Thursday, March 30, 2017

RIVERDALE is one of the most interesting new shows of this season

It recently hit me how unusual it is what RIVERDALE has been able to pull off. Can you imagine the CW hyping a new SUPERMAN show and then delivering a series based on SUPERMAN: RED SON, a graphic novel that posits what would have happened if Kal-El's rocket landed in Russia and he was raised Communist? Or perhaps promise a JUSTICE LEAGUE series and then unveil it as an adaptation of KINGDOM COME, a series that casts most of DC's heroes in middle age and in conflict with each other and a much darker world around them? Even given the popularity of those stories, it feels like Warner Bros would deem it too risky to make these outlier stories into the mainstream face of their properties.

Yet that's just what RIVERDALE is pulling off by transplanting the familiar Archie Comics characters into a new Twin Peaks-eque teen drama. When I first heard about the project, I suspected they might push Archie Andrews and friends to a more slightly mature DAWSON'S CREEK world, but the creepy atmosphere and darker vibe goes far beyond that. The archetypes the characters from the comics represent are there, but they've been complete and consumed into this unsettling world where one of the classmates has been murdered and no one - not even his family - seems above suspicion. Themes of corruption hang in the air constantly, whether they're wafting from the storyline of Veronica's mother cutting backroom deals with the mayor, or from the more personal corruption in progress as Archie's duplicitous teacher seduces him. This is a RIVERDALE so corrupt, we've seen local gangs established as influencing the town politics.

The weird thing about this is that it works rather effectively. Maybe for me that's because I'm aware of the Archie universe without being especially passionate about it. When I was growing up, Archie comics were usually the books that relatives got me when they didn't really know what I liked to read. I'd been reading Superman since the age of 6, but every now and then an Archie one would slip in. I remember them being fairly simple stories, the same kind of pre-teen comfort food you'd get from the animated DENNIS THE MENACE cartoon and SAVED BY THE BELL. There was no edge to Archie, but that was the point. They were easily defined archetypes: The Normal Kid, The Rich Girl, The Girl Next Door, The Best Friend, The Jock and so on.

These were comics aimed at 8 year olds so you're not going to find a lot of nuance. In fact, I'm pretty sure that I recall Betty and Veronica often changing places with regard to which one was the sympathetic "good" one and which one was more self-absorbed "wrong" choice in the love triangle. Because Archie didn't change and mature, I found it pretty easy to leave behind, even as my Superman, Batman and JLA-related collection grew to beyond 15 longboxes. It never even occurred to me that Archie meant THAT much to people until soon after I moved to LA and befriended a girl who was working for a director who was DEEP into geek culture. She didn't relate to her boss much because while he was into the DAREDEVILS and BATMANS, her passion was to be a producer on an ARCHIE movie. (The most recent comic book film around the time I learned this was CATWOMAN, so no one had much expectation at all of seeing Archie and friends appearing in live action.) At the time it struck me as odd that the simple stories resonated so much, but every now and then I'd find more people around my age with the same affection. The fanbase was disproportionately female, so perhaps this was an audience that conventional wisdom overlooked because of the assumption that "comic books are for boys."

I like that RIVERDALE is a big swing. There are no half-measures here. No punches pulled in the name of keeping the characters wholesome. The makeovers the characters get often draw on their history, but spun a completely different way. For instance, the blandly wholesome "good-girl" Betty is revealed to have a domineering mother who demands she be the perfect daughter. It makes Alice Cooper (the mother, not the singer) into the kind of paternal figure who'd be the villain of some indie movie about a teenage girl who cuts herself because she can't live up to the pressure to be perfect. Alice is rarely affectionate to Betty and even had her other daughter committed to a home for troubled youths (supposedly out of concern but CLEARLY more out of Alice's desire to keep the pregnant teen hidden from public view, thus protecting the facade of the perfect Cooper family.)

Jughead also is radically re-contextualized here. I recall him as the goofball who eats a lot of burgers. Here, his relationships with most of the gang are strained, particularly with Archie. Jughead is positioned as the outsider, the one who scribbles pseudo-profound observations about the others and the ongoing mystery in the true crime book he's writing. He's closed off, and likely appears perpetually sullen and alienating to most of his classmates. (Recent weeks have seen him open up and relax around the others, particularly Betty, but a newcomer to the town would never mistake the old Jughead for this guy. Perhaps the most interesting wrinkle is the fact his father is the leader of the Southside Serpents, Riverdale's motorcycle gang.

