Monday, April 30, 2018

Breaking down the pilot of LIFE

Previous Pilot Breakdowns
Veronica Mars
The Office
Homicide: Life on the Street

Fair warning before I begin LIFE, if there's a pilot live-tweet I'm gonna fuck up, it's this one. Haven't seen it since it aired. I do not remember the resolution to the mystery, so if I miss something planted deep in the pilot, forgive me. I bumped this up in rotation when I saw it was leaving Netflix.

The show opens with sort of a documentary style. It's an infodump. Charlie Crews was a cop wrongly convicted of a triple murder - his business partner and the partner's family. DNA gets him off after 10 years behind bars. You might be noticing that a lot of these pilots have infodumps. Some use VO, some use flashback. Some use both. Some drop it at the start. Others wait until the top of Act Two.

After that, we pick up 4 months after his release. Crews is a detective on his first crime scene with partner Dani Reese. Notably Reese was what broke Sarah Shahi's type-casting as "the hot girl." She's good as a hard-edged detective and meshes well with Damian Lewis.

We're at the case of the week part of the show, murdered kid. Charlie shows his unusual approach to investigation, examines a nearby dog everyone ignored, finds a bullet. And then he finds a finger.

Top of ACT ONE - Charlie's financial advisor and lawyer do a documentary talking heads. We learn that Charlie got a HUGE (undisclosed) settlement for wrongful imprisonment. After the mythos tease, we're back to the case. Talk to the kid's, John, murdered stepfather. Charlie does the quirky cop thing to intuit the guy's high. His method pisses off Reese, who already doesn't like him.

Reese: "I'm the superior detective, I'm responsible for your actions. You get jammed up for this, I get jammed up." CONFLICT. Then there's a fun bit where Charlie doesn't know how to use his cell (because they didn't have them when he was put away).

Case-of-the-Week shows often become what I call "clue trails." Risk of "And this... and this..." I'm not gonna recap every step of the investigation. Investigation takes them to the prison where the kid's father's doing time. A few throwaways from the guards taunt Charlie about his past there, suggests they don't like him much. Look for these little moments in a pilot, stuff that reminds us who characters are.

Guards provoke Crews again. He responds with some zen platitudes. It's not the sort of lead character we see in a cop show. (I mean, the quirky cop thing has been done more often lately, but Crews feels unique.)

END ACT ONE - Crews pulls over his ex-wife's new husband, hassles him.

TOP OF ACT TWO - cops interview kid, Crews and Reese clash again. He says he knows she had to fight in this job "I'm not gonna fight with you."

Kid says John was offered information from someone who said that it could get John's dad out on a technicality. Met him online, claimed to be a lawyer. "John just wanted to get his dad out of jail and now he's dead." Possibly wrongly-accused convict is an obvious, but effective way to use the case to thread out Crew's history and issues too.

And now we meet two patrolmen who knew Charlie when he was on the streets, one of them is Stark, former partner. Helped take Charlie down.

Reese checks in with her LT. Making sure Reese is "working the program." (i.e. rehab.) Lt thinks Crews is trouble. "He got screwed and he's gonna get even." Nice scene between two female cops raising the issues they have to deal with because of gender. (Before I said so, did you default to imagining the Lt. as a man?) Lt. also is looking for an excuse to get Crews bounced. Reese admits he tipped off the kid's stepdad that a search might be coming and he should flush his pot. More conflict. Lt hates Crews. AND Reese seems to show whose side she's on.

Charlie's buddy Ted handles his settlement money, ex-CEO, put away for insider trading. They met inside, helped each other, now he lives with Charlie. The documentary lets us learn all this efficiently. Neat trick, right?

ACT OUT on a case scene, interview the mother, confirm her son stole money to pay the mysterious "lawyer."

ACT UP - Charlie gets call from his lawyer telling him to come tonight.

Next, Ted shows Charlie Google. (Remember, that didn't exist when he went inside either). Charlie: "Google me." Ted: "You don't want to see that." Montage of Charlie's "criminal" history.

Charlie's lawyer bugs him to call his father about his new wedding. Charlie says that his mother is dead because "He killed her when he wouldn't let her come see me." Charlie isn't inclined to forgive him that. Also, they're definitely setting up sexual tension between Charlie and his attorney. Then, more fun with Charlie and tech, this time bewildered by the Bluetooth in his car, and the fact his phone gets pictures "It's like living in the future."

Top of the next act: Reese asks why he became a cop again, he says the whole time he was inside, he still felt like a cop. She probes if he's going after the guys who set him up. he says no.

Aw crap. I missed how their investigation led them to the guy who killed the kid. Guy lost his finger to the dog, then "I watched Arthur kill that kid." He shoots, Crews has to find a position to shoot back from. in the shooting, bullet hits a packet of coke. Gets all over Reece (remember, she's recovering). she freaks out. he helps her into the shower to wash it off. Crews later asks her what that was about. she doesn't answer. Clue trail leads us to Arthur. Arthur is brought in for questioning. They jack him up on a parole violation. ACT OUT.

NEXT ACT starts with Reese and Crews. Offers her fruit. they bicker, but it's more friendly. We start to see how this chemistry is gonna work. They get a confession out of Arthur with the threat of putting him in the prison yard with the kid's father. Tense scene as he's being led there. He confesses.

Lt comes to Reese, says dept is ready to move forward with her complaint on Crews. Reese takes it back. So she's been won over by Crews. Seemingly. It's as small journey for her in the pilot, but a necessary one.

Charlie goes home, and we see him going through confidential files. Hidden in his closet, he's got one of those HOMELAND "Wall of Crazy" things, following the trail of events that led to his conviction. Suspects on the board... including his ex-partner and his Lt.

So he lied to Reese. does that mean he doesn't trust her? And is that because he doesn't know her? or because he DOES know her and that he shouldn't trust her?

You'd think we'd go out on that scene, but we get a small bit of Ted going to drive a tractor and accidentally running over Charlie's expensive car. (Don't ask).

Okay, so let's recap mythology:
-Wrongly convicted cop.
-back on the force
-secretly looking to figure out who framed him.
-EVERYONE's a suspect.

We actually only know bare bones here. There's a lot later eps have to flesh out in the backstory.

Crews/Reese - the core partnership, moves from outright tension to some measure of respect. Kinda reminds me of early Mulder and Scully, with Crews's quirky ways being like Mulder's investigative leaps.

What makes these characters different:
Crews - the zen thing, and his befuddlement of modern tech (which only goes so far.)
Reese - recovering addict. Could be a cliché, but it feels like there's a big story there.
Comic relief - Ted, former inside-trading CEO turned Crews's buddy and money manager. Gives us another world for Crews to go home to that isn't just him staring at his Wall of Crazy

Other stray tidbits that can be story fuel:
- Crews's father and the tension with him over his MUCH younger fiancé.
-Crews's history with his partner, barely touched here, but clearly will be important.
Lt's kinda pulling the "woman card" on Reese to get her on her side.

Format: We have a contained case-of-the-week, like every other procedural, but unique thanks to these characters. And presumably the long arc will advance each week, with the documentary helping exposition dumps when needed

(I legit don't remember if we ever find out who's making this documentary or how that comes into play. In the pilot, it almost feels like it could just be a storytelling device, like Modern Family's talking heads.)

Hopefully after the pilot, you either want to know who framed Charlie and why, OR you want to see him solve crimes each week. Ideally both.

Other Pilot Breakdowns:

Friday, April 27, 2018

Hear me discuss the crazy LOIS & CLARK episode "Lucky Leon" on a Superman podcast!

A few months back, I met Matt Truex at a party for a mutual friend of ours, where it took only a few minutes for me to determine that not only were we both Superman fans, but that Matt was one of the hosts of a LOIS & CLARK podcast I had listened to somewhat frequently: Lois & Clark'd: The New Podcasts of Superman.

So by the end of the evening, Matt had invited me as a guest for one of their upcoming episodes, leaving the selection of episode to me. They were in the middle of the second season and - knowing that the show basically drove off a cliff during season three - I wanted to get in for one of the shows in what I remembered as the glory days.

"What I remembered," being the operative phrase there. I watched the show when it first aired, beginning in 1993 and abandoned it about a third of the way into season four. Every now and then I'd catch a few episodes in syndication, particularly from their first season, but by and large, I've not revisited most of the series since it first aired.

