Saturday, February 11, 2006

Perfect episodes and characters

TV shows are funny things.

By the very nature of their structure, it's hard for them to be "perfect" or "masterpieces." We know there are Great American Novels (Huck Finn, Scarlet Letter, Moby Dick, Gatsby, Sound and the Fury) and Great American Films (Citizen Kane, Godfather). But can there be a Great American Television Show?

Probably not. Eventually, time is going to catch up with any successful show and force it to churn out a poor episode.

But it's possible to have perfect episodes and perfect characters on a TV show. Over the weekend, I'll debut an occasional series with my first picks for one perfect episode and one perfect character. I'll talk a little about what makes these things work so very well and what we as TV writers, critics or viewers can take from them.

I already know what I'm leading off with, but if you have some suggestions, make them here.

I look forward to working with you!

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R.I.P. Arrested Development


I know the Showtime and ABC deals are still out there.

I know there's a chance Mitchell Hurwitz will decide to take one of these deals and keep his firstborn alive.

But damn if those last four episodes didn't feel like a finale.

I know the third season flailed in places and wasn't as solid all around as the first two, but it was still solidly entertaining. I know the show wasn't for everyone and never would be, but for those of us who did love it, it was like a fresh breath of air.

The greatest irony of all, of course, is that Arrested Development has paved the way for comedies that take greater liberties with the form. It's created a whole new way to tell sitcom stories, and the shows that have followed in its footsteps have figured out a way to make its idiosyncratic style accessible. And, of course, these shows (which occasionally even borrow the AD structure wholesale) have become much, much more successful.

But these sorts of things have to happen. James L. Brooks was stymied by the death of the groundbreaking Room 222. But he took everything he learned from that and turned it into The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Taxi and The Simpsons. Aaron Sorkin could never make Sports Night take flight, but he turned The West Wing into a phenomenon. And J.J. Abrams struggled with Felicity and Alias' audience woes before he turned out Lost. So in this likely death, we might find some sort of silver lining. It would be great to see Hurwitz tackle the '70s and '80s-style workplace sitcom.

But, for now, the last episodes are playing on the TiVO one last time, and they're still fresh and funny.

So cheers to you, Arrested Development. May you live on in cable reruns and on DVDs. And may your audience someday find you, even if they do so one by one at 3 a.m. on Comedy Central.

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"And if they play 'Bette Davis Eyes' by the immortal Kim Carnes, my night will be complete."

The Olympics, it would seem, are the one place where it's TOTALLY COOL to be blatantly nationalistic still. I mean, sure, the U.S. has an image problem in the rest of the world right now, but we TOTALLY ROCK AT SKELETON!!!!!

Anyway. . .NBC's coverage of the Opening Ceremonies was just bizarre (I didn't watch it en totale, since some friends and I were flipping between the Arrested Development finale and this). First of all, NBC has TERRIBLE sports directors. Their camera angles are too often claustrophobic, and they can never quite pick out the most interesting shots. Even from a pre-taped piece they can edit down!

It's really a shame ABC is essentially abandoning the sports world, as it has by far the best sports direction out there.

That said, I usually like Bob Costas and the NBC Olympic team, but he was really off his game tonight. EVERY fact about a country other than the U.S. was some subtly negative thing. It's not a HUGE deal, but it was terribly amusing when ol' Bob was always careful to bring up the worst possible thing in a nation's history (except, curiously, for Germany). He also issued the joyously goofy non sequitur above (all right, it wasn't REALLY a non sequitur as the choice of disco music to have the athletes walk in to was not a popular one with the broadcasters, though it gave the whole thing a sort of kitschy appeal to my mind). I almost expected him to say, "Yes, this is a strong U.S. Olympic squad, but did you know the United States was built on the back of slave labor?"

In addition, NBC chose to air roughly an hour of skiers doing practice runs. I have no idea why they did this. Why not do a Turin travelogue or something?

But I love the Olympics, so I'm sure I'll be checking in, if only for the curiously appealing Sasha Cohen, who has made it okay to like figure skating again.

But, honestly, TREE MEN? Get your act together, Italy!

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Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Thoughts on recent episodes of TV

Or. . .how your friendly blogger learned to COAST.

How I Met Your Mother, "Zip, Zip, Zip" (originally aired 2/6/06): Everyone sort of agrees that the weak link of the Mother ensemble is Ted (though the Boston Globe argues he's the show's Charlie Brown and Linus rolled into one, which is an interesting perspective). Still, his quest is what motivates the show, and he has great chemistry with Ashley Williams who plays his latest girlfriend, Victoria. The show makes what could be a fatal error at the top (Victoria places a "when we can have sex" constraint on the relationship, which is a plot line so old it was actually invented by the Greeks), but then it jumps three weeks into the future, skipping what we think will be an episode where Ted whines about not having sex. Instead, that's constrained to ONE SCENE. The show then proceeds to focus on the supporting characters and then MAKES FUN of its central conceit! Ted's lovey-doveyness is played for LAUGHS. I didn't think it was the funniest episode, but the show's elasticity is surprising me. There may be more gas in this one than I originally thought.