Veronica might be my favorite, and a lot of that owes to the fact she's allowed to be fun. I've been trying to pinpoint exactly why this works. She's got as much family drama as anyone: her father's in jail following an embezzlement scandal and her mother is having an affair with Archie's father. Oh, and she also forged Veronica's signature on company documents after Veronica refused to abet her mother's schemes. I think what let's Veronica be the sparkplug is that she seems to actually enjoy being with her friends and participating in all things RIVERDALE. So many of the show's relationships are fraught with tension and Veronica cuts through that. With her peers, she tries to resolve or cut through tension rather than be a prisoner of it. During a storyline about the guys on the football team slut-shaming the girls of the school, it's Veronica who spearheads the revenge scheme rather than pout or stew over it. When Betty is on the outs with Betty over (who else?) Archie, it's Veronica who works to clear the air and actively works to save the friendship. At its worst, the teen drama can turn into a lot of pretty people whining to one another "I can't believe you would do this to me!" over that week's misunderstanding. Veronica is defined by her refusal to be a prisoner of those cliches.

Which is not to imply that the others don't confront their conflict and demons, they just go about it in different ways. Several other characters push back against their parents, but lack the self-confidence Veronica displays. Surely there will come a time when fortunes will reverse (it's just the nature of drama) and Veronica is the one being kicked while she's down, but for now I'm enjoying this dynamic. I didn't expect that at this particular time in our culture that it would be easy to empathize with the "poor little rich girl" but RIVERDALE's finding ways to deepen the character beyond her two-dimensional depiction without making her unrecognizable.

I guess this brings me to Archie, who I'm finding to be a much more loaded character to discuss. In any ensemble like this, the central "normal guy" character is deceptively difficult to get right. Some of this is unfair. They have to be flawed in order to make good drama, and as the central figure, they don't often get a week off from screwing up or making mistakes. With extreme examples like Dawson Leery, the character tips too far, and one too many ventures into unlikability could cause us to question everything we enjoyed about the character in the first place. (Though I don't agree with it, "Kevin Arnold is a Dick" is a pretty good example of this kind of evidence logging.)

Thus far, the show has been cautious about wading into the Archie/Betty/Veronica triangle. There's plenty of groundwork for the show to use later, but it hasn't been foregrounded to the degree many other teen dramas would have by this point. It's a wise move that let's the characters be more fully formed before the triangle consumes them (and it almost always does.) By developing Archie/Betty, Betty/Veronica, Archie/Veronica on their own first, it'll give more weight to when the series decides to go full-hog into that romantic drama. To use a DAWSON'S CREEK example, think of how much better season 3's Dawson/Joey/Pacey triangle worked than the initial Joey/Dawson/Jen one did.

But it's impossible to discuss Archie without touching on his initial big plot. We learn in the pilot that he's been hooking up with his music teacher, Miss Grundy, since the summer. This kind of plot is always going to be a hot button for me. I absolutely loathe the romanticizing of teacher/student affairs on TV. Everyone jumps to Pacey and Miss Jacobs as their comparative, but I'm not someone who wears rose-colored glasses for DAWSON'S CREEK season one. It was an awful plot then and it hasn't aged any better in the years since. That show had nothing interesting to say about such an affair or the emotional impact on the underage participant. It was cynical shock value, with the novelty being that the teenage Pacey was the predator. "DAWSON'S did it" is not a good enough answer to pursue this kind of story.

My wife watches PRETTY LITTLE LIARS, and so I've seen a fair amount of those shows, which contains a teacher/student affair where the student is a teenage girl. This one raises my hackles because this pairing is eventually presented as one of the couplings we should be rooting for. It normalizes statutory rape and really seems to brush past the wrongness of such an affair. I don't think you have any business writing this story unless you're willing to acknowledge you're writing about statutory rape - and treat it seriously in that context. (Contrast PLL with LIFE UNEXPECTED, which seemed to be taking the wrong path with their teacher/student couple, only to throw in a late twist that forced the adult player to question the morality of what he'd done.)

I'm mindful that there's still plenty of time for RIVERDALE to throw such a twist at us, so I haven't let this one plot put me off of the show. To their credit, early on it was lampshaded that Miss Grundy was a sinister, predatory person, negating the PLL problem. With the affair exposed in Episode 4, most of the character reactions were horror and concern. No one cheered Archie with an "Attaboy!" (Or to use the vernacular of SOUTH PARK, "Niiiiiice.") However... we've not seen many emotional consequences for Archie either (yet.) This plot has all the hallmarks of something that's gonna pop up in the final three episodes to redefine the central mystery, so I'm willing to be patient.

