Friday, June 30, 2017

16 Great TV Shows, Part 5: The John Larroquette Show

Part 1: The Wonder Years
Part 2: The Simpsons
Part 3: Star Trek: Deep Space Nine
Part 4: Seinfeld

Show of hands, how many of you even remember The John Larroquette Show?

C'mon people, it ran for FOUR seasons on NBC!

To be fair, the reason the show is on the list is almost entirely because of its wonderfully dark first season. Created by Don Reo, the show starred John Larroquette as a recently-sober night manager of Crossroads, a depressing bus station in St. Louis. And let me be clear, this is a dark setting rife with tension. John spends most of the pilot trying not to drink as he deals with depressing crisis after depressing crisis. Darryl "Chill" Mitchell played the lunch counter owner who might have been stereotyped as an "angry black man" but became a fleshed out character as a comic foil for John. Liz Torres played John's assistant and the great Chi McBride was Gene, the station janitor who had no problem standing up to John. Their first encounter comes as a horrified John emerges from the bathroom and says, "It looks like you've really got your work cut out for you in there." Gene, in a "are you kidding me" tone says, "I don't go in there!"

Most of the characters had an edge of some kind, and for the first season, the show resisted softening them too much. John's 12-step recovery was a focus of several episodes, and you don't usually see broad laughs wrung out of a guy at rock bottom trying to put his life back together. It was also surprisingly literate. I'd be hard-pressed to come up with another sitcom that devoted a whole runner to author Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow.

I have this theory that NBC bought the show assuming that it would be another Cheers-like sitcom, with the bus station acting like the bar that all these quirky lovable losers hung out in. Cheers was a place where everybody knows your name, but Crossroads was where no one wanted to be. But it works because real comedy can come out of conflict - and it existed on every level on TJLS. Characters hated the depressing night shift environment, where you were just as likely to get shot as have to deal with the station's regular homeless bums and hookers.

The cast of people with color meant that the show could also address racial issues and tensions. No other NBC sitcom was trying to mine dark laughs out of the problems that a guy who looks like "Chill" has when driving his car through a white neighborhood while playing gangsta rap. The song's only lyrics, "Kill Whitey," is one of those jokes that I'm not sure I should laugh at for its naked antagonism or shake my head at for being too broad. On the other hand, when NBC had a full night's worth of sitcoms set in New York with nary a person of color in the cast, Larroquette stood out because it actually acknowledged race existed. I can't think of any other NBC shows that went to that well.

No, wait. There was the painfully unfunny Rhythm and Blues, which was about a white DJ being hired by an all-black radio station when he's mistaken for a black guy. I swear to you this was a real show.

A show like The John Larroquette Show couldn't last for long, and if you want to see a perfect example of how network meddling can rob a show of its distinctiveness, check out the overhaul the show got in Season Two. With a year of sobriety under his belt, John's recovery was far enough that his backstory as a former alcoholic receded into the background. Suddenly he was working the day shift, robbing the show of the darker danger and atmosphere it had. The elderly bum got cleaned up and started shining shoes at the bus station, and the streetwise hooker got clean and bought the station's bar. The edgy show about life's losers at a crossroads in their life morphed into just another show where funny people hung out in one location most of the day. That's the development process - take what's distinctive and make it acceptable to the masses.

I wish I could rewatch the first season, but it has yet to come to DVD. My memory of the show is that it boldly followed its voice that first year and was successful in spite of - perhaps maybe because of - it made viewers uncomfortable.

Part 6: ER

Thursday, June 29, 2017

16 Great TV Shows, Part 4: Seinfeld

Part 1: The Wonder Years
Part 2: The Simpsons
Part 3: Star Trek: Deep Space Nine

C'mon, as soon as I praised story density and pace in The Simpsons, you probably saw this one coming.

I came to Seinfeld at the top of its 4th season, which you might know as the one which kicks off with a trip to LA and eventually leads to a storyline about Jerry and George collaborating on a pilot. This was the year the show moved to the post-Cheers slot at midseason and EVERYONE discovered it. It had been a cult hit prior to that, but this was its breakout moment and it felt instantaneous. I'm not sure if that could even happen today with a network show.

