Wednesday, May 2, 2018

The EVERWOOD and 13 REASONS WHY pilots show how to make hurtful choices empathetic

I've been preparing to address the notes on my teen drama pilot and it brought to mind two pilots that were touchstones for me as I wrote: Everwood and 13 Reasons Why. And I hadn't noticed before they not only share similar scenes, but they're KEY similar scenes.

13 Reasons Why's pilot has two moments that I think are essential to getting the audience invested in the story. The first is an interaction between Hannah and Clay at the basketball game. There's a little bit of banter exchanged that halts when Clay realizes she's there to check out one of the players. "Don't be jealous, Clay" she teases. It's clear on the page he's pining for her, but the way the scene is played is essential. Hit just the wrong note, and her teasing seems mean-spirited. Instead, it's a cute moment.

The second moment is when she seeks refuge with him at lunch when rumors spread lies about her being promiscuous. Instead of being supportive, he's cold and hits her with a jealous barb about how "maybe it's better to wait." Clay looks like a dick there, but THAT was the moment that made me lean forward and say, "Go on..." You get a lot of notes in a pilot warning how you need to keep your characters "likable" but having someone be clearly wrong for human reasons is often more effective. He's not a bad guy, but he's having a teenage boy reaction. he was rejected, he's hurt, he's jealous, and in a moment he instantly regrets (also an important component), he does what a lot of boys would do in the same situation: act like an immature dick.

And here's the rub: on the page, both those moments play harsher. You don't have the performances of the actors to soften the blows or really make you feel the subtext. But that's no reason NOT to write the scene. As for EVERWOOD, there's a similar kind of moment...

Setup: Ephram has just been forced to move to a small town by his widowed brilliant brain surgeon father. he hates it, but popular girl Amy seems to take an interest in him. But Ephram is crushed when he finds out Amy has a bf and apparently was using him but then she explains herself. Her bf is actually in a coma following an accident. The doctors can't do anything for him. Amy befriended Ephram because she was hoping he could get his father to do something. It felt like fate that a world famous brain surgeon came to her town.

So you can't hate her after that moment. Was she manipulative? Sure. But it was for a good reason. You get why she would have done it and you get the sense that she's a nice enough person she might have been friendly to Ephram anyway. You empathize with her, you empathize with Ephram because he likes her and now WE like her too... and now you want these two to get together. But they can't get together and get everything they want because her coma boyfriend complicates everything. It's a perfect knot.

So fuck writing "likable" characters. Write human people who make human mistakes and make bad choices that have empathetic motivations behind them. When Clay hurts Hannah, it's awful, but I also thought, "I've done that. And it didn't feel good."

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