Monday, April 23, 2018

Breaking down the pilot of ALIAS

A while back I did a series of live-tweets of pilot episodes, with the intent of breaking these pilots down and showing the elements that are present in a strong pilot. The result isn't QUITE a scene-by-scene accounting of everything in the show, but it does work as a running commentary on how shows establish themselves, their characters, their overarching plots and themes.

At the time, my intent was to repurpose those as blog posts, but it ended up being something that fell by the wayside after I did my first one, VERONICA MARS.  I've since decided to go back and archive them here, while making some edits for clarity and expounding on a few ideas where necessary.

This post focuses on the pilot of ALIAS. You can find the original tweet-thread here.

Opening: Sydney being tortured. She's got bright red dyed hair. Interrogators are... North Korean? I think? Point is: we open In Media Res with our lead in danger.

Cut: and now we're in the past. Sydney's a brunette college student being told to finish her blue book essay.

Third scene: college campus, she's with her boyfriend Danny. Vertical Horizon's on the soundtrack. It's 2001. Danny proposes to Sydney on the quad while singing Build Me Up Buttercup. It's embarrassing and adorable.

4th Scene: Intro roommate Francie as Syd shows off her ring. She hasn't told her dad, "I don't want him to ruin this." So she doesn't like Dad, and her mom's spoken of in past-tense. Danny apparently called Mr. Bristow to ask for his blessing. Flashback to Danny calling Jack Bristow. Jack is a jerk, giving a terse response that includes, "If you feel the need to ask me... I have a sense you don't know Sidney at all." Jack takes him apart rather coldly. "I will not be used as part of a charming anecdote you tell at parties." Oh, and Jack also exports airplane parts. Meant to imply it's a boring job.

Next sequence: Sydney goes to work at the bank... then enters a James Bondian secret entrance to her real job... spy headquarters. (Visual detail: she removes her engagement ring before she goes in). Next couple scenes introduce the spy regulars: Sloane - taskmaster boss, Marshall - tech guy, Dixon - Sydney's partner. We've seen this kind of Mission Briefing scene a million times. Exposition central. Marshall's goofiness and gadgets add some flair though. I'm not gonna recap all the exposition here, but suffice to say it's all crucial to the mission later.

Next scene: Sydney running with her friend Will. He's kvetching that his blind date's favorite movie of all time was PRETTY WOMAN. He asks Sydney to a movie. She tells him Danny proposed. The way she breaks the news and his reaction tell us a big thing: he's into her.

Next Sydney/Danny interaction: romantic scene has her leading him into the shower... where she tells him she's a spy. "I work for the CIA." He laughs. Realizes she's serious. We don't see more than this. We don't need to.

And now we're back to the torture scene, just to remind us there are stakes here. By the way, all that pipe laying took about 15 minutes: dual life, all the major characters, etc. This thing MOVES. And it's the end of Act One.

Now we're in flashback as Sydney tells us (and Danny) how she was recruited into a "covert branch" of the agency while still in college. It's an exposition dump, but like VERONICA MARS, it waited until the second act.

Sydney goes away on a mission with Dixon. Discuss how Sloane doesn't like she's in grad school and has an outside life. Dixon reminds Sydney that the one rule they don't break is telling people in their lives that they're spies. (This would be STAKES).

This next sequence seems to be here to give us an idea of what a "routine" mission looks like for Sydney. Guest at a formal function. Meanwhile, Danny calls Syd's answering machine and leaves a message discussing his feelings about her spy life. "People aren't spies forever." This is intercut with Sydney's mission, advancing both things at once. We also see Sloane getting a call that's informing him about Danny.

Sydney's caught on video finishing her mission. She's seen by the same men later torturing her. But we know this doesn't lead to that because of the red hair in those scenes. See how details like that keep things clean for the audience?

Sloane informs someone that "we have a breach" regarding Sydney telling Danny. He slides the folder across the table to... Sydney's father! "You know where my loyalties lie." Jack tells him, not un-sinisterly.

Sydney comes home, finds Danny murdered in his bathtub. She races to the office confronts Sloane, who is stern and unsympathetic. Some great Sloane dialogue here that I don't have time to transcribe. Sydney grabs him: "You killed the man I love." "No... you did." Sydney's given a polygraph, in a scene that informs us she's part of SD-6. It's repeated several times so we'll remember SD-6 later. There's a neat bit in here with Sydney reading Sloane's lips through the interrogation room window. Communicated just through ECUs.

Interrogation: Sydney gives some smart-ass answers. Like with Veronica, it's meant to show how unflappable and sassy she is.

Back in the past, we go to Danny's funeral. Jack watches Sydney at a distance. Syd interacts with Danny's sister.. who has bright red hair.

Nice character moment amid the plot: Sydney has to rerecord the outgoing answering machine message, replacing one of her and Danny.

Dixon comes to Sydney with a mission, one they need her for. "If they don't have confidence in someone as deep as you are.. they'll fix" it. You thought you hated YOUR job? Quitting isn't an option for her. Sydney goes into a parking garage and that's where she's attacked. Men with laser sights take shots at her. she flees, and we get a neat moment of hand-to-hand fighting when she takes out one of the guys.

And then her father pulls up: "Get in!" "Daddy!" We knew Jack was a spy... she didn't. Car chase ensues. And Jack pulls off an awesome move, spins the car 180 degrees and drives in reverse so he can shoot the car chasing them. It's BADASS, impresses even Sydney.

Jack says SD-6 will kill her. He's part of it too, undercover. He tells her SD-6 is NOT part of the CIA, "You're working for the enemy." Here's the trick of ALIAS's double agent premise, and one some audiences found confusing. Abrams has a LOT to lay out here, but it helps that it's doled out in pieces. Took 45 min to get here. Set up she's a spy, set up mission, THEN reveal "Oh by the way, they're bad guys."

Sydney goes to Will, borrows his sister's passport, dyes her hair bright red like the sister, figuring that's enough to fool airline. (This was pre-9/11. it probably would have worked.) But she's gone rogue, and basically, she's gonna do the mission Dixon came to get her for.

I don't need to go through all the steps of the spy mission, do I? Note that we KNOW she gets caught here, thanks to the hair detail.

