Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Looking back on the TV that shocked us collectively us reveals it really was the end of an era

As much as movie-going is supposed to be something of a shared experience, with a couple hundred people engaging with the same program at the same time, I've lately come to think that television is the true communal bonding experience while watching content. This is more anecdotal than scientific, but when I've discussed both movies and TV shows with people, it's more common to find their emotional bond is stronger to the TV experience than the film.

So because I enjoy turning my Twitter mentions into a mess for 24 hours at a time, last Monday I asked Twitter which pre-Twitter TV episodes or events would they have liked to have seen live-tweet reactions to the first time they aired. I figured it was a fun way to poll people on which TV moments made them lose their minds.



My personal pick was the end of the ER episode "Be Still My Heart," where Carter and Lucy are stabbed and left bleeding out in Curtain Area 3 while the rest of the staff parties outside, oblivious to their distress. It was a helluva cliffhanger for the following week. I was on Usenet when it first aired and I remember the ER newsgroup going nuts. This also kicked off a tradition of new members constantly asking "What was the song that played when Carter and Lucy got stabbed?" ("Battleflag.")


A lot of people responded that my moment would have been their pick too, recalling their own shock at the twist. There was a fair amount of appreciation for ER in general in the replies as many people also cited George Clooney's surprise cameo in Juliana Margulis's farewell episode, the moment where ER docs realize the patient hit by a train who they're trying to save is actually Omar Epps's character, med student Gant, Mark Greene's death, and the episode where Mark loses the pregnant woman.

Apparently I have a lot of ER fans who follow me. The fact that at its peak, the show was pulling in 30 million viewers a week might have something to do with it. Let me put this in perspective - last year's number one show was THE BIG BANG THEORY and it had just under 19 million viewers. Your average episode of NCIS pulls in 12 million viewers, and last season, THIS IS US averaged just over 11 million viewers.

Let's let that sink in, the "it drama" on TV has an audience of about 1/3 of ER's reach.

Some other frequently mentioned responses:
- Col. Blake's death on M*A*S*H
- the M*A*S*H finale
- Captain Picard assimilated by the Borg in the Season 3 cliffhanger
- Who Shot J.R?
- Who Shot Mr. Burns
- Seinfeld's "The Contest," which many people confoundingly remembered as "The Bet." Was this some kind of Mandela Effect?
- Lots of X-Files, particularly Scully's abduction, Mulder's abduction and Scully's pregnancy.
- Lots of Friends, especially Ross saying Rachel's name when he was marrying Emily and the finale.
- Will's breakdown over his father on The Fresh Prince of Bel Air.
- Alias's "Phase One," the Super Bowl episode that completely blew up the show. Sidney realizing she was missing two years was another frequent mention.
- Many Lost moments
- Dwayne crashing Whitley's wedding on A Different World.
- Joey/Pacey on Dawson's Creek.
- Melrose Place. Wig.
- Multiple Buffy and Angel moments, particularly Angel losing his soul and Buffy having to kill him. Her death and the musical were also brought up a lot.

Look at the shows mentioned there. With a few exceptions, those were Top 10 shows at a time when TV was pulling in a much larger audience. The result was that those big "WTF" moments were penetrating into the larger culture in a way that today's fractured viewing could never hope to achieve. Can you think of a single cliffhanger over the last couple years that had audiences as much on edge as "Who shot JR?" or the fate of the Enterprise against Locutus of Borg.

There was a fun sense of community in the replies. Someone would mention their dorm freaking out as Kimberly ripped off her wig to reveal a scar on MELROSE PLACE, prompting others to share their memories of watching the show live. They talked about how old they were, who they were with, who they had to talk to about it afterwards. It was a neat window into how so many of us had a shared point of reference, and then seeing how those experiences were the same or different from each other.

I tried to think about my biggest WTF television moments of the year and I honestly couldn't come up with anything that made any kind of comparable cultural impact. Three moments this season that genuinely stunned me were:

- From BARRY - the moment when Barry realizes his friend, his old army buddy, isn't going to be able to keep quite about their involvement in the deaths of some mobsters.

- From CHILLING ADVENTURES OF SABRINA - the outcome of "The Feast of Feasts," and I really feel like that's all I should say about it.

- From THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE - the ending of "The Bent-Neck Lady," where the true behind one of the hauntings snaps into grim, heart-breaking focus.

Of the three, the only one I felt any real community discussion about was THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE, and even that was pretty sparse compared to what any of the above examples generated. There are two main reasons for this - one is the aforementioned drop in viewership. The other factor is that the streaming model means that we're no longer all experiencing content at the same time.

In 2000, if you wanted to watch ER, then chances are you had your ass in front of the TV at 10pm Thursday night. When you went into work or school the next day, everyone had seen it. It was fresh on their minds and the shared "Holy shit! Did you see that?" was a real thing. We don't have that any more. Even if you're watching network TV when it airs, there's a good chance some people around you are waiting to binge it, or are at least time-shifting via DVRs.

