Tuesday, November 24, 2020

Believe Care Invest: The Sopranos

Why Tony might be hard to identify with: 
  • He’s clearly a psychopath.  We sense that, despite the self-pitying talk typical of psychopaths, he’s not really someone who deserves any sympathy. 
  • He doesn’t admit what he does. He says he’s a “waste management consultant,” then helpfully adds, “The environment.” We see that his behavior is different from what he’s saying, which always makes people more believable.
  • He’s fat, and he gets the paper in his robe, not exactly like the blinged-out gangsters we’re used to.
  • His mom won’t answer the phone when it’s dark out, which feels delightfully real.
  • He describes his attack in a unique way. “At first it felt like ginger ale in my skull.”
  • We would loathe him if he wasn’t suffering panic attacks that sent him into humiliating therapy.
  • And of course he has an evil mother, which always makes evil characters likeable.
  • Everyone disrespects him. Even his likeable behavior, like watching baby ducks try to fly, is looked down upon by his family.
  • His malaise is universal: “Lately, I’m getting the feeling that I came in at the end. The best is over.” Melfi responds, “Many Americans feel that way.”
  • As he gets sucked into the MRI his wife tells him, “What’s different about you and me is that you’re going to hell when you die.”
  • Originally Tony engaged in no violence and nobody liked the pilot, then Chase added the scene of Tony (with upbeat doo-wop music playing) running down someone with his car, and people loved him. He’s active and good at his job!
  • “Who do you think you are?” “I’m the person who says how things go, that’s who I am!” We always like having a hero in charge.
Five Es
  • Eat: They’re all eating all the time. When he finds out his grandma isn’t coming to his party, Tony’s son famously says, “No fucking ziti now?”
  • Exercise: He sure gets active when he gets violent.
  • Economic Activity: His life is his job.
  • Enjoy: He loves the ducks. He loves running the guy down.
  • Emulate: He wants to be like his father and feels he can’t. When he runs the guy over, he reveals the real reason for the violence: “You tell people I’m nothing compared to the people who used to run things??”
Rise above
  • He decides to see a therapist for his mental (and physical) health, which isn’t allowed at his job, to put it mildly.
  • He puts his professional relationships at risk to keep his friend’s business from being ruined.
  • He’s doing a favor for Artie.

