Complications Ensue: The Crafty TV and Screenwriting Blog
Complications Ensue:
The Crafty TV and Screenwriting Blog



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Saturday, April 30, 2005

I'm watching the pilot of The 4400. Really nifty concept. Bad writing. They're going for all the gimmes. The go-to plot turns.

The idea is 4400 people who disappeared -- abducted by aliens, whatever -- suddenly reappear inexplicably. And they have to reintegrate into a society that's moved on since they were away. They'll all the ages they were taken, so they're younger than the people left behind -- sometimes much younger.

And so one old man goes to the old age home to find his long lost wife, and she recognizes him, but she's forgotten that he's been away, 'cause, see, she has Alzheimer's.

And one woman goes to her husband and daughter and the husband says he's married now, "You have to understand, I didn't think you were coming back" and she walks away sad.

And the black guy (abducted in racist 1951) goes to his old neighborhood in Missouri and it's been leveled for a freeway. And there are some white bums who shoo him away.

And it's irritating the hell out of me because these plot turns are the least interesting choices, and they violate the truth of the characters, the latter more fatal than the first. Just because the husband's remarried doesn't mean the woman would walk away from her daughter. And no way the husband hasn't thought over a million times what would happen if Mom ever reappeared. It's not like there's no paradigm for dealing with having a new wife. It's called divorce, and joint custody. He's hidden the truth from his daughter. Why? Because it's less work for the writers than anything from reality.

The way I'd've written the old guy showing up at the old age home is -- well, if I'm 95 and my beloved wife who disappeared 26 years ago shows up, looking exactly the way she did when she disappeared -- I'm thinking she's an angel sent to fetch me. I'd probably drop dead on the spot. Happy.

I think that'd've been a more interesting choice than the Alzheimer's. Alzheimer's is pretty much the go-to for a dramatic scene there, isn't it? And the guy being married again is the go-to as well.

How about -- the young woman was abducted just before she was going to split with her husband and she comes back after 12 years to discover that he's waited for her all this time! How do you divorce a guy who's waited for you for twelve years? Much more interesting situation, I think. And more like real life.

How about the black guy goes to find white bums hanging out under the freeway, and the white bums say "please sir, could you spare some change?" And the black guy is absolutely floored to have poor white guys calling him "sir." How about, when the black guy finds himself being treated with regular courtesy everywhere he goes, he's pinching himself because he can barely believe the world he's come into?

You can find fresher scenes and plots if you just look for the truth of the character. Instead of going for the easy dramatic scene, try to figure out what the real drama of the situation is. As written this is pretty much the Touched by an Angel of UFO sci-fi. And that's not a good thing.

Later on, the returnees turn out to have superpowers. This makes it more science fictiony, but I was kind of more interested in how the characters dealt with being out of place. Superpowers makes the whole thing less interesting, not more. Especially because it forces the writers to violate some more truths. The moment one returnee turns out to have deadly psychic powers they're gonna lock up every last one of them until they figure out what they've got. Instead of which we're supposed to believe that in a paranoid, loudmouth, still largely free society like the US, the Department of Homeland Security is able to keep people from talking to the newspapers by making vague threats.

Did the later eps get any better?

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I just had a delightful interview with Chris Abbott (of Magnum PI, Dr. Quinn Medicine Woman, etc. fame. As soon as I get it into shape, I'll be serializing it here.

Chris is promoting her new book Ten Minutes to the Pitch. Her book is a very useful checklist for making sure, when you go in to pitch, that you're telling the right story to the right people in the right way. As she points out, there is no good pitch that doesn't get you a job!


The checklist is simple. To paraphrase a bit:
  1. Get there early.
  2. Be sure you're in the right place.
  3. Bring a pencil, notebook and your notes with you.
  4. Go to the bathroom first.
  5. Be nice to the assistants.
  6. Don't forget to breathe.
  7. Know the people in the room.
  8. Turn off your electronics.
  9. Don't start pitching till you're in the room.
  10. Tell the story you came to tell.
  11. Be ready for the unexpected.
  12. Be memorable.
  13. Don't leave before you're finished.
  14. Leave gracefully.
  15. Have somewhere to go after the meeting.[I recommend My Father's Office in Santa Monica.]
For the explanations -- and lots of useful advice on how to get your idea from your head into their heads as smoothly and excitingly as possible -- you're gonna have to read the book. 'Cause the interview isn't about any of that stuff!