That aspect is becoming obsolete and it makes me sad we might be at the tail end of an era when there was such a strong shared experience. There's no show on TV that will have quite as large an impact as an ER, or a SEINFELD. In fifteen years, if someone drops a reference to BARRY on Twitter, there's no way it can elicit the same kind of knowing responses that the 500 "I, Ross, take thee, Rachel..." replies I got did.

That doesn't mean that television can't touch the individual in a personal way. I think in the last two or three years I've seen several shows that hit me emotionally and personally as much as anything I watched in the era of ER. The fragmenting of the audience means that as shows become more unique  and specific, they are less broadly targeted. They appeal to niche tastes, which is how you end up with a show like AMERICAN VANDAL, that's as funny as THE SIMPSONS in its peak, but seen by a tiny pie slice of that audience.

Fifteen years from now, if someone were to ask the same question I did about shocking TV moments, how likely would the answer come back as "Who drew the dicks?" or "Who is the Turd Burgler?" The mega-hit TV show is gone and with it is our shared fury at moments like Ross insisting he and Rachel were on a break, our shared shock when Captain Picard became a Borg, our shared delight in seeing Mulder and Scully kiss.

The cultural touchstones are getting less broad, and until I got a day long demonstration of how so many people's formative TV passions overlapped, I don't think I appreciated what we're in the process of losing.

Monday, November 5, 2018

Steve Martin's MasterClass is as much a treasure as the man himself

(Note: this post contains affiliate links and I will be compensated if you make a purchase after using one of my links.)

I wasn't sure what I'd be getting when I started Steve Martin's Masterclass "Steve Martin Teaches Comedy." There's Steve the Comedian, who also appears as Steve the Host and Steve the Talk Show Guest - the guy whose comic persona often plays as sincere insincerity. Would his course work be expressed via irony laden monologues and dry anecdotes?

Or would it be Steve Martin the Serious Artist, who once upset an audience that came to a public interview about his novel because he was discussing the art world (the subject of said novel) and not telling jokes or talking about his career. The audience was apparently so bored that they demanded - and got - refunds.

I saw Mr. Steve Martin's play BRIGHT STAR when it was in previews in San Diego a few years ago, and it too was a largely serious script, the tension broken only intermittently with one-liners that carried Martin's familiar voice. Between that and having read a few of his books, I knew that he didn't always write in the comic voice for which he was best known. I had a brief thought that peeking behind the curtain of Steve's carefully crafted comic voice might be a bit like dissecting a frog - impossible to do without killing it.

With that risk and possibility of total boredom awaiting me, I started the class.

I loved it. This is Steve Martin at his most charming. Not once did I feel him talking down to his audience and it's clear he had put an immense amount of thought into what he was saying. If Mamet was the erudite professor who loved to hear himself talk and Apatow was the shoot-from-the-hip guy who tells you informally how it is, Martin is the platonic ideal in-between them. He's laser-focused and gets right to the heart of every topic. That efficiency means he makes his point effectively and is able to move on to a broader variety of topics.

You might have noticed the class is called "Steve Martin Teaches Comedy," Not "Steve Martin Teaches Stand-Up Comedy," "Steve Martin Teaches Comedy Screenwriting," or "Steve Martin Teaches Comedy Performance." That's because Mr. Steve Martin doesn't limit his focus to just one of those topics, but encompasses many forms of comedy, including the three I cited.

From the beginning, Steve lays out his philosophy, telling people in the introduction that he doesn't believe people need to have a particular gift to be funny. In fact, he later says, "I had no talent," when he was starting out. He believes he became funny through the hard work of learning what was funny, learning how one particular construction of words could elicit a laugh while a similar but different configuration was less effective.

Several of the early lessons focus on gathering material, discovering one's comedic voice and how they express themselves. He talks about building a comic persona and dovetails into how stand-up comedy writing should be more than just set-up/punchline.

One thing that really stood out to me was how he distinguished himself from his contemporaries. Steve began in stand-up in the 70s, in a very political time. There were hundreds of comedians doing political humor, so he went non-political at a very political time. "Rather than be at the tail end of an old movement, I was at the front end of the new movement," he says. Going that way defined his comic persona and helped him hone the kinds of jokes that fit that. A comedian's best jokes can only be delivered by that person, he seems to believe, and he demonstrates this when he asks the audience to imagine signature bits delivered by different iconic comedians.

And it seems obvious when pointed out, but how often do you find yourself thinking about comedy that way? This led me to imagine Rodney Dangerfield delivering a George Carlin monologue. It probably wouldn't have worked and once you start thinking about the reasons why, everything Steve says makes sense. It's not even that Steve uses the Masterclass to tell you how to be Steve Martin. He tells you the mechanics behind how Steve Martin was built and does it in a way that lets you apply that process to you.

There's a lot of great, practical advice in how you perform for the stage. Considering Steve is a master of timing, it was incredibly valuable to hear him deconstruct the rhythm of a bit and then show us a clip of that bit in action.