Monday, November 23, 2020

Believe Care Invest: The Good Place

Why Eleanor might be hard to identify with: 
  • For the first ten minutes, we’ll scared she’ll be too much of a goody-goody to identify with. (But Bell wonderfully conveys behind her cracking smile that maybe she’s not.)
  • But then, when we find out the truth, she’s such a horrible person that she’s potentially offputting. “You need me to lie to old people and scare them into buying fake medicine. I get it man. Which one’s my desk?”
  • Her first line is “I’m great, thanks for asking. Oh, one question: Where am I, who are you, and what’s going on?” Saying you’ll ask one question and then asking three feels like it’s not written.
  • When she’s invited to go on the tour, she gives a little confused twirl and says, “Oh, did I have a purse? No, I’m dead, right.”
  • Her real life is believably mundane, “Well I was born in Phoenix, Arizona, I went to school in Tempe, Arizona, and then I moved back to Phoenix, Arizona”
  • The details of this world are so odd: They hear someone in the Bad Place screaming, “The bear has two mouths!”
  • She concludes, “I was a medium person, I should get to spend eternity in a medium place!” What could be more universal than that?
  • She just died, and she died in a very “traumatic and embarrassing” death. “You were in a grocery store parking lot, you dropped a bottle of something called ‘Lonely Gal Margarita Mix for One’, and when you bent down to pick it up, a long column of shopping carts rolled out of control and plowed right into you.” “Oof, that’s how I died.” “No, there’s more: you were able to grab onto the front of the column of shopping carts, but it swept you right out into the street where you were struck and killed by a mobile billboard truck advertising an erectile dysfunction pill called ‘Engorge-ulate’. Funnily enough, the first EMT to arrive was an ex-boyfriend of yours--” “—Okay, that’s it, I get it, thank you.”
  • She’s given a tiny home she’ll supposedly love, whereas her neighbor has a mansion. “As you can see, the interior has been decorated just as you like it, in the Icelandic primitive style, and of course you love clowns, so…” he shows her that her house is filled with clown paintings. Even though we don’t know yet she’s been mistaken for another Eleanor Shelstrop, Bell lets us know she’s straining to pretend to be happy about this.
  • She then finds out she’s in an impossible situation: She has to fake her way into heaven. “Those aren’t my memories, I wasn’t a lawyer, I never went to the Ukraine, I hate clowns, there’s been a big mistake. I’m not supposed to be here.” It always sucks to be told “You don’t belong here,” and that’s what this show’s all about.
  • Tahani’s condescension is humiliating.
  • She does feel bad about her life and death: “Do you think anybody cared that I died?”
  • He had crummy parents, which always makes bad people more likeable.
  • Well at first we hear that she’s “a lawyer who got innocent people off death row.” But then we find out the truth.
  • Chidi says, “So your job was to defraud the elderly –sorry, the sick and elderly?” She responds “But I was very good at it. I was the top sales person, five years running.” We always like it when our heroes are good at their jobs, even if they’re horrible jobs.
  • The plan she comes up with is clever and resourceful. “You could teach me how to be good… Let me earn my place here.”
Five Es
  • Eat: They have frozen yogurt. At the party, she drinks a lot of alcohol and steals shrimp. “Lemme get more of them shrampies.”
  • Exercise: No.
  • Economic Activity: Well, not anymore.
  • Enjoy: Well, she likes eating and drinking, “Did you fill your bra with shrimp?”
  • Emulate: The whole show is about emulating good people when you’re a bad person.
Rise above
  • The whole show is about rising above yourself in various ways.
  • Not at all.

Sunday, November 22, 2020

Believe Care Invest: Scandal

Why Olivia might be hard to identify with: 
  • It’s a bit off-putting that she’s kinda smugly confident and unflappable. The D.A. has a point when he says “Your Spidey senses aren’t evidence.” 
  • She’s got what is ultimately an ugly job.  She’s horribly abusive to the president’s lover: “I want to warn you. Because you seem like a fine person. So you should know what could happen. It could become hard for you to find employment, your face would be everywhere, people would associate you with a sex scandal. All kinds of information about you could easily become available to the press. For example, you've had 22 sexual partners? That we know of. Also there's that ugly bout of gonorrhea. And your family...Your mother's mental illness. A psychotic break? 2 years in Bedford Hospital? I bet that's private. She's runs a daycare now, right?” (But Olivia does come around to the side of the angels in the final minutes and agree to fight for the mistress against the president.)
  • Harrison lures Quinn (and us) in with a bunch of lies about how “We’re the good guys, slaying dragons, gladiators in suits”, but gradually reveals the truth once she is (and we are) committed: “It’s not about solving a crime, it’s not about justice, it’s about our client.” This will be a pulpy show, but it’s moral murkiness will be very believable. Olivia smirks and asks “Did Harrison feed you a line about being a gladiator in a suit?”
  • She doesn’t have much suffering or embarrassment, but we slowly come to realize that she’s lost something due to something that something that’s happened in her past. The D.A. says to her, “You don’t have the muscle of the white house behind me any more, you’re just a private citizen who is, by the way, annoying.” We eventually find out she has a big weakness, she’s still in love with the (very married) president and it tears her up inside. Without that bit of suffering, we’d reject her.
  • Before we meet Olivia, Quinn hears the name “Olivia Pope” and says “THE Olivia Pope?”
  • Then we meet her and she’s standing up to gun-toting Ukranian gangsters, armed with nothing but her confidence: “What’s going to happen is that you and Vlad are going to take the three million and leave right now to make your flight.”
  • She’s the queen of the power moves: The associates have a vote about whether to take the case, the other three all vote no, but she says “my vote always comes down to my gut, my gut tells me everything I need to know. We’re taking the case.” Finch asks “Why do we even bother voting?” But Olivia just dismisses him by saying, “You’re pretty, and smart, so pretty, so smart.”
  • She has the power to say, “You tell the president of the United States to make time for me.”
Five Es
  • Eat: No. She’s not very human.
  • Exercise: No.
  • Economic Activity: She’s always working.
  • Enjoy: After watching Olivia work, Finch says “God I love this job” and Olivia implicitly agrees.
  • Emulate: No.
Rise above
  • At the end of the pilot, she realizes that she has to rise above her job and stop trying to silence the president’s lover.
  • While she’s being all badass with the kidnappers she’s also inquiring about whether Finch has proposed to his girlfriend.