Lee Goldberg also has an interesting Q & A with Chris on his blog.

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Friday, April 29, 2005

It turns out that the LA Times article was exaggerating. Not all but one out of a hundred pedophiles arrested by the LA Police in the past four years was a "hard core Trekkie."

Just, uh, most of them.

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Courtesy of Kung Fu Monkey, the Serenity trailer.

Oh, my, it's good.

And I haven't seen a good sf movie in oh, I can't remember how long.

(Anyone taking bets on May 19?)

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Thursday, April 28, 2005

Okay, I want a show of hands. Who thinks Lost did a lame-ass clip show because they:

a. went over budget?
b. went over schedule?
c. or figured no one can keep the damn story straight any more?

And why wasn't Hurley's numeric surprise in it?

I wonder if the l.a.c.s. will be on the DVD.

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Just got another fraudulent eBay email.

If you get an email from eBay or PayPal or anywhere else, do NOT click on the link. The link as it appears in your email will say something like scgi.ebay.com, but it will direct you to a totally different URL, say, 255.23.35.908. You enter your username and eddress, and now the bad guys have got them.

If you get an alarming email from Amazon or anyone else, just go to your browser and enter the usual URL (http://www.amazon.com or http://ebay.com or whatever). If they have a problem with your account, the site will tell you.

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Some readers have been kind enough to mention books on comedy they've found useful. What lessons do you remember from them? I read The Comic Toolbox a year or two ago when we were doing Naked Josh. But all I can remember is a graph showing the character's reality and their reality as they see it themselves -- the comedy is to be found in the area between the two. And, actually, I remember it more from our producer's explanation (he read the book at USC) and not from the book.

On the other hand, the ZAZ rules of comedy couldn't be simpler or clearer. Joke on a joke? Not funny.

On the other hand, as Tevye would say, the ZAZ rules of comedy don't tell you how to write comedy, only what doesn't work, and what to call certain gags that have names.

What, if any, lessons can you remember off the bat from a book about writing comedy? I've got Jerry Rannow's book on comedy in the bathroom. I cannot remember a single lesson from it. This may be my advancing senility, but something should have stuck -- other than a distinct impression that Jerry Rannow's less funny than he thinks.

Are there any books that actually tell you how to bring the funny?

Thoughts?

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Wednesday, April 27, 2005

This week is TV Turnoff Week, brought to you in part by the good folks at TV B-Gone, the universal remote for turning televisions off in bars.

And I missed it.

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The only thing is this is missing is something you input yourself, à la Your Star Wars Name.

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Here are some more contributions to the jargon preservation dialog that John Rogers and The Artful Writer are so usefully having.

Laying Pipe -- I've heard this in an SF context, not just comedy, to describe a scientific explanation you make in Act 1 that will pay off in Act 3 or 4, akin to installing pipe so you can just turn the faucet later.

Taking the curse off -- tweaking a too-familiar segue or scene so that it's fresh enough to use.

Hanging a sign on -- Making a moment of something apparently trivial, so that the audience remembers it, because you're going to need them to remember it later.

Shoe leather: I've heard more in terms of the narrative hoops you have to jump through to set something up dramatically -- e.g. establish that Tony's an orphan, remind the audience of Sally's psychokinetic abilities, etc. all so it pays off later.

Couplet: two brief lines, one answering the other, sometimes used to button a scene. "But how are we going to know he did time?" "C'mon, you can do that in a couplet."

The following are idiosyncratic:

Subtitles for the nuance impaired: explanatory text in the "blacks" (action description) written for people on the crew or at the network who are going to read the script too fast and not get it. (Yes, that is a big coincidence. That's the point.) Alternately, Subtitles for the Nuance-Impaired are what you're not allowed to have, and therefore you have to write the scene so it's clear without them.

I've always wanted to put thematic commentary on the Second Audio Program...

On Charlie Jade we used the expression "Ross's monkey" to refer to various elements of the template that probably seemed like a cool idea in the first few episodes, but that actually got in the way of the storytelling later -- like Ross's monkey, abandoned after Season One of Friends. Get me drunk enough and I'll tell you which they were...

PS John, don't forget joke spiral: when the writing room writes progressively less and less funny jokes into the script at some point because they're in an unfunny mood. Why you should stick with the first blurt: the first joke pitch that made everybody in the room laugh.