Here's a good example of how Steve's precision made me think about something that never would have crossed my mind. One of his pet peeves is a comedian who starts the act with "How are we all doing tonight?" Steve says, "You've blown one of the most important moments of your show, which is 'It's beginning and who are you and how you define yourself.' Second, you've asked the audience to participate... which is almost the worst thing that can happen unless you're highly skilled in dealing with that."

He then runs a clip of his early standup act. Steve takes to the stage with a banjo as the audience applauds. He milks the applause as if he's embarrassed by it, playing it over the top so that we get, "ah, it's a bit pompous." He playfully flips the audience the bird, says "Thank you! I'll take that." Then after quickly fiddling with a water bottle (I assume in parody of how other comedians would), he says, "We're gonna start the show in just a few minutes... just waiting for the drugs to kick in." And you go, "Ah! THAT is Steve Martin."

There are a couple lessons that deal with writing screenplays and developing characters, and I would say that Martin's thoughts are at least as insightful and useful as those given by Sorkin, Rhimes and Mamet in other classes I've taken. (They go into greater depth, but the lessons certainly compliment each other.) There are even a few digressions into comedy acting for the screen, with one example being a FATHER OF THE BRIDE scene where Steve barely does anything, but because of how he played that, the audience imposed so much emotion and humor onto his blank slate.

I think these MasterClasses work best when the instructor is given some students to play off of and react to. Steve is given four comedy writers, some who have written stand-up pieces and some who have written sketches. He reads some of their pieces and as he does, suggest changes that always improve the act. For example, he'll note that a joke premise is promising, but is laser-focused when a later joke seems to slightly shift subjects in a way that confuses the audience. He's able to identify parts that are funny, but aren't helping the shape of the larger joke. It's like watching a master editor say "Cut this, move this up here. Change this word. Stop this joke here" and somehow it improves remarkably.

Notably, Steve does this in a way that's encouraging and always leaves the writer feeling good about the changes. They can tell he's made the joke better and done so in a way that as he continues through the act, you start hearing the jokes the way he does. He's quietly effective at not just pointing out what's wrong, but in teaching you how to make it right.

At this point, I have yet to encounter a truly bad MasterClass. They're all being judged against each other. Ron Howard's directing class remains for me the gold standard of what MasterClass should be, at least if you have any interest in directing.

If you're strictly about writing, Aaron Sorkin and Shonda Rhimes classes are both more in depth about TV writing specifically, but by their very nature, they're not too helpful when it comes to crafting comedy. Judd Apatow's course deals with comedy from a writing/directing standpoint, but I'd give Martin the edge over him simply because Martin covers performing and seeing him react to other students and writing he's not responsible for allows him to show how you can apply his expertise outside the control group of his own work.

Is it worth $90? I've justified the math for the other classes and this is on par with several of the better courses. For my money, the real value is in the All-Access Pass. For $180/year, or the cost of just two courses, you get access to ALL the courses. At that point, you can really amortize your investment. Doing six classes in a year brings that down to $30/class - not too shabby at all.

If you want my take, Ron Howard's directing class is essential and you can compliment it with any of the other writing classes, using my reviews as a guide towards what would appeal to you.

Buy Steve Martin Teaches Comedy for $90 here.

If the All-Access Pass for $180/year is more your speed, go here.

Prior MasterClass Reviews:
Aaron Sorkin's MasterClass on TV Writing (review)
David Mamet Teaches Dramatic Writing (review)
Ron Howard Teaches Directing (review)
Shonda Rhimes Teaches TV Writing (review)
Judd Apatow Teaches Comedy (review)
Dustin Hoffman's MasterClass on Acting (review)

The full MasterClass roster:

Writing/Directing
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

Acting:
Samuel L. Jackson teaches Acting
Helen Mirren teaches Acting

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

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

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

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

Monday, October 22, 2018

Mockumentary ethics or "American Vandal director Peter Maldonado is a dick"

A fun feature of the mockumentary genre is that we're often watching a reality that has been specifically shaped and crafted by one of the player in that reality. From Marty Di Burgi in THIS IS SPINAL TAP to Taylor Gentry in BEHIND THE MASK: THE RISE OF LESLIE VERNON, most mockumentaries can't resist showing us the person behind the camera. In the cases of those two films and many like it, the result is to portray an interloper in the world they're exploring. It provides someone who can react to the eccentricity of the subjects of the documentary.

But this also means that every thing we see on screen was left in purposefully by the observer we often see on screen. That means a smart mockumentary filmmaker will be constantly asking themselves, "What is the director saying by choosing to show this? What's their agenda? What does this choice reveal about them?"

The trick is that when we're watching a "finished" mockumentary, we don't know what the ostensible director chose to leave out. A problem child getting a "villain edit" could be a total asshole in "real" life, or he could just be the victim of a hatchet job. It's hard for the viewer to perceive the intent unless the hatchet job gets heavy-handed enough that the film communicates "this director has a bias."