With a couple choices off the table, I looked at a list of upcoming half-dozen or so eps and narrowed it quickly to two choices: "The Return of the Prankster" and "Lucky Leon." I recalled that Bronson Pinchot was the Prankster and that at the time it was fun stunt-casting, but between that, and some of the goofiness of the episode, I feared it was one that wouldn't age well. I didn't want to go on a podcast and spend the entire time tearing the episode apart.

"Lucky Leon" on the other hand, was one that I recalled as an exciting and important episode. It had Lois and Clark's first real date and it ended with the shocking death of district attorney Mason Drake in a car explosion. I recalled this set up a really terrible follow-up, but I also was pretty sure the follow up was such a letdown because the set-up had been great. The choice seemed obvious - "Lucky Leon."

This is how I came to learn that you should not trust your memories of what was good in 1995 if you haven't revisited it recently. "Lucky Leon" has the feel of an episode hastily pieced together by the writing staff over a weekend, as they abruptly try to set-up and pay off several threads that should have been threaded over multiple episodes. Dramatic plot points are dropped in and forgotten and the villains' scheme doesn't really hold up to logical scrutiny.

And all the stuff I remembered about it being awesome? Yeah, that was five minutes of the episode.

So it didn't end up being the lovefest I was hoping for when I picked this episode, but fortunately the episode is entertaining in such a WTF way that the podcast itself is fun listening. Check it out below or access it here.

Thursday, April 26, 2018

Breaking down the pilot of EVERWOOD

Previous Pilot Breakdowns:
Veronica Mars
The Office
Homicide: Life on the Street

Find the original twitter thread here.

NOTE: So the @CWSeed version of the EVERWOOD pilot is apparently the syndicated version. I'll be doing the Extended DVD version, which is about 5 min longer. I'm doing this one because it's my favorite Greg Berlanti pilot and I wanted to do another ensemble drama pilot.

Like a lot of pilots, EVERWOOD starts with narration, and this is accompanied with sort of a montage info-dump. The storyteller is not the lead, Dr. Andy Brown, played by Treat Williams. It's Irv, who we'll meet later.

Meet Andy Brown, who in the first scene, forgets his son's piano recital. Scene 2 shows that he's one of the best neurosurgeon in the business, and is everything you'd expect of a New York City doctor. He tells a patient, "Don't thank me now. You can thank me when I save your life."

Dr. Brown misses the recital. Police arrive at his office. We don't hear what he's told. Irv fills us in. Car accident killed his wife on her way to the recital. Andy's left alone to raise 15 year old Ephram and 9 year old Delia. We have to cover a LOT of ground, particularly in making the wife someone we care about.

Five minutes in, Andy's doing his second consult. To our surprise, he tells a patient to forget surgery, go live his life in the time he has left. "I can't save your life. At most I can prolong it... so this hospital can brag about its success rate."

Andy's made his own choice. Smash cut to "MOVING WHERE?" from Ephram. Andy's moving them to the small town of Everwood, Colorado. Ephram doesn't want to leave NYC, thinks his dad is crazy. Andy puts it to a vote and buys Delia's vote with the promise of a pony. Act one took 6:45. Ends with them moving out of their New York City home.

Act two kicks off as we arrive in Everwood. Irv drops some local exposition on us. It immediately comes off as a folksy small town in the middle of nowhere. Oh, and Andy's grown a beard.

Delia gets on the bus and we meet Irv in the flesh. A large friendly African American man.

Ephram's off to school. Andy offers to drive. E: "Appreciate the offer but it's about ten years too late." They don't get along.

Another character intro: Andy meets his neighbor Nina. She already knows who he is. See, Time Magazine wrote an article about Andy leaving medicine. He's kind of a big deal.

At school. Ephram mouths off to some would-be bullies. And IMMEDIATELY seems to catch the eye of Amy, every guy's teenage crush. She knows who he is too. They banter easily. Ephram's shown as witty and snarky. Amy invites Ephram to eat lunch sometime. Ephram clearly thinks she's into him.

Next scene: new info is that Andy's planning on opening a new general practice. There's already a doctor in town, he's informed.

Transition to Dr. Harold Abbott. A local asks him to "just check me out" here on the street for an ailment. Dr. Abbot gives a long speech about how he could misdiagnose something and expose himself to a malpractice case. It's a very efficient way of showing that Dr. Abbott has a bit of a rod up his ass. Big thing about this pilot: EVERYONE's voice is instantly clear.

Both Andy and Abbott speechify, but they do so in different ways. Looking for office space, Andy is intrigued by the abandoned and dilapidated train station. he's decided this is the perfect place. END ACT TWO

Top of Act Three: Ephram and Amy. Ephram is gassing on about manga. She's into it, cooing "Who knew comics could be so hot." Makeout music comes on. And if you haven't guessed by this point, Ephram's clearly dreaming. And when he wakes up, it's THAT kind of dream.

(This is probably what's cut on the online version, which is followed by a scene where Ephram tries to wash his sheets as Andy asks what he's doing). Andy ends with another attempt at an olive branch, "I'm making pancakes, you want some?" Ephram: "Go to hell!" Ah, fathers and sons.

Dr. Abbott confronts Andy about parking in his spot. "I'm sorry I didn't see a name on the curb." "It's implied." Abbott doesn't take kindly to another doctor in town. This whole scene is gold.

Abbott boasts his golf club belonged to Tiger Woods. Andy: "I'll have to tell him." Yep, Andy knows Tiger.

Abbott sneers that he's been there for 15 years, "Before me it was my father." Joviley, Andy inquires, "Was it your father's father before him? Because that would be cool!"

The script has to NAIL this relationship and that scene's a good microcosm. Abbot is arrogant and confrontational. Andy is breezy and friendly. Sets the tone that you can instantly build on. From here, we get to the OTHER major relationship the pilot has to nail Amy/Ephram. She asks what it's like having a doctor. Ephram's response is revealing, "He misses your birthday. You want to hate him, but he's in the paper for separating Siamese twins." So yeah, Ephram has issues.

Showing he's not entirely blinded by his crush, Ephram asks, "Why are you hanging out with me?" "You've got kind of a tragic, lonely thing going on," she deflects. As they split up, her brother (Chris Pratt!) tells her dad's not gonna like them hanging out. She blackmails him into silence.

Andy sets up the office and an older woman named Edna Harper shows up. Calls Delia "Private," she has "40 years nursing experience, includes 2 tours in 'nam." She also drops that she worked for Dr. Abbott "Senior and Junior." Again, another intro, another info dump.

Back at the house, we learn Ephram hasn't played the piano since his mother died. Andy's concerned, Ephram says "Like you ever cared if I played or not." We hit this note a lot, but it's a big one.

Andy now imagines/recalls a conversation with his wife. She suggests he grow a beard (Ah! so THAT'S why he grew a beard!) The talk is the "what would you do if I died" talk. Andy deflects. He imagines dancing with his wife, and when we pull back, we see that Delia is watching him dance alone.

ACT OUT: Dr. Brown is not well, and his daughter is concerned.

Act In: Two doctors park side by side, Andy is cheery. "My first day, you gonna wish me luck?" Harold: "If you're done blathering, one of us has patients to attend to." Andy, unfazed: "Have a nice day!" I'm SURE there's fanfic about these two. (See what I mean about what's conveyed just in dialogue? Especially in a pilot, you've got to be efficient in getting to the heart of character's attitude.)

At the office, Andy persuades the town gossip to consent to an exam, comparing her to Elizabeth Taylor (whom he has operated on. Because OF COURSE he has.) Andy's very charming, even with the name drop, but he clearly knows what he's doing. Treat hits the PERFECT genial note.

After an Irv/Delia scene that shows Irv as the wise man of the town, we're back at Andy's office. He says "I'm not charging. My services are free...I was a brain surgeon for 15 years. I have a few pennies tucked away." I liked that way of revealing Andy's not just rich, he's RICH.

Amy's brother Bright - played by CHRIS PRATT -  confronts Ephram. It's hate at first sight. Amy arrives, and Bright says, "Tell him why you're really hanging out with him." Also mentions she's got a boyfriend. This starts another mini-mystery. They fight. Lands them at the principal's office. Andy shows up, as does Bright's father... Dr. Abbott.

So the girl Ephram likes has a bf and her dad hates Ephram's dad's guts. That almost sounds like... conflict!

And now we finally get the big Ephram/Andy confrontation. Ephram calls him out on losing his mind. "I knew her! You were never around! I wish you died instaed of her!" Andy volleys right back, "I wish I did too, you little bastard!" It's a pretty raw ugly moment. Smartly, Berlanti has Ephram refuse to go in the house as ordered while Andy impotently says, "At some point you're going inside." Nina sees all this. Andy, dryly, "I run a tight ship." Look for those moments. You can't just have your characters say they hate each other. You need to have a way out of that scene.