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I'm 52,000 words into Crafty TV Writing. I think it's going to be a good book. Lots of stuff that "everybody knows" but I haven't seen written down anywhere, except possibly in the occasional obscure post on a blog somewhere, by inference.

I've got the chapters on writing in general written, and most of the chapters on working. The big gaping holes where I have nothing but notes are the chapters on comedy and (if I decide to have one) animation. Animation's not going to be hard, I don't think -- I just need to find some animation writers who can tell me how much of a difference there is between animation and live action. Comedy, on the other hand ... as the great Shakespearean, David Garrick, said on his deathbed: "Dying is easy. It's comedy that's hard."

How do you write about writing comedy? The books on comedy writing are pretty useless -- at least the ones I've read, please feel free to recommend better ones. I've written romantic comedy -- yes, for money, even -- but never so-called situation comedy. I've read John Rogers' excellent comedy writing glossary, which is a list of lessons in its own right, and he was kind enough to give me an interview, too.

Ahhh ... just bitching, that's all. I'll get there.

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Monday, April 25, 2005

A friend of mine from my LA days wants to start up his own blog, and asks how to get readers. I wrote back:

First of all, write enough in your blog that people have something to link to. Then find blogs you like and offer to swap links. There are blog directoris what will list your blog just for the trouble of signing up. You can find some of them in my sidebar. Mention your blog in comments on popular blogs; you'll start to get clickthroughs if you're saying intelligent things in the comments. Use trackbacks to create automatic links back to your blog. (Trackbacks used to be a surefire way of creating links to your blog, but I think Google has figured out how to ignore those links, reducing comment spam.) Mention your blog in the relevant sections of LiveJournal.

Do a Google search on whatever search terms you'd like people to find your blog by. The results are where your readers are. E.g. if you have a screenwriting blog, Google "screenwriting blog" and see who comes up. That's what your readers are reading now.

BlogExplosion allows you to get your first readers just by surfing to other sites. Of course it's a painfully retail way of getting readers, and they're not necessarily high quality readers -- they're other bloggers who want traffic. But you have to start somewhere.

You can track visit statistics by the free and easy to use Sitemeter; you can track links to your blog through Technorati. If you want trackbacks, Haloscan will manage them for free.

In the long run, of course, nothing beats content, except already being famous.

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I've been storing up the entire season of Desperate Housewives. Not because I want to burn it to DVD. Because I haven't been able to bring myself to watch it since I first watched, like, the second or third episode. I know I'm supposed to. I know that. It's a hit show. A massive hit show. Everyone's speccing it. But I don't like it. The truth is, I've been recording it so I don't have to watch it. As Neil Gaiman said: "TiVo. It's watching TV so I don't have to."

We watched the pilot tonight, saved since December 26, complete with pictures of snow in Boston, or wherever the channel comes from. (Canadian channels don't bother with pictures of snow. We know what it looks like.)

It's a hell of a pilot, and I can see why they bought Marc Cherry's spec, but damn, I'm sorry, Jeff. It's too arch. It's too transparent. It's just a blatant mix of truth and outrageous silly falsehood. Painstakingly observed suburban lives mixed in with murders and spies and secrets and who knows what all else. You can see where things are going, except when you are plainly Not Supposed To Know Yet.

Perhaps just as importantly, I never grew up in the suburbs. I hated American Beauty too. Having grown up in New York City, I always assumed that the suburbs were vain and shallow and awful and mean and backbiting. That was pretty much an article of faith at my high school (Dalton). So to see shows where people in the suburbs are revealed as petty and backbiting, well, they don't thrill me so much.

Well, I can't watch it. Just can't watch it. Which means I can't spec it. Which means I can take the damn shows off my PVR! Hah hahhhhh!

UPDATE: Lisa points out that DH is sort of what life in the suburbs would be like if every rumor were true... the neighbors do have a dead body in their swimming pool, Mrs. so-and-so is sleeping with her gardener, So-and-so is hiring her neighbor the plumber just so she can ask him out on a date... That seems about right.

UPDATE: You got hooked after six episodes? Wow, you're patient! Good, 'cause, Charlie Jade really hits its stride around ep 12...

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A more efficient format for song lyrics:

You:
  • nothing but a hound dog
  • never caught a rabbit
  • no friend of mine.

Things they said about you:
  • high class (false)

There's more in the original LJ post.

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Sunday, April 24, 2005

TV is more complicated than it used to be in the '70's.