We're back at the torture again. Sydney plays at being broken, fights back in a scene that shows her resoursefulness. Another action scene....gotta make sure the audience knows they're getting a mini-spy movie a week here. Make a long story less long, she completes mission, gets the device and delivers it to Sloane at SD-6, seemingly not even changing outfits. This is part of the buy-in. We have to believe that Sloane would trust her. We also KNOW she's gonna kill him first chance she gets.

And still more of the premise to unfurl. Sydney goes to the REAL CIA. Michael Vaughn takes her statement. She wants to be a double-agent. He mentions "another double agent in SD-6." In a subsequent scene, we see who that is: Jack. He visits her to tell her she's in.

AND now it's clear that we're seeing more than just a double-agent spy show... it's got a father/daughter relationship at its core. They've been estranged for years and now they'll have to work together to bring down this massive spy agency. THAT is a mission statement. You can't just say: "We're doing an action show." They're gonna ask, "What makes this different? Why do we care?"

And with that, we're done. (and I forgot this pilot was over an hour long! Feels almost like cheating.)

Series objectives:
- Sydney and Jack bring down SD-6
- Personal because Syd wants revenge
- Personal because father/daughter

Secret identity issues:
-her friends (barely used here) don't know about her double life.
-Rest of SD-6 cast doesn't know they're bad guys

See all the tension? See all the elements that can drive story week to week? the stuff that makes this more than James Bond with a girl?

Note that the focus is HEAVILY on Sydney. Not only is it not an ensemble but the supporting characters are what I call "placeholder parts." Most of them are fairly undeveloped. Just enough to establish that world.

Vaughn is practically an extra. He's just "CIA guy" in two scenes. We know nothing about him other than he has a girlfriend. But the CIA stuff is part of the premise, so it NEEDS to be in the pilot somehow. Same with Francie and Will. Syd needs "civilians." Secret ID tension is an ongoing element. But most her "normal" life time in the pilot is taken up by the Danny stuff. So they're cameos.

(Sidebar: I never much liked Will and Francie much. Will's just "platonic friend with a crush" in the pilot and Francie's the "annoying roommate.")

The most developed character after Sydney is her dad Jack and her evil boss Sloane: Good Dad and Bad Dad. That's the tension of the pilot and series.

Takeaway: you can't service EVERYTHING in a plot, so feature the important stuff and at least plant flags on the other key concepts.

Monday, April 16, 2018

A salute to Superman writer/artist Dan Jurgens as ACTION COMICS hits 1000 issues this week!


I just want to allow a moment for this to sink in. ACTION COMICS, the comic book that began its run in June 1938 with Superman's first appearance, this week releases its one-thousandth issue. It's a staggering milestone in comic book history. That it more or less coincides with Superman's 80th birthday is also something to celebrate.

I've written many times before about my history with Superman comics, so I'm sure some of this will be familiar to longtime readers. The Superman milestone is a bit bittersweet for me because this issue also will mark the FINAL appearance from writer/artist Dan Jurgens in the regular Superman titles, at least for the foreseeable future. His run (and the run of his SUPERMAN collaborators, Patrick Gleason and Peter Tomasi) comes to an end as Brian Michael Bendis prepares to shepherd both Superman titles.

Dan took over writing ACTION COMICS about two years ago, with the launch of the REBIRTH line in ACTION 957. I'll talk a little more about this run later, but it's perhaps my favorite handling of the character in the last 10 years or so. And yet, it's not even Dan's most notable success with the character. When he leaves this world, I'd be shocked if the first line of Dan's obituary doesn't refer to him somehow as "the man who killed Superman" in one of the biggest selling comic books of all-time.

There's an interesting synchronicity between Dan's time with the character and my own buying habits. I can't remember a time when I WASN'T a Superman fan, but when I was very young, it wasn't like I was able to buy the comics every week. When I was six, my aunt got me the then-current relaunch of Superman by John Byrne in the six-issue MAN OF STEEL miniseries. Then over the next few years, I'd buy Superman comics from the local book store whenever my parents could be talked into it.

There was a particular story that made me a permanent reader and got my parents to take me to the comic store for regular trips. In SUPERMAN 28, the Man of Steel exiled himself to outer space, in a soul-searching story that lasted about six months. To a nine year-old, this was EPIC stuff and I had to get each chapter as it unfolded. The third part of the story, SUPERMAN 29, was written by and featured the art of... Dan Jurgens. Within a few months, Dan was drawing the ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN title and eventually took over writing it too.

So in a weird way, my regular association with Superman comics lines up almost exactly with Dan's. His art quickly became my favorite among the book. (I have to note that he's in a virtual tie with Jerry Ordway for the title of my all-time favorite Superman artist, and that at least two of my other favorites, Bob McLeod and George Perez also were on the books during this time.)

My Golden Age of Superman extends from about 1989 to 1994, more or less from the EXILE to the ZERO HOUR storyline, and Dan's work was essential to that. This was the period that included the Death and Return of Superman storylines, as well as PANIC IN THE SKY, KRISIS OF THE KRIMSON KRYPTONITE, and DAY OF THE KRYPTON MAN. All of them are landmark stories and were huge influences on my view of the character, but there are a number of wonderful standalone stories mixed in there - and a good chunk of them are Dan Jurgens's tales. recently complied a list of "essential" Dan Jurgens Superman stories, and just about all of these would make my list too. I love just about all the mega-storylines from this era, that crossed through the three, and later four, Superman books. Aside from those, I always had some affection for the really good single-issue tales that the creators would get to do between those stories. Off the top of my head, my favorites include:

Metropolis Mailbag: a concept introduced in SUPERMAN 64 is that once a year on Christmas, Superman reads his fan mail and does what he can to help those in need. It's an emotional little holiday tale that shows us the small kindnesses that Superman can accomplish with his powers, as well as reminds us that even he has his limits in what he can do for people. There's a humanity to this era of Superman and stories like this are a major reason why. A year later in SUPERMAN 76, we saw the entire DC community of heroes pulling together to answer Superman's mail, as this holiday fell during the period where Superman was dead.