Andy/Nina talk: he says Julia was better at parenting. Nina asks if the reason he came there has to do with Julia. "I need to prove I can be the kind of doctor and father she wanted be when she was alive." - Mission statement for the show.

Top of the next act: Harold and Andy bicker. Andy again tries so hard to be his friend. Andy also shows him up with a correct diagnosis of Nina's son's illness, which he clocked in the last scene. "Not bad for a nutbag. You should see what I can do with my hands." There's some silly banter as people show up for Andy's free services. Dr. Abbott confronts Edna, calling her "Mother." Ah, more family conflict between the Abbott and Brown clans.

We're seeing all parts of the engine that drives the series and the next scenes give us a big one. Amy gets Ephram to see her boyfriend Colin. He's in a coma after a car accident on 4th of July. He was Bright's best friend. Bright was actually in the car with him but doesn't remember anything. "Every night I pray for a miracle.. When I heard your dad was coming to town I figured if anyone could help him, it would be him." Emily VanCamp sells the HELL out of this scene. Has to make us forgive Amy's manipulation and we're totally with her.

It would have been easy to write Amy as a manipulative liar. By the end of that scene, we feel like we'd have done the same thing. What I like about this show. People are more complex than good/bad. The audience always relates to them.

The next scene was another Andy/wife convo. She tells him about passing through Everwood as a child. Says essentially, that if anything happens to her, that's where she'll be. Yes, I know it sounds SCHMALTZY, but it works, dammit.

Delia comforts her father... and piano music wafts in from the other room. Ephram is at last playing again. "I found out I'm in love with a girl who's in love with a guy in a coma." Andy and Ephram make up. Ephram doesn't make eye contact.

And we go out on Andy observing of Ephram's playing, "I forgot how good you are." "Mom used to say I had your hands."

And with Irv's final narration, we end the pilot.

So let's count the relationships that drive the series:
Andy/Ephram - conflict at the core of everything
Andy/Abbott - conflict. Also affects everything with their kids. We can see a potential domino effect for stories to exploit
Edna/Abbot - Conflict

Love triangle: Ephram/Amy/Colin. Ephram likes Amy. But the guy she loves is someone only his father can save. So if he asks his dad to help, he probably loses the girl. But how can he not ask? And hey! it's a triangle with no bad guys, just normal teens, sorta.

(Later on in the series, they make a VERY smart choice in making us like Colin. He's the most beloved guy in town, which makes the triangle even more complicated. We can't hate him.) Then we add the fact that if Andy gets involved, it's another chance for Abbott to feel like an inferior doctor. And what must it feel like to see your daughter pinning her hopes to your rival.

Bottom line: there is a LOT of pipe laid here. Two families, multiple layers of conflict both within and between the families AND the love triangle. And it has heart and characters you want to spend time with. And there's no high concept, sci-fi twist or anything.

I love this show. It's my favorite Greg Berlanti show and Ephram and Amy are some of the best teen characters to appear on TV.

Other Pilot Breakdowns:

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Breaking down the first episode of HOMICIDE

Previous Pilot Breakdowns
Veronica Mars
The Office

This continues my pilot breakdown series. Go here for the original Twitter thread.

The series is based on the book HOMICIDE: A YEAR ON THE KILLING STREETS, by David Simon. Find it. Read it.

Episode "Gone for Goode" is directed by Barry Levinson, written by Paul Attanasio.

(On DVD commentaries, the writers say Tom Fontana and James Yoshimura deserve "Creator" credit, but Attanasio is the creator of record.)

First scene: Detectives Lewis and Crosetti in an alley in a bad neighborhood, looking for evidence while philosophizing about what it means to "find" things. Sets the tone. This is about the mundane part of police work. It's not car chases, gun standoffs, etc. The last line of scene is "That's the problem with this job. It's got nothign to do with life."

We see the victim's name written on The Board in red. The procedure for each victim. (Names go to black when case is closed.)

First scene of Act One, new arrival Detective Tim Bayliss arrives for his first day. Looks for Lt. Giardello. Is pointed to two guys. Bayliss assumes the white Crosstti Is LT, not the large African American man. Oops.

Bayliss: "This is where I want to be. Thinking cops. No guns."

Next we meet Bolander and Munch. Munch questions a (badly lying) suspect at the hospital. "You're saving your really good lies for some smarter cop, right? I'm just Montell Williams, you want to talk to LARRY KING!" Richard Belzer would play Munch for seven seasons here, and for 15 seasons on L&O: SVU, making him one of TV's longest characters. His sarcastic, testy persona is established from the first scene.

And we're back with Lewis and Crosetti investigating the shooting of a woman. Their talk digresses into Crosetti's obession - the Lincoln assassination and the conspiracy he believes in. Homicide does something that wasn't quote in vogue yet in network TV. It features dialogue that doesn't directly advance the story. A lot of character chit-chat, almost Tarantino-esque.

And now we're with Det. Howard, the only woman in the squad and Det. Felton. We get another interview scene that showcases the mundane nature of the job and the character interplay.

Veteran Detective Bolander busts Munch's balls about his still unsolved case. Munch: "It's been three months, nothing new. It's over." Case is a woman run over. Wasn't even ruled homicide. Munch says it's not even on the board. He shouldn't have to worry. Bolander: [She] was murdered, John. Someone has to speak for her."

That's the show, in one sentence.

Out at lunch, a bunch of the detectives bitch about their co-worker, the as-yet-unseen Pembleton. "Guy thinks he's smarter than everyone else because he listens to Emmylou Harris." Pembleton is being built up for us. Sets the stage, builds anticipation.

Pembleton doesn't have a partner, the squad tells Gee they don't like this. Gee says Felton's paired with him now so Howard can be paired with Bayliss. No one likes this much.

ACT OUT: on Munch reviewing the case file.

ACT TWO opens with Pembleton (Andre Braugher) being told he's with Felton. He's instantly cocky, points to his clearance rate. Gee says he needs to be a team player.

Frank is used to working bigger cases. He's full of himself. Felton busts his balls, "Am I really going on a routine call with Frank Pembleton... he only handles the big cases, this is just some dead guy."

Frank goes to the motor pool so they can sign out a squad car for the case. He realizes he forgot which car goes with the keys he's been holding. Rather than admit defeat or get another set, he resolves to go car-by-car until his key works.

THAT is Frank. He's tenacious and he can NEVER admit he's wrong.

Felton asks "what does this prove?" Frank says, "Just say it... I don't like being in the basement with that n****r. You resent me." Felton asks why he can't just get another key. "because what if it's the next one?"

Note the tension in every one of these pairings: Frank/Felton is racial tension and resentment of Frank's attitude. Munch/Bolander is old-pro busting the younger guy's balls. Lewis/Crosetti is less overt tension. Their case is basically leading to insurance fraud. I'm not going to recap the ins and outs of that one till later.

Felton, upon learning Tim came from the mayor's security detail, "Wagging tail of a political favor, huh?" He clearly thinks Bayliss is in over his head. "You ever see a dead guy?"

Lewis/Crosetti case: Black Widow, she's buried five husbands, collected insurance on all of them. Problem, when they go to exhume one, the wrong guy is buried there. This sets up the dark humor of them successively digging up graves, trying to find the right body. It's the sort of grimly funny thing that HLOTS was known for. It is also based on a true story, as is much of the first season's episodes.

As Munch interviews the victim's family, we get the sense that he has terrible bedside manner. ACT OUT on that.

ACT OPEN on Bayliss, Pembleton, Howard and Felton in dead man in motel room. Bayliss is trying to show off he knows crime scenes

Frank and Tim left alone. Frank thinks it's murder. Tim doesn't. Frank points out the old guy's car is missing. We find out the older guy has been seen with some younger guys.

A subplot in this ep is about Howard's perfect clearance rate. The suspect she's been looking for disappeared... until he walks right into the squadroom. He folds within seconds in interrogation. Howard's rate is secure. Subverts the trope about how every police interrogation is a chess match. Sometimes the suspects are dumb, with terrible attempts at deception.

Munch goes through suspect mugshots, and he finds something. They're looking for a blonde guy. Funny thing, a suspect picked up two weeks later on another case has black hair.. and blonde eyebrows. They confront the guy, and his answer to everything is "I was drinking." We see Munch turn the victim's name from red to black. We know what that means.

