Burning down the house

When normal people like us get sacked, life offers nothing more scary than a frantic scouring of sits vacant ads. If it gets really desperate and humiliating, it might involve a  trip to the Job Centre.  Get sacked by the CIA, though, and you could end up homeless and penniless with nary a passport or credit card to your name. It’s called a Burn Notice.

When super spy Michael Westen gets his burn notice, he’s dumped in Miami with no one to watch his back but a psychotic, gun-happy ex-girlfriend   who used to be in the IRA, an old buddy who’s informing on him to the FBI, and the most passive aggressive mother on the eastern seaboard.

You know when you’ve been burned.

Cut off from making an honest living, his only recourse is to use his mad spy skills to help normal folks out, taking on the consumer complaints of the small guy. It’s like BBC’s Watchdog    being run by the Spooks cast. Westen is Nicky Campbell, just better looking, with straighter teeth, sharper suits, cool shades, and guns… lots of guns.

Not that Michael Westen always goes for the steel. No, he’s much more inventive than that: ‘For a job like getting rid of the drug dealer next door, I’ll take a hardware   store over a gun any day. Guns make you stupid. Better to fight your wars with   duct tape. Duct tape makes you smart.’ 

You can pick up lots of handy tips watching Burn Notice. Want to beat someone up without breaking your hands? Do it in the bathroom. Lots of hard surfaces. Need to lose that car on your tail? Don’t drive fast, drive slow, and like an idiot. Want to take out a surveillance camera? Shoot a laser   at it and overload the light sensitive chip.

I’ve adopted every one of these into my daily life and am getting great results.

Burn Notice is  the mirror image of that other recent   spy series, Chuck. Westen is not a normal guy thrust into the dangerous world of international espionage like Chuck Bartowski. He’s a super spy thrust into the bewildering world of normality; a world in which he is not so skilled (a bit like John Cusack in Grosse Point Blank). Guns, bombs and hand to hand combat he can handle. Mums, brothers and girlfriends are much tougher. Even when the girlfriend is an ex-IRA operative who really really loves guns. She loves them so much she’s got arms stashes all over the city.

She’s played by Gabrielle Anwar. Yes, the one who used to do graphic design for the Press Gang! She also starts out with the worst Oirish  accent since, oh… them plastic Paddies in the last season of Heroes. Thankfully, she ditches it post-pilot under the pretext of trying to ‘fit in’. Yes, Gabrielle, atrocious comedy accents are not the best thing when you’re supposed to be under cover. If Michael hadn’t been away so long he’d have told you that.

It may not be a contender for the most worthy TV series currently on our screens (like Breaking Bad, Mad Men and Battlestar Galactica), but that’s not what Burn Notice is about. It’s a lot of glamorous fun with killer locations, killer suits and killer dialogue. It’s fast and funny high-concept entertainment that you can’t help watching with a grin.

Burn Notice kicks off in the UK this Sunday (5 October) on     the FX channel.

Better living through chemistry

Chemistry is the study of change. Electrons change their energy levels, Molecules change their bonds, elements combine and change into compounds. It is all of life: the constant, the cycle. Solution, dissolution, over and over and over. Growth, then decay, then transformation. It is fascinating. Really.

So says Breaking Bad‘s Walter H White to a class full of  teenage fucknuts on the morning of his fiftieth birthday. No one is listening. No one ever listens to Walter.

If it wasn’t such an achievement, he would be the archetypal Beta Male. He supplements his crappy high school Chemistry teacher’s salary with a second job at a car wash, his brother-in-law is an Alpha male bonehead cop who openly vivisects him on a daily basis and then there’s his wife.

She’s a nice enough MILF. It’s just that her idea of putting a bit of spice into a marriage is giving her husband a birthday wank while she bids on eBay.

Life is not good for Walter H White. And now his biggest birthday gift is an inoperable lung cancer diagnosis.

Ironically, this is the moment where his life takes a worm-turn for the better.  Walter decides to take the place of the  drug dealer his brother-in-law just took down and recruits Jesse Pinkman, an ex-fucknut pupil he failed for Chemistry who is now making the best methamphetamine in town.

Only he isn’t. Jesse’s shit is… well, shit, and it takes a man with a passion for the study of change to create some really boo-ya crystal. Walter’s ‘basic chemistry’ suddenly has a street  value of ‘goddamn art’. He is the Cranach of Crank, the Holbein of Hank, the Rembrandt of Rank.