Created by Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David, Seinfeld had been a timeslot competitor with Home Improvement, and that seems like the perfect metaphor for the instant switch in my sitcom tastes at the age of 13. I'd grown bored with family sitcoms that followed the same predictable formula each week, set largely in the same living room/kitchen stages, with the same stale conflicts. Seinfeld was like none of that. Instead of plots like "Tim forgets date night with Jill and goes to a monster truck rally" there were stories like "George jeopardizes the future of their pilot by staring too long at an executive's daughter's cleavage." If you look at those loglines, you can at least see how Home Improvement's story can easily breakdown in an A to B to C story. If someone tells you the Seinfeld conflict, you go, "Is there a show there? Is it funny?"

They found humor in all the little moments that everyone else overlooked, and so much of the comedy was specifically tied to character. During that year, NBC reran an early episode called "The Pen" that was about Jerry and Elaine visiting Jerry's parents in Florida. My hand to God, the first five minutes of the show - before we really hit anything resembling the A-story of the episode - was my grandparents to a tee. It wasn't even the dialogue so much as the tone and the nuances of their attitudes. And in true Seinfeld fashion, the main story gets instigated by a minor conflict. (Jerry admires an astronaut pen that belongs to his father's friend. The friend offers it to Jerry. Jerry declines saying he couldn't possibly take it. The friend insists, Jerry accepts. Problem: the friend didn't want Jerry to accept and word spreads that Jerry took his pen, setting off tension in the retirement community.)

So my first lesson from Seinfeld: you can find a story anywhere.

Second lesson: When you're mining humor from characters, the more specific and unique the characters, the funnier they are. This maybe holds even truer with one-off guest characters. Think of how many one-episode Seinfeld characters are instantly memorable.

Let's talk about story density. If you watch the series in order, you see the structure get gradually more complex and ambitious. Early episodes sometimes have two major plots that don't interact much, but gradually, the stories would start to converge in unexpected ways. Eventually, it got to the point where each of the four regulars had their own story and those stories would cross and interconnect in Rube Goldbergian ways. It's hard to find that much ambition on TV today, let alone 25 years ago.

Again, this was the period where the pace of television really sped up. Scenes were shorter, dialogue came faster, the entire rhythm of the scenes was faster paced. You could blame short attention spans, but what you're really gaining is the ability to tell more complex stories. With a lot of television, the rule is "Get in, get out," keep things moving. (There are exceptions, of course. Better Call Saul really luxuriates in its measured pace. You don't find a lot of leasurely-paced comedies, though.)

This was also the first time I can remember a sitcom that was more or less telling a serialized story across the entire season. Though there are a number of episodes that don't deal with the pilot, it's a recurring thread through much of the season. (And that's not even counting branching threads like George's relationship with Susan.) It was a nice novelty to be watching a sitcom that didn't mostly pretend that last week's episode didn't happen. I know my reaction to the NBC pilot subplot was, "Wait, you can do that?"

Seinfeld blew up the sitcom formula in so many ways, many of which have been the topic of many books and thinkpieces, but these are the elements that mattered the most to me in learning about story. It's one of the few shows that I don't think I'll ever burn out from watching reruns. I'm sure there are some episodes that I've sat through 20 or 25 times and they never get old. It also is a clear forerunner of another favorite of mine, Curb Your Enthusiasm (which does not appear on this list.)

Other Seinfeld Posts:

"The Golf Ball" - building to a Seinfeld-like payoff
The Seinfeld finale and why putting your lead character on trial can backfire

Part 5: The John Larroquette Show

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

16 Great TV Shows, Part 3: Star Trek: Deep Space Nine

Part 1: The Wonder Years
Part 2: The Simpsons

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine helped me recognize the authoritarianism of the Bush Administration for what it was.

That's quite a feat considering when the show left the airwaves, Bill Clinton was still in office, but by that time, DS9 (created by Michael Piller and Rick Berman) had devoted at least half of its seven-year run to storylines about ethics during wartime. I've already written two posts about how a 1996 two-parter called Homefront/Paradise Lost dealt with the debate of security from terrorism versus individual liberty. Produced during peacetime, it was easy to see that the right answer ALWAYS is "Side with your principles. Never embrace any fascist security policies against your own people in the name of fighting the enemy because then they've already destroyed you." It was all about how paranoia and fear can be misused by power-mongers for their own purpose.