Homeless for the Holidays: In ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN 462, Clark Kent learns that a co-worker has fallen on hard times, and with the help of Perry White and the staff of the Daily Planet, gives her a Merry Christmas and a new home.

Face to Face with Yesterday: ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN 474 - Another holiday tale, this one centered on a sin from young Clark Kent's past. A high school classmate of his has been comatose since a drunk driving accident senior year. On the night his parents are finally pulling the plug, Clark Kent pays his first visit there in a long time, and grapples with his guilt over not doing more that fateful night.

(This issue is also notable because it was the first issue with a price hike. Most of DC's other books had jumped from 75 cents to a full dollar nearly a year earlier. The Superman books held on the longest, but felt the price hike with this issue. Dan actually wrote a letter to the fans via the issue's letter column, saying he knew this wouldn't be popular with readers and relayed his own tale of pricing woe. When he was a boy, ACTION COMICS jumped from 12 cents to 15 cents, which meant he could only afford two of the three issues he intended to buy on this particular trip to the drug store. The cashier took pity on him that day, and gave him the issues at the lower price. I remember thinking what a nice gesture it was on Dan's part to basically take the time to say to the fans, "Yeah, I've been there too" and over something ultimately so minor that no one would have thought less if he DIDN'T say anything.)

SUPERMAN 131: one of the epic Lex Luthor stories. Having kept Superman occupied with a minor crisis, Lex settles two old grudges at once by having the Mayor assassinated and hiring (and later betraying and murdering) his hated foster father to do the deed. Oh, and he becomes a father and has his wife put into a medically induced coma while all of this is going on. It's Lex Luthor at his most evil.

LOIS & CLARK: an 8-part storyline that puts some pieces into place for REBIRTH. Clark and Lois are in hiding, enjoying a quiet life on an Earth different from the one where they lived their entire lives. But they can't stay out of trouble forever, and the stakes are higher now that they've got a 10 year-old son name Jon who doesn't know his father was once one of Earth's greatest Superheroes.

The dynamic of Superman and Lois having a young son became one of the corner stones of REBIRTH. I gushed about this storyline soon after it started, and almost two years later, I can attest that the storytelling in both Superman books felt fresh, emotional and were the kinds of Superman stories that I hope are told for years to come.

At WonderCon, Jurgens mentioned that making Superman a father ensured that he'd have plenty of fresh ground to explore with the character and Lois. Superman has matured, and Dan pointed out that during his first run on the character, they would make the character a bit more reactive than he'd been before. (As he put it, "Our Superman would get angry" rather than always being totally chill.) I like the paternal side of Superman getting showcased again, as during the Curt Swan era, he definitely felt like a "dad," an older sort of soul than the portrayal in the Christopher Reeve movies.

I bring up Curt Swan for another reason - he's the only person to have drawn more Superman stories than Dan. Curt's regular run on Superman comics lasted about thirty years or so, and then even after MAN OF STEEL brought an end to it, he'd often be back for special projects and fill-ins right up until his death in 1996. He easily has drawn more stories than Dan, but once you get past those two, whoever's in third place would have to be FAR behind Jurgens.

If you tally the total number of Superman stories Dan has been involved in, I understand it's just over 230 issues, but that includes a substantial number where he was writing without drawing. For many readers like me, Dan Jurgens is the definitive Superman artist, and not just because he wrote and drew Superman 75, where he got to kill him. (Dan also got to do the honors in 1996 when Clark Kent finally married Lois Lane.)

For this reason above all others, his capacity for amazing Superman art, I had to buy a Superman sketch from him when I had the chance a few years ago. I've met Dan in person about four or five times now, and it's always been a pleasure. He's truly one of the kindest people you could meet at a comic convention, and always seems happy to engage the fans.

I mentioned before that my regular run reading the character began almost exactly when Dan started writing and drawing him. Dan left the book in late 1999, after over ten years with the character. I stayed a bit longer. That particular incarnation of Superman continued more or less until the FLASHPOINT storyline in 2011.  This storyline prompted a line-wide reboot of ALL DC continuity, called The New 52, meaning that from September 2011 going forward, all of Superman history had a clean slate.

As a long-time fan I was bummed, but I decided to give it six months to see if I liked what the new teams were doing. I figured out pretty quickly the new approach wasn't to my tastes, but with the seventh issue, DC announced a "new" Superman artist... Dan Jurgens. That was enough to get me to stick around for Dan's run, which ended up being only six months. When he left a year into the New 52, I left too. There was something poetic - I came in with Dan Jurgens... and I left with him.

(If this sounds familiar, you probably read me talking about it here and here, when I walked away from the books for what I assumed was permanent.)

Of course, that meant that when Dan came BACK, I was probably obligated to follow suit. And I did. I check out his LOIS & CLARK out of curiosity, as the Superman and Lois featured in that book weren't the New 52 versions, but "my" versions that I grew up reading. Other than that, didn't buy many new comics for almost four years. I'd kicked the habit and accepted that the current Superman comics weren't for me. I saw no reason to get back into them.

Then DC made probably the ONE announcement that would change that: Dan Jurgens was taking over ACTION COMICS, and it would be starring the Superman and Lois from LOIS & CLARK, along with their super-powered son.

Every time I think I'm out...

And now that run is coming to an end, and in bittersweet fashion, it ends even as it feels like there are tons of stories that Dan has left to tell. Though he was coordinating his vision of Superman with the creative team on the SUPERMAN title, this was the first time that Dan truly had full control over the storylines he was telling. His last run on the books was when there were four monthly titles that fed into and out of each other. It was an amazing feat of collaboration, and Dan worked with some great talents writing the other books, such as Jerry Ordway, Roger Stern, Louise Simonson, and Karl Kesel. Reading the last two years of ACTION, I really got a sense of how Jurgens was able to really take ownership of his plotlines rather than being part of a four-book relay race.

I feel like I've grown up with Superman in more ways than one. The EXILE story found him adrift, trying to figure out who he was. He came out of that more matured and over the years he revealed his secret to Lois Lane and proposed, he died and came back, he married the woman he loved, watched friends and parents die, and became a father. He's matured and become more thoughtful, perhaps even wiser as he became paternal. I like the depth that's given him.