Tuesday, November 17, 2020

Episode #23: Head, Heart and Gut

We’re back!  James and I have a rousing discussion of Head, Heart and Gut (And Spleen, and Groin, and Spirit, and a zillion other permutations…)  Read more about it and see lots of neat charts here!

Wednesday, November 11, 2020

Believe Care Invest: Master of None

Why Dev might be hard to identify with: 
  • He’s not hard working, because he’s coasting off a commercial he recorded a few years before, so he’s just focused on sex, food, and self-doubts. Ultimately, he ends the episode choosing to have a gourmet sandwich even though he knows it will hurt two kids’ feelings (because they made their own sandwiches for him.)
  • We start off with a pre-cum discussion, which we’ve never heard before on TV.
  • He apologizes to his sex partner for using “Uber X”. “I just didn’t want you think I was being stingy with the Ubers.”
  • He realizes that his life is kind of empty without kids. He hears about a wonderful moment a father had with his son and replies, “Fuck, the highlight of my year was when I crashed Zachary Quinto’s Halloween party.”
  • He’s certainly responsible in the bedroom.
  • We see that he’s good at pitching products, for what that’s worth.
  • We love watching adults treating kids like adults. He pretends that the boy is beating him in arm wrestling. We see that he probably could be a great dad, if he didn’t choose his life of sandwiches instead.
Five Es
  • Eat: He’s eating in a restaurant with his friends.
  • Exercise: Never.
  • Economic Activity: We find out he acts in commercials, but economic activity is certainly not a big part of his life.
  • Enjoy: He loves pasta, sex, and bounce houses.
  • Emulate: He pictures how happy he might be with kids.
Rise above
  • No.
  • He makes kids feel great.

Monday, November 09, 2020

Believe Care Invest: Mad Men

Why Don might be hard to identify with: 
  • We’re supposed to root for a guy to sell cigarettes??
  • The wealth of meticulous period detail creates a very believable world.
  • We don’t get much detail about Don’s life yet. The show is intentionally hiding the specifics of his life from us, which it can get away with to a certain extent by giving us a co-hero in the form of Peggy, introduced in her own storyline.
  • He doesn’t just drink, he likes old fashioneds and rye. He smokes Luckies. Everything is specific.
  • We love that he keeps a stack of pressed shirts in his desk for when he spends the night at a girl’s apartment.
  • He’s having a crisis of confidence, “Midge, I’m serious, I have nothing. I am over, and they’re finally gonna know it. Next time you see me, there’ll be a lot of young executives picking meat off my ribs.”
  • He’s got a deadline: “Sterling’s having the tobacco people in in nine hours, and I have nothing.”
  • We can tell when he quizzes the waiter that he’s good at his job. Later, when Midge jokingly says “Don Draper is the greatest ad an ever and his big, strong brain will find a way to lead the sheep to the slaughterhouse,” we can sense she kind of means it. ii. He pauses to look at his purple heart medal, and we don’t suspect yet that he’s an imposter.
Five Es
  • Eat: Well, he certainly drinks like a fish.
  • Exercise: He uses one of those bizarre chest stressing devices in his office (while smoking).
  • Economic Activity: He’s obsessed with his work problem, writing ideas on a napkin when we first see him.
  • Enjoy: He enjoys having sex with Midge, finally seeming relaxed afterwards, and asking her to marry him (We won’t find out until the end of the episode that he’s already married.)
  • Emulate: We will eventually learn that “Don’s” (which is to say Dick’s) life is all about emulation, but we don’t suspect that yet.
Rise above
  • Not yet
  • I’ve taken “high five a black guy” off the list, but this is a big example, which is very important for a period show. He chats up his black waiter, who instantly gets yelled at by his white boss, but Don shoos the boss away, then says to the waiter, “You obviously need to relax after working here all night.”

