Saturday, June 24, 2006

"Show me that smile again!": Nobody's Watching, the pilot

As a preview of our super TV pilot explosion (coming soon!), I thought I would take your hands and guide you through a. . .pilot that never made it to air.

But somehow, SOMEHOW, Nobody's Watching, from three of the most fertile minds behind Scrubs made its way to YouTube. And if you want to know what I'm talking about, you can play along. The pilot is in three parts, uploaded by someone named impytherap. The three parts are here, here and here. And if you're not enjoying part one, stick with it. It picks up in parts two and three.

All caught up?

Good. Let's talk.

Nobody's Watching is, honestly, maybe the meta-est show to ever come out of a TV writer's brain. The setup for it takes nearly nine minutes (and not even all of the regular characters have been introduced), and the whole thing is a commentary on the audience's relationship with television and the thin line between fiction and reality (funny stuff! I know!). Scrubs is a show that often delights in juvenile humor (and Family Guy, which produced two of the writers before they went to Scrubs, ONLY knows how to do juvenile humor), so it's weird to see something this brazenly INTELLECTUAL from them. That's not to say that the show doesn't have its share of dumb jokes, but that's also not to say that the show's dumb jokes are unintentionally dumb (that is to say that the dumb jokes become a meta-commentary on the sitcom's setup-punchline structure itself).

Phew!

Nobody's Watching, in short, is about two guys (one is, apparently, from Mad TV and the other is Billy from Battlestar Galactica) who send a tape out to all of the networks saying that sitcoms suck. The WB, apparently, agrees with them and flies them from Ohio to Los Angeles, where they are told that they will be creating the next great sitcom but that cameras will film the process. What's more, they have to live on the sitcom sets (three standard setups, including a bedroom, living room and office), though they can wander the backlot as well. And when they're on the sitcom set, there will be a live audience watching them at all hours of the day, laughing at their antics. Their exploits are watched by two network executives, who are pulling the strings to create maximum conflict. In essence, the two guys have been invited to Hollywood not to CREATE the next great sitcom but to BE the next great sitcom, though they don't realize this yet.

If this is utterly confusing to you, you'll probably be impressed by just how easily the show sets this whole premise. If the jokes are a little dumb in the first third of the pilot, it's because they're strictly at the service of setting up that whole paragraph above in as little time as possible.

The two guys are pretty reliable dumb dork archetypes (Libby actually said, "They do know that they can only have one Zach Braff, right?"). The network executives get most of the best laugh lines as the evil agent from Prison Break and Ted from Scrubs banter about how they're going to screw over our heroes. And the two girls, an uptight executive wannabe played by an actress I can't place, though I know I've seen her, and a gorgeous girl "discovered" outside, played by former model (and Maxim girl) Mircea Monroe, are both fun (though I liked the uptight executive better, being forever fond of the funny best friend). Alan Thicke has a surprisingly large role in the pilot, though it's not immediately clear if he would be a regular or just a sitcom cameo (several other sitcom regulars appear -- I will spoil none of their appearances). Thicke is one of the best things about the pilot, gamely making fun of himself.

The show's final character, as it were, is the live studio audience. Since the characters know they have a studio audience watching them, they frequently react to the audience, wondering whether the audience is laughing because they have something on their face (when, really, something funny is happening upstage from them). It's one of the most innovative ways to comment on a TV show's relationship with its audience that I've ever seen. More than any medium, television is dependent on fans. If you don't get an audience for your film, your film is still made and can be seen on DVD eventually. If you don't get an audience for your TV show, you're out the door. It's sort of daring to have the characters outright criticize the audience for laughing at certain things or having other typical studio audience reactions, but Nobody's Watching manages to loop back around and make the relationship between viewer and character that much more interesting in the end.

