Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Art vs. artist: On Bill Cosby

There's an interesting thing you'll notice if you follow the conversation around celebrities who speak their minds politically - namely, how they are dismissed by their enemies.

Victoria Jackson spouts nonsense on TV about how Obama is a secret Muslim who's destroying America and almost certainly you'll find those on the left dismissing her by saying, "She's an unfunny actress who hasn't worked in 20 years."

Wil Wheaton expresses pro-gun control opinions on Twitter and his mentions fill up with Right Wingers whose most frequent comeback is some form of, "You're just some shitty actor, Wesley."

Ted Nugent implies he'd like to shoot Obama and Hillary, and you'll find no shortage of people who leap to call him an awful, no-talent musician.

And so on and so on.

It's weird that that's how so many people choose to engage with the mouthpiece of a view they don't like, rather than attacking the disagreeable view on its merits. It's like if Hitler said, "We must round up all the Jews, take their money and possessions, and exterminate them!" and the most frequent comeback he got was, "Oh yeah, well you have a bad haircut and your paintings are shitty, Addie!"

But for whatever reason, we conflate the art with the artist. If you want to attack the artist, the first target is the art, even if that product is neutral in the matter at hand. Where this gets interesting is when someone responsible for a beloved work runs afoul of public decency.

I wonder what would happen if universally beloved icons like Tom Hanks or Steven Spielberg suddenly came out as card-carrying members of NAMBLA. Would we all suddenly have to denounce Jurassic Park and E.T? Would this instantly make Castaway and That Thing You Do "shitty movies?" Can you picture cinephiles declaring that Jaws "was never that great?"

More likely, the public at large would cling to whatever denial they could muster that Hanks and Spielberg weren't REALLY as evil as that declaration made them out to be. They made dozens of movie we all loved! Surely no one responsible for Forrest Gump or Close Encounters could be an evil man! As I'm making this argument, does it sound silly to you? Do you think you could still love these films, while not giving these men a free pass?

Which brings me to Bill Cosby. Over the past year, some 36 women have come forward with tales of being drugged and raped by the beloved comedian. Lest you think Bill had a busy 2014 and 2015, I'll note that many of these accusations date back decades, some as far back as the 1970s. Several of these woman had been speaking out for years, but their accounts fell on deaf ears. But then a funny thing happened - as a routine from comedian Hannibal Buress drags the accusations back into the limelight, other women come forward with their stories.

Not unexpectedly, the charges are met with skepticism. Surely these women are fame-seekers, or are just looking to get a quick payoff of hush money by going after a wealthy American icon and inspiration to black people everywhere. I don't doubt that some liars have threatened celebrities with false rape accusations, with intent to blackmail. The thing is, "hush money" is called that because it buys silence. Extortionists making utterly false claims probably aren't going to make public charges because the fear of exposure is the leverage they have against their target. A public accusation is a "shoot the hostage" move if all you're after is money.

On top of that, a lot of these women are credible, and few come across as fame-seekers. Sure, the fact that so many women seem to come forth at once might look fishy, but let's put that aside for a minute. Judd Apatow had a remark that really cut to the heart of it for me: "If even one of these accusations is true, he's a monster."

That's really all that needs to be said, isn't it?

Enough of these accusers have come forth with believable stories that I have zero problem believing that at least one out of these 36 is on the level. More specifically, I believe they all are.

This is the part where Cosby supporters usually scream "innocent until proven guilty" and note that he hasn't been convicted of any crime. The presumption of innocence is really only relevant in terms of the State's disposition to Mr. - excuse me - "Doctor" Cosby. You're allowed to render your own, non-legally binding judgements on someone. I can call him an "alleged rapist" and not he's not been convicted even while being certain that he did all of the acts in question.

But here's my problem - I really enjoyed The Cosby Show. (Or at least the first few seasons before its inevitable decline.) It's one of the most iconic sitcoms of all time. I've not been faced with a body of work that significant being tainted by association with the abuses of its actor. I knew Roman Polanski as a child rapist long before I ever saw any of his films. The creepy allegations surrounding Woody Allen were also mostly my introduction to the man. In both cases, it made me less reluctant to peruse the works of those gentlemen, knowing their failings.

