Sunday, January 31, 2016

Best of 2015, #5: Trainwreck

It's ridiculous, I realize, to rank a movie like this above serious and powerful movies like The Revenant or Spotlight, but I always try to rank high-brow and low-brow together, according to how strongly I responded, and I responded more to this one, for good or ill.

As usual, we’ll talk about rules these movie exemplified, but this first rule is one that never got its own write-up, though it did pop up many times: We’ll accept your heroes’ bad behavior at lot more easily if they had atrocious parents.

As I said in my write-up of Downhill Racer:
  • As with Kind Hearts and Coronets and “The Sopranos” they get us to sympathize with a bad man by giving him an infuriatingly disapproving parent. His father asks “What do you do it for?” Redford responds, “To be a champion”. His father sneers, “The world’s full of them”.
Trainwreck is also a great example of this. It’s hard to get us to identify with Amy Schumer’s character: We meet her as an adult with a montage of her contemptuously manipulating and lying to a series of one-night stands, despite the fact that she has a loyal boyfriend. Obviously, this is her flaw, as the title of the film indicates, but it’s hardly a job-interview flaw, and we’re strongly disinclined to care about such characters, not even long enough to root for them to overcome these flaws.

But the wonderful prologue scene takes care of the problem handily (click to enlarge):

This smash-cuts to the onscreen title “23 years later” and we’re off to the races. Instantly, Amy’s contempt for love becomes a flaw that we can root for her to overcome, because we see that she came by it honestly. She didn’t wake up one day and choose to be like this, she was programmed to be an engine of destruction. It helps as well that her father’s rant is genuinely funny and superficially well-argued: he’s bad but charming, and you can understand why a little girl would fall for his poisonous message (only to heroically overcome it 23 years later, of course.)

Next: A different type of wreck!

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Best of 2015 Runners-Up: Spotlight, and the Power and Peril of Procedure

Let me just start out by saying that Spotlight is a gripping, powerful, important film, and one that everyone should see. I love the pacing, the editing, the dialogue, and especially the performance of Mark Ruffalo. Ruffalo’s part, on paper, is a fairly standard crusading journalist hero, without a lot of specific details, but the performance transforms him into a very specific individual, with his own way unique of talking, listening, and moving. That’s the mark of a great actor.

So what’s the problem? I found the movie to be too cool and clinical. This is a movie about an outrage, but we get little outrage generated onscreen, and thus we don’t feel it as much as we could. To a certain extent, that’s the point: it takes the coldly impassive eye of the journalist to find the truth when accusations fly, but I felt alienated.

I kept thinking of a 1995 “Law and Order” episode that covered the same topic from a similarly procedure-based standpoint, but created far more emotional impact (This episode also came out six years before these stories broke, which undercuts the movie’s claim that this investigation was the turning point in public perception)

Ultimately, the movie’s extreme commitment to procedure is both its greatest strength and biggest disadvantage. We get to see things we would usually never see in a movie:
  • We get to see how the events of 9/11/01 interrupted and de-prioritized the work they were doing. Usually, these movies are decontextualized, to focus our attention on just this one story.
  • We see how they pursue two legal tracks to get the suppressed documents, and both eventually succeed, even though that undercuts the drama by implying that either one track or the other was superfluous.
On the one hand, this can be thrilling: This unprecedented workaday realism conveys the powerful sense that these are real people doing a real job in the real world, which means that these were real crimes with real consequences that really had to be exposed. On the other hand, the movie is so subdued that it’s hard not to feel subdued ourselves, and given the incendiary nature of the subject matter, that’s especially frustrating.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Best of 2015 Runners-Up: Spy

Last time, the most beautifully-made movie of the year missed the list, and today we have the funniest by a wide margin, which got tripped up in my mind by one big script problem.

It feels wrong to nitpick this delightful movie, which made me laugh so hard I cried more than once, not just due to the game slapstick and swagger of Melissa McCarthy, but also the absurdly-acidic villainy of Rose Byrne and the unexpected comedy chops of Jason Statham, mercilessly skewering his own macho persona.

But my big problem with the script was the revelation near the end that Jude Law’s character wasn’t actually dead, but instead faked his death to go deep cover. The Force Awakens actually had a very similar problem: It, too, created a likeable, suave, traditional leading-man hero, then killed him off abruptly so as to hand story over to a non-traditional everyman hero. But both movies, in subsequent drafts, lost their nerve and brought the suave character back at the end, even though that sabotaged the everyman character’s journey, rendering her/him somewhat superfluous once again.

But one big problem with bringing Law back is that it runs afoul of the rule that the hero should be the only one who can solve the problem. It raises the possibility that it might have been better if McCarthy just stayed home, which subconsciously alienates the audience from the movie and the character.  We’re so culturally-conditioned to not root for an action hero that looks and acts like McCarthy that this misstep strains our hard-earned identification.

But this also raises a bigger problem, because by this point in the movie McCarthy has killed / caused-to-be-killed a lot of people, so the second we ask if it was necessary, we might start to hate her. Now we’ve got another broken rule: the moral calculus problem.

I know, I know, who cares? It’s just a big silly comedy, and nothing is supposed to be remotely believable …but I don’t think that this just bugged me. We don’t keep track of the moral calculus ticker in our head, but it’s always there, silently clicking away, and if it ticks into the danger zone, something subconscious sours inside us.

Nevertheless, it’s great.  See it and have a hell of a good time. 

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Best of 2015 Runners-Up: The Revenant

This year was nowhere near as strong as last year. (At least for the movies I saw. As usually, I’ll start with a list of some of the many I didn’t see: Brooklyn, Room, Amy, Creed, Straight Outta Compton, and Sicario.) As a result, we’re back down to five movies this year, but I thought I’d jump in first with some runners-up, and why they didn’t make the big list:   

The Revenant (BIG SPOILERS)

It should start out by saying that this is one of the most beautifully-made films I’ve ever seen, and well-acted by all concerned, so I wish I liked it more, but alas…

When I first read about the true story of Hugh Glass a few years ago, my first thought was, “That would make a great movie”: He gets mauled by a bear, gets abandoned, crawls for days, finds the people who abandoned him, and decides to just demand his gun back. But then I had doubts: Why would we care about this anti-social guy? And wouldn’t the ending be anti-climatic?