This possibility is one of the things that fascinates me the most about mockumentaries. Surely there are a number of examples in the genre where the filmmakers don't want us to be aware of the invisible hands behind the camera. (Many Christopher Guest films fall under this classification.) But when done right, it can add an extra layer of depth.

The first season of AMERICAN VANDAL didn't forget about this. Presented as a student-produced documentary, the show followed two filmmakers efforts to determine who was responsible for a vulgar act of vandalism. In presenting and discarding suspects, filmmaker Peter Maldonado often disseminated or verified embarrassing rumors and dug into personal lives of his classmates to an embarrassing degree.

One revealing moment came in episode 4 of season one when Peter and his collaborator Sam conceded that they both fit the profile of the perpetrator. As they had done a deep dive on the pros and cons of other suspects, Peter and Sam each produced a segment on the other. Sam blows it off as a joke, producing a segment with voiceover that goes, "Could Peter Maldonado have done the dicks? He's never done anything else wrong in his life. He had perfect attendance last year. He's a total puss. So, could he have drawn the dicks? No, no, no, he couldn't have, no. Again, no."

Peter, on the other hand, takes the gloves off, brutally outing Sam's crush on his friend Gabi and suggesting that Sam might have done the prank out of jealousy, hoping to get prom canceled because he didn't want Gabi to go with Brandon Galloway. Peter doesn't pull any punches in using embarrassing evidence of Sam's crush, either. At one point he shows Sam took 32 selfies before he found the perfect casual one to send to Gabi. It would be a savage embarrassment for Peter to do this segment on any classmate, but that he does it to a best friend AND keeps it in the documentary after Sam gets pissed about it... well, it kinda shows us who Peter is, doesn't it?

Peter is equally insensitive when debunking another theory that centers on Sarah Pearson's hookup list. While initially it seems like it might be part of a chain of evidence that exonerates Dylan Maxwell, it's soon revealed as a dead-end red herring. Peter could have told his story without putting Sarah and others "on blast." In the final episode of the season, Sarah actually confronts Peter about it, telling him, "Your documentary fucked with people's lives... What did my hookup list have to do with the truth? It didn't prove anything. It had nothing to do with Dylan. It was just humiliating. My dad saw it, Peter."

Here's what's interesting - Peter leaves that confrontation in. It's a moment where he comes off terribly, but he doesn't try to hide it. You might think that means he's learned his lesson. Maybe he even felt he deserved it. Either way, you would hope that such a call-out would merit self-reflection.

And then season 2 of AMERICAN VANDAL shows Peter to be just as callous a dick as before. Again, when examining suspects and their motives, Peter goes for the jugular. One student recently suffered severe embarrassment when photos of him wearing a diaper and baby bonnet were leaked online. This plot point turns out to be somewhat important to the resolution, but Peter probably had ways of addressing it without re-humiliating the poor student. Instead, Peter goes for the shock value, probably showing more than is necessary and delivering this humiliation to a much wider audience than just the teen's classmates.

That's something else to consider. As seriously as Peter took his duty as a filmmaker in season one, at the time he had no reason to think it would ever be seen by anyone outside of his school. There's a very thin defense he could mount that no one beyond those depicted in the documentary would ever care to watch it. But after AMERICAN VANDAL became a viral hit, season 2 informs us that the first season was a Netflix sensation before Peter even started work on his follow-up.

So he knew there was anticipation for the next run of the series. He knew there was a wider global audience that would see this, and he put it all in without a second thought.

Peter learned nothing. And I love that the show committed to that. It makes us reevaluate his decision to keep in his callout from Sara Pearson. Did he think it made him look like the victim? Did he put it in to use as a shield against attacks that he manipulated the editing? Does it help him feel honest and objective if his own documentary calls him out, and is doing that an even greater act of manipulation on his part?

Peter produces compelling documentaries, but a subtext running through them is that he doesn't really connect to people. He sees himself in the mold of an investigative reporter or documentarian, with everyone else just being a player in the drama that unfolds, collateral damage by their very nature. In pursuit of the truth, he'll punish anyone who presents a threatening counternarrative. (Think of how relentlessly Alex Trimboli is shredded by the documentary in season one.)

This is perhaps too meta, but I feel like the next season needs to put Peter's ethics on trial somehow. The groundwork has been laid over two seasons, and while he's gotten pushback, it's been fairly timid (at least, Peter has portrayed it as such.) In the world of the show, Peter has two popular documentaries out there. That's more than enough time for some serious consequences to result from one of them.

Peter Maldonado has shown us who he is, and AMERICAN VANDAL has shown us they know who he is. It's a grenade just waiting to be armed and I am HERE for it.

Monday, October 15, 2018

AMERICAN VANDAL and teenage lonliness

"Every single person down there is ignoring your pain because they're too busy with their own. The beautiful ones. The popular ones. The guys that pick on you. Everyone. If you could hear what they were feeling. The loneliness. The confusion. It looks quiet down there. It’s not. It’s deafening."