Because of these elements, the REBIRTH storyline is unique among Superman runs. Gleason & Tomasi have also gotten to play in that sandbox, but it's Dan Jurgens who truly got things rolling when he introduced Jon Kent in LOIS & CLARK. It launched a Superman era that couldn't be anything but different from what came before. Assuming these changes endure (and I really hope Bendis doesn't eliminate them), Jurgens can still be proud that he was the first person to break that ground with Superman. How many people are lucky to have TWO iconic runs with the same legendary character?

I last saw Dan a few weeks ago at WonderCon, where he was generous enough to fit me on his busy sketch list and then went above and beyond on my request. This was a riff on a crossover from 1996 called DC VS. MARVEL. The two companies teamed up for a miniseries that pitted the heroes of both universes against each other, with the outcomes of five of the fights determined by fan votes. In a massive injustice unmatched by any electoral shenanigans since, the fans voted that Storm should be Wonder Woman in battle. (See that fight here.) Dan was one of the artists on that miniseries and ended up drawing the Wonder Woman/Storm fight. That made my sketch request pretty easy to come up with...

It may have taken 20 years, but the Amazing Amazon is at last avenged, and we now have the outcome of the battle, the way it should have gone and drawn by the man responsible for the original work. Dan went above and beyond what I expected the result to be and this might be one of my favorite comics-related possessions of all time. To my knowledge, this is the only time he's been asked to do this particular request.

Dan, thank you for 30 years of great Superman stories with more to come. Thank you for all those books I read again and again as a boy, to the point where entire runs are pretty much memorized in my head, down to some of the smallest details of the panels. So many of those stories meant everything to me as a kid, and when I'm fortunate enough to see your art on new Superman tales, I'm always transported back to those days.

Thank you for showing us there's no end to the kind of stories that can be told with a Superman who represents the best in all of us. And thank you for underlining that humanity in him by making Superman a loving husband and a wonderful parent. It's nice to have Superman stories that achieve depth while still being appropriate for the youngest readers, just like the tales of the era I grew up with.

Like Curt Swan, I think you'll end up associated with this character up until your last days on Earth. You clearly have more stories to tell and I can't imagine I've read my final Dan Jurgens Superman adventure. But the end of this chapter deserves to be commemorated and of everyone contributing to Wednesday's ACTION COMICS 1000, it feels most right that you're there. Congrats!

Oh, and happy birthday to you too, Superman. Here's to 1000 more! If the villainous Word Bringer actually exists, maybe I can be there as a brain in a jar for ACTION 2000!

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Rey's parents and why fetishizing pre-planning is a dumb argument

This is an expanded version of a Twitter-thread I wrote last week.

I keep seeing this article, "J.J. Abrams Initial Plan for Rey's Parentage Was Very Different Than What We Saw in 'The Last Jedi'" used as ammo in the great The Last Jedi debate, as if it invalidates what Rian Johnson did.

This annoys me because it completely misunderstands the development process. In 1980, you could have written a similar article headlined "Darth Vader wasn't originally Luke's father!" And it's true. STAR WARS wasn't written that way. There are even drafts of EMPIRE that explicitly make them two different people. That's where George landed. And the fact he didn't intend it from the start does not invalidate where he ended up.

In the first 12 or so drafts of THE SIXTH SENSE, Bruce Willis's character is alive.

Do not fetishize pre-planning. The journey matters less than the destination.

This is putting aside the fact Pegg is a second-hand source and we have Johnson himself and Daisy Ridley both saying that where Rian landed on Rey's parents was the same notion that JJ himself ultimately had! Quoting directly from Rolling Stone:

Unlike almost everyone else in the world, Ridley has known for years who Rey's parents are, since Abrams told her on the set of The Force Awakens. Ridley believes that nothing ever changed: "I thought what I was told in the beginning is what it is." Which is odd, because Johnson insists he had free rein to come up with any answer he wanted to the question. "I wasn't given any directive as to what that had to be," he says. "I was never given the information that she is this or she is that."

Master Plans are overrated. What makes it to screen is what counts. I've said this before, but ages ago, people tried to sell me on BABYLON 5 as superior to DS9 because "He had it all planned out from the start!" Sometimes the best ideas happen late in the process.

When you write, have a plan, but always, ALWAYS adapt to better ideas as they come along. Indy shooting a swordsman wasn't the plan, but it's a BETTER idea than an elaborate whip-and-blade fight.

Also, sometimes "evidence" that something was planned from the start can just be a smart writer picking up a throwaway detail and giving it resonance later. DS9 is full of these kinds of things, particularly an arc that emerges in season 3.

More recently, I praised a couple details in 13 Reasons Why (details unique to the show) as being subtle plants for later stuff, but that all could easily have been a smart writer remembering what had been done before. After I posted this tweet storm, BREAKING BAD and BETTER CALL SAUL writer Gennifer Huchison weighed in, noting that this sort of thing happened often on their show.

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Shonda Rhimes's MasterClass series is a thorough look inside the brain of a prolific showrunner

(Note: This post contains affiliate links and I will be compensated if you make a purchase after clicking on my links.)

I've reached the point where I feel very confidant that all of the Masterclass programs will meet a certain standard of quality. I've reviewed four previous classes and though they all have different relative merits, in one way or another, my verdict was that all of them would be worth the $90 class fee, at least to the audience at which it's targeted.

I can't claim to be a superfan of Rhimes's catalog. I watched about a season or two of Grey's Anatomy when it first premiered, and I might have seen an episode or two of her other series over the years, but I'm hardly an encyclopedia for those shows storylines, or on Rhimes herself. I only say this as a disclaimer in case some of the anecdotes Rhimes relays here prove to be incredibly familiar to the superfan who's studied every interview of hers, and listened intently to every director's commentary.

What you get for your $90 is over six hours of videos hosted by Rhimes. As you'll recall from my earlier reviews, the better MasterClasses split their focus between lecture videos where the subject directly speaks into the camera, and some sort of workshop where the instructor gets to apply their knowledge in a practical way. The best of these were the videos of Ron Howard demonstrating how he blocks and shoots a scene while directing actors. Rhimes's class doesn't having anything quite that unique and captivating to watch, regrettably. For a series of videos she brings in some people (I'm not quiet clear if they're all aspiring writers or if they're just fans) for a series of videos where she breaks down some of her episodes act-by-act.