The movie’s solution to this was invent a half-Indian son/companion for Glass and then have one of the abandoners kill the son in front of Glass before abandoning him. The son makes Glass more likable, and turns the rest of the movie into an epic revenge quest with an ultra-violent ending.

But this change makes no sense: Okay, the son catches you trying to smother Glass, so you gut his son in front of him. But why on Earth would you not then finish the job on Glass? Your partner would easily believe that Glass finally died of his injuries, and you can then justify the disappearance of the son easily: His dad was dead so he had no reason to stick around.

For that matter, in this version, why didn’t they just kill Glass earlier? He was suffering! He couldn’t speak! He was sure to die! It literally would have been a mercy killing. And later, when they realized they had to move on and couldn’t take Glass with them, why not at least do it then?? The only reason not to kill Glass either time is because you think that any killing of a non-enemy is wrong.

Like so many other recent stories, this is supposedly set in “a time when life was cheap”, but the facts of the story prove otherwise: These men stayed behind for days in hostile territory just to give this guy a decent burial after his natural death, then reluctantly abandoned him to nature rather than kill him, even for mercy’s sake.

In retrospect, seeing how ethereally beautiful the movie is, and how powerful the long close-ups of DiCaprio’s face can be, I think my original assessment was wrong: Glass’s true story could have made for a great movie after all. In the first half, he faces the ultimate physical challenge while the men who abandon him deal with a heart-rending dilemma, then in the second half he deals with a huge dilemma (revenge or not) while they deal with the horrible consequences of their decision, both internal and internal. The final forgiveness then, would be anything but anti-climactic, but rather the momentous pay-off of a spiritual and physical ordeal for all three men.

The movie is in such a rush to get to its roid-rage revenge story that it ignores the very human dilemmas at its core: If it had combined its beauty with a serious consideration of the painfully human decisions each of the three men had to make, this power of the story would have matched the power of the visuals.

(Of course, the other problem with this movie is that it starts with a “too wild to be made up” fact [a man crawls back to civilization after a bear attack] and then adds a bunch of “too wild not to be made up” stuff to it [the cliff/horse scene, and many others] which loses the movie’s credibility, and makes it all seem ridiculous, even the true stuff. By the end, it just feels like Superman vs. Zod + beards.)

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Rulebook Casefile: Showing Off a Spectrum of Moods in the “Transparent” Pilot

This is an old checklist item that’s never gotten its own post, so let’s fix that right here and now, shall we? One nice thing about ensemble TV is that you get to have different moods in different storylines, and assure a range of audiences that they’ll all be satisfied by every episode.

The whole goal of a pilot is to get the audience to tune back in next week (or let the next episode autoplay if it’s streaming) This is one reason that your pilot can’t be all heavy-lifting to get the pieces in place. You have to present the appeal of the show, and ideally you’ll be showing off different types of appeal.

Not all shows have a spectrum of moods, but it’s very common even for very serious or very comedic shows. It’s easy to forget how funny “The Sopranos” could be. The interesting decision they made in that pilot was to play one storyline for laughs that was actually deadly serious (an HMO exec is beaten and then threatened with death until he agrees to submit phony claims) and another more absurd storyline is played for pathos (Tony decides to burn down his friend’s restaurant rather than let a hit go down there) David Chase has a genius for finding humor in the oddest places, and he made an unexpected but clever choice: both storylines work wonderfully, and we feel reassured that this show will slake our desire for both tragedy and comedy.

“Transparent” is naturally set up for multiple storylines: Each episode, Tambor will carry the main storyline, and then we’ll have our three grown kids, each doing their own thing, and only occasionally interacting. Their actions will frequently be thematically linked (In episode one, they all instigate relationships. In episode 4, they all blow up their lives, etc.) but only overlap in a few scenes.

Once again, these storylines tend to cover a spectrum of moods. For the pilot, Soloway does the natural thing and plays to the strengths of each actor
  • Gaby Hoffman is great at comedy, and she steals the pilot with the look of transgressive glee she feels when her new personal trainer spanks her.
  • Jay Duplass brings manic energy to his role, and he gets to spark off his family and his new lover in ways that shows off the actor’s volatility.
  • Amy Landecker is more of a dramatic (and sexy) actress, so she gets the most serious (and sexy) storyline.
But this is no “Seinfeld”: characterization will become deeper and richer for all characters very quickly, and they will get to trade off these qualities as well from time to time. Hoffman, especially, will get some heartbreaking moments.

This is a show that’s in danger of being too preachy or earnest. I could have felt like getting lectured at, or told to eat our vegetables. Instead, it’s almost giddy with love of life. We let it autoplay because we like all four leads, and because it’s pleasant to watch. “The New Yorker” profile begins by quoting one of the best exchanges of the show, from episode 6, and it encapsulates the show’s ability to puncture any fears of activist proselytizing:
  • A women’s-studies professor stands before a room of listless undergraduates, haranguing them in the accusatory tone favored by a certain strain of academic. “Because women bled without dying, men were frightened!” the professor—played by Soloway, wearing a tent of a top and a pink dreadlock in her bun—says. “The masculine insists to cut things up with exclamation points—which are in and of themselves small rapes, the way an exclamation point might end a sentence and say, ‘Stop talking, woman!’ ”
  • At the back of the classroom, Syd, played by Carrie Brownstein, turns to her friend Ali Pfefferman (Gaby Hoffman) and asks, “Have you ever been raped by an exclamation point?”
  • “Actually, once I was gang-raped: question mark, exclamation point, and semicolon,” Ali replies.
  • “That’s brutal,” Syd says stonily. “It’s very underreported.”
Okay, the reader thinks with a sigh of relief: This show isn’t out to get me. There’s room for me here, wherever I’m coming at this from.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Storyteller’s Rulebook: Let the Listener Rewrite the Scene

Let’s follow up on Thursday’s piece, where I transcribed the long central scene of the “Transparent” pilot. As I said then, this scene throws the beatsheet out the window. The stated purpose of the scene is for Maura to tell her kids the truth, but instead they talk about everything but and never get to the point. This happens because the kids aren’t listening, and instead push their own small-minded objectives.