That said, I'm not sure this could have worked on network television. I just don't see what episode 100 of this show is (though, honestly, I would trust these writers to think of that many episodes). And the show is awfully mean, insulting lots and lots of popular sitcoms (one commenter on YouTube was so miffed that the show made fun of Coach that he wrote off the whole enterprise). But, what's more, it engages in the kind of condescension that has gotten satirists from Mark Twain to Alexander Payne in trouble (though, to be fair, the writers of NW are FAR more subtle in their condescension than Twain or Payne are -- it's all subtext here). These are two guys from Ohio, and they're pretty stupid. They WANT to write for sitcoms, but they have to wait for a network to fly them out to LA to make the big move (one character, in particular, was so afraid of leaving home that he turned down a chance to go to Notre Dame). It's a crass change-up of the old TV maxim that small town life is a better life (indeed, the Ohio the boys come from appears to be a grey suburban wasteland), and I'm not sure if that undercurrent would have turned more people away than it would have brought in.

What's more, there's a lot of commentary going on here about the difference between our reality, reality TV reality and sitcom reality. The hot girl looks like hell when she's sopping wet in baggy clothes and un-makeuped. But when they put her in a sexy "TV" outfit and parade her in front of the studio audience, you immediately realize just how important those elements are to a television show. And when she turns up on different film stock later, she looks even better, playing up another aspect of production. Her sob story when we first meet her seems real, but, again, when she's on set, she's clearly acting (or is she?). Similarly, the two guys at the center of the tale are, in a sense, always performing. But when they don't THINK the cameras are on them, they slip into a far more laconic pace, a more realistic one. And when they're on stage, they're suddenly sitcom performers, over-enunciating and driving home every punchline with as much emphasis as possible. The writers pull the rug out from under us in what we perceive as the reality of the show multiple times per episode. Is this real? Or is it reality TV real? Or sitcom real? There's no safe harbor, and I'm sure most would leave scratching their heads.

But, most of all, this show is FAST. Not Arrested Development fast, but certainly The Office fast. It was always going to be jetting out in front of the audience, daring them to catch up. And I'm not sure The WB would have known how to sell that (since the audience has shown such a glowing love in the past for humor that's unpredictable). Plus, if every TV series is about retelling the pilot over and over and over, how do you establish all of the stylistic devices this show has in future episodes? How do you not confuse people when the characters react to the studio audience? Or when the network executives pop up on a completely different set to play Mephistopheles?

I do hope Nobody's Watching finds a home somewhere. Even though a lot of the jokes weren't the best, I think that was part of the point (and I know the writers would find better ones). While it was passed over for the 2005-06 season, the show's success on YouTube has apparently led the executive producer to shop it around again for the 2007-08 season (which, honestly, Hollywood is gearing up for). Here's hoping he can make something of it. Because this, despite its flaws, is one of the most INTERESTING sitcoms I've ever seen.

And if anyone knows just who plays the uptight executive girl, PLEASE let me know.

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Thursday, June 22, 2006

Trailer curmudgeons, Vol. 3

It's the latest segment in our ongoing quest to preview movies so you don't have to. If you want to see this become a regularer feature, let us know!

Here we go!

The Wicker Man (Sept. 1):



Don't like YouTube on general principle? See it now!

Todd: Who can take the wicker?
Sprinkle it with dew?
Burn unholy children
and an Oscar winner too?

The Wicker Man.
The Wicker Man can.
The Wicker Man can cuz he sprinkles them with fire
and makes the burning taste good.

(Did you see that chick made out of bugs? Gross! We totally have to take our girlfriends to see this, man! We'll totally score after the movie!)

Libby:
I was going to call this an unnecessary remake but then, realizing I'd never seen the original ...

(Libby, for the record, is ashamed of her lack of cinematic education. And ashamed of falling asleep during Jacque Tati's Playtime. Bad Libby.)

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest (July 7):



Quicktime is here.

Todd:
I was rather happy when the first film turned in to a massive word-of-mouth hit. You see, I have a dirty little secret. . .I love pirates. I like it when they talk pirate-y to me. It was good to know I wasn't alone.