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Saturday, April 23, 2005

Man, if you have any imagination at all, that s*** is scary. I would not want to be in combat, with real bullets.

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Friday, April 22, 2005

A cheap shot from Lee Goldberg:
The show was shot in Toronto and our casting director on MISSING was always touting actors who delivered "powerful" or "unforgettable" performances on SUE THOMAS: F.B.EYE like it was the pinnacle of Canadian drama. The scary thing is, it probably was.
Now I don't watch much Canadian TV myself, but are we allowed to count really good French Canadian drama like La Vie La Vie? Otherwise I'd probably have to go with This is Wonderland which beat out my own comic drama, Naked Josh, for the WGC Award this year. Or perfectly respectable stuff like Human Cargo which is probably too meaty -- and cosmopolitan -- US viewers.

Sue Thomas? Thanks a lot, Lee.

Of course it's Canadian comedy that really kicks ass.

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REM singing "Furry Happy Monsters" on Sesame Street, to the tune of "Shiny Happy People"...

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Lee Goldberg has done a good interview with Chris Abbott, author of the brief and well-written Ten Minutes to the Pitch.

I just read Chris's book too. It's a thoughtful, helpful checklist, with explanations, on what you need to remember as you're going in to pitch a movie or TV series to the people who can buy it. Chris Abbott should know, because she's sold her own show, as well as many movies, as well as showrunning shows you've heard of. My favorite chapter is on why you should remember to breathe...

Here's a mild rant about pitching you may find amusing, too.

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John Rogers explains what's been in the back of my mind...

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Thursday, April 21, 2005

The president would like the Senate to "put aside politics" and confirm the anti-UN John Bolton as the US's ambassador to the UN.

Um ... isn't the Senate supposed to be about politics? Representing their constituencies, pursuing their political goals, etc.? Sure, doctors and pharmacists should put aside politics (particularly pharmacists), but politicians?

Um, and isn't nominating John Bolton a rather political act? It's not like he's a nonpolitical career diplomat, eh?

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Canadian Screenwriter's article about Canadian science fiction, Set Phasers On Stun, Eh? is partly up on the WGC website, with lotsa quotes from yours truly, based on my earlier conversation with the writer of the article.

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Why Television Sucks went off the air last week, circumstances unclear, and she's not answering her mail, at least she's not answering mine. Jeff wondered if it has anything to do with the HBO show, and sure enough, she comments:
I share all your feelings, bud. I do. I want the show to succeed too. I want Louis and HBO to shove it in the face of Network TV, and show how multiple camera can really be good and dynamic and interesting. And nothing would make me happier than working on that show. I just can't afford to lose that opportunity because someone linked to my blog and somehow people construed my comments as unsupportive.
Ah, well. That's the risk of blogging. If you tell the truth, someone's bound to get pissed off.

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I'm in an odd state of being up for a bunch of things, and having many irons in the fire, but not actually having much paid work. Various producers have put me up for various projects, from series to features to rewrites, but who knows when any of them will actually make the call to my agent. I've got a director attached to Unseen, and we're ready to pitch producers, so one of them can pay me to do the next rewrite -- I could just do the rewrite, but then all they'd do is option the script, which defeats the idea of getting paid to write. Exposure has a producer and network interest. I could spec a pilot for it, but it would be better to get paid to write the pilot, which seems likely enough that it makes me hesitate to spec it.

It's the old spec conundrum. Writing a spec pilot puts you ahead if it's a good spec. It crystallizes the series you're proposing to write. It gives the network more to say yes to. And, of course, it's a writing sample, though not as good as speccing a hit series.

But it also prevents you from getting paid to write the pilot. And more insidiously, it prevents the network from getting involved in developing the concept with you before you write the pilot. If you write the pilot, you're giving the network more to say no to, too.

(Of course this only applies if you've got a reasonable chance of getting the network involved pre-pilot-script. If no one is proposing to hire you to write it, then writing is the only way to get it to the next step.)

Of course, I've got the book. The book is at a stage where the sections I've written seem good enough, but the sections I haven't written don't seem to be well structured. I've got a comedy chapter, and I've never written comedy. I've got a rewriting chapter, and I've got good stuff for it, but there's no plan to it -- a section on pushing vs. pulling, a section on geography, etc.