ACT OUT on Bolander meeting the new, attractive medical examiner.

ACT UP on detectives drinking, with Crosetti writing up a complaint against Lewis for calling him a "salami brain." Nice touch, Howard proofreads the memo.

A lot of good Munch lines here, btw. He's the guy interjecting sarcastic jokes whether or not they're appreciated. The other detectives mostly ignore him.

Suspect picked up in Frank and Tim's case and then we get the greatest scene of the pilot, as Frank explains how an interrogation is done.

"A guilty man left in the box alone, falls asleep.. uncooperative, too cooperative, blinks, stares."

He describes what he is about to do as "an act of salesmanship... what I am selling is a long prison term to a client who has no genuine use for the product." I WISH this scene was still on YouTube, because no recap really does it justice. Line by line, this scene is brilliant.

Frank makes the guy read and initial a waiver of his rights. He's making the process mundane, making HIM a part of the process. Guy suggests maybe he wants a lawyer. Frank says if that happens, he has to write it up how it looks - first degree murder.

It's a trap. "This room is like a wall, and at the top of that wall is a small open window. A way out. Son I am that window." Frank gets him to keep talking, putting himself at the scene, waiving his right to an attorney. With that out of the way, Frank catches him in a big lie, and the guy folds like a cheap suit.

Tim confronts Frank, saying he tricked that guy into not getting a lawyer. Frank says "Do you believe he did it?" Frank rips Tim a new one. Tim wonders what an innocent man would do with the same chance. That is always the tension of Box scenes. When Frank pushes it, can he break an innocent man? (Spoiler: he can.)

Now we have Munch, Lewis, and Crosetti in a scene of them that has nothing to do with their cases. They hit on a moneymaking idea, Mail order adult diapers. Scene's a good showcase of how their minds work.

Phone rings at the squad. Howard asks Tim, "you ready?" He answers, which makes him the primary.

Final scene: Tim at the crime scene. A young girl has been murdered. He raises his badge. "Homicide." FADE OUT. End of episode.

So we introduce the ensemble. Tim is used as "new guy" and an audience explainer, both at the start and both as innocent eyes for Frank's envelope pushing behavior in the box. And a lot of little mini-arcs here, showing us how Munch and Bolander relate, how Crosetti and Lewis get on each other's nerves, how Howard and Felton have a pretty easy partnership.

It's not a BIG pilot. It takes a genre of show and refreshes it by amping up the character stuff. None of the cases are teh epic brain teasers you find on most CBS procedurals or L&O. It's all about what the cases mean to the people working them. It's one of my favorite pilots, with one of my favorite scenes, but it feels deceptively low-key when you watch it.

Seek it out. You can't imitate it, but you CAN study how it reveals its characters.

Other Pilot Breakdowns:

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Breaking down the pilot of THE OFFICE

Previous Pilot breakdowns:
Veronica Mars

Continuing my series of breaking down pilot episodes, today's archived tweet-thread changes things up by examining a comedy, the American version of THE OFFICE. You can find the original tweet-thread here. This pilot was written by Greg Daniels, based on the British series created by Ricky Gervais & Stephen Merchant.

A reason I wanted to do a pilot like THE OFFICE is the other two I did were "premise pilots." They're clearly Chapter 1s of a long story. THE OFFICE is - mostly - a story that could have happened at any point in that season. We come into an already established situation. There's definite value in writing a pilot that shows exactly what a typical episode will be, rather than just setting up the premise.

And we're off. Mockumentary concept in place from frame one. Michael's meeting with Jim about his sales. Michael's phone call establishes: he's the manager, his company sells paper products, and he's awkward. Self-consciously looks at camera.

Next, Michael addresses the camera, taking us on a tour and filling in exposition. "People say I am the best boss... You're hilarious." He has a "World's Best Boss" mug. Which he bought himself. That's a great little detail. Then we met Jim, who CLEARLY couldn't care less about his job. Michael comes in and tells an outdated joke. Jim is clearly tired of it but endures it. Dwight plays along.

Michael is caught without an agenda in meeting with his boss Jan. Problem: moments ago we've seen him tell Pam to throw it out. And Pam has to say that. In front of Jan. The reaction shots of Pam and other reacting in horror are critical. They show us the characters are as horrified by Michael as we are.

A series of shots shows the rumor about downsizing spreading through the office. Good quick way to meet everyone.

Temp Ryan arrives. Michael has a new audience for all his "Hilarious" jokes. Another reminder that EVERYTHING Michael does is playing to the camera.

Dwight bickers with Jim that some of Jim's stuff is spilling onto Dwight's desk. Instantly we know, he's THAT guy. Then we get kind of a soft break to Act One, Dwight talking head about not being scared of downsizing. Not a huge plot twist.

Michael's looks to camera are often unconscious, checking to see if they got this. Jim's are communication, "You're seeing this, right?"

Dwight says he's "Assistant Regional Manager," Michael corrects, "Assistant TO THE Regional Manager." That dynamic is fully formed in a few words.

Pam is shy, but when Michael puts her on the spot after lying to the office about downsizing, she corrects his account.

Jim knows Pam's favorite yogert. Pam is beaming when she finds out he knows that. Again, sets up THAT relationship.

Jim pranks Dwight by putting a stapler in jello. Shows Jim takes more pride in the pettiness of his pranks than his work. Also, by EATING jello when Dwight gets mad, he shows he's not above pushing buttons in a petty way. Jim always has to spike the ball.

There's a Pam/Jim exchange at the desk that's shot from a distance, implying they don't know they're being filmed at that moment. It's also we learn that Pam is engaged to Roy, who doesn't give her permission to go out for a drink with the rest of the office.

Talking head: Jim is asked if he'll be invited to the wedding. He doesn't answer. Shows the documentary crew KNOWS the story they're chasing.

Michael pulls a "prank" on Pam, accusing her of theft (of post-it notes, he eventually says) and saying he's gonna have to let her go. Michael thinks he's being funny, Pam gets upset. Michael's joke is way out of line for a boss. Even HE seems to get that when he claims Ryan was in on it. Scenes like that are an effective way of cranking up the awkwardness of what it's like to be stuck with a boss like Michael. (Been there).

Pam has another moment with Jim that's interrupted by Roy. It's worth noting who gets the most screentime with each other.

And we close the show on Jim having put Michael's mug into jello. So it's a plot-light ep. Barely an A story, but the format allows that. The story mostly is: the branch is worried about downsizing; a new office temp arrives. It's a framework to hang all the character moments. It also means these characters HAVE to come out fully formed. And Michael aside, everyone here is entirely in line with their later depictions. Michael evolves into being more of an oblivious goof than a semi-malicious one. He's got a bit more affection for these people and that makes it easier to like him. You feel sorry for the kid in school who no one wants to play with. That's Michael. You don't like the bully.

Another slight change later on is that Michael eventually seems to be playing more to the office than to the camera. It's a BIT less vain.

Ryan the temp initially appears to be the "normal" guy who will react to the insanity. Eventually they transfer that to Jim entirely. In the pilot, he's mostly there to be someone for Michael to "show off" to. Carell pretty much has to PLAY annoying without being TOO annoying to watch. That's a hard needle to thread, writing-wise. It's why the supporting cast is critical so we can imprint on people.

Similar challenge is writing a boring character who is funny to the audience. It's why Grandpa Simpson speeches were probably hard to come up with on THE SIMPSONS.

Closing thoughts: for shows like this, objectives are:

- What's the setting?
- What makes this setting relatable? (we've all had boring jobs.)
- Who is the PERFECT lead character to embody that setting, and how do you give him or her the room to demonstrate it?
- And what are the running story engines? (downsizing, Pam/Jim crush, Jim/Dwight prank war, Michael impressing Ryan.)

Other Pilot Breakdowns:
Homicide: Life on the Street

Monday, April 23, 2018

Breaking down the pilot of ALIAS

A while back I did a series of live-tweets of pilot episodes, with the intent of breaking these pilots down and showing the elements that are present in a strong pilot. The result isn't QUITE a scene-by-scene accounting of everything in the show, but it does work as a running commentary on how shows establish themselves, their characters, their overarching plots and themes.

At the time, my intent was to repurpose those as blog posts, but it ended up being something that fell by the wayside after I did my first one, VERONICA MARS.  I've since decided to go back and archive them here, while making some edits for clarity and expounding on a few ideas where necessary.