Sunday, November 08, 2020

Believe Care Invest: How I Met Your Mother

Why Ted might be hard to identify with: 
  • He’s whiny, he’s a stick in the mud, he’s kind of dippy. He’s drawn to Barney, who is a racist misogynist (“Lebanese girls are the new half-Asians”).
  • We just believe in him a bit. The details of the imaginary wedding he’s planning make him feel real. (“So do you think you’ll ever get married?” “Well maybe eventually …some fall day, possibly in central park, as simple ceremony, we’ll write out own vows, band, no DJ, people will dance, I’m not going to worry about it”)
  • It always helps with believability when heroes have personal theories like his “Olive Theory” (“Every relationship should have one person who loves olives and one person who hates them”).
  • He’s lovelorn. Our heart breaks for him when we find out he’s planned out his wedding carefully but can’t find anyone to marry.
  • He’s losing his best friend, which we’ve all been through.
  • He’s good enough at making charming conversation with Yasmin and Robin that feel like we can root for this guy to find love. He cleverly and ironically wins Robin over: She’s supposed to be showing solidarity with her friend who got dumped, so he tells Robin that she can throw her drink in his face in front of her friends. He wins by looking like a loser.
  • But ultimately he’s a dip and it’ll be hard to root for him over the course of the story.
Five Es
  • Eat: He and Robin go out to dinner.
  • Exercise: Never. (Never in the history of the show?)
  • Economic Activity: Not really. He mentions he’s an architect, but concerns about work and money don’t seem to be a big part of his life.
  • Enjoy: Not really.
  • Emulate: He’s torn between wanting to be like Barney or like Marshall, two very different role models.
Rise above
  • No, he’s not focused at all on work (we don’t even know if he has a boss or not), so he can’t rise above it.
  • He’s enthusiastically helpful to Marshall in planning his proposal.
  • He cheers up Robin’s friend by letting Robin throw a drink in his face.

Friday, November 06, 2020

Storyteller’s Rulebook: Everybody on TV Is Bad at Their Job (Except On “Law and Order”)

Back in the day, “Law and Order” would try to compete for Emmys, but it would never do as well as its rival, “NYPD Blue”. It was understood that “Law and Order” was the more frivolous show, because it was strictly about the cases, whereas “NYPD Blue” was a true drama, because it was equally about the case of the week and the lives of the detectives at home.

One of the reasons that seemed more artistic was subtext: If we were following both a home drama and a work drama, they could complicate and inform each other, and each one would be packed with subtext because we knew about the other. When they talked about the case we would see that they were really talking about their homelife drama, and vice versa. “Law and Order” couldn’t work on multiple levels like that.

But I preferred “Law and Order”. I always thought that “NYPD Blue” should maybe have a different name: “Shitty Cops”

If, week after week, your policework is affected by your homelife, you’re a shitty cop. And if your policework is constantly emotionally affecting your homelife, you’re a shitty spouse. Give me the cops of “Law and Order”, who pass the basic competency bar of leaving their homelife at home.