I eventually gave in and watched Chinatown, largely because of how influential it was as a screenplay, but I can't bring myself to seek out Polanski's work otherwise. With Allen, knowing the older man/younger woman themes often infest his films has kept me clearly, largely because I doubt I'll be able to watch any of those movies without scanning the subtext for hints of his pathology.

So I've essentially dealt with the art vs. artist conflict by avoiding it altogether. But what do we do about The Cosby Show?

There's an understandable urge to not promote the work of a repugnant person. On that level, I understand the pulling of the show from syndication. However, considering the show's significance, it feels wrong to strike it from the record, as it were. But I don't think preserving the show's legacy requires defending "Doctor" Cosby's legacy either.

Is trying to support one without the other a case of me attempting to have my cake and eat it too? I hope not. It's going to be a long time before I can watch a Cosby rerun and not think of the rape accusations. But it should be possible to separate the art from the artist. After all, it's not like The Cosby Show was about drugging someone so it's easier to have sex with them against their will...

Oh dammit, there's that pesky subtext again.

In an ideal world, art and artist are two different entities. I should be able to laugh heartily at Cliff Huxtable while calling for Bill Cosby to be locked up for the horrors he's mostly likely responsible for, dating back to well before I was born. Condemn Cosby, celebrate The Cosby Show.

Celebrate Chinatown, tell Polanski to burn in hell.

Laugh at Naked Gun, scream "murderer" at O.J. Simpson.

Enjoy Victoria Jackson in UHF, make "cuckoo clock" noises during her Fox News appearances.

Can it really be that easy? The culture these people created is already part of the lexicon. It's fruitless to pretend we can put that toothpaste back in the tube. It's also equally naive to assume that by tearing down The Cosby Show, it's really hurting Bill Cosby in the way he deserves. If we collectively decided The Cosby Show was just a hack sitcom, would that do anything to help Cosby's victims?

And to flip that - no matter how much we enjoyed The Cosby Show, that pleasure doesn't mean we owe Bill Cosby anything. Don't let him use that as a shield. If this end to his career tarnishes his legacy, it's not a sign that we failed him. It means that he failed us.

Monday, September 14, 2015

A salute to the greatest procedural ever as Law & Order turns 25!

Yesterday marked the 25th Anniversary of the premiere of one of the greatest TV dramas of all time: Law & Order. Dick Wolf's procedural has left behind an amazing legacy. Consider these stats:

- 456 episodes
- 7 spinoff series. (Special Victims Unit, Criminal Intent, Trial By Jury, Law & Order: LA, Law & Order: UK, Conviction and the non-fiction Crime & Punishment.)
- a collective 59 seasons of television from those shows!
- One Emmy win for Outstanding Drama Series.

In that, it's easy to forget the "Mothership" L&O struggled for a while to find its audience. Today's television climate doesn't seem to allow for the kind of nurturing that let Law & Order sprout into the empire it became. It's first three seasons it finished ranked in the low 40s, at a time when that was a pretty terrible place to be. NBC was ready to cancel the show unless Dick Wolf added some women to the all-male cast for the 4th season. The additions coincided with a ratings climb to #38 for season 4 and #27 for season 5. From then on, with one exception, the show's ranking rose every season until it peaked at #7 in season 12. 

How many shows get their greatest success in their second decade? The L&O universe didn't even begin branching out into spinoffs until SVU debuted during the mothership's ninth season. It's hard not to marvel at that long game as we prepare to enter a new TV season, where some shows will be declared dead by week 2.

It's possible one factor in L&O's rising popularity was the syndicated reruns that seemed to run endlessly, first on A&E (where I became addicted to the show) and later on TNT. As a pure procedural, there were no serialized stories to complicate rerun scheduling or viewer experience, and remarkably, many of the social issues it dealt with from over the years - abortion, racial tension, terrorism - have remained relevant even two decades later.