This post focuses on the pilot of ALIAS. You can find the original tweet-thread here.

Opening: Sydney being tortured. She's got bright red dyed hair. Interrogators are... North Korean? I think? Point is: we open In Media Res with our lead in danger.

Cut: and now we're in the past. Sydney's a brunette college student being told to finish her blue book essay.

Third scene: college campus, she's with her boyfriend Danny. Vertical Horizon's on the soundtrack. It's 2001. Danny proposes to Sydney on the quad while singing Build Me Up Buttercup. It's embarrassing and adorable.

4th Scene: Intro roommate Francie as Syd shows off her ring. She hasn't told her dad, "I don't want him to ruin this." So she doesn't like Dad, and her mom's spoken of in past-tense. Danny apparently called Mr. Bristow to ask for his blessing. Flashback to Danny calling Jack Bristow. Jack is a jerk, giving a terse response that includes, "If you feel the need to ask me... I have a sense you don't know Sidney at all." Jack takes him apart rather coldly. "I will not be used as part of a charming anecdote you tell at parties." Oh, and Jack also exports airplane parts. Meant to imply it's a boring job.

Next sequence: Sydney goes to work at the bank... then enters a James Bondian secret entrance to her real job... spy headquarters. (Visual detail: she removes her engagement ring before she goes in). Next couple scenes introduce the spy regulars: Sloane - taskmaster boss, Marshall - tech guy, Dixon - Sydney's partner. We've seen this kind of Mission Briefing scene a million times. Exposition central. Marshall's goofiness and gadgets add some flair though. I'm not gonna recap all the exposition here, but suffice to say it's all crucial to the mission later.

Next scene: Sydney running with her friend Will. He's kvetching that his blind date's favorite movie of all time was PRETTY WOMAN. He asks Sydney to a movie. She tells him Danny proposed. The way she breaks the news and his reaction tell us a big thing: he's into her.

Next Sydney/Danny interaction: romantic scene has her leading him into the shower... where she tells him she's a spy. "I work for the CIA." He laughs. Realizes she's serious. We don't see more than this. We don't need to.

And now we're back to the torture scene, just to remind us there are stakes here. By the way, all that pipe laying took about 15 minutes: dual life, all the major characters, etc. This thing MOVES. And it's the end of Act One.

Now we're in flashback as Sydney tells us (and Danny) how she was recruited into a "covert branch" of the agency while still in college. It's an exposition dump, but like VERONICA MARS, it waited until the second act.

Sydney goes away on a mission with Dixon. Discuss how Sloane doesn't like she's in grad school and has an outside life. Dixon reminds Sydney that the one rule they don't break is telling people in their lives that they're spies. (This would be STAKES).

This next sequence seems to be here to give us an idea of what a "routine" mission looks like for Sydney. Guest at a formal function. Meanwhile, Danny calls Syd's answering machine and leaves a message discussing his feelings about her spy life. "People aren't spies forever." This is intercut with Sydney's mission, advancing both things at once. We also see Sloane getting a call that's informing him about Danny.

Sydney's caught on video finishing her mission. She's seen by the same men later torturing her. But we know this doesn't lead to that because of the red hair in those scenes. See how details like that keep things clean for the audience?

Sloane informs someone that "we have a breach" regarding Sydney telling Danny. He slides the folder across the table to... Sydney's father! "You know where my loyalties lie." Jack tells him, not un-sinisterly.

Sydney comes home, finds Danny murdered in his bathtub. She races to the office confronts Sloane, who is stern and unsympathetic. Some great Sloane dialogue here that I don't have time to transcribe. Sydney grabs him: "You killed the man I love." "No... you did." Sydney's given a polygraph, in a scene that informs us she's part of SD-6. It's repeated several times so we'll remember SD-6 later. There's a neat bit in here with Sydney reading Sloane's lips through the interrogation room window. Communicated just through ECUs.

Interrogation: Sydney gives some smart-ass answers. Like with Veronica, it's meant to show how unflappable and sassy she is.

Back in the past, we go to Danny's funeral. Jack watches Sydney at a distance. Syd interacts with Danny's sister.. who has bright red hair.

Nice character moment amid the plot: Sydney has to rerecord the outgoing answering machine message, replacing one of her and Danny.

Dixon comes to Sydney with a mission, one they need her for. "If they don't have confidence in someone as deep as you are.. they'll fix" it. You thought you hated YOUR job? Quitting isn't an option for her. Sydney goes into a parking garage and that's where she's attacked. Men with laser sights take shots at her. she flees, and we get a neat moment of hand-to-hand fighting when she takes out one of the guys.

And then her father pulls up: "Get in!" "Daddy!" We knew Jack was a spy... she didn't. Car chase ensues. And Jack pulls off an awesome move, spins the car 180 degrees and drives in reverse so he can shoot the car chasing them. It's BADASS, impresses even Sydney.

Jack says SD-6 will kill her. He's part of it too, undercover. He tells her SD-6 is NOT part of the CIA, "You're working for the enemy." Here's the trick of ALIAS's double agent premise, and one some audiences found confusing. Abrams has a LOT to lay out here, but it helps that it's doled out in pieces. Took 45 min to get here. Set up she's a spy, set up mission, THEN reveal "Oh by the way, they're bad guys."

Sydney goes to Will, borrows his sister's passport, dyes her hair bright red like the sister, figuring that's enough to fool airline. (This was pre-9/11. it probably would have worked.) But she's gone rogue, and basically, she's gonna do the mission Dixon came to get her for.

I don't need to go through all the steps of the spy mission, do I? Note that we KNOW she gets caught here, thanks to the hair detail.

We're back at the torture again. Sydney plays at being broken, fights back in a scene that shows her resoursefulness. Another action scene....gotta make sure the audience knows they're getting a mini-spy movie a week here. Make a long story less long, she completes mission, gets the device and delivers it to Sloane at SD-6, seemingly not even changing outfits. This is part of the buy-in. We have to believe that Sloane would trust her. We also KNOW she's gonna kill him first chance she gets.

And still more of the premise to unfurl. Sydney goes to the REAL CIA. Michael Vaughn takes her statement. She wants to be a double-agent. He mentions "another double agent in SD-6." In a subsequent scene, we see who that is: Jack. He visits her to tell her she's in.

AND now it's clear that we're seeing more than just a double-agent spy show... it's got a father/daughter relationship at its core. They've been estranged for years and now they'll have to work together to bring down this massive spy agency. THAT is a mission statement. You can't just say: "We're doing an action show." They're gonna ask, "What makes this different? Why do we care?"

And with that, we're done. (and I forgot this pilot was over an hour long! Feels almost like cheating.)

Series objectives:
- Sydney and Jack bring down SD-6
- Personal because Syd wants revenge
- Personal because father/daughter

Secret identity issues:
-her friends (barely used here) don't know about her double life.
-Rest of SD-6 cast doesn't know they're bad guys

See all the tension? See all the elements that can drive story week to week? the stuff that makes this more than James Bond with a girl?

Note that the focus is HEAVILY on Sydney. Not only is it not an ensemble but the supporting characters are what I call "placeholder parts." Most of them are fairly undeveloped. Just enough to establish that world.

Vaughn is practically an extra. He's just "CIA guy" in two scenes. We know nothing about him other than he has a girlfriend. But the CIA stuff is part of the premise, so it NEEDS to be in the pilot somehow. Same with Francie and Will. Syd needs "civilians." Secret ID tension is an ongoing element. But most her "normal" life time in the pilot is taken up by the Danny stuff. So they're cameos.

(Sidebar: I never much liked Will and Francie much. Will's just "platonic friend with a crush" in the pilot and Francie's the "annoying roommate.")

The most developed character after Sydney is her dad Jack and her evil boss Sloane: Good Dad and Bad Dad. That's the tension of the pilot and series.

Takeaway: you can't service EVERYTHING in a plot, so feature the important stuff and at least plant flags on the other key concepts.

Other pilot breakdowns:
The Office
Homicide: Life on the Street

Monday, April 16, 2018

A salute to Superman writer/artist Dan Jurgens as ACTION COMICS hits 1000 issues this week!


I just want to allow a moment for this to sink in. ACTION COMICS, the comic book that began its run in June 1938 with Superman's first appearance, this week releases its one-thousandth issue. It's a staggering milestone in comic book history. That it more or less coincides with Superman's 80th birthday is also something to celebrate.