Now don’t get me wrong, I love lots of shows wherein home and work dramas get intermingled. As long as the show acknowledges that this is a serious failing on the hero’s part.

Dre on “Black-ish” is played by a former “Law and Order” detective, but he acts more like an “NYPD Blue” cop.  He lets his work drama drive him to make volatile and disastrous decisions at home, and his home drama drives him him to make volatile and disastrous decisions at work. Then, as he will every week, he gets his shit together, corrects his way of thinking, and fixes both situations. 

When he calls his family meeting, he begins by saying, “I may have to be ‘urban’ at work, but I’m still going to need my family to be black. Not black-ish, but black. We are going to keep it real.” The family meeting does not go well, making him more upset, and at the end he announces: “Tomorrow I have a very important presentation to make and you know what I’m going to do? I’m going to go in there, I’m going to keep it real as [unintelligible]”. The actions he takes both at home and work create train wrecks, primarily because they affect each other.

This is all well and good. This is a comedy, and Dre, unlike the cops on “NYPD Blue”, is a buffoonish figure. It’s fun and believable to watch his homelife and worklife negatively affect each other …And besides, it’s just advertising. I’m not being asked to root for him to save lives. He can screw up an ad campaign without any killers going free, so it’s all fun and games.

Thursday, November 05, 2020

Straying from the Party Line: Black-ish

So what checklist questions does “Black-ish” not check off? 
  • It doesn’t bring different economic classes together. We’ve seen this before on the show’s ABC neighbor “Modern Family”, but it’s less of a problem here. On that show, our heroes are very concerned with social justice issues but seem totally unaware of their extreme economic privilege, making the show hard to watch. Dre and his family, by contrast, are very aware of their privilege, and how precious and precarious it is. One recurring gag will be Dre encouraging his son to make poor friends and failing.
  • There are no secrets or escalations or twists: This show is a real throwback to an earlier era of gentler pilots. There is no sword of Damocles here. There aren’t even any potential romances for the kids yet. It’s a low conflict show. This brings us to…
  • Trouble won’t walk in the door: This is often a concern for family shows and also for shows about advertising executives (which is to say, “Mad Men”). Dre lives a fairly drama-free life: He’s only in danger of ennui. But the show has now gone for 150 episodes, so that’s turned out to be enough of a driver. But this brings us back to what we discussed last time, when Dre was hurt by something that would only hurt Dre. Dre’s life will be fairly easy, but he’s a volatile character on the inside. He’s a tinderbox, so we never know what he’ll perceive as trouble that we (especially blithe white viewers such as I) wouldn’t regard as a problem. He may not break bad like Walter White, but he, too, has suffered a life of big and small humiliations that have keyed him up, creating enough potential drama to sustain a series.

Wednesday, November 04, 2020

Rulebook Casefile: Playing with Expectations in the “Black-ish” Pilot

Kenya Barris knows we’ve seen pilots before, and he knows we’re trying to get ahead of him. So he plays with us.

We meet a wealthy, overconfident man with a closet full of individually lit sneakers, and he assures us in voiceover that he’s absolutely sure he’s going to get a big promotion today. He promises his family and co-workers it’s coming. Then his boss gathers everybody in the conference room and announces that sure enough, someone is going to be promoted to Senior Vice-President. Our hero confidently picks up his stuff and begins moving over to the “senior management only” side of the table before the boss announces the name. On the way, he cockily says to a woman of color: “Sabrina, I’m not going to forget about you when I become one of them, alright?”

It’s only after Dre has shoved others aside to take his new place that the boss finally announces, “So without any further ado, I’d like us all to give a warm congrats to…”

…So what’s going to happen? Well if we’ve ever seen a pilot before, we’re sure of one thing: Dre is not going to get the promotion. Everything in the pilot so far has set us up for a big reversal. Overconfidence must be punished! But then Dre does get the promotion! We’re shocked. Why did they try so hard to set us up for a reversal and then not deliver?