But then. . .it went from being a fun sleeper hit with a horrible concept and a fun Johnny Depp performance to being one of the most annoying religions ever created. Yes. I know Orlando Bloom has pretty eyes. I don't care.

It doesn't help that everyone I know wants to see this. The soccer mom who sits next to me at work? Excited. My family? Excited. My cats? Excited.

Still. . .this warms my heart. More pirates! A squid-man! A giant squid! And pirates! Talking pirate-y!

All of the Johnny-come-lately Johnny Depp fans in the world aren't enough to make me not slightly anticipate this one.

Libby: Nothing is any good if anyone else likes it.

My Super Ex-Girlfriend (July 21):



Fear YouTube is collecting secret data about your houseplants? Quicktime isn't!

Todd: Call me crazy, but I laughed at this. It has a silly premise we haven't seen one hundred times. It has Dwight from The Office. It has every bad breakup fear rolled into one over-the-top scenario. And it (oh too briefly) has the mellifluous tones of AIR SUPPLY. Granted, all of the laughs may be in the trailer, but I'm there for the AIR SUPPLY.

Libby: Yes. Because what we needed was a superhero light romantic comedy.

The Descent (Aug. 4):




Quicktime. Your best friend.

Todd: You know what's scary? Being trapped in a cave. You know what's scarier? Bald men who arise from murky pools and chase you! Crazy Brits.

Libby: This is why women should never try and do anything by themselves.

Little Miss Sunshine (July 26):



And lo, he said unto them. Quicktime.

Todd: The film that was politely applauded and then bought for way too much money at Sundance is ALMOST UPON US. It is NECESSARY that you LAUGH at this.

Actually, the real movie is supposed to be fairly foul-mouthed, so the weird cutting in this trailer is indicative of that, I think (as well as the general lack of laughs). Nice cast though. And you know what people rely on more than anything in the summer to make their moviegoing choices? Critics.

(That was sarcasm. They actually rely on how big Adam Sandler's head is on the standee.)

But Sufjan Stevens? Really?

Libby: I have touched Sufjan Stevens, and I like Steve Carell, and there are no pirates in this movie, so I shall see it.

John Tucker Must Die (July 28):



Quicktime awaits you here.

Todd:
So I look at that poster, and I don't say, "I MUST see John Tucker Must Die." I say, "Hmmm. . .looks like statutory rape is OK again. Thanks, Congress!"

Three thoughts:

1.) Why, when we do these features, am I always the one picking the movies about teen girls to watch the trailers for? On second thought, don't think too hard about that one.

2.) Remember when The Pope Must Die came out and the angry Catholics got them to change the title by crudely sketching a T on to the end of "Die" on all of the posters JUST before release? Think that will happen here?

3.) John Tucker can do a flip when he goes up to dunk. IS HE ACTUALLY THE GORILLA?

Libby: Finally, Hollywood is making movies for women like me.

The Holiday (Dec. 8):



Quicktime likes chick flicks too.

Todd: Take Nancy Meyers, director of such crap as What Women Want and such mega-crap as Something's Gotta Give. Add one of the stupidest premises for a movie ever. Toss in a lot of dumb jokes you've seen before. And while you're at it, add holiday movie cliches AND pointless romantic tension. Top it off with the insinuation that Kate Winslet's only good enough for Jack Black (when, verily, she is one of the smokinest on the planet), and shake thoroughly. Serves your whole miserable family one holiday afternoon out when they don't have to talk to each other but do have to consider the depth of human despair.

Libby: So Cameron Diaz is hot enough for Jude Law, but Kate Winslet is only good enough for Jack Black? (At this point, she launched into an impenetrable wall of swears, which I didn't bother transcribing, lest my mother still be able to look her in the face without flinching.) I HATE NANCY MEYERS!!!

Invincible (Aug. 25):



Quicktime tried out too.