I guarantee you that if this episode was produced in 2004, it would have been attacked by all manner of conservative media and Fox News for being "unpatriotic." It absolutely feels like a pointed and direct criticism of post 9/11 America, even though it preceded the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks by almost six full years. That is the power of storytelling, to confront social issues in a way that keeps them relevant even decades removed from the context that inspired them. Wartime ethics was such a focus of DS9 during the Dominion arc that it became surreal to see the same sorts of questions emerge about the Iraq War and the hunt for Bin Laden. I already knew which side I was on because the storytelling forced me to examine my own values years later.

And yet, one of my favorite episodes is "In The Pale Moonlight," where the message is almost unquestionably "The ends justify the means." At this point in the series, the Federation is getting hammered in the Dominion War. Captain Sisko realizes that their only chance might be to convince the Romulans to abandon their non-aggression pact with the Dominion and join the Federation and the Klingons in the fight against them. He hopes he can convince them that the Dominion is just biding their time and will eventually turn on the Romulans after crushing their other foes. And he's probably right. Problem: all efforts to turn up evidence of this plot come to naught.

So with the help of Garak - a Cardassian former spy-turned-tailor - Sisko produces fake evidence of the plans and arranges for a Romulan senator to visit the station in secret. There he offers his argument and a fake recording of a Dominion meeting where they discuss the invasion of Romulus. One problem: the Senator figures out it's fake and plans to go back to his government with the news that the Federation attempted to deceive them. If that happens, they might enter the war AGAINST Starfleet and the Klingons.

Fortunately Garak has a solution. He plants a bomb on the Senator's shuttle and blows it up, killing five people. Sisko's incensed when he finds out and confronts Garak, but Garak says that it's worked out perfectly. The Senator's meeting was secret, and so the Romulans will assume the hit came from the DOMINION. Better still, when they recover the data rod with the fake recording, they'll assume anything imperfect about the recording will be the result of the explosion. It will look like the Senator uncovered vital intel and was killed for it, adding to its authenticity. And aside from those lives, all it cost "was the self-respect of ONE Starfleet officer."

He's right. The Romulans join the Klingons and Federation, and their forces are enough to turn the tide. Because of this, the Dominion stands a better chance of being defeated.

Over the course of the episode, to make this scheme happen, Sisko has been a party to bribery, extortion, forgery and assassination. And as he tells us at the end. "I can live with it."

This never would have happened on Star Trek: The Next Generation, where the only lead character to come even close to making morally questionable choices was Worf. On TNG, either Picard would have swayed the Romulans with an unrealistically persuasive speech, or there would have been a last-minute recovery of a real recording. The Enterprise crew were good guys who never had to get their hands TOO dirty. Morality on Picard's ship is black and white, while Sisko lives in a world full of shades of grey.

And that's what made DS9 more fascinating to me as a teenager. It seemed determined to test the boundaries of what Star Trek could be, both inside and outside the narrative. Characters sometimes made horrible choices and weren't always exonerated by their circumstances. They failed, they learned, they grew. It made them feel more like people rather than stiff representatives of a point of view who rarely changed week-to-week. As a long-time viewer, it was rewarding to see long-term stories build. Seemingly disconnected threads would come together in a tapestry that eventually used the backdrop of the Dominion War to explore all sides of their characters.

Don't get me wrong. I love TNG. It has some of my favorite hours of TV. But if we're talking about the show that made me go, "Damn, I'd like to write THAT," it's Deep Space Nine all the way. Over the years, the show explored issues like terrorism, faith, religious fundamentalism, homosexuality, and much more.

DS9 also stoked my TV writing interest in another way. One of the writers, Ronald D. Moore, used to answer fan questions on an AOL discussion board on a fairly regular basis. It's hard to remember this in the age of Twitter, where every writer and writers' room has their own twitter account, but there didn't used to be this sort of ongoing dialogue with TV creators. Moore was one of the few, and DS9's Robert Hewitt Wolfe was one of the others. Beyond that, there weren't many peeks behind the curtain outside of magazine articles.

Moore ended up answering a lot of questions about the process of writing and producing TV. I learned a lot about breaking and developing story from those Q and As, lessons I applied a few years later when I started producing my own half-hour drama series in college. I wrote Ron Moore a fan letter at that point and was stunned a few weeks later when he tracked me down to call me at home. That full story is here if you want to read it.

