Thank you for smirking

I’ve been thinking a lot about Amelie recently. Not because I was using it to demonstrate some of the principles of Dramatica to my screenwriting class the other week, but because I’ve been watching Pushing Daisies,  the Golden Globe-nominated TV comedy that is now showing here on ITV1. You see, Pushing Daisies doesn’t just look ‘somewhere between Amelie and a Tim Burton film’ (to quote its DOP); it  is practically a remake of the French film.

Okay, it’s not about a quirky borderline sociopath who goes round trying to solve everyone’s problems through elaborate strategems as a displacement activity to avoid sorting out her own life, but it looks, sounds and feels like Amelie. If they could make it smell like Ameliethey’d have probably done that too (I’m getting a definite whiff of cinnamon here, I don’t know about you).

Same over-saturated,  fairytale look, same accordian music, same intrusive narrator (Jim Dale, of all people), same sickly sweet quirkiness.

Pushing Daisies is big on quirk. If you bought a sachet of just-add-water dehydrated wholesome Quirk and just added water, you’d get an episode of Pushing Daisies. The whole show is predicated on Anna Friel’s quirky smirk, which never leaves her face from the moment she’s brought back to life. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a gorgeous smirk. I’d never really been on the whole Anna Friel boat until Pushing Daisies, happy to watch it sail off, horn blaring, waving from the shore. But now I’m swimming catch-up and calling out for a lifebelt. And it’s all about the smirk.

Pushing Daisies is comfort telly incarnate. Why they bother explaining the absurdly over-complicated premise not once but twice at the beginning of every episode   is anyone’s guess, because no one’s listening. We’re all just goo-eyed catatonic, lost in the Smirk.

So it would seem to be missing the point to complain about the lack of logic at the heart of the premise. However, tearing myself away from Ms Friel’s gorgeous Smirk of Quirk, that’s exactly what I’ll do.

There are two major complaints that I still hear about Amelie from churls and arseholes. 1) The realParis doesn’t look anything like that, and 2) It tells everything with an unbearable voice-over narration. That’s the two great sins against filmmaking right there: not being real and gritty, and telling instead of showing.

Amelie was widely criticised for presenting a day-glo Paris that was nothing like the real thing, by critics who evidently failed to grasp the simple fact that the story is about a woman who lives in a fantasy world (note the subtle difference in visual style for the moped montage at the end).

The intrusive narrator is another matter. I’ve weighed in on this crime against storytelling before, but I have no problem with the narrator in Ameliebecause it’s a film about a woman who is living  in a fairytale. She narrates her own life as if it were a novel. The voice over isn’t there just to convey plot info and backstory; it’s an essential part of the premise, of the main character’s psychological make-up.

All of which means that robbing Amelie‘s look and narrative technique wholesale for a comedy that isn’t about a  character who lives in a fantasy world doesn’t make any kind of storytelling sense.

Being over-awed by the look of Amelie is one thing. It’s a beautiful movie. But to appropriate it wholesale for a TV series about a totally different premise is just cultural smash and grab.

Oh well. Friel’s smirking again. What was I saying?


Paradise reimagined

It shouldn’t work. It has no right to work. It’s only   a ‘reimagining’ of a terminally uncool, horrendously camp  1980s sci-fi show. It has no god damn right to be the best, most relevant, most challenging, most thrilling hands down no holds barred sheer brilliant most awesome drama in TV history. But by the gods, Battlestar Galactica, somehow, is all of those things and more. And it’s finally back on our screens again for its fourth and final season.

I don’t even count myself  a sci-fi fan. There are films from the sci-fi realm that I’ll watch and even love, but I draw the line at long-running sci-fi TV series. I have a mental and emotional block with any drama that features actors in alien costume with funny shaped heads. I’m sure Deep Space 9, Babylon 5 and  Farscape are all brilliantly written and everything, but sorry, I’m too busy running the other way.

Which is why I caught on to Galactica late. The third season had already begun when  I borrowed my mate’s DVD box sets and sat down to give it a try. I had to. Everyone was raving about it. The New York Times had declared it the best drama on TV, in anygenre. The Guardian had proclaimed it the only TV series to deal effectively with the War On Terror.

Really? Battlestar Galactica? The remake of that thing from the 80s that had Lorne Greene in it? Has the whole 13th Colony gone crazy?

So I watched the three-hour pilot/miniseriesand was blown away. It had me within the first few minutes if I’m honest, but as it played out and introduced its array of characters one by one, I knew I was in the presence of writers who really cared about their craft.