Todd: *Deep within the Disney headquarters.*

Exec 1: Okay. We make lots of money from families, teens, the elderly. . .who are we missing?

Exec 2: People like Libby Hill's dad, Jerry.

Exec 1: What does Libby's dad like?

Exec 2: NFL football. College football. High school football. Basketball. Baseball. Hockey, if the U.S. is beating the Russians.

Exec 1: Is he one for a good inspirational story?

Exec 2: You bet your ass. And it's even better if they're true!

Exec 1: I'm sold. Let's start up a production unit called "Movies for Libby's Dad."

Exec 2: I'll get right on it, boss.

Libby: I miss my dad.

Todd: I miss video games.

Ratatouille (Summer 2007):



Quicktime it.

Todd: The timing on that first gag where they reveal the rat is just beautiful. It takes FOREVER, and you can't figure out why Pixar decided to make a movie about a waiter's hands and inanimate wheels of cheese. But then you see the rat and all Hell breaks loose. And the opening shot of Paris is pretty nice too.

But still? A movie about a rat who craves fine cheeses and lives in France? I can smell certain, er, demographics tuning out right now.

Nice move showing the kids how to pronounce it right there in the trailer, though.

Libby: THE RAT IS CUDDLY AND THEN THERE'S A FAT RAT AND HE'S CUDDLY TOO AND THEN HE'S GETTING CHASED AND IT'S ALL CRAZY!!! It's gonna be great!!!

Casino Royale (Nov. 17):



Quicktime.

Todd: I like the handheld, Bourne Identity-ish stuff here, but I've never seen a Bond movie in theaters, and I don't really see a compelling reason to start.

Unless, of course, I were a HUGE fan of Card Sharks.

Libby: He has a monkey face.

Charlotte's Web (Dec. 20):



Quicktime loves you.

Todd: So, I pretty much grew up on Charlotte's Web farm, what with the adorable pigs, survival of the fittest axings, magical spiders and talking animals. No! Really! I did!

Honestly, though, I've never read this book (I know the big twist ending though!), and the presence of a fart gag in one of the foremost methods of teaching children about the life-and-death cycle is doing nothing to assuage my fears.

Libby: This is going to be awesome. And anyone who doesn't think so, can suck it.

Todd: Great. The one movie she's actually anticipating, and it has to be about a talking pig.

Libby: No! You don't get the last word! You keep taking the last word, and it's my last word! That's the deal!

Libby briefly ran off and pouted, locking herself in the bathroom. But I was able to lure her back with. . .

Ghost Rider (Feb. 16, 2007):



Quicktime made a deal with the devil too.

Todd: Before we start, check out this TOTALLY RAD PLOT SUMMARY!!!!!!!!!

"Based on the Marvel character, stunt motorcyclist Johnny Blaze gives up his soul to become a hellblazing vigilante, to fight against power hungry Blackheart, the son of the devil himself."

SO. AWESOME. How do you think they came up with the name Blackheart?!

Seriously, folks. Comic book fans always complain about how they don't get enough respect for their "new American mythology" and whatnot. Superman? Okay. Batman? Of course. Spiderman and the X-Men? Makes sense to me.

But a skeleton-man who rides around on a flaming motorcycle setting things on fire and whipping things with chains? No. That is not a new American mythology. I call shenanigans.

Libby: And you wonder why I don't get excited for films anymore.

Thanks for playing everybody! If you'd like to see MORE trailer curmudgeons, let us know. We're here to serve!

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What the hell?: Top 40 SINGLES of 2006 (So far...)