But there’s one hitch: Specifically, his boss announces that he’ll be “the SVP of our new Urban division.” And Dre has already told us in voiceover that he considers “urban” to be a ridiculous term. Dre is clearly not pleased, and says in his voice-over, “Wait, did they just put me in charge of black stuff?”, then we cut to commercial.

So why did Barris push all of our “they’re about to announce someone else got the promotion” buttons, only to have our hero’s overconfidence be validated after all? Well, it sends us on an emotional rollercoaster: We’re excited for him, then worried about his overconfidence, then almost pitying his delusion that he’s going to get it, then shocked to be happy for him …then shocked again when we realize that, in Dre’s mind, this is a slap-down. As far as he’s concerned, he didn’t really get a promotion. He’s only been put in charge of his own ghetto. Sure enough, when he gets home, his father calls him, “head puppet of the white man.”

Burris has toyed with our pre-existing narrative expectations in order to convey to us the hero’s peculiar emotional state. This moment establishes the tone of the whole series: Dre is a winner but his psychological and cultural baggage makes him feel perpetually dissatisfied. As in any good ironic story, he’s either winning by losing or losing by winning. 

It’s always good to hurt your hero in ways that would only hurt your hero, because then you have a unique and volatile main character. Only Dre would be heartbroken by this news, and that makes him compelling.

Tuesday, November 03, 2020

Believe Care Invest: Black-ish

Why Dre might be hard to identify with: 
  • He’s wealthy and his problems basically boil down to “rich guy ennui”.
  • He begins with a long, funny self-deprecating voiceover. He’s rich but humanized in various ways right away. He wakes up to see looking like a mess as she sleeps.
  • To an extent, we believe in him for the same reason we invest him: We come to share his keen awareness of his surroundings, including tiny and large slights he receives. These details make his world feel real.
  • Like many successful black people, he has two metaphor families that he has to juggle (aka code-switching) We recognize this as a real struggle and the language is convincing. Ironically, part of his job is to tell them how a black man would talk. (“We wanted to know how you think a black guy would say good morning?”)  He insists that a black man wouldn’t talk differently (and gets insulted when they start calling him black-sounding nicknames like Dr. Dre), but on the other hand, he gets offended when his family doesn’t talk black enough.
  • His daughter mocks his cologne. His son is going out for field hockey (“Isn’t that woman’s sport?”) His son named after him now lets his white friends call him Andy. (Andre Jr: “I think it’s edgy but approachable.” Dre: “I think it says ‘I hate my father and I play field hockey.’”)
  • He gets appointed senior vice president, but only in charge of “urban” advertising, which his father sums up as “head puppet of the white man”
  • He’s got a classic strength/flaw combo: He’s think-skinned, and we can see how that messes up his life, but once we’re in his POV we come to agree with and share his sensitivity to slights.
  • Like a lot of buffoon-ish sitcom fathers (especially on ABC), he tests our investment a bit, but ultimately just before the end of the episode, he proves that he’s good at creating advertising campaigns (“LA is Colorful”), and that he’s a pretty good father (throwing his son a “hip-hop bro-mitzvah”).
Five Es
  • Eat: Eats a breakfast croissant.
  • Exercise: He’s got a basketball hoop, but he plays incompently.
  • Economic Activity: His job is a big part of his life. Rainbow says, “breaking down barriers is equally important to money, but just so I’m clear, there is a salary increase, right?”
  • Enjoy: He’s very excited about his upcoming promotion and likes playing “the one who made it for all of us” with the other black employees at work. He seems to enjoy his closet of sneakers a little.
  • Emulate: He wants to join the white-people club, but also wants to be like his defiant father.
Rise above
  • He decides to put his job at risk to assert his blackness.
  • Not really. He treats his white, gay assistant as an honorary black man, which he definitely feels is magnanimous.