Wednesday, February 3, 2010

The Secret Life of the American Teenager: How phone calls can kill a scene

Lady Bitter (who in fact is the exact opposite of "bitter") is a regular viewer of some excellent TV shows and one utterly, irredeemably awful series on ABC Family known as The Secret Life of the American Teenager. I've only caught a few episodes here and there, but the best I can tell, it's about a bunch of teenagers who repeatedly talk about sex in clunky, unrealistic dialogue, yet rarely have it. If you're thinking that sounds like Dawson's Creek, let me disabuse you of that right now. This makes Dawson's Creek look like The Sopranos.

After just a few minutes of watching this show, I realized there was something familiar about it. The crappy blocking, the uninteresting direction, the universally flat performances, the stilted conversations... and especially, the propensity for repeated expositional dialogue in each scene. And then came the final piece of the puzzle - multiple dialogue scenes staged as phone conversations.

Scene after scene featured one character talking on the phone to another. Each character remained stationary in their respective sets as they talked back-and-forth - usually about some plot-point that at already been reestablished at least once in the previous five minutes. It looked like the director had positioned the actor, told them to sit still, then just let the camera roll while the actor read their lines from an off-screen cue card. This also clearly was a director who didn't believe in rehearsals or second takes, judging from the The most work in this entire scene came from the editors, who had the hard task of cutting back and forth between both sides of the conversation. As I watched, I knew I'd seen this sort of hackery before... and I trembled.

Yes, friends. This had the unmistakable stench of 7th Heaven all over it. 7th Heaven, a show harder to kill than Jason Voorhees, though not nearly as redeemable. Occasionally sympathetic friends and readers inquire about the terrible quality of the scripts I read, and wonder if I ever see anything better than what's produced by Hollywood. I often answer, "So long as shows like Brenda Hampton's last two series are produced, there will be writing out there at least as bad as the slush pile.

I could devote a week of posts to using this show as a "how not to write compelling scenes" but frankly, I don't have the motivation to sit through that much drivel to unearth a few nuggets. And it's not just that the shows are badly written, it's that they have truly horrible ideas. The episode I saw revolved around how one teenage girl spurs on all the other girls in their school to start a masturbation club, called "Just Say Me." As I understand it, this club got started because a few girls were tired of having their boyfriends cheat on them. They considered cutting them off from sex, but decided that wouldn't work because, "Boys can't help that they want sex, and the problem is that there's always another girl willing to have it with them."

Yes, you heard that right... The problem with having a boyfriend who cheats on you is not that he's unfaithful - it's that some other Jezebel is out there ready to give it up if you won't! And this shit was written by a woman!

If I had a teenage daughter, I'd sooner let her watch something like, "A Working Girl's Guide to Giving Oral Sex" than The Secret Life of the American Teenager.

But I'm drifting. The point of this post was to discuss the right and the wrong way to handle a phone conversation between two characters. First off, I avoid writing scenes as phone conversations whenever possible. It's always hurts the performances when the actors aren't really playing against each other. Having said that, there are times when it may be unavoidable, so heed these warnings.

1) Try to give the two characters something interesting to do as they're on the phone.

2) If the film is a suspense/thriller, see if you can milk some tension from the location. Perhaps your hero is talking on the phone to a stalker and suddenly has reason to think that person is very close.

3) Avoid having dramatic conversations take place on the phone unless Rules 1 and 2 apply OR there is some deep emotion in the dialogue for the actor/character to call upon.

4) When dealing with exposition, as always, make sure we don't have to sit through one character telling us what we already know. Consider if it is important that we see the phone conversation, or if we have enough context for what's going on so we just need to see Bill dial and say, "Charlie, it's me. I need a favor..." Cut to - that favor being put into motion.

Good uses of phone calls:

The Scream movies: Often there's suspense drawn from the fact that the phone call means that the killer is in the immediate vicinity and could be ready to pounce on the character in question at any time. Tension comes from several facts here: since we only hear the voice, we don't know who the killer is - so he could be anyone, and we don't know where the killer is - so he could be anywhere.

In the Line of Fire - the same rules apply as for Scream. Director Wolfgang Peterson also does a great job in shooting these conversations so that they're not visually static.

Phone Booth and Cellular also make strong dramatic use of phone conversations, which are effective for many of the same reasons as the above examples. So, this proves that phone conversations need not always result in a dead duck of a scene - but it takes care to avoid falling into some easy traps.

If this makes sense to you, you'll already have a better understanding of how to craft an interesting scene than the team working on this show. Then you too can have a series that not only survives cancellation, but the cancellation of its entire network and the loss of half the principle cast - and get to create a new show after that!

Hmmm... perhaps I'm the crazy one.


  1. I'd cite '24' as another good example - a good chunk of any given episode is spent with characters talking on cell phones, headsets, speakerphones, video relays, landlines and so forth.