I've written many times before about my history with Superman comics, so I'm sure some of this will be familiar to longtime readers. The Superman milestone is a bit bittersweet for me because this issue also will mark the FINAL appearance from writer/artist Dan Jurgens in the regular Superman titles, at least for the foreseeable future. His run (and the run of his SUPERMAN collaborators, Patrick Gleason and Peter Tomasi) comes to an end as Brian Michael Bendis prepares to shepherd both Superman titles.

Dan took over writing ACTION COMICS about two years ago, with the launch of the REBIRTH line in ACTION 957. I'll talk a little more about this run later, but it's perhaps my favorite handling of the character in the last 10 years or so. And yet, it's not even Dan's most notable success with the character. When he leaves this world, I'd be shocked if the first line of Dan's obituary doesn't refer to him somehow as "the man who killed Superman" in one of the biggest selling comic books of all-time.

There's an interesting synchronicity between Dan's time with the character and my own buying habits. I can't remember a time when I WASN'T a Superman fan, but when I was very young, it wasn't like I was able to buy the comics every week. When I was six, my aunt got me the then-current relaunch of Superman by John Byrne in the six-issue MAN OF STEEL miniseries. Then over the next few years, I'd buy Superman comics from the local book store whenever my parents could be talked into it.

There was a particular story that made me a permanent reader and got my parents to take me to the comic store for regular trips. In SUPERMAN 28, the Man of Steel exiled himself to outer space, in a soul-searching story that lasted about six months. To a nine year-old, this was EPIC stuff and I had to get each chapter as it unfolded. The third part of the story, SUPERMAN 29, was written by and featured the art of... Dan Jurgens. Within a few months, Dan was drawing the ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN title and eventually took over writing it too.

So in a weird way, my regular association with Superman comics lines up almost exactly with Dan's. His art quickly became my favorite among the book. (I have to note that he's in a virtual tie with Jerry Ordway for the title of my all-time favorite Superman artist, and that at least two of my other favorites, Bob McLeod and George Perez also were on the books during this time.)

My Golden Age of Superman extends from about 1989 to 1994, more or less from the EXILE to the ZERO HOUR storyline, and Dan's work was essential to that. This was the period that included the Death and Return of Superman storylines, as well as PANIC IN THE SKY, KRISIS OF THE KRIMSON KRYPTONITE, and DAY OF THE KRYPTON MAN. All of them are landmark stories and were huge influences on my view of the character, but there are a number of wonderful standalone stories mixed in there - and a good chunk of them are Dan Jurgens's tales. recently complied a list of "essential" Dan Jurgens Superman stories, and just about all of these would make my list too. I love just about all the mega-storylines from this era, that crossed through the three, and later four, Superman books. Aside from those, I always had some affection for the really good single-issue tales that the creators would get to do between those stories. Off the top of my head, my favorites include:

Metropolis Mailbag: a concept introduced in SUPERMAN 64 is that once a year on Christmas, Superman reads his fan mail and does what he can to help those in need. It's an emotional little holiday tale that shows us the small kindnesses that Superman can accomplish with his powers, as well as reminds us that even he has his limits in what he can do for people. There's a humanity to this era of Superman and stories like this are a major reason why. A year later in SUPERMAN 76, we saw the entire DC community of heroes pulling together to answer Superman's mail, as this holiday fell during the period where Superman was dead.

Homeless for the Holidays: In ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN 462, Clark Kent learns that a co-worker has fallen on hard times, and with the help of Perry White and the staff of the Daily Planet, gives her a Merry Christmas and a new home.

Face to Face with Yesterday: ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN 474 - Another holiday tale, this one centered on a sin from young Clark Kent's past. A high school classmate of his has been comatose since a drunk driving accident senior year. On the night his parents are finally pulling the plug, Clark Kent pays his first visit there in a long time, and grapples with his guilt over not doing more that fateful night.

(This issue is also notable because it was the first issue with a price hike. Most of DC's other books had jumped from 75 cents to a full dollar nearly a year earlier. The Superman books held on the longest, but felt the price hike with this issue. Dan actually wrote a letter to the fans via the issue's letter column, saying he knew this wouldn't be popular with readers and relayed his own tale of pricing woe. When he was a boy, ACTION COMICS jumped from 12 cents to 15 cents, which meant he could only afford two of the three issues he intended to buy on this particular trip to the drug store. The cashier took pity on him that day, and gave him the issues at the lower price. I remember thinking what a nice gesture it was on Dan's part to basically take the time to say to the fans, "Yeah, I've been there too" and over something ultimately so minor that no one would have thought less if he DIDN'T say anything.)

SUPERMAN 131: one of the epic Lex Luthor stories. Having kept Superman occupied with a minor crisis, Lex settles two old grudges at once by having the Mayor assassinated and hiring (and later betraying and murdering) his hated foster father to do the deed. Oh, and he becomes a father and has his wife put into a medically induced coma while all of this is going on. It's Lex Luthor at his most evil.

LOIS & CLARK: an 8-part storyline that puts some pieces into place for REBIRTH. Clark and Lois are in hiding, enjoying a quiet life on an Earth different from the one where they lived their entire lives. But they can't stay out of trouble forever, and the stakes are higher now that they've got a 10 year-old son name Jon who doesn't know his father was once one of Earth's greatest Superheroes.

The dynamic of Superman and Lois having a young son became one of the corner stones of REBIRTH. I gushed about this storyline soon after it started, and almost two years later, I can attest that the storytelling in both Superman books felt fresh, emotional and were the kinds of Superman stories that I hope are told for years to come.

At WonderCon, Jurgens mentioned that making Superman a father ensured that he'd have plenty of fresh ground to explore with the character and Lois. Superman has matured, and Dan pointed out that during his first run on the character, they would make the character a bit more reactive than he'd been before. (As he put it, "Our Superman would get angry" rather than always being totally chill.) I like the paternal side of Superman getting showcased again, as during the Curt Swan era, he definitely felt like a "dad," an older sort of soul than the portrayal in the Christopher Reeve movies.

I bring up Curt Swan for another reason - he's the only person to have drawn more Superman stories than Dan. Curt's regular run on Superman comics lasted about thirty years or so, and then even after MAN OF STEEL brought an end to it, he'd often be back for special projects and fill-ins right up until his death in 1996. He easily has drawn more stories than Dan, but once you get past those two, whoever's in third place would have to be FAR behind Jurgens.

If you tally the total number of Superman stories Dan has been involved in, I understand it's just over 230 issues, but that includes a substantial number where he was writing without drawing. For many readers like me, Dan Jurgens is the definitive Superman artist, and not just because he wrote and drew Superman 75, where he got to kill him. (Dan also got to do the honors in 1996 when Clark Kent finally married Lois Lane.)

For this reason above all others, his capacity for amazing Superman art, I had to buy a Superman sketch from him when I had the chance a few years ago. I've met Dan in person about four or five times now, and it's always been a pleasure. He's truly one of the kindest people you could meet at a comic convention, and always seems happy to engage the fans.

I mentioned before that my regular run reading the character began almost exactly when Dan started writing and drawing him. Dan left the book in late 1999, after over ten years with the character. I stayed a bit longer. That particular incarnation of Superman continued more or less until the FLASHPOINT storyline in 2011.  This storyline prompted a line-wide reboot of ALL DC continuity, called The New 52, meaning that from September 2011 going forward, all of Superman history had a clean slate.

As a long-time fan I was bummed, but I decided to give it six months to see if I liked what the new teams were doing. I figured out pretty quickly the new approach wasn't to my tastes, but with the seventh issue, DC announced a "new" Superman artist... Dan Jurgens. That was enough to get me to stick around for Dan's run, which ended up being only six months. When he left a year into the New 52, I left too. There was something poetic - I came in with Dan Jurgens... and I left with him.

(If this sounds familiar, you probably read me talking about it here and here, when I walked away from the books for what I assumed was permanent.)

Of course, that meant that when Dan came BACK, I was probably obligated to follow suit. And I did. I check out his LOIS & CLARK out of curiosity, as the Superman and Lois featured in that book weren't the New 52 versions, but "my" versions that I grew up reading. Other than that, didn't buy many new comics for almost four years. I'd kicked the habit and accepted that the current Superman comics weren't for me. I saw no reason to get back into them.

Then DC made probably the ONE announcement that would change that: Dan Jurgens was taking over ACTION COMICS, and it would be starring the Superman and Lois from LOIS & CLARK, along with their super-powered son.

Every time I think I'm out...