To a certain extent, this should be true of every scene you write: Let the listener rewrite the scene. Let them be just as aggressive as the talker. Let the scene become about what they want to hear, even more so than what the talker wants to say.

Writing cannot exactly resemble real talk (it should be more succinct, more focused, and have more personality) but it is always great to reflect the structure and nature of real conversations, even though you must do so in a punchier way. In real life, people listen poorly, and all scene partners always have their own agendas, whether they know it or not. Frequently, we have a conscious, intentional agenda and a subconscious, unintentional agenda, and great scenes can reveal both. Reread the scene to track all eight agendas at play:
  • Maura intentional: Tell the truth / unintentional: test their love first
  • Sarah intentional: Straighten everyone else out / unintentional: find a way out of her life
  • Josh intentional: Get what’s coming to him / unintentional: confront dad about awful parenting
  • Ali intentional: Get more money from dad / unintentional: demand respect.
With those eight agendas at play, it is any wonder that nobody ever hears that Maura has come to say?

When actors get scripts, they’re taught to go through each one of their lines and write the mercenary intention of that line out to the side of it, so why aren’t writers encouraged to do the same thing?  Even if we’re not allowed to pre-fill-in those margin-notes ourselves, we should be able to guess what each intention each actor will identify. 

(To be fair, allowing a scene to go this deliriously off the rails is a luxury of a more leisurely show, reflecting the facts that it has no commercials, runs a full half-hour, and benefits from the new reality of streaming, where you don’t need enough story progress to tide an audience over for a whole week. But no matter what the format, any scene written this well will hopefully be allowed to set its own rules.)

This trick can also be used to make scenes more momentous instead of less momentous: Your beatsheet might say “Lori confronts her father about his embezzling”, but that doesn't mean that you have to begin with Lori going to confront her father.  Instead, start the scene as “Dad proposes an expansion of the business to Lori”, and then as she resists, let her rewrite the scene to be about what it’s really going to be about.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Storyteller's Rulebook: Let Words Belie Actions (But Make Sure We Notice)

“Transparent” creator Jill Soloway has given several excellent interviews about the show. I recommend this in-depth “New Yorker” profile, and this much shorter list of advice she gave her writers’ room. One piece of advice is excellent by itself, but also points to one of the few failings of the pilot:
  • “Allow room for the viewer to come and try and figure out what's going on by watching something interesting happen, watching the protagonist do something to get what they want.”
This plays out well in the pilot in many ways. Although the characters get frequent chances to talk at length, they remain pleasantly enigmatic, as they use language to camouflage their thoughts and actions, rather than demonstrate or explain them. One advantage this is that we learn to watch closely and eagerly, because we quickly learn that only by watching their actions will we find out the truth behind their lying words.

But in re-watching the pilot for this write-up, I discovered two scenes that I had totally missed/misinterpreted on my first viewing. In both cases, characters were lying about their actions, but I didn’t catch that, because I was still too busy trying to get a handle on this large ensemble, and depending on the characters’ words to help me along.

After the dinner, when he finds out he may be losing his home, Josh goes not to his house, nor to the home of the young singer he’s sleeping with, but to the home of a mysterious woman we’ve never seen before. They seem to be lovers, but he shrinks down and lays his head in her lap. The next morning, he joins the singer and she wonders why he didn’t come over the night before.

Here’s my problem: That brief scene was intercut with scenes of the other kids and I must have blinked and missed it. We find out in later episodes that this was his former-babysitter/statuatory-rapist (which his parents semi-condoned), who he still seeks out occasionally for solace, but the scene was just too subtle to register with me. (It’s wordless and shot in one take from a distance, so we can’t make out the woman’s dimly-lit face. Another thing to keep in mind on streaming shows: many people will be watching shrunk-down versions) When he lied to his lover the next morning, I forgot this enigmatic scene and believed his lies.
Right afterwards, Sarah tells her husband that her dad called them together the night before to announce his retirement, and her husband accepts this. In retrospect, she avoided mentioning the house because she was already planning to use that house to host an affair with her ex-girlfriend, but once again, I just believed her. After all, we didn’t see the whole conversation the night before, and selling a house and retiring often go together.

This is another peril of the new streaming world: Networks are infamous for re-shooting pilots until it’s totally clear who everybody is, even for casual watchers washing dishes. Soloway has much more freedom, both in writing and directing, and she pushes it too far at times, losing even a close-watcher such as myself.

The show doesn’t suffer as a result, but it’s a good cautionary tale nonetheless: It’s great to let your characters lie, but give us enough visual information to figure it out. For instance, if they’re going to lie about something they just did or something they’re just about to do, then don’t cut to someone else in between those scenes: Bang the lie up against the true action, so we can go “Ah!” instead of “Huh?”

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Rulebook Casefile: The Masterful Subtext of Transparent