The Office, "Warehouse" (originally aired 2/2/06): The more I watch this show, the more I'm fascinated by the ways they take the conceits of the original and mix them up for an American milieu. I'm also becoming convinced this is the true heir to Seinfeld. While it has a bigger heart that that show, it's also somewhat bleaker. Because of the fact that it's a sitcom, no one can ever really change, but because of the fact that it's filmed realistically, this fact is eventually going to enter something approaching existential despair. It's going to be interesting to see just how far they'll push it. This week's episode, featuring Pam's breakdown at being offered the life she's wanted and having to turn it down, was masterfully done. Bonus points to Steve Carrell for toning it down JUST a smidge, making his character that much more believable.

Supernatural, "Scarecrow" (originally aired 1/10/06): Here's another show that may have more gas in it than I initially thought. I've been watching it closely as I'm writing a spec script for it to enter in various contests and fellowships. The structure is almost ALWAYS the same thing time after time, but they do such tiny variations on it that it feels like a new episode every time. They're also starting to increase the tension in the overarching mythology story (which will likely be wrapped up this year) and bringing in recurring characters to drive the narrative. And this episode featured a really, really scary scarecrow. Good stuff.

Scrubs, "My Half Acre" and "Her Story II" (originally aired 2/7/06): Mandy Moore is almost always better than her material. This is one of the few times the script has met her halfway, and she was magical. I hope she comes back. Better yet, I hope she gives up on being a movie star (and starring in terrible melodramas) and gets a good TV vehicle. She would be a force.

Grey's Anatomy, "It's the End of the World, Part 1" (originally aired 2/5/06): This show is doing what ER used to do and mixing it with what Ally McBeal used to do and making BOTH of those things work somehow. The post-Super Bowl episode was a little over-the-top (and it relied a bit too much on that old chestnut. . .the death that's waiting to happen if someone shifts just a little bit). I could have done without the lesbian shower fantasy, but it roped in millions of viewers, so what do I know. Still, this had some of the series' finest writing in scenes like the "Pink Mist" scene. And I can't wait to find out what happens next.

And is it just me or are Super Bowl commercials overrated now? While awards show commericals are underrated (the Oscars and Grammys always have some nice, appropriately themed debuts)?

Anyway. . .if you've seen an episode you'd like to see me comment on, drop me a line!

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Google Google

For whatever reason, you can find Luke's blog on Google, but not this one. Let's see some hits, people! How do I get this thing on Google anyway?

Also, you can find bad teenage poetry on Google.

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Independent TV: A model

Since Blogspot ATE "Here it comes; here comes indie TV; it's a demon on wheels," I'm going to attempt to do a better post on the same subject.

In general, when we look at the history of an art form, we're viewing it in two different evolutions: the evolution in regards to narrative and the evolution in regards to how many people can practice that art form at any given time. True, the two original art forms, painting and music, were probably born out of ancient tribal experiences where anybody who could pound was given a drum, but when I talk about art, I'm talking about modern ideas of it. (And I'll talk more about how art forms evolve along with narrative and eventually evolve away from that at a later date.)

Look, for example, at literature. Literature was "born," for lack of a better word, around ancient campfires where storytellers (often roving storytellers) told their stories to rapt audiences. Some of these stories were written down, but because of how few people could read and write, the number of stories that were written down was limited.

Gradually, however, more and more people became literate, and literature spread from religious texts and other essays into realms like journalism, novels, short-form poems, etc. The Gutenberg press opened up literature to more people, as did requiring education for children. And the more people become literate, the more they will try their hand at writing more literature.

Now, if you know how to read, you could probably try your hand at writing a novel. Since the publishing houses still control the means of distribution, there's no guarantee that your novel will be seen by anyone other than your mom, but you can create your own personal work of art (and the advent of the Internet makes it easier for you to share your work if the corporate world has no interest in it). We're living, in essence, in a country where 95% of the people could try their hand at writing a novel.

This evolution, of course, took several thousand years. But as new art forms are introduced, these evolutions are speeding up. With the digital filmmaking revolution (cheap cameras and hard drive space will soon make it possible for anyone to make a film) coming soon, the world of film is going to become just as vibrant. It's going to be a lot easier to make your magnum opus. Where education held back the evolution of literature, money has always held back the evolution of filmmaking. In short, it's always been expensive to make a movie. In ten years or so, that will no longer be the case (especially if you've already got the camera).