And of course, Moore went on to create the revival of Battlestar Galactica, a show with absolutely became a commentary on Bush-era politics, this time intentionally. It's hard not to see BSG as a descendant of DS9, and a reaction to Star Trek: Voyager.

Deep Space Nine will always be a big part of my journey to becoming a writer. It's just great drama dealing with great ideas. Star Trek has never produced anything else like it.

Part 4: Seinfeld

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

16 Great TV Shows, Part 2: The Simpsons

Part 1: The Wonder Years

Bart Simpson and I are the same age.

Correction: Bart Simpson and I WERE the same age. When the show started, we were both in 4th grade. This is normally the part where I'd make some pithy remark about how he's aged better, but the fact is that I look pretty damn good and of the two of us, I got to go through puberty, so I'm calling this one for Team Bitter.

I'm trying to figure out how to explain the phenomenon of The Simpsons to a young audience that wasn't around at the time. Upon its debut, it was instantly one of the biggest shows on TV and certainly was one of the most talked about. Every kid was imitating Bart's catchphrases like "Don't have a cow, man!" I recall one of my classmates behind forced to turn TWO Bart Simpsons T-shirts inside out on separate occasions. One read "I'm Bart Simpson. Who the hell are you?" The other: "Underachiever and proud of it." (That last one is due to be re-purposed any day now by the Republican party as their "anti-elite" slogan.)

When The Simpsons debuted, there was nothing else on TV like it. Prime time animated shows hadn't existed for decades since The Flintstones went off the air. This was a cartoon that hadn't been created with the assumption its audience was somewhere between the ages of 4 and 10. And it had an edge to its humor that most live action sitcoms didn't. Even in the beginning, there was actual social commentary, with plenty of shots at incompetent authority figures like politicians, police, religious leaders, business owners, television performers, lawyers, and the entire justice system. Nothing was sacred. If anything had any kind of authority, The Simpsons was there to take the piss out of it. I was just a bit young for SNL so the only other place I'd seen humor deployed that way was in MAD Magazine (an acknowledged comedy influence on many of The Simpsons's early writers.

The funny thing is that watching that first season now, it seems much more grounded, unsophisticated and tame compared to what would come in just a few seasons when stories shifted focus from Bart to Homer. This allowed for adventures like Homer going back to college or the family having to relocate in witness protection because Bart's arch enemy Sideshow Bob was determined to kill him. That episode is a great example of the density of pop culture references in The Simpsons. The story eventually turns into a riff on Cape Fear. I'd never seen either version up to that point, but enough of the film was out in the culture that I recognized the influences and some of the gags.

Pop culture jokes on The Simpsons landed with me one of two ways: either I got the reference and laughed at how perfectly placed it was, or I didn't get it and years later I'd be watching a classic film and realize "That's what they were stealing from!" The Simpsons parody of The Shining is so dense that it tells the whole story and hits every possible joke in about seven minutes. Years later when I saw the two-hour-plus film it was based on, I couldn't believe

The reference itself was never the entire joke, there was always a deeper point to it. They also proved that The Simpsons's writers were a well-educated bunch. How can you not love a joke about the "Ayn Rand School for Tots" (where they believe in "nurturing the bottle within.") And I'll confess that at the age of 12, the absurdity of a musical version of "A Streetcar Named Desire" blew right past me.

It was smart. It was literate. It was one of the first shows where I can recall regular "freeze frame" jokes that were on screen for a mere few seconds. The jokes were smart and they made you feel smart for getting them. This wasn't simple hack writing with basic cartoon plots. This show had a voice, and where it didn't match my developing comedy voice, it was certainly influencing it.

I'm also pretty sure it was my introduction to meta humor, or at least was the first time I'd seen it deployed on such a scale. There came a moment when I realized that every story about the making of Itchy & Scratchy was basically the writers' catharsis for what it was like to work on The Simpsons.

In its best seasons, beneath all the wit and satire were strong stories about the characters. It was weird at the time to realize that this silly cartoon had a lot of heart and emotion behind it. The flashback episodes dealing with Marge and Homer's courtship, marriage and journey into parenthood are some of the best examples of this. Also, you could never go wrong with a Lisa episode, particularly an episode that put Lisa together with Homer. Homer could be a complete idiot, but if you give him a story about how Lisa is totally disappointed in him and he tries to fix it, you really start to feel for the guy.

