

It would have been easy to write Amy as a manipulative liar. By the end of that scene, we feel like we'd have done the same thing. What I like about this show. People are more complex than good/bad. The audience always relates to them.

The next scene was another Andy/wife convo. She tells him about passing through Everwood as a child. Says essentially, that if anything happens to her, that's where she'll be. Yes, I know it sounds SCHMALTZY, but it works, dammit.

Delia comforts her father... and piano music wafts in from the other room. Ephram is at last playing again. "I found out I'm in love with a girl who's in love with a guy in a coma." Andy and Ephram make up. Ephram doesn't make eye contact.

And we go out on Andy observing of Ephram's playing, "I forgot how good you are." "Mom used to say I had your hands."

And with Irv's final narration, we end the pilot.

So let's count the relationships that drive the series:
Andy/Ephram - conflict at the core of everything
Andy/Abbott - conflict. Also affects everything with their kids. We can see a potential domino effect for stories to exploit
Edna/Abbot - Conflict

Love triangle: Ephram/Amy/Colin. Ephram likes Amy. But the guy she loves is someone only his father can save. So if he asks his dad to help, he probably loses the girl. But how can he not ask? And hey! it's a triangle with no bad guys, just normal teens, sorta.

(Later on in the series, they make a VERY smart choice in making us like Colin. He's the most beloved guy in town, which makes the triangle even more complicated. We can't hate him.) Then we add the fact that if Andy gets involved, it's another chance for Abbott to feel like an inferior doctor. And what must it feel like to see your daughter pinning her hopes to your rival.

Bottom line: there is a LOT of pipe laid here. Two families, multiple layers of conflict both within and between the families AND the love triangle. And it has heart and characters you want to spend time with. And there's no high concept, sci-fi twist or anything.

I love this show. It's my favorite Greg Berlanti show and Ephram and Amy are some of the best teen characters to appear on TV.

Other Pilot Breakdowns:
Life
Revenge

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Breaking down the first episode of HOMICIDE

Previous Pilot Breakdowns
Veronica Mars
Alias
The Office


This continues my pilot breakdown series. Go here for the original Twitter thread.


The series is based on the book HOMICIDE: A YEAR ON THE KILLING STREETS, by David Simon. Find it. Read it.

Episode "Gone for Goode" is directed by Barry Levinson, written by Paul Attanasio.

(On DVD commentaries, the writers say Tom Fontana and James Yoshimura deserve "Creator" credit, but Attanasio is the creator of record.)

First scene: Detectives Lewis and Crosetti in an alley in a bad neighborhood, looking for evidence while philosophizing about what it means to "find" things. Sets the tone. This is about the mundane part of police work. It's not car chases, gun standoffs, etc. The last line of scene is "That's the problem with this job. It's got nothign to do with life."

We see the victim's name written on The Board in red. The procedure for each victim. (Names go to black when case is closed.)

First scene of Act One, new arrival Detective Tim Bayliss arrives for his first day. Looks for Lt. Giardello. Is pointed to two guys. Bayliss assumes the white Crosstti Is LT, not the large African American man. Oops.

Bayliss: "This is where I want to be. Thinking cops. No guns."

Next we meet Bolander and Munch. Munch questions a (badly lying) suspect at the hospital. "You're saving your really good lies for some smarter cop, right? I'm just Montell Williams, you want to talk to LARRY KING!" Richard Belzer would play Munch for seven seasons here, and for 15 seasons on L&O: SVU, making him one of TV's longest characters. His sarcastic, testy persona is established from the first scene.

And we're back with Lewis and Crosetti investigating the shooting of a woman. Their talk digresses into Crosetti's obession - the Lincoln assassination and the conspiracy he believes in. Homicide does something that wasn't quote in vogue yet in network TV. It features dialogue that doesn't directly advance the story. A lot of character chit-chat, almost Tarantino-esque.

And now we're with Det. Howard, the only woman in the squad and Det. Felton. We get another interview scene that showcases the mundane nature of the job and the character interplay.

Veteran Detective Bolander busts Munch's balls about his still unsolved case. Munch: "It's been three months, nothing new. It's over." Case is a woman run over. Wasn't even ruled homicide. Munch says it's not even on the board. He shouldn't have to worry. Bolander: [She] was murdered, John. Someone has to speak for her."

That's the show, in one sentence.

Out at lunch, a bunch of the detectives bitch about their co-worker, the as-yet-unseen Pembleton. "Guy thinks he's smarter than everyone else because he listens to Emmylou Harris." Pembleton is being built up for us. Sets the stage, builds anticipation.

Pembleton doesn't have a partner, the squad tells Gee they don't like this. Gee says Felton's paired with him now so Howard can be paired with Bayliss. No one likes this much.

ACT OUT: on Munch reviewing the case file.

ACT TWO opens with Pembleton (Andre Braugher) being told he's with Felton. He's instantly cocky, points to his clearance rate. Gee says he needs to be a team player.

Frank is used to working bigger cases. He's full of himself. Felton busts his balls, "Am I really going on a routine call with Frank Pembleton... he only handles the big cases, this is just some dead guy."