It took American filmmaking 70-some years to reach its phase where voices outside of the established channels were able to produce work (for sake of argument, I'm saying the American indie film movement began in earnest with John Cassavetes, which is a simplification, but there you have it). Our youngest art form, interactive entertainment, is in the early years of independent work just 30 years after Pong. Clearly, things are speeding up.

What does this mean for television?

Television is unique in that it hasn't really HIT on that indie concept yet, even though it's long overdue. To be sure, things like The Simpsons have operated with little to no network control, but they're still funded by networks. In the history of television, I can think of very few true indies (FX's It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia is an exception -- the pilot was filmed for $200, then bought by FX, which spruced it up).

And yet, television is going to hit the digital filmmaking revolution right when film does because the tools of delivery are roughly the same. Indeed, it might be EASIER to make a 22-episode season of a sitcom as opposed to a 2-hour film, what with the limited number of sets, etc. And with the Internet becoming MORE prevalent in everyday life, there's going to be less of a need for a network to get you the show you want to watch. If you create a reasonably popular sitcom that you can film for $10,000 per episode (which is chump change) and you can get 25,000 people to download it for $1/episode, you're going to make a healthy profit.

But first we'll have to get USED to the idea of independent television.

As of right now, there's one independent TV festival (sponsored by TV Guide) and AOL is said to be interested in starting another, but neither of those festivals has garnered much attention. Cartoon Network's Adult Swim seems interested in scooping up programming from non-traditional sources, but never seems quite sure what to do with it.

And yet, the indie TV Pulp Fiction is probably out there. To discover it, we'll need to work within the existing constructs to create a new distribution system.

This is where the rich investor with a couple hundred million dollars comes in.

With a channel devoted to airing independently produced series (and series from other countries that American don't have access to), we could begin the long march to having a gamut of independent television. This arthouse channel, like the arthouse theaters and indie film companies in the 1980s, would nurture talent. The talent would then go on to the big time. Or something like that.

The current television model isn't broken, but it also doesn't exactly encourage innovation. Shows like Lost, 24 and The Sopranos are certainly not the norm. But opening up a traditionally difficult to break into format to new voices could be a way to subvert that system.

Since I am hoping to produce an independent pilot, I will talk some about my thoughts behind my project the next time we discuss this.

In the meantime, I invite you, once again, to read about the Axeman of New Orleans.

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Updates coming. . .

My plans for the week include finishing the big TV list, catching up on some films, finishing a script and giving this place a good redesign.

Clearly, I have a limited sense of my capacity to accomplish things.

Anyway. . .if you've got a blog you think I should add to the links section, please let me know. I'll be trying to give you a large variety of things to read and do and such.

While you're waiting for my next post, go read about the Axeman of New Orleans.

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Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Sons and Daughters question

Russ asks:

Todd - what do you know about the new Lorne Michaels show Sons and Daughters? It's being heavily advertised as "unscripted." Do they really mean this?

Also, was that Adam West doing the voiceover for that taco commercial?


Sons and Daughters is from Lorne Michaels' production house, though he didn't create the show. It's also funny, funny, funny (no, I mean it). And it IS unscripted. My UNDERSTANDING (and I haven't talked to the creators about this) is that even the kids are improvising. I'm guessing that (like Curb Your Enthusiasm) the show's "writers" come up with a storyline for each episode, then let the actors come up with all of the dialogue. This is how the creators' previous show (Bravo's Significant Others) was done.

In case that didn't make sense. . .

The writers come up with a storyline for the episode (say, Grandma gets drunk and says racist things). Then they come up with a handful of scenes. When they go to shoot the scenes, they tell the actors what MUST happen in that scene so the actors can work it in (usually three or four things per scene. . .in this case, grandma has to drink, she has to tell her son he disappoints her, her son has to call her a nasty name and grandma has to say some racist things). Then the actors improvise dialogue for as long as it takes to get what is needed for the episode to work. The editors then trim out all of the fat in post-production, leaving the funniest bits in the finished episode.

It's a really interesting way to do a network sitcom (though, as remarked above, they aren't the first, and NBC's The Office also allows for improvisation, though they do have actual scripts), and I think it turned out well (the pilot at least).

As to your second question, I'm betting that WAS Adam West, who has gained some cachet as a voice-over artist recently. I've heard him in other commercials, and he has a recurring role on Family Guy.

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Sunday, February 05, 2006

Bad Blogspot!

It ATE A POST when I posted the Super Bowl post.

Specifically, the post on independent television seems to be NO MORE.

Pffft! Who needs this!

I'll try and do an EVEN BETTER post on indie TV sometime soon to make up for it.

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Super Bowl

Pittsburgh 28, Seattle 24

But I'll be rooting for Seattle.

I predict the best-ranked commercial will be one from Budweiser (this is not going out on a limb. . .they've got something like a ten-year win streak). And the Stones will swear. And Aretha will tear it up on the national anthem.

Enjoy!

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