Let's tackle the lecture videos first. As is common, these are the meat-and-potatoes portion of the course. She lays out some of the basics of writing for TV. Sometimes these can feel perfunctory, with a Writing 101 air about them. Certainly the videos discussing "Finding an Idea" and "Researching Your Story" can come across that way. The strength of Rhimes's course is that she finds a way to make it all personal to her experience. When she talks about "Developing the Concept" she relates it back to the conception of Grey's Anatomy.

Even better - she supplies the series bible for Grey's Anatomy! It's a 19-page document that introduces the characters and their relationships to each other and has one page descriptions of each of the first 12 episodes. I wish I had interesting trivia for you about how these early ideas later diverged by the time that everything made it to screen, but I simply don't remember season 1 well enough to call out these things.

We also get the original 10-page pitch document for the series and an early version of the pilot script. It's rare for actual documents like this to be available to aspiring writers and they make great supplements to the rather long segments as Shonda takes us through her process of developing a pilot. Two full segments are spent just on developing characters, and it's a theme that the lectures return to time and again.

Rhimes says, "I cannot abide a pitch that comes into my room that is simply about plot." She says that she can't make sense of a story until she knows how it impacts the characters. That's her process and she makes a strong argument for why character should always be front and center.

That doesn't mean that she neglects structure and plot, and so another set of videos first sets up the structure of a one-hour network drama and then Rhimes spends about a half-hour breaking the Grey's Anatomy pilot down act-by-act. I briefly feared this would be little more than what you would get with an audio commentary on the episode but it's SO much more. It's entirely focused on the writing, with advice like, "Pick a character that can act as a guide for the audience." She also advises you ground your story choices in character because the audience lets you get away with a lot if it's based in character.

The Scandal pilot gets similar treatment across five videos, each one breaking down an act. That whole process takes about an hour and fifteen minutes. It is possibly the closest you can get to actually being inside a writer's head as they make the choices that define their series and script. These are the segments where she has other people with her, and though they don't ask a great many questions (or particularly insightful ones), it feels like their presence helps by giving Rhimes someone to talk to aside from the camera.

And then a final batch of videos focuses on the nitty gritty of showrunning. Shonda talks about the way a writers room works, what it's like to oversee production, and generally what it's like being a writer trying to handle all of these responsibilities.

I think I found Aaron Sorkin's class more entertaining, particularly when he drafted writing students to be surrogate staff writers and then broke down their work - but I feel like no one beats Shonda's class for pure information download. At basically $15 an hour, this is a solid writing resource.

I don't often delve into the workbooks for these courses, mostly because I've almost always been racing to get the videos watched in a timely fashion so I can write these reviews. Every video has a relevant assignment, and you can see a sample assignment below:

Choose one of the ideas from the list you created in Chapter 3. Begin to develop it into a fully fleshed out show premise. Who are the characters at the heart of your story? What is their journey? What is the best episode structure to effectively tell their stories? Begin to write the story bible for your show, using Shonda’s bible for Grey’s Anatomy as a template and guide. Write a page describing your concept and create a character list. Sketch out initial episode ideas.

If you're rationing the videos out at a rate of a few a week, it's not unreasonable to complete these assignments. One of these days I really want to complete a course at a recommended speed, including completing all the assignments.

You can purchase Shonda Rhimes Teaches TV Writing here. It's $90 per class if you buy a class individually - BUT if you go for the All-Access Pass, you can access to their entire roster for $180/year. To help you decide if that's a better use of your money, I've reproduced their entire MasterClass roster below.

Prior MasterClass Reviews:
Aaron Sorkin's MasterClass on TV Writing (review)
David Mamet Teaches Dramatic Writing (review)
Ron Howard Teaches Directing (review)
Dustin Hoffman's MasterClass on Directing (review)

The full MasterClass roster:

Martin Scorsese teaches Filmmaking
Werner Herzog teaches Filmmaking
Shonda Rhimes teaches TV Writing
Aaron Sorkin's Masterclass on TV Writing
David Mamet teaches Dramatic Writing
Steve Martin teaches Comedy
Judy Blume teaches Writing
James Patterson teaches Writing

Samuel L. Jackson teaches Acting
Helen Mirren teaches Acting

Christina Aguilera's MasterClass 
deadmau5's MasterClass 
Herbie Hancock teaches Jazz
Hans Zimmer teaches Film Scoring
Reba McEntire teaches Country Music
Usher teaches Performance

Stephen Curry teaches Basketball
Serena Williams teaches Tennis
Garry Kasparov teaches Chess

Wolfgang Puck teaches Cooking
Gordon Ramsay teaches Cooking.
Thomas Keller teaches Cooking

Jane Goodall teaches Conservation
Marc Jacobs teaches Fashion Design
Annie Leibovitz teaches Photography

Monday, April 9, 2018

Transitions and emotional identification in the fifth episode of 13 REASONS WHY

I'm going to try to start doing something I probably should have been doing more of. When I get off on a nice tweet-storm, I should post it here, reformatted as a blog post. It takes basically the same effort and I find I prefer having something archived here than having to search through thousands of tweets.

I'm in the middle of attempting to write a spec episode of 13 Reasons Why, so I'm revisiting a few episodes to study the style and technique again. (Also, I'm incredibly impatient for season 2, so going back to the better episodes is basically serving as my methadone.)

This discussion of the 5th episode of season 1 of 13 Reasons Why ("Tape 3, Side A") is from a tweetstorm I wrote on Saturday. You can find the original thread here. I've done some editing and expounded on a few thoughts here.

I was rewatching the 5th ep (school dance/Courtney's tape) of 13 Reasons Why last night and saw a few storytelling/transition/structure things worth discussing.  The episode was written by Julia Bicknell (only writing credit of hers I can find) and directed by Kyle Patrick Alvarez. Alvarez also directed the heartbreaking finale of Season 1, and the truly terrifying film THE STANFORD PRISON EXPERIMENT.