I consumed Season 1 and Season 2 like a junkie till I was up to speed and could start downloading the season 3 episodes as they were aired.   With each new season, you think they’re going to level off and become rubbish, but no, they top their personal best repeatedly.

Season 3 opened with brutal occupation, routine torture and suicide bombings, developed to drugged up threesomes and climaxed with jaw-dropping references to Bob Dylan and the stunning revelation of some very unexpected sleeper agents.

Then followed an unbearable 11-month hiatus, punctuated only by the one-off special Razor,  which took it to even darker places. And believe me, Galactica is verydark.

And now it’s back for its fourth and final season, and if the opening episode is anything to go by,  we’re in for a treat.

It’s shows like Battlestar Galactica that restore my faith in TV drama: so bewilderingly   complex, yet full of characters I care about. A real head and heart show that   totally transcends its genre. It’s good to have it back.

If you’ve missed out on it so far, you owe it to yourself as a human being to stop fracking about and see one of the greatest TV drama series of all time, so just go and buy the damned box set. It’s the best fifty quid you’ll ever spend.

(If you’re a tightwad you could just watch this amusing Season 1-3 high speed recap instead. But it would mean you are less of a human being. Probably a Cylon.)


As a writer, one of the little extras I love about the show is its podcast support.   Commentary tracks are released soon after each episode airs which are usually   great, but they also release recordings of their writers’ meetings. I don’t know   of any other drama series that lets you sit in on their writers’ room while they   break a story, so   it’s a great opportunity to get an insight into the collaborative writing   process.

[You can find  Writers’ Room files on season 2, season 3 and on Razor.]

The geek shall inherit the earth

You know what it’s like with those spam emails. They’re always too good to be true, offering  sure-fire stock tips, extra inches without surgery and really cheap Viagra  (that never arrives). At best you get annoying pop-ups; at worst a dead laptop. You don’t expect them to turn you into an spy.

But that’s what happens to computer geek Chuck Bartowski when he opens an e-mail from   an old college friend now working in (and dying for) the CIA, and it embeds the only remaining copy of the   world’s greatest spy secrets into his brain.

Damn. Doesn’t Norton Anti-Virus cover that?

Action-comedy Chuck launches in the UK this week on Virgin1, which has already brought us the excellent Terminator: Sarah Connor Chronicles, and so is now a favourite stop on my remote.

One thing that kept gnawing at me was where I’d seen the lead actor before. Took ages to work out it’s Zachary Levi, who played acid-tongued metrosexual Kipp Steadman in Less Than Perfect. This threw me for a while, but I’m over it and no longer expect him to dispense bitchy put-downs to anyone within clawing range. Chuck Bartowski is a different animal altogether: a loveable loser trying to get his life back on track.

He is ably assisted by Oz-babe Yvonne Strahovski, who plays Chuck’s CIA handler/pretend girlfriend, who might have deeper feelings for him… or might have to kill him (but that’s pretend girlfriends for you).

Chuck rides in on a wave of slacker comedies, competing with Reaper (currently showing on E4) and jPod (already cancelled).  What I find interesting about them is not that they are glorified sitcoms about slackers, but how they transcend the slacker premise.

If these were  UK series, it’s highly likely that the concept would extend no further than a bunch of slackers work in a   computer store (Chuck), a bunch of slackers work in a DIY store (Reaper), and a bunch of slackers work for a new media company (jPod).

But in America, where they do these things properly, Chuck is slacker working in a computer store becomes an accidental spy, and Reaper is slacker working in a DIY store discovers his parents sold his soul to the devil and he now has to capture escaped souls and send them back to Hell on behalf of his new demonic boss.

You can see how going that  extra High Concept yard can pay off. Perhaps this is why jPod got cancelled: it doesn’t have anything other than its basic situation to play with and a bunch of quirky characters you don’t really care about.

Having watched the first few episodes of Chuck, I’m finding  it a charming piece of escapist fun and I’m firmly along for the ride, so it’s good to know it’s already been picked up for a second season.

Okay, I admit it, I wanted to be a spy when I grew up.


Preaching to the converged

I used to run a web company whose unique selling point was ‘convergence’: the hot new idea that everyone in TV was talking about. ‘Convergence’ meant that, pretty soon, there’d be no difference between TV and internet: you’d watch it all through a single entertainment console in the corner of your room.   

It didn’t quite happen fast enough for our little company and I jumped ship to concentrate on my writing career. But today I think about convergence a lot. Because it’s finally here.