01. Gone, Kanye West
02. Pull Shapes, The Pipettes
03. Your Kisses Are Wasted On Me, The Pipettes
04. Crazy, Gnarls Barkley
05. Promiscuous, Nelly Furtado (Ft. Timbaland)
06. The Mighty O, Outkast
07. In The Morning, Junior Boys
08. Be Easy, Ghostface Killah
09. LDN, Lily Allen
10. Crash & Burn Girl, Robyn

11. I Bet You Look Good On the Dancefloor, Sugababes
12. Wolf Like Me, TV on the Radio
13. Gold Lion (Diplo's Optimo Remix), Yeah Yeah Yeahs
14. S.O.S. (Rescue Me), Rihanna
15. Smile, Lily Allen
16. Funeral, Band of Horses
17. Van Helsing Boombox, Man Man
18. 4ever, The Veronicas
19. Heard 'Em Say, Kanye West
20. What You Know, T.I.

21. Ms. New Booty, Bubba Sparxxx (Ft. Ying Yang Twins)
22. Black Sweat, Prince
23. The Big One, Nellie McKay
24. Woman, Wolfmother
25. Woke Up New, The Mountain Goats
26. Maneater, Nelly Furtado
27. Oh Sweet Woods, The Fiery Furnaces
28. Heart In a Cage, The Strokes
29. Walk Away, Kelly Clarkson
30. The Greatest, Cat Power

31. Unwritten, Natasha Bedingfield
32. Song With A Mission, The Sounds
33. See the Day, Girls Aloud
34. Suffer Well, Depeche Mode
35. You Know Who, T.I.
36. Munich, Editors
37. Touch The Sky, Kanye West
38. Everything I'm Not, The Veronicas
39. Temperature, Sean Paul
40. Steady, As She Goes, The Raconteurs

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Misogyny for friends and lovers

I used to think maybe Rescue Me just didn't have very well-developed female characters.

Then, in season two, it insisted on turning every female character into a shrewish witch. It was sexist, but I could live with it because the scenes between the guys were so well written that I could at least fan wank my way to believing the show portrayed the women as the men saw them (and men very often see the women in their lives as shrewish -- it happens, though it shouldn't).

Spoilers for this week's episode follow. So back out ye who have not seen it yet.

But I honestly think the show may have become irreparably misogynistic when it had main character Tommy force his wife (whom he is separated from) to have sex with him (in an unpleasantly raw and violent confrontation). I've seen this not called rape because his wife gets in to it after a long few moments, and I've seen it called hate sex, but I just don't see a way around this being vile and disturbing and borderline rape (if not outright rape).

Obviously, I don't think rape (or hate sex, if you must) isn't subject matter adult television can't cover. Indeed, I think that the protagonist of a morally ambiguous show like Rescue Me can engage in such activities, provided the activities are seen in a negative or neutral light. Rescue Me did all right with this (the rape itself was presented as matter-of-factly as possible, that we might judge on our own), but when Tommy left his wife's house, he whipped out his sunglasses, got in his car and drove off to the strains of triumphant pop-rock. I suppose one COULD argue that this wasn't to be seen as a moment of triumph for our hero, but they'd have to make a pretty great argument to convince me.

I'm not bailing on the show, but this episode left a bad taste in my mouth, and I'm not sure this can be just swept under the rug. To their credit, Denis Leary and Peter Tolan (the creators and writers of nearly every episode) have long memories and will probably deal with the ramifications of this at some point, but I'm not sure I'll be watching. There needs to be some sort of acknowledgment that what Tommy did wasn't great. A line or two. And I'm still there.

This show is still great as a comedy. And the story of Lou has ended up being surprisingly touching. But when this show gets involved with female characters, it goes all wrong. Even Susan Sarandon, who started out so promisingly, appears to be being set up to steal Franco's kid. And that's not just sexist, it's unrealistic.

I'll give it the rest of the season. But I want to see some improvement.

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Tuesday, June 20, 2006

My 10 favorite performances

Since I mentioned yesterday that Jeremy Piven was turning in one of my favorite performances on television right now, quite a few of you have e-mailed me, asking who, exactly, my other nine favorites are.

Well, I'm glad you asked. This probably won't be as substantial as many of you would like, but here are the ten performers I most enjoy watching. I hedged a bit and only chose one performer per show. For most of these shows, I could fill out the list with others in the cast, but I needed to draw the line somewhere. In no particular order.