This is (I believe) the first ep where Clay has already heard the whole tape before the start of the ep. Usually Hannah's narration plays while we see him listening on headphones. Not this time. It means his actions the entire ep aren't of discovery, but of reaction. Not insignificantly, this is the first time that the severe actions on the tape strongly intersect with Clay's history. His past interactions with Hannah are usually asides. Here, they take center stage and it ups the emotional stakes.

This is ALSO the first time that it's implied the flashbacks we see are the memories of other characters too. The tapes aren't our only bridge there. Courtney flashes back to an earlier lunch with Hannah, and when Hannah's dad looks at her corsage, it triggers another memory. It helps spread the emotional identification around. It's not just Clay getting kicked in the gut by these memories, it's everyone around Hannah. It helps to make the ep an emotional pressure cooker so that we're ready for the release that comes at the end.

Also, after 4 eps where the flashbacks are about "This is what this means to Hannah" it's nice to see everyone else's stakes in those memories: what they knew, what they didn't know, and what they probably regret. It seems like a tiny detail, but it's huge. Quite rightly, the show has put most of its energy on getting us to identify with Clay and his grief, and only the pain of Hannah's parents has really been explored aside from that. Making this episode a flashback from at least four characters' interactions (Clay, Hannah, Courtney and Hannah's father) helps drive home one of the show's running themes about how connected everyone is and how much their actions affect others.

But ultimately, this is Clay's ep to shine. Because this flashback means something to him, it's knife-twisting to realize how devastating it must be to relive that moment at the school dance. It's a cute "I want to kiss her but I'm too scared to make a move" flashback on its own....

...but when you add it to everything else, he has regret of, "Why DIDN'T I do it? How could what I was scared of be worse than this?"

There's an end speech that Dylan Minnette acts the hell out of where he talks about never getting to dance with her again, and you feel his pain:

"When I listen to the tapes I want to see her in school tomorrow. I want to eat Mike and Ikes out of the box with her at the Crestmont. I want to dance with her again, and kiss her when I should have kissed her.

"But I can't."

When I posted this as a Twitter thread, the director of the episode responded with a few thoughts:

I mentioned to Kyle that on subsequent viewings, after we've actually watched Hannah die, it has the effect of putting us more in the emotional space where Clay is at this point. I did a lousy job of explaining this on Twitter, but at this point in the show, we still have eight episodes worth of Hannah's life to learn about. Even though she's dead to us in the present, she's still "alive" in the past in a way. Once we've reached her suicide, we've see it all. And we know what Clay knows.

So when we revisit these episodes, her loss somehow feels more real. There's nothing left of her and when Clay takes Courtney to her grave, we're HYPER-aware that the girl we watched die painfully is in a box below the ground. It feels very unsettling to be there, like it's almost wrong to intrude on that space.

If you've only watched this episode once, go back and revisit it after you've seen Hannah's suicide. I'm curious if you end up with the same reaction as me.

Also, this tangentially relates to a point I made last year in my 13-part series on the show. In the final segment I discussed the news that Hannah would continue to appear via flashbacks in season 2:

"I hope that when she turns up in Season 2, Hannah's used sparingly. There's real power in that character's reappearance. We shouldn't see Langford on-screen again unless the story demands that specific emotional sucker punch. It needs to mean something to revisit Hannah, and the worst thing the show could do would be to use her in a scene where she's merely a continuity checkpoint. Even though flashbacks are going to take us to other pivotal moments in the characters' lives, I feel Hannah can easily be kept an off-screen presence."

The way we experienced Hannah's life gives her future use an enormous amount of emotional power. Let's hope it's used properly.

Also, what happens to Hannah is this ep is a strong structural turning point because it pulls together the wrongs of the previous four ep and basically turns them into a snowball of pain that escalates everything that goes very bad. The picture out of context that led to the rumor she went to third base with Justin, the "hot list" that named her "Best Ass" and only further objectified her, the out-of-context picture of her kissing Courtney, which further fed rumors of her promiscuity - it all gets tided together here when Courtney uses them as a shield to deflect people who think there's something going on between her and Hannah. Basically she throws Hannah under the bus to save herself.

So the episode accomplishes two things: accelerates Hannah's descent, and more directly involves Clay in that downward spiral. The weight of that devastates present-Clay and sets him on the unstable path he continues for several episodes. Clay's not only dealing with the regret over his inaction towards Hannah on a romantic level, but he has to be thinking that he failed her in a more basic emotional support capacity as well. That guilt, and the desire to do something about, becomes what drives Clay for the rest of the season.

It's a lot of PLOT, but because of the way the show transitions between the past and present so effectively, and uses the emotions of the other characters to evoke our own, it makes us FEEL as its drawing all these threads together.

Lesson is: story works best when you don't divorce plot from emotion. Find every technique you can to get the audience to identify emotionally with the characters and you've got gold.

Tuesday, April 3, 2018

Ready Player One: Unpacking the weird 80s obsessions of the Oasis

In READY PLAYER ONE, a weird thing about the Oasis is the preponderance of 80s-era pop culture. I can accept that apparently at some point, culture stagnated and so everyone's left with reheated reminders of the past, but it's weird that things are so heavily 80s and so heavily geek culture on top of that. Where are the musical theater nerds? The Shakespeare buffs? The Ren fair weirdos for that matter? I know we get a couple cameos that scrape the 90s and a bit before the 80s but it stands out that everything is all the "acceptably cool" (and as someone pointed out to me, "Male-coded") culture of the 80s.

Growing up, I got pretty into oldies, but because everything I learned came from oldies radio, not only was I mostly exposed to the hits - I didn't have any window into which hits came from "lame" bands back then. From my father's reaction when I put "Build Me Up Buttercup" on an oldies mix CD, I intuited this was NOT a cool song back in the day. The same thing also divorced The Monkees from their stigma as a novelty band ("Daydream Believer is a great song, shut up) and someone rescues The Dave Clark 5 from being seen as also-rans to the Beatles.

