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

No comments:

Post a Comment