With the shadow of death on his lungs, Walter is, ironically, never more alive. He beats the shit out of some gargantuan prick who’s taking the piss out of his disabled son, he tells his car wash boss to go fuck himself, and he finds he suddenly has the cojones to fuck his wife like she really wants.

Growth, decay, transformation.

It would be good enough if Breaking Bad were simply one of the few TV drama series that has something to say about what it means to be a white, middle-aged male in these post-feminist times. But it is not merely worthy. It is witty, outrageous, funny, tragic, disgusting (just wait for the accident with the bathtub at the end of the second episode). And above all it is fantastic writing.

Each episode sets up a key dramatic conflict, the solution to which is somewhere on the periodic table of elements. Which would make it a very cerebral drama if it weren’t for the awkward, frenetic, sweaty, extremely physical performance of Bryan Cranstone, who revs up his manic comic turns as Seinfeld’s dentist and Malcolm in the Middle’s dad and jack-knifes them into a tragicomic  tailspin worthy of Buster Keaton. He deserves his Emmy.

The seven-episode first season  hits the UK tomorrow on the FX channel. It’s one of the stand out shows of 2008. Make it your appointment telly.

No sex, please, we’re British

She’s the scarily young theatre writer who created and wrote her own TV series by the age of 26. Lucy Prebble took a blog about the life of a London escort and turned it into a TV series for ITV2, the first original drama the channel had   ever commissioned. The second season of Secret Diary of a Call Girl has just started, but I caught up with Lucy at the Cheltenham Screenwriters’ Festival this summer to interview her for the Shooting Screenwriters Showand we talked for a half hour (fittingly enough) about the demands of writing for television. Here is a sneak preview.

I’m interested in the format of the show because you went for the half-hour per episode format, which is traditionally associated with the sitcom. 

Well it wasn’t my choice and I wanted them to be longer, but in the end I think there are very clear pros to the length as well as cons.

I wanted a bit more time to include slightly bigger, deeper stories, but there were a lot of people who felt that there is something going on at the moment with half-hour dramas: Californication, Weeds, Entourage.

It’s a difficult episode slot because it is almost always associated with the sitcom or the soap opera, and I think there’s good reasons for that.

In a soap opera you’re dealing with a large number of people, but you’ve got very long-running storylines, and people know those characters very well and audiences are familiar and comfortable with them.

With the sitcom you have a smaller group of characters, but fundamentally the biggest difference is that at the end of most sitcoms everything is back pretty much to how it was at the beginning. Although you have story movement, you begin each sitcom not necessarily having had to have seen the one before.

I think you pretty much have to make a choice between those two models to write a half-hour slot, and I think we chose the sitcom model, as in, you could probably watch those episodes in any order and not be too confused.

There are more of these half-hour dramas coming up and I think it’s because the generation who are watching them are quite happy to be told things very quickly. It panders to that MTV-Generation-with-no-concentration-span cliche,  but I think it’s the reverse of that.  I think they’re more clever. They’ve been brought up on the Simpsons and shows where the plot turns ten times in the first act.

But it does give a slightly lighter weight feel to a show. Deadwood or The Sopranoscould never be a half hour show, and quite rightly. So I think what you gain in speed you will lose a little bit in depth.

The first season has just aired in the States on Showtime, where it has received a much warmer response from the critics than here in the UK. 

I think on channels like Showtime and HBO, Americans are more used to having amoral central characters, and having borderline illegal matters discussed. And also they marketed it very, very well. They’re very good at making sure the audience they know will like it will watch it. They marketed it much more as a comedy, because it is quite light and comic, and with quite friendly Sex and the Citystyle shots of her, and I think there was an approach here in the UK that was much more full on and aggressive.

There’s a lot to be said for being challenging, but we set ourselves up for what happened in the UK, and what happened was The Guardian decided it this was the worst thing that had happened for a long time and there was an awful lot of political criticism of it. There was artistic criticism of it as well, but I think the political criticism really overshadowed it.

I’m writing something in a similar vein myself at the moment and being confronted with this archaic attitude to sex we seem to have in this country.