Heart. Joke density. Story density. Those are three of the things I took from The Simpsons. They had a habit of doing a first act that seemed to be going in one direction until a sudden zag in the story that sent things into a completely unexpected direction. That's more common now, but at the time it was revolutionary. I remember the experience of watching an episode I knew I'd seen, but not remembering what the yet-to-emerge A-story was. TV writing was in a process of getting faster and faster paced, and you can really see that building throughout the 90s.

The show also eventually built an entire world, populated with dozens of characters who the audience knew very well. Within a few seasons, Springfield felt like a real place you could visit with a history and culture all its own. It wasn't some generic animated town. Heck, even by the halfway point of the run, it felt like we had met most of its population.

I don't watch it regularly anymore. For me, the golden age of The Simpsons is probably Seasons 2-8, with the entire first 11 seasons being the era that I rewatched obsessively in syndication and pretty much know like the back of my hand. Had it ended there, with "Behind the Laughter" as the series finale, it would have been pretty much a perfect series. When I catch a new episode, it's generally still pretty funny, but you can't imagine the impact of the first few seasons of that show, when nothing on TV was remotely like it.

Part 3: Star Trek: Deep Space Nine

Monday, June 26, 2017

16 Great TV Shows, Part 1: The Wonder Years

Over a month after I finished watching 13 Reasons Why (a period which included three viewings of the series in the span of three weeks) I still felt like this show had struck a chord with me like few other shows. This one left a mark. Now I'm a big TV junkie. I watch a lot of shows and I enjoy a pretty broad range of shows, but the number of those shows that really stick in my gut and keep compelling me to seek out write-ups and behind-the-scenes interviews is much smaller.

It was one of those shows that I felt would leave an impact me as a writer nearly as much as a viewer. It took a familiar genre and told its story in such a unique way that it didn't feel like an imitation of anything else. When I look at 13 Reasons Why, I see a show that years from now will have spawned many antecedents in its wake, as well as being something we cite with "Wow, can you remember when Dylan Minnette and Katherine Langford really came out of nowhere to be some of the best actors of their generation?"

As an exercise, I sat down and tried to list all of the shows in the past that left me with this kind of feeling. I thought of the ones that made me want to write stories of the kind that fit into that kind of storytelling, and I scoured my brain for the series that had influenced my own writing. In the end, I was left with precisely 16 shows. This wasn't a list of my favorite shows, exactly. I left off a lot of shows with really terrific writing. This was more of a list of shows that were groundbreaking for me, or opened me up to new possibilities within the medium. Unsurprisingly, I found plenty of these had direct impact on my own work.

So my mission for the next month is to do short posts on each of those shows and explore what they mean to me. I'm going to go in (mostly) chronological order of when I discovered them, not necessarily in their order of release.

Check the "what about..." comments at the door. This is MY list, and one that is devoid of plenty of favorites that didn't fit the conditions of this exercise. Loved Cheers, but in the end, it didn't really change my understanding of the sitcom. Frasier was another painful omission. There were plenty of brilliant episodes and character arcs, but it didn't belong on this list. Also, I didn't hold a series's decline against it. If a show had one brilliant season that blew me away and three shitty seasons, the brilliant season got it on the list. 66 bad episodes don't erase the impact that 22 exemplary episodes made.

So let's begin with the first show I joined an online fan group for when I first got online in the 90s - The Wonder Years.

No, really. My senior year in high school was when Nick at Night started rerunning the series, just as my parents got an online account at home. For some reason it was THAT fan community I was drawn to, even before perennial favorites like Star Trek.

I had been familiar with the show long before that, though. To the best of my recollection, I began watching the series at some point in its second season, 1988-89. Before then, my experience with sitcoms was pretty much of the TGIF type. Growing Pains and Who's The Boss were in regular reruns after school, to the point where I probably saw all of those episodes many times. I was not yet old enough to reject Full House, Perfect Strangers or Family Matters, and I had also seen plenty of older shows from the 60s - Gilligan's Island, The Brady Bunch, Leave It To Beaver, etc.

The Wonder Years, created by Neal Marlens and Carol Black, was nothing like those, either in terms of visuals or emotions. It wasn't three jokes on a page. The characters weren't exaggerated stereotypes, nor were they treated as either punchlines to the adult stories or wise-beyond-their-years smart alecs. They were just kids. Kevin Arnold and friends were about four years ahead of me in school (and 20 years BEHIND me thanks to the shows Vietnam Era setting), but their world was instantly recognizable. More than any other show I'd seen at that point, it seemed to understand what it felt like to be a kid.