I was an occasional watcher of Law & Order around the time of the fifth season, but I wasn't a total convert until the novelty of the drama crossing over with equally acclaimed drama Homicide: Life on the Street lured me in. I'd seen HLOTS here and there, but the stunt of mixing the two casts made me a convert to both shows. From that point, I watched the syndicated reruns every night and in college, made an effort to schedule my classes around the repeats. 

Law & Order was one of those series that showed me what great TV writing could be. It was my gateway drug into an entire generation of fantastic compelling drama, and it remains one of the shows I can watch endlessly. A couple of my spec scripts have been procedural, no doubt due to the influence of the series. It's such a brilliant concept for a show because the half-cops, half-courtroom approach makes for complex, twisting stories.  As Dick Wolf has often said, "The first half is a murder mystery, the second half is a moral mystery."

I've already paid tribute to my favorite Law & Order character, Jack McCoy, in this earlier post, so today I decided to spotlight 10 classic L&Os that can probably teach you a thing or two about writing.

Sanctuary (season 4) - A Jewish driver accidentally runs over a black boy in Harlem and leaves the scene. When the investigation rules it an accident and prosecutors decline to file charges, outrage in the black community sparks a riot caught by television cameras. Racial tensions run high as Ben Stone pursues convictions for men who killed an innocent man during that melee. It's got echoes of issues that surrounded the Rodney King and Reginald Denny trials (the latter a clear influence on the riot) and is another great instance of Law & Order using its procedural format to pick at larger social matters.

Remand (season 6) - The inspiration this time is the Kitty Genovese murder. A 30 year-old conviction is jeopardized by new evidence, and when a new trial is ordered, McCoy has to win the case without the aid of a confession obtained decades ago under circumstances that now appear dubious. It's an instance where the show manages to explore the sort of police work done 30 years earlier, and work in some personal stakes amid the motions. (Adam Schiff prosecuted this case and is determined that the still-living victim not see her rapist go free, even though his sentence is already longer than many similar convicts.

Charm City (season 6) - A master class in how to write a crossover between two shows with very different styles. Frank Pembleton, Tim Bayliss and John Munch from Homicide make appearances, and despite their show's vastly different approach (Homicide is much more of a character-based show than L&O ever was), they fit right in. Pembleton's manipulative style in "The Box" - rarely put under scrutiny on his own turf - becomes the complication in McCoy's case here. Better still, the story is constructed in a way that doesn't leave things feeling unresolved for viewers unable to track down the Homicide half.

D-Girl/Turnaround/Showtime (season 7) - the only three-parter in the show's history, and a pivitol episodes in terms of the audience because for these airings, Law & Order took over ER's timeslot while the other show stored up new episodes for sweeps. The OJ trial clearly inspired the media circus that surrounds the investigation into the murder of a studio exec and the expanded scope lets the writers play with more twists and red herrings than normal. Gilmore Girls fans will enjoy seeing not just Lauren Graham here, but her on-screen boyfriend Scott Cohen here as well. Again, character stakes are woven in through strife in Curtis's marriage and Jamie Ross's tension with her ex-husband, the defense attorney opposing McCoy and Ross. This allows for a few more instances of the show's various partnerships interacting to discuss matters beyond the case. It also sets up one of my favorite McCoy lines in court: "Your grief might be more convincing, sir, if you hadn't just admitted... you cut off your wife's head!"

Double Down (season 7) - one of the best episodes in the entire franchise. Law & Order is often at pains to develop conflict among its regulars because its rare to use continuing subplots that make it easier to develop and resolve tension across several episodes. It also would get tiresome to have everyone at each other's throats over every case, so in general the characters work together pretty harmoniously and professionally. This episode is something of an exception to that, as the cops and prosecutors differ on how to handle a case where a captured bank robber and cop killer wants an incredibly light sentence for giving up the location of his dying hostage. McCoy makes the deal, then spends the back half of the episode trying one legal trick after another to nulify it. When the only card he has left to play requires the cops putting their own necks on the line, the result is one of L&O's best courtroom moments.