And now that run is coming to an end, and in bittersweet fashion, it ends even as it feels like there are tons of stories that Dan has left to tell. Though he was coordinating his vision of Superman with the creative team on the SUPERMAN title, this was the first time that Dan truly had full control over the storylines he was telling. His last run on the books was when there were four monthly titles that fed into and out of each other. It was an amazing feat of collaboration, and Dan worked with some great talents writing the other books, such as Jerry Ordway, Roger Stern, Louise Simonson, and Karl Kesel. Reading the last two years of ACTION, I really got a sense of how Jurgens was able to really take ownership of his plotlines rather than being part of a four-book relay race.

I feel like I've grown up with Superman in more ways than one. The EXILE story found him adrift, trying to figure out who he was. He came out of that more matured and over the years he revealed his secret to Lois Lane and proposed, he died and came back, he married the woman he loved, watched friends and parents die, and became a father. He's matured and become more thoughtful, perhaps even wiser as he became paternal. I like the depth that's given him.

Because of these elements, the REBIRTH storyline is unique among Superman runs. Gleason & Tomasi have also gotten to play in that sandbox, but it's Dan Jurgens who truly got things rolling when he introduced Jon Kent in LOIS & CLARK. It launched a Superman era that couldn't be anything but different from what came before. Assuming these changes endure (and I really hope Bendis doesn't eliminate them), Jurgens can still be proud that he was the first person to break that ground with Superman. How many people are lucky to have TWO iconic runs with the same legendary character?

I last saw Dan a few weeks ago at WonderCon, where he was generous enough to fit me on his busy sketch list and then went above and beyond on my request. This was a riff on a crossover from 1996 called DC VS. MARVEL. The two companies teamed up for a miniseries that pitted the heroes of both universes against each other, with the outcomes of five of the fights determined by fan votes. In a massive injustice unmatched by any electoral shenanigans since, the fans voted that Storm should be Wonder Woman in battle. (See that fight here.) Dan was one of the artists on that miniseries and ended up drawing the Wonder Woman/Storm fight. That made my sketch request pretty easy to come up with...

It may have taken 20 years, but the Amazing Amazon is at last avenged, and we now have the outcome of the battle, the way it should have gone and drawn by the man responsible for the original work. Dan went above and beyond what I expected the result to be and this might be one of my favorite comics-related possessions of all time. To my knowledge, this is the only time he's been asked to do this particular request.

Dan, thank you for 30 years of great Superman stories with more to come. Thank you for all those books I read again and again as a boy, to the point where entire runs are pretty much memorized in my head, down to some of the smallest details of the panels. So many of those stories meant everything to me as a kid, and when I'm fortunate enough to see your art on new Superman tales, I'm always transported back to those days.

Thank you for showing us there's no end to the kind of stories that can be told with a Superman who represents the best in all of us. And thank you for underlining that humanity in him by making Superman a loving husband and a wonderful parent. It's nice to have Superman stories that achieve depth while still being appropriate for the youngest readers, just like the tales of the era I grew up with.

Like Curt Swan, I think you'll end up associated with this character up until your last days on Earth. You clearly have more stories to tell and I can't imagine I've read my final Dan Jurgens Superman adventure. But the end of this chapter deserves to be commemorated and of everyone contributing to Wednesday's ACTION COMICS 1000, it feels most right that you're there. Congrats!

Oh, and happy birthday to you too, Superman. Here's to 1000 more! If the villainous Word Bringer actually exists, maybe I can be there as a brain in a jar for ACTION 2000!

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Rey's parents and why fetishizing pre-planning is a dumb argument

This is an expanded version of a Twitter-thread I wrote last week.

I keep seeing this article, "J.J. Abrams Initial Plan for Rey's Parentage Was Very Different Than What We Saw in 'The Last Jedi'" used as ammo in the great The Last Jedi debate, as if it invalidates what Rian Johnson did.

This annoys me because it completely misunderstands the development process. In 1980, you could have written a similar article headlined "Darth Vader wasn't originally Luke's father!" And it's true. STAR WARS wasn't written that way. There are even drafts of EMPIRE that explicitly make them two different people. That's where George landed. And the fact he didn't intend it from the start does not invalidate where he ended up.

In the first 12 or so drafts of THE SIXTH SENSE, Bruce Willis's character is alive.

Do not fetishize pre-planning. The journey matters less than the destination.

This is putting aside the fact Pegg is a second-hand source and we have Johnson himself and Daisy Ridley both saying that where Rian landed on Rey's parents was the same notion that JJ himself ultimately had! Quoting directly from Rolling Stone:

Unlike almost everyone else in the world, Ridley has known for years who Rey's parents are, since Abrams told her on the set of The Force Awakens. Ridley believes that nothing ever changed: "I thought what I was told in the beginning is what it is." Which is odd, because Johnson insists he had free rein to come up with any answer he wanted to the question. "I wasn't given any directive as to what that had to be," he says. "I was never given the information that she is this or she is that."

Master Plans are overrated. What makes it to screen is what counts. I've said this before, but ages ago, people tried to sell me on BABYLON 5 as superior to DS9 because "He had it all planned out from the start!" Sometimes the best ideas happen late in the process.

When you write, have a plan, but always, ALWAYS adapt to better ideas as they come along. Indy shooting a swordsman wasn't the plan, but it's a BETTER idea than an elaborate whip-and-blade fight.

Also, sometimes "evidence" that something was planned from the start can just be a smart writer picking up a throwaway detail and giving it resonance later. DS9 is full of these kinds of things, particularly an arc that emerges in season 3.

More recently, I praised a couple details in 13 Reasons Why (details unique to the show) as being subtle plants for later stuff, but that all could easily have been a smart writer remembering what had been done before. After I posted this tweet storm, BREAKING BAD and BETTER CALL SAUL writer Gennifer Huchison weighed in, noting that this sort of thing happened often on their show.

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Shonda Rhimes's MasterClass series is a thorough look inside the brain of a prolific showrunner

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

I've reached the point where I feel very confidant that all of the Masterclass programs will meet a certain standard of quality. I've reviewed four previous classes and though they all have different relative merits, in one way or another, my verdict was that all of them would be worth the $90 class fee, at least to the audience at which it's targeted.

I can't claim to be a superfan of Rhimes's catalog. I watched about a season or two of Grey's Anatomy when it first premiered, and I might have seen an episode or two of her other series over the years, but I'm hardly an encyclopedia for those shows storylines, or on Rhimes herself. I only say this as a disclaimer in case some of the anecdotes Rhimes relays here prove to be incredibly familiar to the superfan who's studied every interview of hers, and listened intently to every director's commentary.

What you get for your $90 is over six hours of videos hosted by Rhimes. As you'll recall from my earlier reviews, the better MasterClasses split their focus between lecture videos where the subject directly speaks into the camera, and some sort of workshop where the instructor gets to apply their knowledge in a practical way. The best of these were the videos of Ron Howard demonstrating how he blocks and shoots a scene while directing actors. Rhimes's class doesn't having anything quite that unique and captivating to watch, regrettably. For a series of videos she brings in some people (I'm not quiet clear if they're all aspiring writers or if they're just fans) for a series of videos where she breaks down some of her episodes act-by-act.

Let's tackle the lecture videos first. As is common, these are the meat-and-potatoes portion of the course. She lays out some of the basics of writing for TV. Sometimes these can feel perfunctory, with a Writing 101 air about them. Certainly the videos discussing "Finding an Idea" and "Researching Your Story" can come across that way. The strength of Rhimes's course is that she finds a way to make it all personal to her experience. When she talks about "Developing the Concept" she relates it back to the conception of Grey's Anatomy.

Even better - she supplies the series bible for Grey's Anatomy! It's a 19-page document that introduces the characters and their relationships to each other and has one page descriptions of each of the first 12 episodes. I wish I had interesting trivia for you about how these early ideas later diverged by the time that everything made it to screen, but I simply don't remember season 1 well enough to call out these things.

We also get the original 10-page pitch document for the series and an early version of the pilot script. It's rare for actual documents like this to be available to aspiring writers and they make great supplements to the rather long segments as Shonda takes us through her process of developing a pilot. Two full segments are spent just on developing characters, and it's a theme that the lectures return to time and again.

Rhimes says, "I cannot abide a pitch that comes into my room that is simply about plot." She says that she can't make sense of a story until she knows how it impacts the characters. That's her process and she makes a strong argument for why character should always be front and center.