What happens when you throw a party and the text never arrives? You have to subsist on subtext. But really well-written subtext can accomplish more than text ever can. Let’s take some time to really dig into the pilot’s big (non-)scene: the three kids gather at Marua-as-Mort’s place for take-out barbecue and an announcement, but Maura chickens out and offers them the house rather than coming out as trans. Here’s the whole scene (This dialogue is all overlapping and rapid-fire):
  • Sarah (about biscuits): These are really amazing. Ali, you haven’t had one of these.
  • Ali: Are you kidding? I’m gluten free.
  • Mort: You having problems with gluten?
  • Josh (talking over Ali): Yeah, she is, she’s having a lot of problems with gluten. Also with restless leg.
  • Ali (playing along with mockery): It’s restless leg syndrome.
  • Josh: Also, Epstein Barr…
  • Sarah: Mercury poisoning…
  • Josh: Chronic fatigue…
  • Sarah: Fibromyalgia…
  • Josh: Lyme disease. She had Lyme disease. Four people in Los Angeles have ever had Lyme disease, and Ali is one of them, but it was temporary.
  • Sarah (to Mort): You have sauce right here (touches her own chin)
  • Ali: Oh my god, leave him alone, he’s mid-meal. This is the golden rule, let him be as messy as he wants, we’ll hose him down at the end.
  • Sarah: No! You clean up as you go along!
  • Josh (to Mort): You guys never taught us how to eat. You realize that, right?
  • Mort: Because we come from shtetl people. Your grandma Rose actually ate lettuce with her bare hands.
  • Sarah (watching Josh eat) Josh, seriously, do something about yourself.
  • Josh: Actually, on principle, I will not. I’m eating barbecue, it’s on my face, I’m not perfect like you.
  • Mort: Okay…
  • Josh: Sorry Miss Cleanliness USA.
  • Sarah: It’s not that hard (wipes her own face) Wipe!
  • Josh: Why don’t you clean up the barbecue sauce inside your vagina?
  • Mort: HEY GUYS…
  • Ali: Sorry.
  • Mort: Listen, I have, I, I need to talk to you about something, there’s a big change going on, and (starts to cry) Oh God, I love you kids, I love you kids, I love you kids, I love you kids,
  • Sarah: It IS cancer!
  • Ali: Dad, are you dying? Just tell us if you’re dying. Daddy, are you dying??
  • Sarah (overlapping): Oh my god, you were right, I knew it was cancer.
  • Josh: I don’t think he has cancer. He looks good.
  • Mort: Thank you.
  • Sarah: It doesn’t matter how he looks! Remember Jill Goldberg? She had a melanoma for three years, they couldn’t see it, then BOOM, she’s dead.
  • Josh: Jill Goldberg is dead?
  • Ali (talking over Josh): Yeah, and if Daddy had the kind that looked like, (to Mort) What did all your friends die of?
  • Mort: Prostate
  • Ali: Prostate! That’s the one that you’ve probably got, right?
  • Ali, Sarah and Josh all start talking at once and we can’t understand a word. We close in on Mort/Maura’s face until she finally slams her hand down on the table.
  • Mort: God! Stop it! God, I don’t have cancer! [long silence] You kids want me to have cancer??
  • They don’t answer, but Josh licks barbecue sauce off his fingers greedily.
  • Mort: All right… So… [chickens out] I’m selling the house. I’m done with the house.
  • Josh: I’ll take it.
  • Sarah: No you won’t. You’re not going to move to the west side.
  • Josh: No, not to live in, I’m going to flip it. I’m going to Zillow the fuck out of this place. Do you know how much it’s worth right now?
  • Mort: Well, I…
  • Sarah finally leans over and starts wiping barbecue sauce off Mort’s face.
  • Mort: Well, I, --Oh, that’s cold—
  • Sarah: I’m sorry (keeps wiping)
  • Mort: Please?
  • Sarah: I’m sorry.
  • Mort (to Sarah): I was thinking that you and Len would love to live in this house.
  • Josh and Ali: Oh my GOD!
  • Josh: No fucking way! Jesus Christ! [Jumps up to do the dishes in an adjoined kitchen]
  • Sarah (touched): Why do you want to give the house to me?
  • Mort: Because I do.
  • Ali: This is crazy. Now she has two sugar daddies?? She already got one!
  • Josh: I want a husband to buy me a house who works his ass off so I can just go to yoga and just take naps all day. I’d love that.
  • Ali: Why should you two get to decide who gets the house? You both have a house! I don’t have a house!
  • Josh: You can’t have a house, because you can’t handle money, which is proven by the fact that you don’t have a house.
  • Ali: ‘Proven’ is not a word like that. “As proven by the fact”? That’s a verb. As an adjective, “A proven fact”, that works. See? This is why you have to date children, because they don’t correct your grammar.
  • Josh: I do not date children!
  • Ali: Yes you do.
  • Josh: You’re a child, actually. (to Mort) Listen dad, it would have been really nice if you’d talked to me about this privately, before you turned it into a free-for-all. You know what? I have a show, and I love you guys very much, I will speak to you later. Good-bye.
  • After a cut that may be a time jump, or maybe not, Sarah gets up to clear the table.
  • Sarah: Okay. (to Ali) You want to take this home?
  • Ali: Yes, please.
  • Sarah (to Mort): Daddy, you don’t need all this food, right?
  • He doesn’t answer but looks somewhat forlorn as it’s take away.
  • Sarah: Dad, I’m going to put these baby-backs in a ziplock for you.
  • Ali (notices how depressed her dad is): Where you gonna live, Daddy?
  • He looks at her but doesn’t answer. He’s going to live in an LGBT condo complex, but he can’t tell her that.
End of scene (Sorry for the long transcript, but I found it helpful to type it out.) So what do we have here? A metric ton of subtext:
  • They begin by mocking Ali as a hypochondriac = Don’t come to this skeptical family for sympathy.
  • Then Sarah complains about their eating habits = They micromanage each other’s lives and resent each other for it. We see that Sarah is anal retentive, Josh is anal expulsive, and Ali is conflict-averse. Josh turns this into a criticism of their parenting.
  • Mort interrupts, starts to cry, they all assume it’s cancer = Mort is (literally) death in their eyes, they’re fighting over her type of cancer = fighting over her corpse = fighting over her money.
  • She decides not to tell them, offers them the house instead = “Fine, kill me”. He offers it to Sarah = “You control yourself, you keep it in, let’s keep it in together.” Josh explodes = “I want to liquidate you” “I never got quality from you so I’ll quantify you instead.”
  • All three kids lash out at the home situation of the other two = “I may suck, but you two suck more so I get dad’s love/house by default.”
  • Josh storms out. Sarah takes the food away from dad = “I take your offer of power and leave you with nothing. I’m now the power broker and the other kids are now dependent on me.”
  • It’s only with the final line that Ali tries to really listen, but now Mort/Maura is unwilling to talk, and who could blame her?
On a beatsheet, the line for this scene would be “Maura tells the kids,” but instead we get five minutes of everything but that, and the result is wonderful. Let your characters say it all by avoiding saying what they need to say.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Straying from the Party Line: Transparent and the New Reality of Streaming

“Transparent” is our first streaming show, so let’s take a moment to look at some of the huge differences that have developed between broadcast and streaming. The big ones are these:
  • Episodes can be any length because they don’t have to fill a slot in a schedule.
  • The shows are almost entirely dependent on reviews and word-of-mouth. They’re not heavily advertised elsewhere, and they don’t run house-ads for each other.
  • They often dump an entire season all at once.
  • When each episode ends, the viewer is prompted to start the next one.
In retrospect, it’s these final two qualities that have come to define the form, even though neither is inherent to it. People forget this now, but even once we were accustomed to the idea that Netflix would be making their own shows, it was considered utterly bizarre and shocking when they announced that the entire first season of “House of Cards” would dump at one time.