That was the thesis statement of the season 3 episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer entitled "Earshot." Last month, this episode turned 19 years old and yet in many respects it still remains one of the most accurate commentaries on the high school experience. The episode itself has an interesting history. It was originally slated to run on April 27, 1999, but seven days earlier, two teenagers killed 12 of their classmates and two teachers in a massacre at Columbine High School. Suddenly The WB was very nervous that the next episode of Buffy featured Buffy sensing one of her classmates was planning to kill everyone and racing against time to stop a mass casualty event at school.

The fact that the character remarked directly on the rise of school shootings and Oz quipped, "It's bordering on trendy at this point" might have also played a part in the network decision to hold the new episode until just before the start of Season 4.

Buffy as a series got a lot of mileage out of its conceit that "High school is hell." For the first three years, most of the random demon-of-the-week stories were metaphors for typical teenage drama. One of the more effective examples was when Buffy lost her virginity to Angel and the moment of "perfect happiness" broke the curse that forced a soul on the vampire. The result was an unleashed Angelus, ready to do evil and eager to break Buffy's heart and mess with her head. Joss Whedon is often quoted as saying that female viewers would tell him, "The same thing happened to me." They related to the core analogy which was, "I slept with him and he got mean."

Given that kind of identification with teenage pain was central to the show's appeal, it's odd how few shows have run with that ball in the decade and a half since BUFFY left the airwaves. Most teen dramas decided to be aspirational, about cool people with cool clothes and cool lives. Half of the characters on ONE TREE HILL were celebrities of some breed - singer, fashion designer, pro basketball player - and many of the others were leading successful lives. GOSSIP GIRL was set in a world of wealth and privilege that rarely explored real high school dynamics, and 90210 wasn't much different. You might make a case for PRETTY LITTLE LIARS dealing with some of this, but it was again a show about extremely pretty people with expensive clothes and a lot of relationship drama with other people. It seemed no one wanted a show about teenage pain, at least not on network TV.

Enter Netflix. Their first foray into modern high school drama was 13 REASONS WHY. I've written at length about that show in many other posts you can find on this site. Though the season 2 drama gets much more heightened, season one was one of the more realistic explorations of high school bullying, and all the emotional body blows that today's teens face. It's weird to realize my high school experience has more in common with the world of THE WONDER YEARS than that of 13 REASONS WHY, but concepts like cyber-bullying didn't even exist when I graduated 20 years ago. Some of what Hannah Baker faces is relatable to any high school graduate. There have always been people victimized by bad rumors and reputations that were forced on them. Certain sexual assault is nothing new even if our ways of raising awareness are different.

Teenage trauma was the core story of 13 REASONS WHY, so viewers were primed to expect that journey. What's more impressive is how a series that spent its first season on an 8-episode dick joke and then came back for season 2 with an equally prolonged poop joke turns out to be an even more incisive portrait of contemporary teens. AMERICAN VANDAL is many things. It's a brilliantly executed mockumentary that scores off of the modern hunger for true crime stories, it's an incredibly funny show that achieves laughs both base and intelligent, it's an amazing showcase for fresh-faced talent.

And it is the most serious look at the loneliness of adolescence.

If you haven't seen AMERICAN VANDAL's second season, I'll warn you that I'm about to spoil the ending.

In the final episode we learn that "The Turdburgler" is a previously-expelled student who catfished dozens of students and teachers at his school as part of a revenge plot. Not every student took the bait, but those who did believed they were in a relationship with the woman whom The Turdburgler presented themselves as, using stolen pictures and video. In doing so, he enticed many of them to send compromising pictures and videos, which were later used to blackmail four of them into participating in the four Turdburgler pranks.

To our shock, those four victims include not only prime suspect Kevin McClain, who is something of a performative weirdo and the kind of lonely person you'd expect to fall for it, but also Big Man on Campus DeMarcus Tillman, the basketball superstar who seemingly could be friends with anyone. It's a good lesson that even the popular kids feel like they're wearing a mask at school. Their popularity isn't always a cure for loneliness. Indeed, it can be isolating. Students want to be close to DeMarcus because he is the best... but he always has to wonder in the back of his mind... do they like him for him?

For DeMarcus to form what he believed was a genuine emotional bond with someone he never met speaks to both the loneliness he felt and he nature of online connection. My generation was just getting online around the time we started high school and college, but these kids have grown up in a world dominated by this sort of social media connectivity. Online life is real, particularly in an emotional sense.

DeMarcus couldn't find that intimate connection in person. It was only with the distance of talking to a stranger online that he felt he could show his "real self." With that vulnerability came the expectation the person he was talking to was being equally vulnerable.

Some of the catfish victims are persuaded to do truly humiliating things. When the truth comes out, some of their classmates are likely unsurprised because, yes the theater nerd and the strange "Fruit Ninja" are exactly the kind of people to be duped by an "online girlfriend." A lesser show would have left it at that, but it's AMERICAN VANDAL that finds the insight BUFFY did all those years ago. The creators recognize that some teenage trials are universal and that few teens recognize others' pain because they're focusing too much on their own.