Jeremy Piven, Entourage: This show would almost not be worth watching without Piven's character. The other actors are all fine, but Piven is able to ground the more dramatic moments of the series and turn in weird flights of comedic fancy. I've seen some people complain Piven just isn't as good this season, but, honestly, I don't notice a difference. Other castmates worth mentioning: Kevin Connolly, Kevin Dillon.

Mary McDonnell, Battlestar Galactica: She's giving the steeliest performance on television, playing the president of a dying race and never, ever succumbing to the sentimentality and jingoism that would be easier to play. The moment when the pilots dedicate the stealth ship to her and she takes a moment to compose herself, turning away from them, toward the camera, stifling her tears, was one of the finest acting moments I've seen on television in a long time. Other castmates worth mentioning: Edward James Olmos, Katee Sackhoff, James Callis.

Denis Leary, Rescue Me: This, perhaps, is too easy of a choice, but to the degree that this show works, it works because of Leary. He's able to play the bracing comic moments AND the dramatic monologues and make it all seem convincing. While the show becomes maudlin, Leary's performance never does. Just look at the moment in the second episode of the third season, when he realizes his brother is with his ex-wife. It's a minute of nearly silent acting, and it's impeccable, building to one of the most glorious climaxes of the young season.

Kristen Bell, Veronica Mars: Here's the female entry in the "making the whole show work" category. Even those who were disappointed in season two of this show were impressed with Ms. Bell, who makes playing a whipsmart, sassy platinum blonde who also happens to be a social outcast and an occasional damsel in distress look easy. No small feat, that. While she's another easy choice to make (and the ensemble of this show is full of underrated actors), the show just doesn't work without her. Hence. Other castmates worth mentioning: Enrico Colantoni, Jason Dohring.

Ian McShane, Deadwood: Here's the "HBO actors who deserve all the praise they get" part of the list. McShane has taken one of the best-written characters on television and made him even deeper and more interesting. McShane is playing a character never before seen on television: a crime lord who very slowly, through the pressures of society, becomes a politician (of sorts). McShane also handles some of television's toughest dialogue, letting David Milch's Shakespearean bon mots roll off his tongue. Not bad for someone who was the third choice for the role! Other castmates worth mentioning: The whole damn cast, but especially Robin Weigert.

Edie Falco, The Sopranos: Falco has been given less and less to do in recent seasons, but when David Chase and his writing staff give her a scene, she's going to take the wheel. She may be the only actress on television who could do a scene like the one in "Join the Club," where the whole thing was just her, the camera and a Tom Petty song and make it all work. Falco has won a host of Emmys, but she probably deserves one last trophy for her work in this final season. Other castmates worth mentioning: James Gandolfini, Lorraine Bracco, Michael Imperioli (pre-season six).

Jorge Garcia, Lost: Really, I could have thrown Terry O'Quinn in here (the man is giving a titanic performance) and none of you would have been surprised. But Jorge Garcia has done something much harder: He has taken a sideline character (who was conceived, it would seem, as a basic comic relief character) and made him something more essential: a tragic hero who has become the soul of a show that often teeters on the edge of being soulless. Few supporting players work as hard to give their show that extra breath of reality as Garcia does, and Lost is all the better for it. Other castmates worth mentioning: Terry O'Quinn, Yunjin Kim, Adewale Akinnouye-Agbaje.

Mary Lynn Rajskub, 24: I've talked at length about why Chloe works on the adreneline-soaked 24, but it's as good a time as any to mention her (especially with the Emmys coming up). Chloe is exactly the kind of person we want on the side of good in times of terror. And Rajskub never delivers a line exactly like how you expect her to, always giving it a bit of spin. Other castmates worth mentioning: Kiefer Sutherland, Gregory Itzin.