Cutting the cable cord is one thing, but eliminating the steady drip of weekly releases is something else entirely. This was a huge risk:
  • It seemed that this would lose the “water cooler” element, because even if the show caught on, everybody would be on a different episode, and unable to discuss it.
  • Weekly episode reviews would no longer be automatic weekly advertisements.
  • Online speculation about what might happen next would disappear, killing one source of word-of-mouth.
  • Shows could no longer react to audience response. The season was done before they knew what anybody thought of the early episodes. There would no longer be “breakout characters”
But we now know that Netflix knew what they were doing. Their floundering streaming service never had enough movies, so they started offering whole seasons of pre-existing TV shows, and they noticed how much people enjoyed “binging” though seasons of “Breaking Bad” and other suspenseful shows, so they made the shocking decision to put the cart before the horse. Here’s what happened:
  • The water cooler discussions continued, but they changed: ground rules were now set, pre-establishing what episode each person was on and what could be discussed.
  • Reviewers, too, had to learn to adapt, often running separate reviews for bingers and those wishing to savor every episode (and forcibly segregating the commenters)
  • Online speculation and “breakout characters” were just lost.
Now that streaming and season-dumps are popular, it’s time to look back and figure out how this is changing the pilot-story art form, and how it upsets our checklist.

Despite being an undeniably great show, “Transparent” (which streams on Amazon) shreds the checklist in many ways, and some of those ways reflect the changes brought about by streaming and binging. The most obvious is probably how slow this pilot is to develop.

When the first episode of “Breaking Bad” opened, it had to include everything and the kitchen sink in week one. It wouldn’t be enough to simply end on Walt’s decision to cook meth, even though that was a huge story in and of itself: No, it had to get there by the halfway point, and then take us all the way to his first botched deal and his first killing by the end of that one hour. It had to deliver all the appeal of the show right away, or viewers might not come back a week later.

“Transparent” is totally different. The basic concept is that a 69 year old transsexual woman must come out to her three grown children. But the show is in no hurry to get there:
  • We meet all three kids first. Each gets an intro scene, then we return to each one at a later point as they each get a call from their dad.
  • We finally meet our main character, as the kids all show up at “his” house, where “he” is presenting as male and acting like it’s a normal dinner, almost telling them something, then backing off.
  • Only once they’re gone do we find out that Mort is now Maura and identifying as female when not around the kids.
  • We see Maura apologize to her support for breaking her promise to come out to her kids.
  • Finally, Maura is accidentally outed to just one of the three kids in the final shot.
So we only find out what the concept is going to be halfway through, and that concept only barely materializes at the very end, on a cliffhanger! If that was it for a whole week, few might care to tune back in a week later, because they had gotten so little pay-off during the first week, and why return to an unsatisfying show?

But streaming is totally different: Unsatisfied? Just click on the next one (or do nothing, because they start automatically) and you’ll get the satisfaction you want. The only question now is this, “Did you enjoy that enough to let it continue?” In this case, the answer for most viewers was yes.  

And of course, they don’t have to establish the premise as strongly because nobody has randomly landed on this channel while flipping around. This show, like all streaming shows, has already self-selected its audience: we’re watching this show and only this show because we’ve heard enough about it to seek it out. They’re content to wait patiently for us to enter the ring, rather than climbing over the ropes to wrestle us to the ground.

Of course, “Transparent” is an inherently audacious show that’s breaking a lot of rules, and you could argue that this pilot could have aired as-is on HBO or Showtime, but creator Jill Soloway’s laid-back style seems ideally suited to this new format, and the show’s success has been greatly helped by this marriage of content and format.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