My point is, in 2045, people who didn't live through 80s culture should have an entirely different relationship with it. What if Wade rocked out to Tiffany because he liked the beat of "I Think We're Alone Now?" Maybe he thinks ISHTAR is an incredible comedy, or that ROBIN HOOD: MEN IN TIGHTS represents Mel Brooks at his best. Or hell, what if he thinks THE GOONIES is a fucking annoying movie to watch because of all the screaming kids? The best material will always endure, but other stuff is bound to slip through the cracks and be reevaluated too. I might have found it easier to see so much geek culture thrive in this future if it had been portrayed in a way that felt distinctly different from the nostalgic eyes of someone who grew up in the 80s.

I brought this point up on Twitter and a dozen or so people explained to me that Halliday was obsessed with the 80s and so people became obsessed with 80s culture because they were convinced that was the key to winning the hunt in the Oasis, with the result being that 80s culture became the dominant culture. I think that's a really simplistic way to present a culture, the sort of thing that would only fly in the original STAR TREK, where cultural contamination would lead to an entire planet of 1930s mobsters. More relevantly, this is not how the movie presents things at all.

In fact, 80s culture turns out to not be the main way to thrive on the quest. Wade solves the first challenge by decoding a bit of Riddler-like wordplay from Halliday. Then Art3mis figures out the first step of the second riddle in a similar way, with the solution to the second task being accomplished more through a knowledge of Halliday's past than 80s film simulation they find themselves in.

The third task absolutely rests on 80s geek trivia, I'll give you that.

But in the world of the challenge, no one's beaten the first challenge after five years, so there's not a compelling pointer that would make people assume that engaging the 80s would provide any better solution than studying Halliday. There's some effort made to have the puzzle be about learning from Halliday's regrets and that's kind of neat even if only one (don't be too shy to kiss the girl) seems directly relevant to Wade's life.

Also, if I conceded the point of those who I cite the book, I'd retort by pointing out that the Oasis was already an obsession even before Halliday's scavenger hunt. People were addicted to it before 80s culture became the thing to study, and presumably that's because there were no limits to what one could do there. Given that, is it credible that people would cast aside those obsessions to take on a new one, especially if their goal is just to preserve the thing that fed their original obsessions?

I think the movie dodges a lot of this by showing us little of the real world and by focusing mostly on characters who might have adopted some 80s geekdom along the way. Still, I would have loved to have seen a slightly broader diversity within the oasis. Turns out that limitless imagination looks a lot like the Exhibit Hall of Comic-Con.

Monday, April 2, 2018

READY PLAYER ONE might have thrived more with stronger world-building and a different lead character

So. READY PLAYER ONE. This is going to be an interesting review. I didn't hate the movie, but I'm pretty sure I didn't love it either. And as I start this examination, I'm left with so much that I want to unpack that I can already feel this coming off more negative than I intend.

Let's get this out of the way - I've never read the book by Ernie Cline, who co-wrote the script with Zak Penn. I saw a few excerpts tossed around online with entire paragraphs that were more of a word salad of pop culture references than Dennis Miller having a stroke during a taping of Mystery Science Theatre 3000 that was mocking a Kevin Williamson movie.  Lest you think that colored my opinion against the film, if there's one thing Spielberg excels at is making awesome movies out of shitty books.

(Yes, yes... he couldn't save THE LOST WORLD, but I'm not sure if anyone could have.)

It is the year 2045. We're in a vaguely-defined dystopia, mostly expressed by trailer parks built vertically. The point is, life sucks and so these economically destitute people escape their lives with expensive-looking VR gear that provides access to The Oasis - a sort of virtual reality cyberspace that's "limited only by your imagination." The denizens of 2045 must be a particularly unimaginative bunch because our tour is mostly limited to seeing people navigate the world in the skins of their favorite pop culture characters. The world-building is mostly limited to seeing the characters run races or go clubbing, leaving impression that the film could have worked harder to make this place limitlessly imaginative.

The hook - When the creator of The Oasis, James Halliday died, he left instructions for a scavenger hunt of sorts in the Oasis. The first one to solve the riddles and obstacles that lead to three keys will get complete control of the Oasis. In this five years since this particular starting gun has been fired, no one's made any real progress. An evil corporation, IOI, has devoted a great deal of resources and manpower to being the first to do this, with designs on polluting the virtual world with pop-up ads that would pollute 80% of the user's field of vision.

The good news is that Halliday superfan and all around blandly-inoffensive geek Wade Watts is also on the hunt. He's the first to solve a riddle and get the first key, and he's soon joined by Art3mis, a female player of some notoriety with whom Wade is smitten. Of course, during their first few encounters, he only knows her avatar and his interest in her eventually makes Art3mis uncomfortable.

One of the most interesting lines in the film belongs to Art3mis, in a scene where she reminds Wade that she doesn't look like her avatar and that he's not seeing the real her. In the Oasis, she only allows him to "see the parts of me I want you to see." That right there is a perfect metaphor for life online. It's the futuristic version of Instagram FOMO, where people see the curated images their friends post and get depressed that their lives aren't living up to it. (OR when depressed people only post the good images and everyone around them assumes their life is perfect.)

There's an entirely under-explored concept about how the Oasis gives people the freedom to be what they want to be by creating their own avatars. There's a version of this movie that could really sink its teeth into themes of identity and what it means to have the total freedom to escape into fantasy. We get a fleeting glimpse of this when the face behind the macho and muscular Aech avatar turns out to be a black woman named Helen. (She's played by Lena Waithe, who is WAY underutilized here, regrettably.)

I try to stick to criticizing the film I'm presented with and not the film I wanted to see, but it's frustrating to see the film walk RIGHT UP to a really compelling idea and then veer off at the last second. Especially when it writes a check that it fails to cash later.

Remember how Art3mis warns Wade that if he saw the real her, he wouldn't be in love with her? Well, when he meets her face to face, she's played by Olivia Cooke, who... fun fact... is probably FAR prettier in real life than as her Oasis avatar. So to compensate for this, they give her a red blotch of a birthmark that covers her right eye. She tends to cover it with her hair, which only makes me wish her in-Oasis avatar had been Veronica Lake.