John Krasinski, The Office: A lot has been made about how great Steve Carell is in The Office, and I sort of agree (especially now that they've toned his character down). But I think that John Krasinski is what makes the show work. He's, in every episode, an everyman, a comic foil and a straight man. He's also got some of the most impeccable reaction shots on TV. Krasinski is unafraid to play his character like a workaday stiff you might meet walking down the sidewalk. In many ways, he's created the character who's been the MOST Americanized from the British version. Other castmates worth mentioning: Steve Carell, Jenna Fischer.

Sarah Chalke, Scrubs: Chalke is almost ridiculously underrated. She's in a great comic ensemble, and she holds her own with aplomb. Plus, she's a rare bird: A gorgeously hot woman who's completely funny. Chalke is unafraid to go after a pratfall, and she's allowed her character to take several goofy turns in keeping with the show's gleeful spirit. She's always fun to watch. Other castmates worth mentioning: Donald Faison, John C. McGinley.

Obviously, this list is far from complete. I really tried to go with less obvious choices in many cases. But here are other performances worth watching.

Hugh Laurie, House
Neil Patrick Harris and Jason Segal, How I Met Your Mother
Lauren Graham, Gilmore Girls
Michael Chiklis, Forrest Whitaker and CCH Pounder, The Shield
The entire cast of The Wire
Jamie Pressley and Ethan Suplee, My Name Is Earl
Ricky Gervais, Extras
Sandra Oh, Chandra Wilson and T.R. Knight, Grey's Anatomy
Wentworth Miller, Prison Break
Anthony LaPaglia, Without a Trace
Terry Crewes and Tichina Arnold, Everybody Hates Chris

And many others I'm sure I'm forgetting. What say you all?

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Monday, June 19, 2006

And of course. . .

if you haven't seen this, you haven't lived.

Thanks, YouTube!

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Shaggy Dogs

It's hard to explain just what the appeal of HBO's Entourage is. When people ask me why I watch it, I can't quite articulate why. I just. . .like it.

Normally, this would be enough, but it's never enough when you're a critic (wannabe or otherwise). And so, an explanation.

I don't think Entourage is a great show by any means, but it's certainly a lot of fun. There are few shows that are so effortlessly appealing on the air right now. When Entourage is on a roll, entertainment just emanates from it easily, seductively, drawing us into its web.

I think part of it's appeal is that the structure is so shaggy. Roughly every episode's basic plot is "Rising Hollywood star Vincent Chase wants something. He almost doesn't get it. But, at the last minute, he does get it." The only notable thing he HASN'T gotten is the love of Mandy Moore in the latter half of season two. This is the sort of thing that could get tired after, oh, one episode. Attractive, rich, young guy gets everything he wants? Please, sir. I want some more.

Despite all of this, creator Doug Ellin, his writers and directors and his cast make this all work. I think it's because of the sideline scenes that make up most of every episode. Because the writers know the structure and we know the structure (and they know we know the structure), they feel free to throw in scenes of guys hangin' out, just being guys. In the third season premiere, a broken elevator became an excuse to have a race up a staircase, which is a fine dramatization of how those with the XY chromosome like to throw competition in to just about anything to spice it up.

More importantly, these throwaway bits show us that becoming rich and famous hasn't made our heroes completely insufferable. At heart, they're still little boys on the playground. While we may find the exultation of their lifestyle a bit insufferable, we can identify with them on that base level, so we let a lot of other stuff slide.

Another nice thing about the structure of an Entourage episode is that it feels no particular need to have every scene explicate its plot or even its characters. It's not above just throwing in a scene that's likable and easy-going and fun to watch. A scene that's just there for the sake of providing a few mild laughs is preferable in the Entourage worldview to a scene that's there to belabor plot point after plot point. And that wins a lot of goodwill as well.

Plus, it has Jeremy Piven as Ari, turning out one of the top ten or so TV performances on the air right now. Ari was a bit of a raging agent stereotype in season one, but Piven and the writers have fleshed him out, making him a man who's deeply devoted to his work, his clients, his marriage and even his assistant Lloyd (though he'd never SAY any of these things). Ari's tenacity is one of the better object lessons on TV. He's gotten everything he's wanted, and he's going to keep it as long as the fates let him.