I met some good agents in Toronto, who if unleashed might very well get me a staff job on a show there once the CTF comes through and people start hiring. I'm oddly nervous about that. The money would be nice, and you always learn from a new show, and knowing more would help me when my own show goes, ins'Allah. But I'd rather be in Montreal, and I'd rather be setting up and developing Exposure.

In other words I'm trying to be careful what I wish for, since I might get it.

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I took the evening off last night to read Malcolm Gladwell's The Tipping Point, about how ideas and social changes spread virally in society. I was sort of distressed to realize that by Gladwell's index (a nonscientific count of the people you know with last names that match a list in his book), I know very few people well enough to recognize them on a train (and they me). I reminds me that for all my efforts to be social, I am just another squirrelly, anti-social writer. Sure, I throw parties, but after about three hours I have to hide in the bathroom with a book for a little while to recover my social mana.

Or, possibly, the list is biased in some way against me. Yes, that's it.

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Wednesday, April 20, 2005

Wondering who those people are at the other end of the net.flame.war? Here's the roster, including my favorite, Patois.

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People like James Audobon used to finance their very expensive books by selling subscriptions -- people who wanted the book would fork out the price of the book and then when the writer had enough money, he'd publish it. The cost of getting a book out is only five hundred bucks -- less if you just publish it via a PDF -- but I wonder if the idea could be adapted to television. How many people would have to agree to fork out twenty bucks for twenty episodes of Firefly to fund a second season? Say a million? I heard that the DVD set has already sold $50 million worth.

(I know the budget is over a million an episode, but if you've got a million an episode in the bank, it shouldn't be too hard to get the rest of the money. It's always the last bit of financing that's the hardest. Your fans would be paying to get the show on the air, but once it was on the air it would earn foreign sales and domestic advertising revenue normally.)

Obviously this wouldn't work for unknown TV shows, but how about offbeat but beloved shows with fanatical fan bases? Are there a million Trekkers who'd pay for more Trek rather than paying to go to another con?

There would probably have to be some web-based system for the payments, with a way to send the money back if the show doesn't go within a reasonable time, but that shouldn't present a serious technical difficulty.

I would much rather pay fifty bucks for a new season of Firefly than pay my fifty for the episodes I can eventually grab off the air for free if I'm patient.

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Tuesday, April 19, 2005

I hear that the overnight numbers for Charlie Jade were quite high. As in, better than the screening of Lord of the Rings on the same channel, Space, and comparable to Battlestar Galactica.

That bodes well for (a) a US sale, you poor benighted Southerners, and (b) a second season.

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I'm still trying to settle the question a reader asked: how do you spec a soap? Can you spec The OC?

The consensus seems to be that speccing a soap such as Desperate Housewives or The OC is not recommended because the upcoming stories may kill your spec, either because they do the same story, or they do a story that contradicts yours.

For this reason a lot of people spec CSI or Law and Order. Each episode is self contained. But all you can really do in a CSI spec is show you can handle procedural plot. Those shows don't have much in the way of character.

A nice compromise might be to spec a show like Medium, which is fairly episodic, fairly procedural, but character driven much more than the CSI clones.

On the other hand, I do hear lots of people do Six Feet Under and Desperate and Sopranos specs. How do they do that?

The consensus there seems to be that you want to do a story that's sort of right angles to the story line. For example, The OC did a Vegas episode that could have taken place pretty much anywhere in the middle of first season. That would have worked as a spec.

One agent suggested you just write a little précis of what's happened in the show up to that point. That ought to make sense because after all, you're trying to prove you can nail the characters and their voices, not show that you're precognitive. But that seems like a kludge.

How have you attacked the problem? What advice have you had?

UPDATE: As you can read in the comments, Jeff points out that you don't have to be 100% up to date in your spec so long as you're within a few months of up to date. It occurs to me that writing a serial spec is a bit like the peacock's tail. The peacock's tail says hey! I'm so healthy I can afford this big ole tail. A serial spec says, hey! It does not take me very long to write a great spec. Look how up to date my spec is! While you could have been laboring over your CSI for years. It's more effort to keep up date, but that's just the point: it shows you're able to keep up with the pace of TV.