I remember thinking, "Wow, you could make a TV show about my life - or anyone my age's life - and it could be interesting without any far-out gimmicks." Kevin was hitting the same milestones I and my classmates would soon hit. The writers would build entire storyarcs around his conflict, eventual respect for, and loss of his math teacher. Tension with friends and would-be girlfriends formed enough of a story to tell an entire episode. Week-to-week, The Wonder Years showed me what a show was like when it put character first. Even when the action was built around a plot like Kevin's first job, or being forced to perform in a piano recital, it's all filtered about what it meant to Kevin. It wasn't the A to B to C plotting you'd get when one of the Brady kids faced a challenge.

Later shows would push the boundaries more, doing higher concept stuff like being set entirely during a night of Kevin delivering takeout food, or building a half-hour around what happens during Kevin's lunch period.

And of course, there was Winnie Cooper, the girl everyone wished lived next door.

Weirdly, it's a show that holds up at multiple ages. When you're younger than Kevin, it's aspirational. When you're his age, it just GETS you and everything you're going through. And when you're older, you look at it like Daniel Stern's narrator does, "Ah, I remember when..."

The Wonder Years was the first time I encountered a show that was truly universal. It tapped into the shared experience of adolescence both through the milestones of youth and perfectly evoking how those felt. It was my first lesson in how to get an audience emotionally invested in a series. It was also the earliest I remember watching a show that felt like a mini-movie. You'd never mistake it for any other show on the air, and in hindsight, I can follow a straight line from this show to several of my other favorites that will appear on this list.

As I work my way through my sixteen shows, see if you can come up with a list of the shows that influenced you as a writer. I'd be fun to compare results.

Part 2: The Simpsons

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

David Mamet's Master Class is a good introduction to dramatic writing

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

A writer looking for guidance these days has no shortage of services and tutorials looking to take their money. It's why a perennial bit of advice from me is to do your homework on anything that's going to cost you money. Even if you have allocated $200 of disposable income that you can burn without feeling it, that doesn't mean you should be reckless in casting it away. You want to get the best value for your investment.

The MasterClass brand has demonstrated itself to be a reliable one. I've reviewed two other MasterClasses: "Dustin Hoffman Teaches Acting" (available here) and "Aaron Sorkin Teaches Screenwriting" (available here.) In both cases I came away impressed with the insight and the utility of the classes. Hoffman's videos - though aimed at actors - actually gave me a lot of valuable tips about directing and working with actors.

The talent that continues to be involved with this site is also impressive: Shonda Rhimes teaches writing for TV, Gordon Ramsay teaches cooking, Steve Martin teaches comedy, Hans Zimmer teaches film scoring, Reba McEntire teaches country music, Werner Herzog teaches filmmaking, Kevin Spacey teaches acting, Serena Williams teaches tennis, Usher teaches performance, and there are still many more to come.

Which brings me to David Mamet Teaches Dramatic Writing . Fair or not, it's difficult to watch this and NOT compare it to the two prior classes I've taken. If I'm being honest, that did leave me with some disappointment.

The good news? That's the only metric by which this class falls short. I'll get into more specifics why later.

David Mamet has written 36 plays, 29 screenplays, and 17 books. He has directed 11 films, including House of Games, The Spanish Prisoner, and State & Main. His credentials aren't really up for debate and any chance to pick the brain of someone so prolific is bound to be a worthwhile one. No one running any of these MasterClasses are the kind of person who NEEDS to do this sort of project to stay afloat.

As with every other class, there are multiple elements: the video instruction, the interactive assignments, the community and the office hours, where you can send video questions to Mr. Mamet. My review is based mostly on the videos. I also have to admit as with all of these classes, I had to binge the videos over the course of a week. The recommended structure is provided and the class has been crafted to be done over six weeks.

For $90 you get what works out to about six hours of videos. Spread them over six weeks and you can call that an investment of $15 a week. Considering that's what it would cost for a ticket to hear Mamet speak for an hour or so, it's not too bad.