I just question if this was the wisest plot to throw at the central character while he's being established. I've felt disconnected from Archie, and I suspect this is the culprit. He's gotten a couple interesting beats throughout, notably a story dealing with Jughead and the tensions between Jughead's father and Archie's father. The show has also done some interesting things with him trying to write songs and perform with one of the Pussycats (of Josie and the Pussycats), so I have faith that by the end of the season he'll be rounded out to better effect.

Josie and the Pussycats are also being treated with some unique shades. When Archie tries to write songs for them, they call him out on "cultural appropriation," questioning what a white teenage boy could have to say about the lives of black females. We also learn that Josie's father - a famed musician in his own right - doesn't think much of pop music and disapproves of his daughter's band so much that he can't even sit through an entire performance at the school talent show. (His anti-pop stance had me contemplating fan fiction where he meets Ryan Gosling's jazz purist character from LA LA LAND.)

So many words and I feel like I've barely scratched the surface of what makes RIVERDALE so compelling. There's a reason the show is titled "RIVERDALE" and not "ARCHIE." The creators have been establishing an entire canvas, gradually fleshing out many corner of the town. It helps the setting feel "real" in a way few shows manage early in their run. Did Capeside feel this fleshed out six episodes into DAWSON'S CREEK? Did GILMORE GIRLS get very far into establishing Stars Hollow as more than a generic quirky small town this fast?

Creator Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, working under Berlanti Productions's Greg Berlanti and Sarah Schechter have established so much Riverdale culture that a broad variety of storylines can be launched from these origins. Arguably, this is helped by some clever casting in the adult roles, as virtually every senior member of the cast has a notable teen role on their resume. Luke Perry (BEVERLY HILLS 90210), Robin Givens (HEAD OF THE CLASS), and Skeet Ulrich (SCREAM) are just a few of the names to be dropped there. (M├Ądchen Amick is the overachiever, with her TWIN PEAKS history giving a link to one aspect of the show's lineage, and her DAWSON'S CREEK stint linking to the other half.)

And even though RIVERDALE seems to have an engine that could power it for five seasons or more, I wonder if - in the spirit of some ARCHIE reboots - we might find that each season completely reboots the context around the iconic characters. If this year is "ARCHIE meets TWIN PEAKS," what's to stop next year from being "ARCHIE meets THE WALKING DEAD" aka "AFTERLIFE WITH ARCHIE." (Yes, this exists - a comic miniseries about Riverdale being overrun by zombies, and it's written by series creator Aguirre-Sacasa.)

But for now, I'm more than happy to take in the shady, sinister vibe RIVERDALE's putting out this season. If you haven't checked it out yet, give it a look, and odds are you'll find something that appeals to you

Monday, March 13, 2017

"The Black List didn't get me a career so it's a total lie!"

There were 53 active players on the New England Patriots' roster last season. 53 players who got a Super Bowl ring after making it to the biggest game of the season and winning.

How many of them were the subject of stories in sports magazines? How many of them were on the cover of those magazines? How many of them will spend their retirement years living off of high profile sportscaster jobs and endorsement deals?

How many of them go home every night to a supermodel wife?

How many of them can you name right now besides Tom Brady?

So what would you think of a linebacker in his first year on the team who feels like he was cheated because he played for the same Super Bowl-winning team as Tom Brady and is furious that he's not getting endorsement deals left and right? They both won The Big Game - how come HIS contract's not even in the same ballpark as Brady's?

The answer to this is obvious, right?

This is the sort of thing that runs through my mind when I hear someone proclaim that the Black List (both yearly and website) is a sham because it didn't work for THEIR script. "I got on the Black List last year and I STILL haven't been paid for my writing! This is bullshit," they might say. "I got four 8s on the Black List website and was number 4 on the Top Lists and I still didn't get an agent! This whole thing's a grift!"

This post is semi-provoked by a conversation I saw on Twitter last week, but it's a fairly perennial topic in Screenwriter World, so don't take this as an attack on one particular person. Rather I want to say something about an attitude I see cropping up now and then. There's an apparent belief that if you reach a certain achievement, the industry owes you a career. That's not how things like The Black List work and it's not helpful at all to wallow in that delusion.

(Also, everywhere I say "The Black List" feel free to read "Nicholl Fellowship" or "ABC/Disney Fellowship" and so on. In general, what I have to say applies to all of these in some form or fashion.)

In its purest form, the Black List is a survey of industry tastes. It reflects the town, but as with the adage about staring into the abyss, the Black List reflects back at the town. It can elevate great material that thus far, hasn't found the right filmmakers to bring it to life. Perhaps the most important service it provides is shining a spotlight on something a little left of center, validating that writing's brilliance. There are plenty of documented cases of this exposure playing a part in a screenplay going into production, most recently being ARRIVAL. Eric Heisserer's script got a big boost after appearing on the 2013 Black List.