Viewers have been deserting TV for the internet in droves over the last decade, but broadband is how most TV broadcasters are hoping to win them back.

In truth, it’s not about getting people who now spend most of their life staring at laptop screens back to staring at TV screens. What broadcasters are doing is putting their TV content onto those laptop screens and, in some cases, making up whole new content especially for those laptop screens.

The broadcasters want to keep the billions they get from their advertisers, but these dinosaurs may just be too big and cumbersome to survive the meteor hit of convergence.

The recent Writers’ Guild strike in the US brought it home to us even more: the future of TV is not on TV. It’s on the internet. Convergence has finally happened. It’s there on YouTube and BBC’s iPlayer and every US network offering its TV content through its websites. You can stream video content now and it even looks half decent when you run it full screen on your laptop.

The strike was about securing a stake in the Klondike rush for convergence. The producers know that everythingwill be broadcast on the internet soon. But they wanted writers to think that there was no money to be made from internet broadcast of writers’ work (despite telling their shareholders they’d be making shitloads).

So the smart writers are now getting their content out there on the net and sidestepping the traditional routes to broadcast, i.e. waiting for some clueless, coked-up trustafarian with a TV job to greenlight your creativity.

New York Magazine recently drew attention to the fact that the funniest web videos are no longer webcam mishaps but real productions, scripted and filmed especially for an internet audience by the likes of Chelsea Peretti, Clark and Micheal, David Wain. Productions like  the superb Derek and Simon Show

These are ideas that can be shot on a very low budget and lend themselves to  5-10 minute episodes. The template is there and works equally well for drama  (see new online drama, Sofia’s Diary, that Danny Stack‘s been writing).

I don’t know about you, but I’m one writer who’s getting very excited about the idea of becoming a writer-netcaster, and I’m mentally rewriting that half-hour drama series of mine into 5-minute webisodes.

We live in an age where filming, editing and broadcasting has never been so easy and cheap to do.

The real success stories of the next decade are going to be those writers who have the guts to become broadcasters.

The mum of all fears

Any fan of the Terminator movies who didn’t suspend their disbelief realised that them pesky future robots could just keep sending Terminators back to kill John Connor’s ancestors. I personally always fancied a Terminator set in Henry James’s C19th New York high society with an Arniebot kicking in drawing room doors to hunt down John Connor’s great-grandfather whilst learning excruciatingly convoluted sentence structure: The Portrait of a Terminator.

After the movie franchise ended with the lacklustre Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, it looked like we’d seen the last of the Connor family. But they’re back in Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, and it’s surprisingly good.

The series deals with on-the-run mum Sarah  still protecting her son John  from the tin men sent back to kill him, whilst training him for his destiny as future saviour of humanity.

Sarah’s character is written much more subtly than the venting borderline psycho     of the second film, and is beautifully played by Brit actress Lena Headey. Her vulnerability is central to drawing us into the drama while we wait for teenager John to develop a subtext (hopefully before the end of season one).

Summer Glau is also in on the action, not a million light years removed from the character she played in Firefly/Serenity: an autistic girlchild with a hidden talent for brutality. Here she starts out as an over-friendly college girl on John’s first day at his new school, until she’s revealed as the Terminator sent back to protect him when a substitute teacher goes gun crazy. It’s a stressful job, even for a cyborg.

In the first episode she gets Sarah and John to jump forward in time from 1999 to 2007 to delete all that development hell between Terminator 2: Judgement Day and this series, so that John can still be a naive teenager  without expensive period shooting.

This leap forward in time, of course, necessitates her being naked and having to beat up a car full of jocks for their clothes. We can only hope that the show runners have pencilled in more totally spurious time travel, because naked Summer Glau karate is an element that could, ahem, terminate any future ratings trouble.

There’s a great moment in the second episode when she strokes John’s neck as she leaves the room. Next door she tells Sarah she’s worried at John’s stress levels and we start to wonder if she’s about to propose servicing him. John’s surprised smile tells us he’s thinking the same thing. Maybe his future self came up with the great idea of sending back a sexy working girl robot to give himself the kind of education every teenage boy dreams of. But no. She tells Sarah she’s just run an analysis of his surface skin temperature.

Damn. There goes another storyline I’d have fought for if I was  in the writers’ room.

The show has launched on Virgin1 in the UK with a great deal of fanfare and it looks like it has legs to last the distance. There’s plenty of action and the kind of SFX work the franchise demands, but this isn’t at the expense of well drawn characters, reflective poignant moments and the odd bit of humour; all important elements of the movie template, but here given a bit more space with which to work.