That doesn't mean that she neglects structure and plot, and so another set of videos first sets up the structure of a one-hour network drama and then Rhimes spends about a half-hour breaking the Grey's Anatomy pilot down act-by-act. I briefly feared this would be little more than what you would get with an audio commentary on the episode but it's SO much more. It's entirely focused on the writing, with advice like, "Pick a character that can act as a guide for the audience." She also advises you ground your story choices in character because the audience lets you get away with a lot if it's based in character.

The Scandal pilot gets similar treatment across five videos, each one breaking down an act. That whole process takes about an hour and fifteen minutes. It is possibly the closest you can get to actually being inside a writer's head as they make the choices that define their series and script. These are the segments where she has other people with her, and though they don't ask a great many questions (or particularly insightful ones), it feels like their presence helps by giving Rhimes someone to talk to aside from the camera.

And then a final batch of videos focuses on the nitty gritty of showrunning. Shonda talks about the way a writers room works, what it's like to oversee production, and generally what it's like being a writer trying to handle all of these responsibilities.

I think I found Aaron Sorkin's class more entertaining, particularly when he drafted writing students to be surrogate staff writers and then broke down their work - but I feel like no one beats Shonda's class for pure information download. At basically $15 an hour, this is a solid writing resource.

I don't often delve into the workbooks for these courses, mostly because I've almost always been racing to get the videos watched in a timely fashion so I can write these reviews. Every video has a relevant assignment, and you can see a sample assignment below:

Choose one of the ideas from the list you created in Chapter 3. Begin to develop it into a fully fleshed out show premise. Who are the characters at the heart of your story? What is their journey? What is the best episode structure to effectively tell their stories? Begin to write the story bible for your show, using Shonda’s bible for Grey’s Anatomy as a template and guide. Write a page describing your concept and create a character list. Sketch out initial episode ideas.

If you're rationing the videos out at a rate of a few a week, it's not unreasonable to complete these assignments. One of these days I really want to complete a course at a recommended speed, including completing all the assignments.

You can purchase Shonda Rhimes Teaches TV Writing here. It's $90 per class if you buy a class individually - BUT if you go for the All-Access Pass, you can access to their entire roster for $180/year. To help you decide if that's a better use of your money, I've reproduced their entire MasterClass roster below.

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

The full MasterClass roster:

Martin Scorsese teaches Filmmaking
Werner Herzog teaches Filmmaking
Shonda Rhimes teaches TV Writing
Aaron Sorkin's Masterclass on TV Writing
David Mamet teaches Dramatic Writing
Steve Martin teaches Comedy
Judy Blume teaches Writing
James Patterson teaches Writing

Samuel L. Jackson teaches Acting
Helen Mirren teaches Acting

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

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

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

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

Monday, April 9, 2018

Transitions and emotional identification in the fifth episode of 13 REASONS WHY

I'm going to try to start doing something I probably should have been doing more of. When I get off on a nice tweet-storm, I should post it here, reformatted as a blog post. It takes basically the same effort and I find I prefer having something archived here than having to search through thousands of tweets.

I'm in the middle of attempting to write a spec episode of 13 Reasons Why, so I'm revisiting a few episodes to study the style and technique again. (Also, I'm incredibly impatient for season 2, so going back to the better episodes is basically serving as my methadone.)

This discussion of the 5th episode of season 1 of 13 Reasons Why ("Tape 3, Side A") is from a tweetstorm I wrote on Saturday. You can find the original thread here. I've done some editing and expounded on a few thoughts here.

I was rewatching the 5th ep (school dance/Courtney's tape) of 13 Reasons Why last night and saw a few storytelling/transition/structure things worth discussing.  The episode was written by Julia Bicknell (only writing credit of hers I can find) and directed by Kyle Patrick Alvarez. Alvarez also directed the heartbreaking finale of Season 1, and the truly terrifying film THE STANFORD PRISON EXPERIMENT.

This is (I believe) the first ep where Clay has already heard the whole tape before the start of the ep. Usually Hannah's narration plays while we see him listening on headphones. Not this time. It means his actions the entire ep aren't of discovery, but of reaction. Not insignificantly, this is the first time that the severe actions on the tape strongly intersect with Clay's history. His past interactions with Hannah are usually asides. Here, they take center stage and it ups the emotional stakes.

This is ALSO the first time that it's implied the flashbacks we see are the memories of other characters too. The tapes aren't our only bridge there. Courtney flashes back to an earlier lunch with Hannah, and when Hannah's dad looks at her corsage, it triggers another memory. It helps spread the emotional identification around. It's not just Clay getting kicked in the gut by these memories, it's everyone around Hannah. It helps to make the ep an emotional pressure cooker so that we're ready for the release that comes at the end.

Also, after 4 eps where the flashbacks are about "This is what this means to Hannah" it's nice to see everyone else's stakes in those memories: what they knew, what they didn't know, and what they probably regret. It seems like a tiny detail, but it's huge. Quite rightly, the show has put most of its energy on getting us to identify with Clay and his grief, and only the pain of Hannah's parents has really been explored aside from that. Making this episode a flashback from at least four characters' interactions (Clay, Hannah, Courtney and Hannah's father) helps drive home one of the show's running themes about how connected everyone is and how much their actions affect others.

But ultimately, this is Clay's ep to shine. Because this flashback means something to him, it's knife-twisting to realize how devastating it must be to relive that moment at the school dance. It's a cute "I want to kiss her but I'm too scared to make a move" flashback on its own....

...but when you add it to everything else, he has regret of, "Why DIDN'T I do it? How could what I was scared of be worse than this?"

There's an end speech that Dylan Minnette acts the hell out of where he talks about never getting to dance with her again, and you feel his pain:

"When I listen to the tapes I want to see her in school tomorrow. I want to eat Mike and Ikes out of the box with her at the Crestmont. I want to dance with her again, and kiss her when I should have kissed her.

"But I can't."

When I posted this as a Twitter thread, the director of the episode responded with a few thoughts:

I mentioned to Kyle that on subsequent viewings, after we've actually watched Hannah die, it has the effect of putting us more in the emotional space where Clay is at this point. I did a lousy job of explaining this on Twitter, but at this point in the show, we still have eight episodes worth of Hannah's life to learn about. Even though she's dead to us in the present, she's still "alive" in the past in a way. Once we've reached her suicide, we've see it all. And we know what Clay knows.

So when we revisit these episodes, her loss somehow feels more real. There's nothing left of her and when Clay takes Courtney to her grave, we're HYPER-aware that the girl we watched die painfully is in a box below the ground. It feels very unsettling to be there, like it's almost wrong to intrude on that space.

If you've only watched this episode once, go back and revisit it after you've seen Hannah's suicide. I'm curious if you end up with the same reaction as me.

Also, this tangentially relates to a point I made last year in my 13-part series on the show. In the final segment I discussed the news that Hannah would continue to appear via flashbacks in season 2:

"I hope that when she turns up in Season 2, Hannah's used sparingly. There's real power in that character's reappearance. We shouldn't see Langford on-screen again unless the story demands that specific emotional sucker punch. It needs to mean something to revisit Hannah, and the worst thing the show could do would be to use her in a scene where she's merely a continuity checkpoint. Even though flashbacks are going to take us to other pivotal moments in the characters' lives, I feel Hannah can easily be kept an off-screen presence."

The way we experienced Hannah's life gives her future use an enormous amount of emotional power. Let's hope it's used properly.

Also, what happens to Hannah is this ep is a strong structural turning point because it pulls together the wrongs of the previous four ep and basically turns them into a snowball of pain that escalates everything that goes very bad. The picture out of context that led to the rumor she went to third base with Justin, the "hot list" that named her "Best Ass" and only further objectified her, the out-of-context picture of her kissing Courtney, which further fed rumors of her promiscuity - it all gets tided together here when Courtney uses them as a shield to deflect people who think there's something going on between her and Hannah. Basically she throws Hannah under the bus to save herself.

So the episode accomplishes two things: accelerates Hannah's descent, and more directly involves Clay in that downward spiral. The weight of that devastates present-Clay and sets him on the unstable path he continues for several episodes. Clay's not only dealing with the regret over his inaction towards Hannah on a romantic level, but he has to be thinking that he failed her in a more basic emotional support capacity as well. That guilt, and the desire to do something about, becomes what drives Clay for the rest of the season.

It's a lot of PLOT, but because of the way the show transitions between the past and present so effectively, and uses the emotions of the other characters to evoke our own, it makes us FEEL as its drawing all these threads together.

Lesson is: story works best when you don't divorce plot from emotion. Find every technique you can to get the audience to identify emotionally with the characters and you've got gold.