Let's talk about the course work itself. It struck me as being very Screenwriting 101, even more than Sorkin's. Mamet leans a lot on Aristotle's Poetics, so much so that if this was an actual college course, you'd almost certainly find that among your required textbooks. I personally didn't come away from this class with too many new insights into the process, but I've worked in Hollywood for well over a decade and I took Screenwriting 101 and Advanced Screenwriting in college. This isn't a class targeted at me, so I forced myself to look at it through the eyes of a 21 year-old Bitter.

Straight-up, this is at least as good as the first Screenwriting class I took in college. Frankly, there are a lot of basic principles of writng and drama that were better expressed here than by my instructor. Mamet starts off by talking about his theory of Drama and how it has rules. "We're given a premise. The hero wants something... Everything in our life is drama... we structure everything in our lives into cause and effect." And he goes into some detail about this, particularly when dealing structure and how each scene must be necessary or else it should go. He's also very adamant that "What the purpose of drama is not is to make people better... to teach. It is not the purpose of drama to be cautionary tales."

One bit of advice he gives that I don't believe I've heard before is that the story should challenge the writer, to the point where they may not know the resolution. "If you can't think your way out of it, the audience can't either," he says. So push yourself into the story crevices that seem impossible at first, just to see if you can worm your way out of it.

Plenty of his advice does tread well-worn ground. "If you think you can cut something, cut it," is pretty basic, though he owns up to the fact that this is a lesson his editor reteaches him every time when she makes a cut work by removing what is inevitably his favorite scene. It's painful, but as he says, there's "one rule: Don't be boring." He rails against the inclusion of what he calls "obligatory scenes," which are scenes that seem to be there only because we've been taught they belong. (i.e. the inevitable moment where characters stand around a room and explain what they have to do to save the world.)

I'm gonna quote from his workbook because the lesson is expressed more succinctly here:

A scene must contain an attempt by the hero to achieve a goal. That goal has to be part of a firm structure of his or her journey from point A to point B. You must be able to answer three questions about every scene of every play or film you write:

• Who wants what from whom?
• What happens if he or she doesn't get it?
• Why now?

Another quote I wrote down and underlined has to do with forcing a change in the character - "To manipulate the character is to manipulate the audience and I never manipulate the audience." I'd love the chance to press him on that further because I think some of my favorite films have expertly manipulated the audience. However, I presume his intent is to deride unfairly cheating to manipulate the audience and with that, we are in lockstep.

The assignments tend to be fairly standard Screenwriting 101 material. A typical one might be: "Take a character from a film, play, or television show, and deconstruct him or her. Do not compile a list of traits. Rather, identify individual actions that make up the character. What is their objective? Think about what he or she does to achieve that objective and how that informs his or her character."

In later chapters, Mamet discusses some of the process behind his works like American Buffalo, Glengarry Glen Ross, and Oleanna.  There are also some solid discussions of dialogue and exposition. Again as an introduction to dramatic writing, this is as good as any college lecture course you could take.

So where does it fall short? Unlike the Hoffman and Sorkin courses, these videos are entirely lecture-based. Mamet doesn't interact with anyone else, and a genuine highlight of both the earlier videos I viewed was seeing these men have to act as mentors. A sizable percentage of Hoffman's videos were acting workshops with two students and it really helped drive home his philosophy by seeing it put into practice.

Sorkin went so far as to assemble writing students for a mock writers room and then also gave critiques of their original works. Both situations forced him to reveal something about his process and his philosophy that didn't automatically come across in the lecture videos. I realize that by its nature, Mamet's process tends to be less collaborative than Hoffman or Sorkin's but I definitely missed that extra element that would have broken up 24 lecture videos.

Sorkin and Mamet also cover some similar grounds, so if you've already taken Sorkin's class, be prepared that Mamet's is intended for the same level of screenwriter. Obviously different teachers will have different philosophies, but it probably would be a bit like taking Screenwriting 101 twice from different instructors. College-age me would have eaten both of these classes up, and so I imagine it comes down to preference. If you're more into Mamet and really want to take a look under the hood, maybe you'd favor this over Sorkin's, despite my own critiques.

That's the biggest "buyer beware" here - be honest with yourself about how trained you are as a writer and what you're looking for to get to the next level. There's value here for the right audience. $90 is a decent amount of money, but not outrageously so when compared to a lot of other screenwriting resources.

You can access every MasterClass at

Dustin Hoffman's MasterClass on Acting

Aaron Sorkin's MasterClass on TV Writing