On the basis of the first three episodes, it’s up there with the first two films. And that’s high praise.


 

How to get ahead in advertising…

It is elegantly shot and superbly written. It’s so classy it sweats Chanel No 5. It is the year’s best drama. It is  Mad Men, and it’s coming to BBC4 this month.

Created by Sopranos veteran Matthew Weiner, it deals with a Madison Avenue advertising agency (Mad Men, geddit?) in 1960, and has just bagged two Golden Globes: Best TV Drama and Best Actor   in a TV Drama for Jon Hamm.

Right from the start, dramatic irony is a key device. Everyone smokes. All the time. Everywhere. At work, in restaurants, in bed. Even the doctor who’s examining you has a cigarette hanging out of his mouth. Everyone drinks too, especially at work, where it’s the norm to walk into someone’s office and go straight for the Scotch. Children climb around the car with no seatbelts. Black people are the city’s invisible servant population. And women know their place.

On one level, the series winks at us knowingly as we see its coded messages of creeping feminism at work. And this is a strand that works very well. We’re totally behind new girl Peggy Olsen as she arrives in the big city and struggles to make her mark in a man’s world that she hardly recognises is prejudiced against her.

But the show also has a lot to say about what it means to be a man in the ruthless battleground of corporate gladiatorial warfare, and at a time before men had emotions. Don Draper is the archetypal 1950s man’s man, a guy who’s fallen straight off  the screen of a Hollywood B movie: a beefcake with brains and charm and style. He’s the man who has everything… and nothing. Because inside he is as empty as his fake ID.

More important than the implicit social commentary and dramatic irony, though, is the oblique storytelling style. Familiar to anyone who’s ever watched The Sopranos, the way each episode of Mad Men unfolds often defies what we expect of TV drama, and certainly feature film. Dialogue is never on the nose; a scene is almost always not about what it’s about; and the meaning of a whole episode can often be found in an innocuous detail that can go unnoticed by the casual viewer.

A case in point is the brilliant seventh episode, Red in the Face, where you might totally miss out on Don’s elaborate revenge on his boss Roger for making a pass at his wife, involving a heavy lunch and a gruelling climb to the twenty-third floor, none of which makes any sense until you remember that throwaway scene of Don handing Hollis the  elevator operator a handfull of bills.

It’s shows like Mad Men that make me want to hug my TV set (but I don’t because that would be weird).

If you only watch one TV drama series all year,   make it this one. It is that good.


Watch a short Making of featurette here.

The time traveller’s strife…

Journeyman, the  NBC drama series starring Kevin McKidd, has already featured here in my Top 25 Time Travel Stories, but it deserves a closer look, seeing as it was one of the stand out dramas of the Fall schedule and is still running on Sky over here in the UK.

What at first looked like a gimmicky Quantum Leap rip off turned out to be a moving drama about how a disorder like involuntary time travel can affect a marriage. No surprise then, that the show was created by Kevin Falls, who’s had writing and exec roles on quality drama series like Sports Night, The West Wing and Shark.

Kevin McKidd stars as Dan Vasser, a San Francisco reporter who suffers from chrono-displacement (to borrow a term from Audrey Niffenegger’s novel The Time-Traveler’s Wife): randomly finding himself catapulted into his own past. But there appears to be some kind of controlling intelligence at work: Dan is there to help someone and change something, which is where the Quantum Leap comparisons come in.

Journeyman is much more intelligent than Quantum Leap, though, and there’s a compelling series arc in which we never quite get to find out who’s controlling Dan’s jaunts (a revelation they were perhaps saving for episode 21).

Kevin Falls has acknowledged the comparisons, though he stresses he’s never read The Time-Traveler’s Wife: ‘The issue was more of the domestic problem of time traveling and its impact   on the marriage, I think we kind started there ‘cause we wanted it to start with   how it would feel to a family, and then get into more of the mythology of it.   But once we got deeper into it, all that stuff fell away. And the Quantum Leap comparison hung around for a while, and then   that fell away, and it seemed like everybody kind of realized it was its own   show.’

Journeyman suffered in the ratings war but managed to complete its 13-episode initial run with a few questions answered, much in the manner that Heroes tried to wind things up for its half season run. The reason for this is the WGA Writers Strike. Shows don’t know if they’re going to come back or not.