The Ultimate Pilot Story Checklist: Transparent

I love this show! It fails the checklist in many ways, but it’s pure joy. If you haven’t seen it, check it out over on Amazon, then meet me back here (or read on and let me sell you on it.)
Mort Pfefferman has decided at age 69 to come out as transsexual and begin living as Maura. Her three grown children, Ali, Sarah, and Josh, are all neurotic and selfish, and Maura loses her nerve about telling them. Ali is aimless and seeks out a submissive relationship with a personal trainer. Sarah is in a loveless marriage to a man but attracted to her former college girlfriend Tammy. Josh is sleeping with a too-young singer that he reps. In the final shot, Sarah is kissing Tammy in Maura’s when Maura comes home and finds them there.
The Pitch: Does this concept excite everyone who hears about it?
Does the concept satisfy the urges that get people to love and recommend this type of series?
Yes, it works as a family dramedy.  It’s funny and meaningful.
Does the series establish its own unique point of view on its setting?
Not really.  The camera drifts among the four principal cast members.
Is there a central relationship we haven’t seen in a series before?
Very much so: A trans-parent and her three grown kids.
Does the ongoing concept of the series contain a fundamental (and possibly fun) ironic contradiction?
The “moppa” is the one coming out and begging for her kids’ understanding.
Does the concept meet the content expectations of one particular intended network, venue, or audience?
Yes, it fits in with the emerging genre of streaming sitcom.
Even if the setting is unpleasant, is there something about this premise that is inherently appealing? (Something that will make the audience say, “Yes, I will be able to root for some aspect of this situation to recur episode after episode.”)
The setting is mostly pleasant.  Some of the judgment Maura faces can be unpleasant, but we cheer for her in those moments, so they’re still fun to watch.
Series Fundamentals: Will this concept generate a strong ongoing series?
Is there one character (or sometimes two, in separate storylines) that the audience will choose to be their primary hero (although these heroes should probably be surrounded by an ensemble that can more than hold their own)?
Yes, Maura.  Ali almost rises to the level of co-hero, but not quite.
If this is a TV series, is the hero role strong enough to get an actor to abandon a movie career, come to work in TV for the first time, and sign a five-year contract before shooting the pilot? (And even if not for TV, is the hero role still that strong, simply for narrative purposes?)
Yes, Jeffrey Tambor was a big TV star and big “get”.
Is the show set in an unsafe space?
Yes, it’s made very clear in the pilot that this family is toxic, although well-intentioned.
Is this a setting that will bring (or has brought) different economic classes together?
Yes.  It’s about a family that lives as if they were rich when in fact they’re all in precarious positions (It’s unclear at this point whether or not they once had money or if they were always just living beyond their means)
Will trouble walk in the door on a regular basis?
No.  There is no story-driver on this show.  Small realizations or decisions will drive the episodes, some of which are almost plot-free. 
Will the heroes be forced to engage in both physical and cerebral activity on a regular basis?
No.  It’s going to be almost entirely talky.
Are there big stakes that will persist episode after episode?
Yes, we sense that Maura’s resolve and courage will constantly be tested for years to come.
Will the ongoing situation produce goals or mini-goals that can be satisfactorily resolved on a regular basis?
Just barely.  Maura and to a less extent the three kids will set goals for themselves every week.
The Pilot: Will this pilot episode be marketable and generate word of mouth?
Does the pilot contain all of the entertainment value inherent in the premise (rather than just setting everything up and promising that the fun will start next week)?
No, it does precisely the opposite.  It withholds the central reveal until very late, and Maura puts off the central action to a future episode.  You could never get away with this on a non-streaming show.
Does the pilot feature an image we haven’t seen before (that can be used to promote the show)?
Maura dressed up.
Is there something bold, weird, and never-before-seen about this concept and/or pilot? 
Yup, there had never been a show before centrally focused on a transgendered character.
Is there a “HOLY CRAP!” scene somewhere along the way in the pilot (to create word of mouth)?
Yes and no.  Each of the four characters is sexually transgressive in some way, but the show’s thesis is that this is all okay, so they don’t encourage you to ever say “Holy Crap”
Does the pilot build up potential energy that will power future episodes (secrets that will come out, potential romances, etc.)?
Yes, when will he finally tell each kid, his ex-wife, etc.
Even if this is episodic, is there a major twist or escalation at the end (though sometimes this twist will only be new to, or only revealed to, the audience) that will kick future episodes up a notch?
Yes: Sarah begins an affair, Ali seems to be entering into a masochistic relationship, and of course Maura is about to come out.
Believe: Do we recognize the hero (or co-heroes) as human?
Does the hero have a moment of humanity early on? (A funny, or kind, or oddball, or out-of-character, or comically vain, or unique-but-universal “I thought I was the only one who did that!” moment?)
Out of character: accepts abuse, then briefly stands up for himself
Does the hero have a well-defined public identity?
The womanizing old divorced dad.
Does that ironically contrast with a hidden interior self?
Very much so.  She’s a woman on the inside.
Does the hero have three rules he or she lives by (either stated or implied)?
It’s time.  I can do this.  It’s okay to be afraid.
Does the hero have a consistent metaphor family (drawn from his or her job, background, or developmental state)?
Jewish: “It’s because we’re shtetl people”
Does the hero have a default personality trait?
Sad, scared, quiet
Does the hero have a default argument tactic?
Acquiescence with fits of barked protest
Care: Do we feel for the hero (or co-heroes)?
Does the hero have a great flaw that is the flip side of his or her great strength?
Scared, possibly selfish
Does the hero feel that this flaw cannot be resolved until it’s time to abandon the world of the show?
She feels that she can (and must) stop being scared in order to enter the world of the show, but she fears that, as a transsexual, she can’t escape unfair accusations of selfishness (ie. “Why can’t you just keep this to yourself for our sake?”)
Does the flaw resonate with the theme and/or setting of the show?
Invest: Can we trust the hero (or co-heroes) to tackle this challenge?
Does the hero have a great strength that is the flip side of his or her great flaw?
Compassionate to her kids, brave
Is the hero good at his or her job (or family role, if that’s his or her primary role)?
Yes and no.  She’s never been a particularly good dad or a brave transsexual, but she’s trying to rectify both situations.
Is the hero surrounded by people who sorely lack his or her most valuable quality?
Her kids lack her newfound sensitivity.
Is the hero curious?
No.  She’s pretty clueless about what’s going on with her kids and still not curious enough. (She vaguely believes that Ali won a fortune on “The Price is Right”)
Is the hero generally resourceful?
No.  She’s totally without resources, but she’s slowly trying to build some.
Does the hero use unique skills to solve problems (rather than doing what anybody else on the show would do)?
Yes and no. She relies on her money, which she uses to control her kids and buy their affection.  Other than that, she’s pretty unskilled.
Powerful: Is each member of the ensemble able to hold his or her own?
If this is a network TV series, are there at least two more roles that are strong enough to get TV veterans to sign their own five-year contracts? (And even if not for TV, are the characters still that strong, simply for narrative purposes?)