That bit of silliness aside, Olivia Cooke is probably the one of the better reasons to see this film. Though she was often under-utilized on BATES MOTEL, her breakout performance was in ME AND EARL AND THE DYING GIRL, in which she played the "Dying Girl." Between those two roles, she displayed a talent for playing characters who present as fragile, but prove to have deep strength and conviction. I'm not sure the script really sold me on Art3mis's love for Wade, but Cooke generates enough chemistry with co-star Tye Sheridan that it almost doesn't matter.

I couldn't help but feel that the more interesting film might have been told from Art3mis's point of view. While Wade is mostly into the scavenger hunt for the money and the escapism the Oasis offers, Art3mis has a much deeper motivation. She wants to keep the Oasis out of the corporate hands of IOI as a way of avenging her father. He fell deep into debt and then basically was forced to become an indentured slave to the corporation, who kept piling on fees and interest to ensure he never worked off that debt before he died. A lot of these concepts aren't introduced into the film until Olivia brings them up, leaving the feeling that something was cut that set all this up sooner.

But the point is that Art3mis is fighting for a cause, while Wade... really isn't, at least for a while. It's a little similar to how STAR WARS gives Leia an active motivation from the start, but Luke himself is aimless and has only a vaguely-defined desire to get off-planet until his aunt and uncle are killed. (Spoiler alert: there's a pretty heavy parallel to that here, one that almost certainly isn't accidental.)

Wade might deliberately be a blank slate so the audience can more easily identify with and project on to him, but he still feels half-formed. He's a bland blank slate, with little insight provided as to why these specific pop culture icons mean something to him. Yes, it's cool to drive the Delorean from BACK TO THE FUTURE, but why that? Why not KITT from Knight Rider or James Bond's Aston Martin? Wade was probably born around 2025, when BACK TO THE FUTURE was already 40 years old. What made that stand out to him amid a sea of films? Was it the setting in a simpler time? Does Marty's relationship with his parents press a few buttons for the orphaned Wade?

Tell me your fantasies and I can tell you who you are. The problem is that Wade's fandom is the most superficial kind of obsession. He's obsessed with Halliday because Halliday is the man who created the Oasis, but the heart of what the Oasis means to Wade is only broadly defined. What kinds of things did he do in the Oasis before beginning the hunt? Did he recreate his parents? Did he lose his virginity to a virtual Elle MacPhereson? Did he perform at Wembley Stadium with Queen?

Who is Wade Watts? Who is he without the Oasis? I don't think the movie really knows. He's not totally without merit - he proves his bravery in going to rescue Art3mis. His knowledge of trivia also unlocks the final challenge and then he passes a Willy Wonka-like test that proves his worthiness. (Which actually, means that there's a good chance one of the corporate goons wouldn't have ultimately won.)

A quest movie should ideally be a journey of self-discovery for the film's protagonist too. Let's look at Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, another Spielberg film. Spielberg has always described it as being a quest for the Grail, but in the end, the real Grail is Indy's relationship with his father. If it was just about finding the Grail, the story wouldn't have the resonance it does when Indy's father tells Indy to "let go" of his obsession with the object and in doing so, let's go of his own obsession so that he can heal his relationship with his son. It's a resonance that's missing here. The film tries some slight of hand to make us THINK such a thing has happened, but falls short.

The movie wants us to come away with the sense Wade has grown as a person through his adventure. You can see the end points of the arc called out. He's gone from being a lone wolf to having a group. He's grown from spending every free minute in the Oasis to shutting it down two days a week to force people to live in the real world. By extension, he's realized that there are good things in life beyond the Oasis. If you're taking the Oasis as a metaphor for modern internet life, this isn't a bad rule to live by - "Get out and experience the real world."

But for the purposes of this film, the meaning falls flat because we know nothing about the real world of this film other than it sucks. In THE MATRIX, freeing everyone from the simulation is unequivocally a good thing because they've been enslaved by the machines and are being exploited against their will. Sure, the "real world" there sucks too, but they've been conquered. Defeating the machines is a big enough triumph that it overshadows the truth that what everyone awakens into is going to be pretty depressing.

 In READY PLAYER ONE, the big win is about preserving the Oasis, but then it also shifts into "experience the real world," which thematically doesn't track from anything in the film. It also doesn't help that the action that plays over Wade's voiceover about this is him and Art3mis making out in the real world. Her outfit seemed to be some kind of Japanese dress, with her hair curled into two buns that might have been an attempt at a Princess Leia hairstyle. Whatever it is, it has the air of being some kind of geek fetishization, which is pretty much the exact wrong note to hit at that point.

The film really needed to give us some sense of how shutting down the Oasis is going to be a net gain for society. All the benefits that we can infer only come from mentions made in passing. We're told early on that most people communicate in the Oasis only, as face to face contact has decreased. It's demonstrated more than once that Wade hasn't met his Oasis friends face-to-face, but then he also leaps pretty quick to wanting to meet Art3mis face-to-face, in a way that suggests such contact isn't entirely unheard of.

The Oasis connects people and it's always shown to be a good thing. There's a lot going on in the film, but it would have helped if they'd found a stronger way to underline "These people need to go outside more." Perhaps if the real world was less dystopian, the cyber-addiction metaphor would have been more potent.

Spielberg still can crank out an inventive action scene - even if he REALLY needs to put cinematographer Janusz Kaminski on bee-guarding duty for a movie or two so that we can get a Spielberg film that doesn't feel totally bleached of color. I liked it in MINORITY REPORT, but I've long since lost patience with Kaminski's brand of hazy, overlit cinematography. The Oasis should have been a colorful, beautiful Land of Oz - not a place that alternates between blinding light and dark shadows (the better with which to hide several pop culture cameos in silhouette.)

But for all the faults and questions I have, I didn't hate the film. It falls right between a thumbs-up and a thumbs-down. It'll likely land far outside of most viewers top Spielberg films, but that's a pretty high bar to scale. There are a fair number of moments that played well with an audience, but not enough moments that really connected us to the characters. If there's one thing that the best Spielberg films accomplish, it's vicariously experiencing a sense of awe and wonder through the characters. This film didn't make me feel about the Oasis that I did about Jurassic Park, but maybe I should take a lesson from the movie itself and not look to nostalgia for what I should be finding in life.