I don't know how long Entourage can go on just getting by on its charm (HBO's hype machine is already almost killing it, threatening to try to make it more than the slight trifle it is), but it's a wonderful little confection for now, the perfect end to a long week.

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Sunday, June 18, 2006

"Why don't you write about writing, Todd?"

she said.

"Well, I guess I could," I said.

One thing I've found as I get older and more experienced in my writing is that I think it sucks more quickly. When I was scrawling things down on paper in the seventh grade, staying up way past my bedtime, I thought I was AWESOME. I literally thought I was one of THE GREATEST WRITERS to ever have lived. I wrote a lengthy television script for a show loosely based on my friends and I (called Bridges). It was supposed to be a sitcom. One of the recurring jokes featured something called Manny's Wheel o' Meat.

When I read it now, the structure is pretty good (somehow, I internalized basic three-act structure -- and I didn't watch a lot of TV as a kid), but the rest of the thing just doesn't work. The jokes are hackneyed, and the characters are little more than cliches birthed to spout said bad jokes. And while the structure has a vague notion of how to tie all of this together with a plot, it also goes off on wild tangents that make little to no sense.

I detail the travails of Bridges to point out one thing to you: When I wrote this, I thought I was the funniest person to ever have lived. I submitted it to a number of contests and never won anything (not even from the South Dakota State Fair, where I was the only person entered). When I got criticism back (as I did at the fair, where the judge called them "acid-head joke machines wandering through a surrealistic landscape"), I was convinced the judges were wrong.

Now, a lot of this can be read as just a little kid not being able to take criticism (and most kids can't), but so often in our lives as writers, we're just like that.

I think the real moment you know you're a writer (of any stripe from novels to journalism to instruction manuals) is when you realize that you kind of suck, that you're not Shakespeare or Joyce (nor will you ever be either of those two). The history of human literature is so rich that you bump up against a true genius everywhere you turn. Even in the medium of television, you run into David Milch, Joss Whedon, David Chase ... and that's just for starters. And these guys often compare themselves unfavorably to other writers.

Even if you're the best in your field, in your time, you've still got to go up against Shakespeare and Tolstoy and Dante and all of the others. You're just not as creative as them. You're just not as astute as them. And you're just not as good as them.

This is both humbling and liberating. It makes you realize that you're part of a tradition stretching back for centuries (even if you're just writing a blog post). But it also makes you realize that you can NEVER BE that good. So you're free to experiment, to fail, to try things.

But what does all of this mean? It means that education never stops. To become the best writer you want to be, you have to consume more, more, more culture. It's not just watching great TV. It's seeing great films and reading great novels. It's searching out tales of human history and trying to understand the science that drives our world. Because when you bump up against your limitations, against that great expanse of history you're facing down, you start to know just how far you, yourself, can go.

Theoretically, anyone can BE a writer. There are a limited number of rules, and you can learn them all. Sentences can only be structured in certain ways, then tied together into paragraphs only in certain ways. And those paragraphs fit together in certain ways as well. Sure, you may not have the sheer talent or genius (so few do), but you'll know the basic mechanics, and that's enough in many cases (as you'll know if you've ever read one of those cheap-ass paperbacks they sell on the spinning displays in used-book stores).

But there's another thing about learning you suck. If you start to doubt your abilities, you open yourself up to criticism. And that's when true greatness can be achieved, because you're always revising, always striving more.

And you'll NEVER BE HAPPY. Intellectually, I know what I write now is miles beyond Bridges. But emotionally, I'm never as happy with anything as I was with Bridges. And all of my career will probably be an attempt to chase that sheer sense of satisfaction I felt when I wrote that dumb sitcom script.

So bump up against writers who are better than you. Because it's good to know that you suck. Just a little bit.

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