This is why AMERICAN VANDAL resonates beyond being a silly diversion where a school is attacked with laxatives. It tries to reflect the truth of teenage life, knowing that audience identification and investment with the characters will run that much deeper. It's a show that gets under your skin by poking at the sides of themselves that the audience tries to hide.

Show your audience something in themselves they don't want anyone to see and I guarantee they'll follow you. In fact, they'll probably be unable to do anything else.

Monday, September 10, 2018

The best show of 2017 - AMERICAN VANDAL - returns this week with new episodes

This Friday brings the second season of Netflix's brilliant comedy series AMERICAN VANDAL. That means if you haven't checked out season one, you have four days to watch eight half-hour episodes and get caught up. This is a completely doable project and the results are well worth it. Trust me.

Last year, I first became aware of AMERICAN VANDAL through a short promo that was posted to the net. The idea of an entire mockumentary series devoted to figuring out who vandalized the cars of a high school faculty by spray-painting dicks on them seemed so ridiculous that I assumed the ad itself was a gag. It presented as a mockery of Netflix's interest in true crime documentaries. Only later did I realize it was real, and it wasn't just a short one-off. I couldn't imagine how they planned on filling four hours of content with a joke that seemed likely to only sustain a five minute sketch.

I had a complete meal of crow after that, let me tell you.

The brilliance of AMERICAN VANDAL is that it isn't just a dick joke and it isn't just out to send up the conventions of the true crime documentary. The creators, Dan Perrault and Tony Yacenda, understood that they had to create an entire world and the documentary-format is merely the conventions they use to explore that teenage culture. I've said before that the most important question to ask before telling a story is "What's it about?"

Here's how I answer that question with regard to AMERICAN VANDAL: it's about modern high school life, and about how smart phones and social media have made the high school experience vastly different than it was for generations before it. It's about how those document our lives, but also how they project versions of ourselves, sometimes inviting judgement, sometimes bringing distortion. It's about a cultural obsession with tales of perceived injustice, and the indifference of those who tell those stories to the collateral damage they leave in their wake.

And it's funny as hell.

When the series starts, Dylan Maxwell has been expelled from his high school following the vandalism of 30 teachers' cars. The vandal spray-painted penises on each of the cars and Dylan was the prime suspect due to his penchant for pranks and the frequency with which he drew dicks as an in-class disruption. But there are a couple loose threads here: first, the dicks are drawn in a different style from Dylan's. Another curious wrinkle is that 30 minutes of security footage is missing. As a member of the school's morning TV show, Dylan would have had the access to erase it, but so would 8 other members of that show.

So two students, Peter and Sam, get to work on their documentary in an effort to get to the bottom of what really happened. Was it indeed Dylan? Or did he get railroaded by a biased teacher out to get him and a system with inadequate due process? Peter and Sam are pitch perfect as the self-righteous crusaders who've likely been inspired by Serial and other true crime dramas. They take this "injustice" seriously because to them, it IS their whole world. We might look down on this high school bullshit, but they live it every day.

One of the great moments of the show comes in episode 4 after Peter and Sam have tried to narrow down the number of possible alternative suspects. At least one of the eight other members of the morning show would have to be involved if Dylan is innocent, so they assess the profiles and alibis of each of them. The two boys also have to acknowledge that they are also suspects as members of the same show, so Peter produces a segment assessing Sam and vice-versa. Sam doesn't take it that seriously, offering up a jokey indictment of his friend that might as well be a bad parody of a negative political ad. Peter, on the other hand, goes for the jugular, and in the process lays out several embarrassing personal details about Sam before ultimately deciding he's not a suspect.

It's a sly character moment, showing Peter is so driven by the opportunity to play Sarah Koenig that he'll go hard after his friend in pursuit of the truth. This isn't the last time we'll see Peter put his documentary project above someone else's feelings. The beauty of the show's structure is that we experience him dig into someone's like, as if he was a 60 MINUTES correspondent building a case against a murder suspect. We're so used to this part of the format that we don't even question it, and if we think about it at all, it's because the joke seems to be that Peter is taking his project FAR too seriously.

The most brilliant moment of the series comes at the start of episode 5. For the first half of the show, we've watched it without really knowing who the audience is. Is this something Peter's making and releasing all at once? Is it even being released? Episode 5 answers that question by revealing that Peter's been posting each episode to the web and at some point after Episode 4 went live, AMERICAN VANDAL went viral. I'd never seen one of the mocumentaries actually deal with the feedback loop that happens when one of these stories gains an obsessed fandom.

Everything Sam and Peter have compiled begins to impact the narrative. A teacher is fired for some unprofessional statements he made about a statement in one of his interviews. A crucial piece of evidence is destroyed when obsessed AV fans harass a peripheral player in the story so much that she gets rid of a recorded prank call that might strengthen Dylan's alibi. For Sam and Peter, one of the benefits is that it forces the school to let them continue filming on campus after having been banned earlier.