Yes, Gaby Hoffman was once a movie star.  Carries Brownstein has another popular show, etc.
Are all of the other regular roles strong enough on the page in this first episode to attract great actors? (ditto)
Yes.  The cast is uniformly amazing.
Does each member of the ensemble have a distinct and defensible point of view?
Very much so.
Is each character defined primarily by actions and attitudes, not by his or her backstory?
Very much so.
Do all of the characters consciously and unconsciously prioritize their own wants, rather than the wants of others? (Good characters don’t serve good, evil characters don’t serve evil.)
Very much so.
Do most of the main characters have some form of decision-making power? (And is the characters’ boss or bosses also part of the cast, so that major decisions will not be made by non-regulars?)
Yes, because Maura still owns the house, she has power over all of the kids who want it (or want to cash it in.)  Without the house, the show wouldn’t really work.  Sometimes the house is text and the trans stuff is subtext and sometimes the opposite.
Balanced: Do the members of the ensemble balance each other out?
Whether this is a premise or episodic pilot, is there one point-of-view who needs this world explained (who may or may not be the hero)?
 No.  We have to catch up on the fly.
Does it take some effort for the POV character to extract other characters’ backstories?
Are the non-3-dimensional characters impartially polarized into head, heart and gut (or various forms of 2-way or 4-way polarization)?
Every character is 3-dimensional
Does each member of the ensemble have a distinct metaphor family (different from the hero’s, even if they’re in the same profession)?
Ali: teen, Sarah: mom, Josh: music “I’m doing a little riverdance on you boobs.”
Does each member of the ensemble have a different default personality trait?
 Ali: Flighty, Sarah: Unfulfilled, Josh: Horndog
Does each member of the ensemble have a different default argument tactic? 
 Ali: Sarcastic sniping, Sarah: blandly deceptive, Josh: flashes of anger, then drops it for later
Is there at least one prickly character who creates sparks whenever he or she appears?
Both Josh and Ali.
PART 4: IS THE PILOT EPISODE A STRONG STAND-ALONE STORY AND GOOD TEMPLATE FOR THE ONGOING SERIES? (16/22)                                                                
Template: Does this match and/or establish the standard format of this type of series
Does the pilot have (or establish) the average length for its format?
Yes.  Streaming shows are more able to get away with going over, but it’s precisely 30 minutes)
If this is intended for a form of commercial media, does the pilot have the right number of commercial breaks for its intended venue?
If this is intended for commercial TV, does every act end on a cliffhanger or escalation, especially the middle one (and, if not intended for commercial TV, does it still have escalations happening in roughly the same places, simply for narrative purposes)?
1st act out: Arrive at house. 2nd act out: Reveal of Maura. 3rd act out: End
Does the pilot establish the general time frame for most upcoming episodes of this series?
Yes, it takes place over one 24 hour period, which will be common.
Do all of the pilot’s storylines intercut believably within that time frame?
If this is a premise pilot, is the basic premise established by the midpoint, leaving time for a foreshortened typical episode story in the second half?
No.  The premise only begins to be established in the final shot!
Pilot Story Fundamentals: Does the pilot episode have a strong story?
Does the pilot provide at least one satisfactory stand-alone story (even if that story is just the accomplishment of a mini-goal)?
No.  We just get the beginnings of ongoing stories.  If we want satisfaction, we have to stream the next one immediately. 
Is this episode’s plot simple enough to spend more time on character than plot?
Very much so.
Is the pilot’s challenge something that is not just hard for the hero to do (an obstacle) but hard for the hero to want to do (a conflict)?
Very much so.  It’s so hard to do and hard to want to do that she doesn’t do it!
First Half: Is the problem established in a way that reflects human nature?
Does the hero start out with a short-term goal for this episode?
Yes, but we don’t know what it is yet: Come out.
Does a troubling situation (episodic pilot) or major change in the status quo (premise pilot) develop near the beginning of the episode?
Almost: she tries to tell them of her major life change.
Does the hero eventually commit to dealing with this situation personally?
Yes, she did so at her previous support group, as we find out later.
Do the hero’s efforts quickly lead to an unforeseen conflict with another person?
Yes, her kids are too selfish to let her talk.
Does the hero try the easy way throughout the second quarter?
Yes, she backs down from telling them.
Does this culminate in a major midpoint setback or escalation of the problem (whether or not there’s a commercial break)?
Yes, they all leave quickly.
Second Half: Is the mini-goal resolved as the ongoing trouble escalates?
Does the hero try the hard way from this point on?
No, she doesn’t try again in this episode, until she accidentally outs herself to one in the final shot. 
By halfway through, are character decisions driving the plot, rather than external plot complications?
Are the stakes increased as the pace quickens and the motivation escalates?
Not really.
Does a further setback force the hero to adopt a wider view of the problem?
Not really.
After that setback, does the hero finally commit to pursuing a corrected goal?
Yes, at the group.
Before the final quarter of the story begins, (if not long before) has the hero switched to being proactive, instead of reactive?
After the climax, does either the hero, the point of view character or a guest star have a personal revelation and/or life change, possibly revealed through reversible behavior?
Yes, she’s out to one child now. 
PART 5: IS EACH SCENE THE BEST IT CAN BE? (The family dinner 23/23)
The Set-Up: Does this scene begin with the essential elements it needs?
Were tense and/or hopeful (and usually false) expectations for this interaction established beforehand?
They’re worried she has cancer, and they want her money.
Does the scene eliminate small talk and repeated beats by cutting out the beginning (or possibly even the middle)?
Yes, it cuts to the middle of the dinner.
Is this an intimidating setting that keeps characters active?
Yes, it’s been made clear already that this is a toxic environment.
Is one of the scene partners not planning to have this conversation (and quite possibly has something better to do)?
None of them relish dinners with their dad and they’re not sure why he would call them there. 
Is there at least one non-plot element complicating the scene?
Lots: Gluten, barbecue messiness, etc.
Does the scene establish its own mini-ticking-clock (if only through subconscious anticipation)?
 Josh has a show to get to, but we don’t find that out until he ditches.
The Conflict: Do the conflicts play out in a lively manner?
Does this scene both advance the plot and reveal character?
Are one or more characters in the scene emotionally affected by this interaction or action as the scene progresses?
Yes, Maura cries, the others freak out.
Does the audience have (or develop) a rooting interest in this scene (which may sometimes shift)?
Even though this scene introduces Mort/Maura, we’re instantly on her side, because we’ve already been turned off by her kids’ mercenary instincts.
Are two agendas genuinely clashing (rather than merely two personalities)?
She wants to come out, they want her money and/or to confront her about her bad parenting (“You never taught us how to eat.”)
Does the scene have both a surface conflict and a suppressed conflict (one of which is the primary conflict in this scene)?
Surface: Does he have cancer? Who will get the house?  Suppressed: Why were you a bad dad?  What’s really going on?
Is the suppressed conflict (which may or may not come to the surface) implied through subtext (and/or called out by the other character)?