2013. It took three years from the Black List to the big screen - and that's probably pretty fast, on average. I'll put the question to you - if there is a single script from the 2013 Black List that DIDN'T get produced, does that "failure" mean that the Black List "doesn't work?"

It's a pretty silly question, right? Acknowledging that the Black List simply cannot make careers out of every honored writer and films out of every honored screenplay in no way rescinds the credit they are due for the instances when their exposure HAS made a difference. Just because something didn't work for you doesn't always mean there's something shady going down.

The value of the Black List can be found in the correlation between its selections and films that went on to acclaim from the industry's highest honors. 4 of the last 6 Best Picture winners appeared on an annual Black List and 10 of the last 14 Best Screenplay winners did. Does that mean they owe their Oscars to the Black List?

Hell no! But it DOES demonstrate that the annual list identified them as worthy well before they went into production. It gives credibility to their voters's eye for talent. If someone gets on the Black List and assumes they'll be collecting an Academy Award, they're taking the wrong lesson from the experience.

"All I need is to get on the Black List and I'll be set." "All I need is an agent and then I'll be getting jobs left and right." "All I need is a staff writer gig and I'll be working in TV for the rest of my career." - ALL of this is dangerous and wrong-headed thinking. It implies that all you need to do is reach the bottom step of the escalator and the mechanism will carry you to the top.

Motherfucker, those are STAIRS. Or in the rare case they are an escalator, they're moving in the opposite direction.

This industry is a series of ever escalating auditions and as with auditions, the pack of talent gets winnowed down with each progressive move forward. You get six votes that earn you mention on the yearly Black List. That's great. It means your work is going to be read by everyone in town. Now tell me who's responsible for getting you to the next step, whether that's getting an agent or getting a sale?

It ain't the Black List. It's you - YOUR material. When I interviewed Franklin Leonard four years ago, we chatted a bit about the possibility of the Black List being rigged, perhaps by people attempting to stuff the ballot box lobbying. His take was that it didn't happen that often, certainly not consistently enough to be anything other than an outlier. Is it possible? Sure. But if I was someone looking to scam my way onto the Black List, I'd of course realize that no amount of scamming would magically make my writing into, say, Sorkin-level brilliance.

But let's say you're a writer with an okay script that had enough fans to land it on something like the Black List. What does that mean really? Eh, maybe a lot more people read my so-so writing, and so if it's inadequate, my screenplay gets passed on by a higher volume of reps and producers. Perhaps I get a couple meetings, where again, the onus is on me to prove I have the goods and am "ready." If I'm an imposter, it ends there. If I'm that one-in-a-million writer who has it, I keep climbing.

Thinking this is easy is one of the worst traps to fall into. A few years back I had a script that was one of the top scrips on the Black List website. I got a number of reads off of that strength and even queried several reps citing my achievement. I got a lot of, "This is great writing, but this isn't what I'm looking for at the moment." If you're savvy, you can use that to find out what they ARE looking for and remember to query them again if your next script seems like something they want.

A rep who tells you, "This isn't for me" is actually doing you a favor. The goal is not to get A rep, it's to get the RIGHT rep. In my case, I ended up with a young manager who seemed to be the right guy for this kind of script. He got the script in to all the right people who should be looking at it and the result was a lot of meetings, the usual "we really like your work" and then the "We'd love to see the next thing you're working on." Ultimately, it didn't go anywhere, and I'm not bitter about that because it wasn't necessarily the most mainstream idea. Later, my rep left the business, and after I got over that shock, I realized, "If their heart wasn't in it, it's better that I find someone who is playing this game to win."

Celebrate rejection like you would celebrate the end of a relationship with someone who it'd be a complete mistake to marry. Would I love to hear that Steven Spielberg wants to direct my next script? Sure, just like how when I was a teenager, I'd have loved to have dated Katie Holmes. Of course now I look at it and realize Katie and I would have never made it work and that relationship would have been a mistake for both of us. I'm glad we both dodged that bullet, and it's a lot healthier than sending her letters every week saying, "Why won't you love meeeeeeeee?????!"

(Okay, that took a weird turn.)

Both Black List arms can boost your career - but they can't boost EVERY career and the onus is still on the writer to take responsibility for what needs to happen once the eyes of the town are upon you. You can blame the List for the false hope you cultivated, or you can go back to the computer and start your next (and hopefully better) script. Which of those two options is more likely to actually accomplish something?