But it's also the moment when the story's scope gets wider, as it allows it to touch on all the internet theorizing that happened with series like Serial. I also thought of the crowd-sourcing internet detectives who often cause almost at least as much harm as good when they try to identify suspects in the wake of terrorist events like the Boston Marathon bombing. AMERICAN VANDAL uses the story of Dylan Maxwell to explore all of that, even as it gives one of the more astute looks at modern high school culture.

One of the savvier sequences of the series comes as Sam and Peter examine all the footage from "Nana's Party," a party thrown by one of the students the weekend before the prank. By compiling everyone's social media videos from the party, the documentarians are able to create a timeline of the entire night. The tidbits it reveals might lock down the origin of the spray paint used in the prank, and nail down who had access to it. It's like watching these kids dissect a couple dozen Zapruder films, scrutinizing them for clues.

It's utterly inspired. You can read an entire oral history of it here.

The series manages to get us completely invested in the question of "Who Drew The Dicks?" even as it stops short of giving a definitive answer. What it does provide is an unexpected coda where one student humiliated by the documentary calls Peter out on everything he did needlessly in pursuit of the truth that hurt people. It's a surprising callout of the ethics of these documentaries and a reminder that while we might see only a binge-worthy drama, if you immerse yourself in the world of the series, Peter is NOT the noble hero his perspective frames him as.

99 out of 100 mockumentary creators would not have thought to take that path. At best, some of them might have realized this issue, but decided they were going for humor, not reality. As viewers, we're so conditioned to just buy into that conceit that it allows the creators to surprise us with a detail that's been hiding in plain sight the entire time - "how would we feel about this documentary if we were one of the people being put under the magnifying glass by it?"

AMERICAN VANDAL is smart enough to recognize that confronting these questions doesn't dilute the humor. It takes a braver chances than most shows in its place would have, and doing so keeps them one step ahead of the audience. It is the smartest dick joke I've ever seen and I'm utterly in awe of how the creators have elevated the mockumentary genre to greater heights than I would have assumed possible. I can't wait for season two to surprise me even further.

Tuesday, August 21, 2018

Fifteen working writers name the TV spec episodes that helped start their careers

Completing my series last week on "How to write a spec episode" made me nostalgic for a Twitter thread I got going about six months ago. Lately, the practice of writing spec episodes has fallen out of favor. For the most part, they're only used for programs like the Disney ABC Writing Program and the Warner Bros Television Workshop, as more and more showrunners want to see original pilots from prospective staff writers.

It wasn't always that way. Up until recently, writers would write spec episodes for a series similar to the one they were submitting for. You never submit your spec episode to the show you've spec'd - for two basic reasons. First, they know their show WAY better than you do, so they'll be far more harsh on things that feel wrong for the show, whether it's getting a character's voice slightly wrong, getting something minute wrong about their house style or episode format, or just telling the kinds of story they have reasons for not telling. The second reason is perhaps even more obvious - if they never read a spec of their own show, they can't be accused of stealing it should the show do something similar to this spec episode.

What this means is there are several generations of TV writers who came up by writing spec episodes, perhaps of shows vastly different from the ones they are famous for. With that in mind, I tweeted out a call for writers to tell us the specs that got them hired or repped. The result was one of the more amusing threads I've been a part of.

I'm sure this'll provoke a unanimous chorus of "Nah Bitter, we're good" but if any of the writers in this post - or any other working writers for that matter - are interested in putting their spec episodes out there for people to read, I'll gladly host them. Just email me at the address you can find on the side of this webpage.

Joe Henderson (Lucifer, 11.22.63, White Collar, Almost Human)

Taylor Elmore (Blood & Treasure, Limitless, Justified)

Justin Marks (THE JUNGLE BOOK, Counterpart)

Mike Royce (One Day at a Time, Men of a Certain Age, Enlisted)

Amy Berg (Counterpart, Da Vinci's Demons, Caper, Person of Interest, Eureka)

Jordon Nardino (Star Trek: Discovery, Quantico, Smash, Desperate Housewives)

Benjamin Raab (Arrow, Scream, The Flash, Beauty & The Beast)

Bo Yeon Kim (Star Trek: Discovery, Reign)

Robert Hewitt Wolfe, (Elementary, Andromeda, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine) who probably made enemies of several people in this thread with this disclosure.

Bryan Q. Miller (Shadowhunters, Sleepy Hollow, Defiance, Smallville)

Julie Plec (The Vampire Diaries, The Originals, Containment, Legacies)

Who else wants to read a Buffy spec from the co-creator of The Vampire Diaries?

Chris Luccy (Undateable, Melissa & Joey, Better With You)

Dan Steele (Faking It, Hart of Dixie, Gossip Girl)

Lynn Renee Maxcy (The Handmaid's Tale, Covert Affairs)

Daniel Thomsen (Westworld, Time After Time, Once Upon a Time,

Jorge A. Reyes (Kevin Hill, Queen of the South)

Quite an interesting mix of writers and shows, no?