Frank goes to the motor pool so they can sign out a squad car for the case. He realizes he forgot which car goes with the keys he's been holding. Rather than admit defeat or get another set, he resolves to go car-by-car until his key works.

THAT is Frank. He's tenacious and he can NEVER admit he's wrong.

Felton asks "what does this prove?" Frank says, "Just say it... I don't like being in the basement with that n****r. You resent me." Felton asks why he can't just get another key. "because what if it's the next one?"

Note the tension in every one of these pairings: Frank/Felton is racial tension and resentment of Frank's attitude. Munch/Bolander is old-pro busting the younger guy's balls. Lewis/Crosetti is less overt tension. Their case is basically leading to insurance fraud. I'm not going to recap the ins and outs of that one till later.

Felton, upon learning Tim came from the mayor's security detail, "Wagging tail of a political favor, huh?" He clearly thinks Bayliss is in over his head. "You ever see a dead guy?"

Lewis/Crosetti case: Black Widow, she's buried five husbands, collected insurance on all of them. Problem, when they go to exhume one, the wrong guy is buried there. This sets up the dark humor of them successively digging up graves, trying to find the right body. It's the sort of grimly funny thing that HLOTS was known for. It is also based on a true story, as is much of the first season's episodes.

As Munch interviews the victim's family, we get the sense that he has terrible bedside manner. ACT OUT on that.

ACT OPEN on Bayliss, Pembleton, Howard and Felton in dead man in motel room. Bayliss is trying to show off he knows crime scenes

Frank and Tim left alone. Frank thinks it's murder. Tim doesn't. Frank points out the old guy's car is missing. We find out the older guy has been seen with some younger guys.

A subplot in this ep is about Howard's perfect clearance rate. The suspect she's been looking for disappeared... until he walks right into the squadroom. He folds within seconds in interrogation. Howard's rate is secure. Subverts the trope about how every police interrogation is a chess match. Sometimes the suspects are dumb, with terrible attempts at deception.

Munch goes through suspect mugshots, and he finds something. They're looking for a blonde guy. Funny thing, a suspect picked up two weeks later on another case has black hair.. and blonde eyebrows. They confront the guy, and his answer to everything is "I was drinking." We see Munch turn the victim's name from red to black. We know what that means.

ACT OUT on Bolander meeting the new, attractive medical examiner.

ACT UP on detectives drinking, with Crosetti writing up a complaint against Lewis for calling him a "salami brain." Nice touch, Howard proofreads the memo.

A lot of good Munch lines here, btw. He's the guy interjecting sarcastic jokes whether or not they're appreciated. The other detectives mostly ignore him.

Suspect picked up in Frank and Tim's case and then we get the greatest scene of the pilot, as Frank explains how an interrogation is done.

"A guilty man left in the box alone, falls asleep.. uncooperative, too cooperative, blinks, stares."

He describes what he is about to do as "an act of salesmanship... what I am selling is a long prison term to a client who has no genuine use for the product." I WISH this scene was still on YouTube, because no recap really does it justice. Line by line, this scene is brilliant.

Frank makes the guy read and initial a waiver of his rights. He's making the process mundane, making HIM a part of the process. Guy suggests maybe he wants a lawyer. Frank says if that happens, he has to write it up how it looks - first degree murder.

It's a trap. "This room is like a wall, and at the top of that wall is a small open window. A way out. Son I am that window." Frank gets him to keep talking, putting himself at the scene, waiving his right to an attorney. With that out of the way, Frank catches him in a big lie, and the guy folds like a cheap suit.

Tim confronts Frank, saying he tricked that guy into not getting a lawyer. Frank says "Do you believe he did it?" Frank rips Tim a new one. Tim wonders what an innocent man would do with the same chance. That is always the tension of Box scenes. When Frank pushes it, can he break an innocent man? (Spoiler: he can.)

Now we have Munch, Lewis, and Crosetti in a scene of them that has nothing to do with their cases. They hit on a moneymaking idea, Mail order adult diapers. Scene's a good showcase of how their minds work.

Phone rings at the squad. Howard asks Tim, "you ready?" He answers, which makes him the primary.

Final scene: Tim at the crime scene. A young girl has been murdered. He raises his badge. "Homicide." FADE OUT. End of episode.

So we introduce the ensemble. Tim is used as "new guy" and an audience explainer, both at the start and both as innocent eyes for Frank's envelope pushing behavior in the box. And a lot of little mini-arcs here, showing us how Munch and Bolander relate, how Crosetti and Lewis get on each other's nerves, how Howard and Felton have a pretty easy partnership.

It's not a BIG pilot. It takes a genre of show and refreshes it by amping up the character stuff. None of the cases are teh epic brain teasers you find on most CBS procedurals or L&O. It's all about what the cases mean to the people working them. It's one of my favorite pilots, with one of my favorite scenes, but it feels deceptively low-key when you watch it.

Seek it out. You can't imitate it, but you CAN study how it reveals its characters.

Other Pilot Breakdowns:
Everwood
Life
Revenge