Sarah wipes Maura’s face, isn’t allowed to wife Josh’s, implying that Maura is infantilized and controlled, while the kids treat each other as peers.  Singing “Operator” implies a lack of communication.  “Gluten-free” stands in for neurosis, shows lack of compassion by others.  Fighting about messiness speaks to levels of repression/anal expulsion.  When Maura asks “Do you kids want me to have cancer?” Josh literally licks his lips (which have barbecue sauce on them). 
Are the characters cagy (or in denial) about their own feelings?
Very much so.
Do characters use verbal tricks and traps to get what they want, not just direct confrontation?
He proposes selling the house to test their compassion, they fail the test.  Later he outright pays Ali for compassion.  
Is there re-blocking, including literal push and pull between the scene partners (often resulting in just one touch)?
Sarah wipes his face.
Are objects given or taken, representing larger values?
The food is shared, then taken away.
If this is a big scene, is it broken down into a series of mini-goals?
Come out, divvy up the house
The Outcome: Does this scene change the story going forward?
As a result of this scene, does at least one of the scene partners end up doing something that he or she didn’t intend to do when the scene began?
Yes, he winds up offering up the house.
Does the outcome of the scene ironically reverse (and/or ironically fulfill) the original intention?
She offers them death (Mort, giving them their inheritance early) instead of life (Maura, coming out)
Are previously-asked questions answered?
Does he have cancer?
Are new questions posed that will be left unanswered for now?
Who will get the house?
Is the audience left with a growing hope and/or fear for what might happen next? (Not just in the next scene, but generally)
What did he really want to say?
Does the scene cut out early, on a question (possibly to be answered instantly by the circumstances of the next scene)?
Where are you gonna live, Daddy?
Empathetic: Is the dialogue true to human nature?
Does the writing demonstrate empathy for all of the characters?
Tremendously so.
Does each of the characters, including the hero, have a limited perspective?
Very much so.
Are the characters resistant to openly admitting their feelings (to others and even to themselves)?
Very much so.  This is the central theme of the show.
Do the characters avoid saying things they wouldn’t say?
Very much so.  The circumlocutions on this show are things of beauty.
Do the characters listen poorly?
Do the characters interrupt each other more often than not?
Specific: Is the dialogue specific to this world and each personality?
Does the dialogue capture the culturally-specific syntax of the characters (without necessarily attempting to replicate non-standard pronunciation)?
Lots of Jewish phrasing is used to comic effect.
Does the dialogue capture the jargon of the profession and/or setting?
Yes, we get lots of the new jargon of coming out. The language of parents, children and siblings is very naturalistic.
Does the dialogue capture the tradecraft of the profession being portrayed?
Heightened: Is the dialogue more pointed and dynamic than real talk?
Is the dialogue more concise than real talk?
Yes and no.  Scenes are allowed to play long and there’s less compression than in usual dialogue.
Does the dialogue have more personality than real talk?
Yes. It’s not so realistic that it’s not colorful or amusing.
Is there a minimum of commas in the dialogue (the lines are not prefaced with Yes, No, Well, Look, or the other character’s name)?
Do non-professor characters speak without dependent clauses, conditionals, or parallel construction?
Yes.  The hero is a professor, but even she doesn’t.
Is there one gutpunch scene, where the subtext falls away and the characters really lay into each other?
Yes and no.  He puts off the main confrontation, but he lashes out a bit at their dinner.
Genre and Mood: Does the series tap into pre-established expectations?
Does the series fit within one genre (or compatible sub-genres)?
Family dramedy
Are unrealistic genre-specific elements a big metaphor for a more common experience (not how life really is, but how life really feels)?
Yes, coming out as transsexual parallels all other repressed desire.
Separate from the genre, does the pilot establish an overall mood for the series?
Very much so.  We are enveloped in a comfy blanket of Altman-esque ‘70s mellow gold.
If there are multiple storylines, do they establish the spectrum of moods available within that overall mood?
Yes: Josh’s is more serious, Sarah’s is more dramatic, Ali’s is more comedic. 
Is there a moment early on that establishes the type and level of jeopardy?
When Ali visits Josh, we realize the danger is that these people will ruin each other’s lives by dripping acid on them. 
Framing: Does the pilot set, reset, upset and ultimately exceed its own expectations?
Are there framing devices (flashforwards, framing sequences and/or first person narration) to set the mood, pose a dramatic question, and/or pose ongoing questions?
No, we dive right in.
Is there a dramatic question posed early on, which will establish in the audience’s mind which moment will mark the end of the pilot? 
It takes a while to establish it (you could say that the opening credits establishes it, I suppose) but the question of “When will she come out?” is answered with the last shot.
Does foreshadowing create anticipation and suspense (and refocus the audience’s attention on what’s important)?
Fears about cancer misdirect us, making the reveal land bigger.
Are set-up and pay-off used to dazzle the audience, distracting attention from plot contrivances?
The Croce song is nicely set up and paid off, setting up a beautiful closing montage.  There are no real plot contrivances.
Is the dramatic question of the pilot episode’s plot answered near the end of the story?
Yes, she comes out to one child in the final shot, accidentally.
Pervasive: Is the theme interwoven into many aspects of the show?
Does the ensemble as a whole have a unique philosophy about how to fill their role (and competition from an allied force with a different philosophy)?
Yes, this is clearly an exceptionally neurotic family, and their lovers are pretty baffled by that. 
Does the pilot have a statement of philosophy and/or theme, usually either at the beginning or ¾ of the way in. (Sometimes this will be the ensemble’s statement of philosophy, sometimes this merely be the implied theme of the series itself.)
 “They are so selfish.  I don’t know how it is that I raised three people that cannot see beyond themselves.”
Can the show’s overall ongoing theme be stated in the form of a classic good vs. good (or evil vs. evil) dilemma?
Sacrifice your needs for your kids or follow your heart
Throughout the pilot, do the characters have to choose between goods, or between evils, instead of choosing between good and evil?
Sarah faces the same dilemma as her dad, Ali must choose between accepting money or facing her failures, Josh must choose between love and propriety
Are the storylines in the pilot thematically linked (preferably in an indirect, subtle way)?
Very much so.  They all involve selfishness and suppression.
Are small details throughout the pilot tied into the theme?
Food taken and given = nurture offered and denied, etc.
Will the heroes grapple with new moral gray areas in each episode?
Yes, all are now in transgressive relationships and they must grapple with that.
Grounded: Do the stakes ring true to the world of the audience?
Does the series’ set-up reflect the way the world works?
Very much so.
Does the series have authentic things to say about this type of setting?
Very much so.
Does the ongoing concept include twinges of real life national pain?
Very much so. 
Are these issues presented in a way that avoids moral hypocrisy?
Do all of the actions in the pilot have real consequences?
Untidy: Is the dilemma ultimately irresolvable?
Do the characters refuse (or fail) to synthesize the meaning of the pilot episode’s story, forcing the audience to do that?
Does the end of the pilot leave the thematic dilemma wide open and irresolvable?