Related posts:
Writing a spec episode - a 10 part series.
Anatomy of a TV spec - Don't Trust the B---- In Apartment 23

Monday, August 20, 2018

Judd Apatow's MasterClass is a decent program, if less ambitious than other entries

(Note: this post contains affiliate links and I will be compensated if you make a purchase after using one of my links.)

There's a point in Judd Apatow's MasterClass where he tells the student's there's never been an easier time for them to find out what makes their idols tick. Says Apatow, "Just go to YouTube, type in the person's name and 'interview.'" And he's right.

Unfortunately, that same advice is what makes Apatow's Masterclass less of an obvious recommend for me than the earlier courses offered by Ron Howard, Shonda Rhimes, and Aaron Sorkin. Those three not only offered the benefit of their experience, they also went above and beyond to add value to their class so it wasn't just a series of lectures. Shonda did a deep dive on the development of two of her pilots, Sorkin assembled a class of writing students to serve as a mock writer's room to break an episode of The West Wing, and Howard went above and beyond. He took us to set as he blocked, rehearsed and shot a scene, then staged and shot it two more ways in different styles.

A lot of these classes are meant for people who have less practical experience than I do. At times, that means some early lectures may come off as basic, but they're useful for laying groundwork on the fundamentals. The segments where the participants get creative usually end up being the ones that justify the $90 cost I essentially am recommending. This is where Apatow's class puts me in a bind.

This is the second class I've watched that's 100% lectures. David Mamet also did not venture out of his chair, but I concluded that the style and the content of that was professorial enough that it met the level of a decent introductory or intermediate screenwriting class. On a personal level, I enjoyed Judd's class more. He was less pompous, very relatable, and comes across as a genial guy who just wants to give you the benefit of his experience through a lot of really great stories that span his career.

But I keep coming back to the fact that there are hundreds of Apatow interviews out there that cover a lot of the same ground. He has annotated screenplays that also contain a great deal of the information in these lectures and in the scripts offered as bonus materials. If you're interested in those, they include:

The 40 Year-Old Virgin Brainstorm
The 40 Year-Old Virgin Script
The 40 Year-Old Virgin Beat Sheet
Knocked Up Script
Knocked Up table read draft with notes
148 page vomit draft of FUNNY PEOPLE with handwritten notes on them
LOVE season map

It's a decent collection of extras, and Judd's lectures cover a varied range of topics - everything from how you can mine your own life to develop a story to how you set goals to turn out a rough draft. There's some great advice in there about casting and how he uses improv to engage the actor's creativity. It's one of those missed opportunities that Apatow only lectures about this instead of getting a couple acting students and actually workshopping this lesson with them. With a whole series of videos here directed at actors, it could have been valuable for both aspiring comedy directors and actors to see Judd in action.

This is not to say that his advice isn't solid. For as many times as Apatow brings up improv, he also impresses upon his audience the importance of strong story. He posits an exercise where the writer takes all the jokes out of their script, saying "The stories should work just as well without jokes." Considering he popularized, if not pioneered, a style of comedy where some scenes linger a little too long on extended riffs, it's good to see advice like this reinforced.

But so much of what Apatow discusses is available in those free resources he advocated earlier. He talks about how when he started out there was nothing like the internet, or podcasts on comedy. He had to go to the library to look up microfiche on Lenny Bruce. His comedy academy was interviewing comedians for his school paper. That's actually a great story and a good story to get students thinking about ways to research beyond using a Google search bar.

In a world where there weren't a hundred Apatow interviews and commentaries readily available, it would be extremely easy for me to say, "Buy this." But that fact and the comparison to other MasterClass productions makes this a more complicated sell. I think I enjoyed this more than David Mamet's class, which was also entirely lectures and also would be best received by those in an early point in their writing ventures. Apatow's advice is relatable, practical and no bullshit. Mamet is knowledgeable, but reminds you of the professor who talks just to hear himself. Apatow comes off as the kind of instructor who would engage his students and know how to focus their passion.

So here's what my recommendation is going to come down to: with MasterClass you can either purchase a la carte, each class for $90, or you can get an All-Access Pass for $180/year. That means that for the cost of TWO classes you can get everything. Look at that list below. If there are two classes that look interesting, get All-Access Pass and then put Apatow on your Watch list.

For my money, Ron Howard's class is essential, and there's a wealth to be gotten out of either Shonda Rhimes, Aaron Sorkin's or both. I have no problem recommending any of those three at the $90 pricetag. If it won't break your budget and you just have to check them out then maybe Judd's course can be an extra incentive to amoritize.

You can purchase Judd Apatow's MasterClass here for $90.

If the All-Access Pass for $180/year is more your speed, go here.

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

The full MasterClass roster:

Writing/Directing
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

Acting:
Samuel L. Jackson teaches Acting
Helen Mirren teaches Acting

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

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

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

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