Terminal (season 7) - The personal stakes this time come from the governor clashing with Adam Schiff when Schiff refuses to pursue the death penalty. Schiff faces removal from office in an episode that gives the great Steven Hill more screen time than normal. For Schiff, the matter is complicated by his ailing wife's condition making it necessary to for him to decide if he should prolong her life through life support. The final shot plays entirely on Schiff's face as sound effects indicate the termination of life support... and the heartbreaking outcome. Hill's brief gasp of sorrow is more devastating that the vast majority of emotional histrionics found in most medical dramas.

Refuge (season 9) - another rare two-parter finds McCoy taking on the Russian Mob. McCoy's case hangs on the testimony of a traumatized young boy, only to have a mistrial declared when the boy's testimony goes out of bounds. Before a new trial can begin, an ADA and the boy's mother are murdered, and the boy left in critical condition. That he survived creates a complication that forces McCoy to either put him through another trial or withdraw his case. (In a cruel twist, had the boy died, his prior testimony would be admissible.) At that point, McCoy fights dirty, going well past the edge of what the law permits as he suspends habeas corpus. Some of this plays VERY differently post-9/11. Here McCoy is the hero for breaking the rules to go after "the bad guys" but in a post Bush/Cheney world, McCoy's actions are horrifying in their own way.

Gunshow (season 10) - A man shoots up a park with a semi-automatic gun which he converted to fully automatic. McCoy's investigation finds that the gun manufactors were not only aware of the design flaw that made the gun vulnerable to tampering, but they ignored it despite the fact making the gun tamper-proof would have added minimal costs. Thus, he takes on the gun companies in court and delivers a powerful closing statement pouring out two trays in succession. The first tray contains the number of bullets the gunman could have fired in a 30-second period using a semi-automatic. The second... contains the number of bullets he actually fired using a fully-automatic weapon. The difference in sound as each tray's contents hit the floor are a masterful bit of theatricality.

Killerz (season 10) - A chilling episode revolving around the prosecution of a sociopathic 10 year-old girl for the murder of a younger boy. The legal and moral questions surrounding how to bring this killer to justice let the characters grapple with hard questions, but the real highlight is Hallee Hirsh's (later Mark Greene's daughter on ER) unsettling performance as the killer.

Justice (season 10) - Another twisting plot that brings back Jamie Ross - this time in opposition to her former partner McCoy. There's some deft legal maneuvering and an incredibly well-constructed mystery that I dare not spoil. McCoy not only has to face his former colleague, but he also takes on a judge after uncovering evidence that he buried possibly exculpatory evidence years ago when he was prosecuting a murder. Like many of the best episodes, this episode will have you marveling at the density of what the writers pack into 44 minutes, balancing strong twists while insuring the characters still drive the story.

I could easily have selected another 10 or 15 episodes, but these all stand as a pretty good representation of the series at its best. My "golden era" of the show is Seasons 5-10, though the "Cutter years" of seasons 18-20 were also fantastic. If you haven't exposed yourself to the mothership series, I urge you to rectify that immediatley. For those of you who have watched, what are your favorite episodes?

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Best screenwriting post of the week: "Amateur Screenwriter Confident Hollywood Will Make His Movie Exactly As He Envisions It."

This post gave me equal parts belly-laughs and script reader PTSD. Do not take this lightly - if you have ever dealt with amateur screenwriters who refuse to see reason, you will need a trigger warning for this article: "Amateur Screenwriter Confident Hollywood Will Make His Movie Exactly As He Envisions It."

[Imperial, PA] Sean Tierney is excited to have finally finished his first screenplay after working on it for the past six years. He initially thought his magnum opus was finished two years ago, so he mailed a copy to DreamWorks Studios (Attn: Steven Spielberg or David Geffen if Steven’s out on location) but he received no response.

“I guess it wasn’t quite there yet.”

He eagerly went back to work refining his 173 page script by adding another 68 pages including an extended prologue to give more backstory to his seven major characters. Once it was done he took it to a local writers group who had offered him a table reading and discussion. Unfortunately they ‘totally botched it’ by not reading his dialog with the exact intonation he heard in his head when he wrote it.

Read the rest at the link.