    I can't honestly think of any conversation that wasn't interesting to watch - either through the characters' movement within their respective scenes, events occuring around them, or the quality of the dialogue and tensions rising from that.

  2. In the Valley of Elah also features a well-executed phone call.

  3. Brenda Hampton is horrible, her TV shows are laughable and cheesy... and she's an anti-choice Christian fanatic, too.

    anyway, one famous playwright (I believe Edward Albee) said that phone calls are a BIG NO-NO for stage plays, so I can see how this is a big no-no for screenplays, too.

  4. GOSSIP GIRL also does it fairly well, since many of their convos are a minute or less.

  5. Good points all, and I'd forgotten that GOSSIP GIRL has a lot of phone conversations too - which might just prove that they do it right.

    That's one of the few shows that finds a way to use cell phones and texting in a way that advances the plot. Too many writers view cell phones as something that has to be taken out of comission by either "no signal" or "low battery" in order to keep the story from being resolved ahead of schedule, as seen here.

  6. Ugh. I had a devoutly Christian roommate in college who used to watch 7th Heaven regularly

    I still have nightmares.

    She also used to turn away and refused to watch a commercial for the Psychic Friends because psychics are of the devil, but somehow Charmed was okay to watch.

  7. The greatest scam ever pulled on Christians was convincing them that 7TH HEAVEN was actually good, wholesome programming. It's really not, and actually plays like a bad parody of what someone thinks "family values" programming would be.

    What else can you say about a show where two of the main characters got married on their first date so that they wouldn't have sex out of wedlock?

    (Don't judge me. When I first moved to LA, I got precisely 4 channels on my TV and with no money to go out, I watched a lot of TV. There was nothing else on Monday nights while I killed time waiting for EVERWOOD so inevitably I ended up seeing several 7th Heaven episodes. Pass the brain bleach, please.)

  8. Bitter Script Reader,

    Having personal experience in the Christian camp, I think a lot of Christians are willing to play-up TV series and movies that reflect their values in a postative way, even when from an artistic sence the overall producut doesn't deserve the hoopla. I've seen a couple "7th Heaven" episodes -- more than enough for me, I wasn't impressed either.

    But I think Christians liking that show speaks to a GREATER ISSUE: Christians want to see Hollywood treat their values with respect. And they want programming that has an undercurrent of good moraltiy and good values.

    Emily, thanks for sharing a personal experience from your past. In my own life, AND in other fellow Christian lives I've seen the sinario you laid out, played out many, many times. It'd be interesting to hear what YOUR take of how Christians should be, would be. ;-) E.C. Henry from Bonney Lake, WA

  9. In my own life, AND in other fellow Christian lives I've seen the sinario you laid out

    Interesting typo...

  10. E.C., I don't care how Christians behave when they're alone. I do care when they force me to sit through crappy TV shows.

  11. I'm going to do my best to word this carefully, lest this spin off into an entirely different arguement about Christians. One of the oddest things about 7th Heaven is that in 11 seasons, they never once stated, or apparently even implied, exactly which Christian denomination the characters belonged to... which seems like a very bizarre writing choice WHEN YOUR LEAD CHARACTER IS A REVEREND!

    (I didn't watch 11 seasons - I only watched one season, but this was a frequent criticism of the show on Television Without Pity, so I'll take their word for it.)

    Now, apparently there's an interview somewhere that has Hampton explaining that the father was originally a psychatrist when the show was developed and that she changed it after realizing the shift might give the show more appeal among religious viewers. She didn't want to name a particular denomination for fear of alienating one group.

    I understand there's an arguement to be made that this could just be the creators trying to make the show more universal. My feeling is that it's a bit cynical to market on the fact that the lead characters have faith, and then to spend 11 seasons telling and not showing. It's lip service Christianity, and I feel like it's exploiting that faith while under the snake-oil salesman guise of celebrating it. That bugs me.

    The "comically Jewish" relatives also annoyed me a bit in the episodes that I saw. It's not that I found it offensive on a religious level - it simply wasn't funny. It was like watching the results of a space alien who had learned everything about Judaism from Woody Allen movies and Curb Your Enthusiasm after translating it into his language. Said space alien wrote a comedy bit and then translated it BACK into English and viola, you have Richard Lewis's 7TH HEAVEN character.

    Did that go too far off-topic? Well, the topic partially is how much Brenda Hampton's shows suck, so I guess not. Hope I didn't offend anyone of faith.

  12. I have a weird fascination with that show because it almost seems like an experiment; almost every line of dialogue is "on the nose," and in the worst possible way.

    My mind is so programmed to expect characters to have at least a morsel of complexity , and for scenes to have some subtext, that I couldn't quite process what I was seeing at first.

    It is sort of amazing. And I agree with you about no rehearsals and 2nd takes; the actors very often seemed to put the emphasis on the wrong word in a sentence. It seems like a show performed by robots, about a version of teenage life written by a person who was never a teenager.