Ironically, though, the strike may have helped Journeyman. Its pilot episode was perhaps too complex and viewers dropped away, but those that stuck with it saw it develop quickly into a compelling drama. If the strike hadn’t been on, NBS may well have pulled it earlier.

But Journeyman now seems to have gone the same way as that other high quality NBC show, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip: screwed over because the network never bothered to push it in the proper timeslot, although  Falls was quick to point out that NBC gave Studio 60 a much bigger push than   they gave Journeyman, which achieved the same ratings on a fraction of the promotion.

Although no official cancellation has been announced, NBC allowed their full season pick-up option to lapse, which means actors and crew are now free to look for other work. In the eyes of many, this means the show is effectively dead, much to the anger of the millions who love it.

The only winners in this might be The Quaker Oats Company. Outraged Journeyman fans have emulated the actions of the Jericho supporters who got CBS to re-order that show by deluging them with peanuts. The Save Journeyman campaign are sending NBS executives boxes of the San Francisco snack Rice a Roni.

Hopefully, they’ll get the message. Or another network that is less prone to premature cancellations will see the massive support out there for quality, intelligent drama and pick it up themselves… once the strike is over, of course.


The polyphonic (killing) spree

It wasn’t so much that Dexter had actually jumped the shark in its second season currently running on Showtime. But the outboard motor was running and the water skis were firmly strapped on. Something was  stinking out this show in its first three episodes and it wasn’t one of the main character’s justifiable homicides.

[You know there’s going to be spoilers here, right?]

The first hint that something was wrong came with the character of loveable Latino cop, Angel, who in the break since the brilliant Season One had obviously been watching The Secret and was now seeing the Law of Attraction in every daily event. Not a bad character turn in and of itself, but the problem was that this was the only thing he did.

When Angel got knifed by the Ice Truck Killer towards the end of Season One, I actually moaned out loud. He’d become a character I liked so much that I desperately didn’t want him to be killed off. And now all he did was play the same note on a piano, again and again and again.

The One Note Formula had hit most of the other characters too. Dexter’s sister,  Debra had changed from a hard-ass female cop trying to do her job in the face of prejudice from men and women in the department and had turned into a whiny little wind-up toy snapping at everyone, and all because the Ice Truck Killer had wined her, dined her and tried to cut her up into little pieces. So what? You’ve got to kiss a few frogs. Get over it, girl!.

(The only good moment in those first few episodes was when Dexter’s frustration at having to share his apartment with Debra voiced over with the brilliant ‘I will not kill my sister. I will not kill my sister.’)

Then there was Doakes, the only cop on the team who suspects Dexter’s dark secret. All he did now was tail Dexter all over town like a gay stalker and do that eye pointing thing that Robert De Niro does in Meet The Parents.

At the end of Season One, ball-busting  Lieutenant Maria LaGuerta was demoted to detective and now had to work under the biatch who took her job, Esmee Pascal. But all we got in the first few episodes was LaGuerta continually being supportive of Pascal, who was losing it constantly in front of her staff because she thought her boyfriend was cheating on her. Nothing about it rang true at all.

And then, in the fourth episode (appropriately titled ‘See-Through’) everything changes, and all these one-note characters start playing in beautiful polyphony:

Angel has a beautifully tentative encounter with a victim’s widow (and doesn’t mention manifestation once), Doakes’s fucked up military past starts catching up with him, Debra starts flirting with her new boss and goes on her first date.

Then there’s poor, mad Esmee, who goes into meltdown and gets taken off the job. And in the stupendous killer twist we see LaGuerta in bed with… Esmee’s boyfriend. Yes, Lady Paranoia was right all along, there was another woman. She just didn’t know it was the smiling, sympathetic colleague who worked under her every day and went out of her way to support her kerayzee attempts to get at the truth. You’ve just been owned, biatch (as I believe white, middle class kids say when they want to sound ghetto).

It was a brave risk to go three whole episodes with such a supporting cast of apparent cardboard cut-outs. I almost gave up on the series myself. But this is a valuable lesson for any writer: characters are only engaging when they are conflicted both internally and externally.

Many writers, when inventing new characters, pick an interesting trait off the shelf and then find an opposing trait for another character and set them off against each other. But that isn’t character; that’s cliche. A real character has to be in conflict with themself as well as with those around them.

And when characters are working on more than just the one level, I’ll stick around and see what they’re going to do next.

The See-Through episode (written by Scott Buck)  has absolutely saved this second season of Dexter, and it’s made sure I’ll be sticking around till the end.

The water skis and motor boat can wait. This drama isn’t jumping the shark any time soon.