It's American Idol and the Black List is like the end of Hollywood Week. That's where the show would be left with 36 semi-finalists. That's some great company that includes Kelly Clarkson and Carrie Underwood. Does every AI semi-finalist have a career like Kelly or Carrie? Would you expect them to?

But they still wouldn't be multi-million dollar successes without AI. Likewise, the Black List gives you the stage and the mic. Now the town will see if you can sing.

Friday, March 10, 2017

Buffy the Vampire Slayer turns 20 today! (We are all so, so old)

Buffy the Vampire Slayer turns 20 today. That's something I find staggering to process. In many ways, Buffy ushered in an era of TV that is still ongoing to this day. It's pretty easy to point to several current shows - many of them on the CW - and feel them trying to evoke that Buffy magic. In processing how remarkable this is, I tried to think about what shows from 1977 were that much in the public consciousness at the time Buffy premiered in 1997.

I couldn't honestly come up with one - save for Star Trek, which was from 1966 and a special case as movies and spinoffs had kept it alive on film for most of those 30 years. The filmed Buffyverse ended in 2005 - nearly a full 12 years ago. And sure, you could point to plenty of old sitcoms like Happy Days, Laverne & Shirley, The Brady Bunch, Gilligan's Island, and so forth as shows that still had a strong awareness 20 years or more after their debut... but how many of them were regarded as still influential on then-present television?

I'm embarrassed to recall how late I was to the Buffy party. For all my fanboying of Joss Whedon, I wasn't even the first one in my household to discover the show. That honor goes to... my mother. At the mature age of 17, I was far above watching some silly teen drama. No, I had already skipped on to the adult dramas of Law & Order, ER and Homicide, some of the most well-crafted TV of any era. Why would I watch some dumb show based on a failed movie?

Considering the number of posts I've devoted to teen dramas over the years, that whole paragraph seems especially ironic. But it's true. My mother discovered the show somewhere during the second season. I recall the first episode I caught a piece of. It involved a love spell gone wrong, forcing everyone to act silly and result in a lot of second-hand embarrassment on the part of the viewer. (Watching actors forced to play ultra-horny never fails to make me want to crawl under the couch in embarrassment for them.) Immediately I tagged it as one of TV's most overused premises, used to thuddingly bad effect on TNG's in "The Naked Now" and not much better in Lois & Clark's "Pheromone, My Lovely," a episode where the only virtue was Teri Hatcher doing the Dance of the Seven Veils.

The second episode I walked in on my mother watching? "Inca Mummy Girl."

So yeah, I didn't become a convert until just before the start of Season 3, after hearing the hype over how season 2 had ended. When the finale re-aired early that fall, I caught those episodes, and from that point on, there was no doubt I'd be planted in front of the TV every Tuesday to catch new episodes. Before long, I was learning the names of the writers and recognizing the differences between a Marti Noxon episode and a Jane Espenson episode. I became a lurker on the newsgroup and quickly got addicted to the discussions peeling apart the deeper layers of the show. There were few shows I could engage in that way at that time.

Let's be honest - the fact TV scholars keep calling back to Buffy is a pretty good indication that even in a golden era of TV, Buffy was groundbreaking enough to leave it's mark.

I still argue that season 3 of Buffy is one of the most perfectly-structured seasons of television. It's the platonic ideal of balancing standalone episodes with a season-long arc. The individual installments maintain their own identity week-to-week, even as the larger story is advanced as needed. Better still, the season paces out its villains. Though we meet the Mayor early on, it's not until about 2/3 of the season that he really steps up as the Big Bad, and even then, his scheme is given a particular timing that completely takes care of the big question in most other cases: "Why is this guy waiting all season for his endgame?"

Also, because of how the season unfurls its plot, we never fall into a rut where it feels like every week is the same wolf-and-sheepdog drama of the two sides clashing over and over again. Current genre TV often falls into this trap - introduce the main villain in the season premiere and have them and the hero spend all season locking horns. (Honestly, Buffy itself came perilously close to falling into this trap in Season 5, and even closer still in Season 7).

There's probably little else I could say about Buffy that I haven't said before in several other posts, so before I get to plugging those, I'll leave with this: Happy birthday Buffy! Hope it's better than the birthday where you lost your virginity. Or the one where your Watcher took your powers and locked you in with a psycho vamp. Or the one where Giles got turned into a Demon. Or the one where Dawn slashed her wrists. Or the one in the episode that I never rewatch.

The Body: How to write a crying scene - Part I and Part II
Pangs: PC or Not PC? Writing good character conflict
Show, don't tell
What Serialized Shows Like The Vampire Diaries Should Learn From Buffy The Vampire Slayer's Third Season