Yes, that’s exactly what it is! It’s so funny.  I was hanging around and talking to a large number of escorts by the time this show was being made, for research purposes, and every single one of them said ‘Please don’t portray us as victims’.

They’re a tiny sliver at the top of an industry that’s full of violence, drugs and exploitation, but it is a sliver, and it does exist. These women doexist, I’ve met them, and they are intelligent, fascinating, self-aware women who have never been represented on television in anything other than bodybags before. And those women say ‘Please don’t cop out and pretend it’s all about abuse, because my life is not like that’.

And then you go away and try to do them some justice, and another group of women (and men) who work for The Guardian decide you’re betraying your sisterhood. Well, you know, fuck off, really.

We will put up quite happily in this country with shows which represent violence, but sex is a subject that people don’t want you to be showing, and certainly not being challenging and different about.

There are other writers on board for the second season. Have you been showrunning   this time?

I didn’t have the time to do that as much as I would have liked. What I want to do in the future on series is to be a showrunner. One thing I think British television  could do much better is to allow those writers who want to and have the ability to showrun, to showrun.

Because the other thing that really joins together those series that most people who love television do really like, is that the person who creates and writes and originates the idea has that level of showrunning control, and even Executive Producer status. That is not unusual in America and I think it can produce really great work, and I think it’s something I’ll always be doing in the future if I can.

The full interview is available for free download  at the Shooting People podcasts page.

So superbad it’s good…

I hate teenagers. I hate them as only someone rapidly metamorphosing into just the same old bores who used to moan at me when I was a teenager about how I was practically a part of the landed gentry because I got a record player for Christmas when they used to get an orange  and apple and be grateful for it can.

Teenagers today annoy me because they live in a fantasy land of entitlement, where you can call Social Services if your parents haven’t bought you an iPhone. I want to happy slap them into the real world (the world of mid-70s austerity).

So I rarely make a date to watch programmes about them (even though I used to have a secret passion for As If, which was better than any ‘adult’ drama on TV at the time).

But last night I was chatting online whilst waiting for Reaper to come on E4 and I accidentally caught some of E4’s new teen sitcom  The Inbetweeners and, to my surpise and almost intense annoyance, I discovered that it’s really, really good. So good it’s wasted on the young.

This is apparently E4’s first ever commissioned original sitcom, and it’s written by Iain Morris and Damon Beesley, who have experience on Flight of the Conchords, Peep Show and some Jimmy Carr stuff.

It’s about four suburban teenage boys who desperately want to get their ends away but are frustratingly trapped in that not-quite-an-adult-yet limbo land. I remember that land well. It’s hard to forget having a permanent erection between the ages of 13 and 16.

And that’s what makes this show so good (not my three-year erection): it’s about the normal frustrations of growing up that everyone can relate to, not the Daily Mail headline shit about ‘teen pregnancies, drugs, knife fights and guns.’

Where it really hits the ball right out of the park is that it’s so outrageously vulgar it comes off like a UK suburban Superbad. The writing is wickedly funny and the performances  surprisingly top notch: Simon Bird, as effete ponce Will, comes across as the new David ‘Peep Show’ Mitchell. and James Buckley, who plays Jay, is so much the fully-formed reincarnation of Bob Grant (cackling skirt-chaser Jack in On The Buses) that it’s spooky.

The problem with pilots is that they is that they have to spend all their time setting up the characters in their universe, so they never give us a real idea of what a regular episode will be like. The challenge from the screenwriter’s point of view is to therefore get the whole thing up and running as quickly as possible.

This is easier to do than most people imagine. Audiences don’t need to be coaxed slowly into a series with over-elaborate exposition, as Channel 4 discovered recently when it cocked up the running order of its C18th cop show City of Vice, and viewers were treated to a painfully slow pilot (featuring characters who’d died in earlier episodes) at the end of the run. And there was me thinking they’d done such a great job of getting the story up and running in no time.

The trick is to write a ‘midcut pilot’ – something that’s as close to a regular episode as possible.  The Inbetweeners gets round this problem neatly by devoting its first couple of minutes to an extensive teaser of forthcoming attractions, through the V.O. of main character Will, before then plunging us into his first nightmare day at his new school.

Job done. Although E4 still felt the need to show the second episode straight after, just in case anyone wasn’t feeling it. They needn’t have bothered. The Inbetweeners is class from the get go and already appointment TV.