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I had a great time at the WGC Awards. Didn't win, but it was great to get to meet some of the people whose shows I've been watching, like Shelley Eriksen, who runs Show Me Yours, and Mark Farrell, who writes Corner Gas, and discover that they are not only skilled and talented writers but good looking, too. It was one of the more glamorous nights of my year, and we all got the warm fuzzies from being all together applauding our own. And of course, I got to meet old friends and cronies and people who've hired me and people who might hire me. The writing community in Toronto is something like ten times as large as in Montreal, it would appear -- all the Montrealers writing in English can fit inside a bar, and this was a large club. Although in fairness, at least some of the people were from Vancouver and there was a small Montreal cohort, including the indefatigable Leila Basen, head of the Quebec negotiating team and almost as important for the feeling of solidarity, the Quebec martini-fest. Bumped into the Cirrus people, but alas, not winning, did not get to thank them for the existence of Naked Josh, so I'll have to thank them here. (If this is a bit rambling, well, the beer was good, and free.)

I'm almost done with my Toronto meetings. This was a very productive trip, in terms of meeting possible agents for English Canada. I also pitched Exposure to my favorite network executive, who liked it, so that's a big step forward, and I had lunch with my one my favorite people for the producer job on Exposure too. (If that seemed a bit tortured, it's because there are two kinds of "producers" in TV, one the kind who put together the financing, and the other the guy who sits in the office next to the showrunner and fights to get the show in on time and on budget while still delivering the creative goods. I'm meeting another production company tomorrow; then it's off on the express train home to my family.

And now, to bed.

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Sunday, April 17, 2005

... is you get to have brunch with writers. Writers talk in dialog. Funny, funny dialog. Matching wits with a couple of wits is a challenge and an entertainment.

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Saturday, April 16, 2005

Just watched the Charlie Jade premiere on a big screen at the old Toybox in Toronto. I have a good feeling about the show. The first cuts felt murky, but now that all the ADR and sound cleanup is done, they don't seem murky at all. Bladerunner is definitely a big influence, but there's a lot more going on there. Bladerunner had the pretty, gritty shots; CJ is adding all the shaky camera and docu-shooting style that's happened since then.

No one has the slightest idea whether this show will be a hit, but if it fails, it's going to fail for reaching for the stars. At least no one can accuse us of ripping off some other show.

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Friday, April 15, 2005

I'm catching a 6:55 am train tomorrow for a weekend full of meetings and parties in lovely downtown Toronto. The Charlie Jade premiere Saturday night, the WGC Awards Monday night, producers, friends and what-all. Should be fun.

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I've been watching pilots and new shows like crazy, some on DVD, some on my DVR. I think I'm starting to overdose. Yeah, yeah, yeah, buncha core cast. Yeah yeah yeah, they have some problems they have to deal with. Whatever. Some scenes are plotty, some are revelatory. Scenes are rarely plotty AND revelatory, which I guess is what is boring me to tears.

Orrr... then you have the HBO meandering-plot we-don't-have-a-franchise-really we-just-have-a-buncha-characters stuff. The Wire, about a bunch of bad guys and a bunch of cops, all more or less doing their thang, but not, at least in the pilot, obviously moving towards each other.

It gets so I can barely motivate myself to rent The Shield, which I know is a top spec these days. It just sounds like all the other cop shows, but with different crimes and different cops.

That's probably good because when you start to get bored is when you see the patterns most clearly. And right now I'm writing a book about the patterns. It's also good because when you're bored is when you force yourself to break the patterns and come up with something fresh that thrills not only the audience but your fellow writers. If you can wow them, you've probably got something interesting.

What I wouldn't do for a few more Firefly episodes... you really don't know where one of those is going.

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Thursday, April 14, 2005

I'm trying to figure out what to write in Crafty TV Writing about writing pages. As Moira Kirland said to me, "That's the easy part."

Well, sure. Easy for you. Easy for me, in fact. But how do you explain it? You take the beats from the beat sheet and turn them into brilliant scenes.

Yes, you can explain about getting into the scene as late as possible and out of it as soon as possible. You can talk about what the characters want from each other and the character-based reason they won't give those things to each other.

You can talk about writing the scene backwards, or starting with the climax and working backwards, or starting too early and then trimming. All these are tools.

But is there something you can say about the mysterious core of the thing, which is just the writing of it?

What would you like to know about how to write a scene?

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Wednesday, April 13, 2005

I got a ticket when I shouldn't have. The snow removal signs were posted after I'd parked, and then my car got towed.

I sent in my check with my explanation why I didn't think I should have been ticketed.

I got my check back, because "constat retiré": they agreed with me!

Boy, does that not happen in New York.

(Oh, and -- when they tow your car -- they tow it to the nearest legal parking spot. So you can just go and get your car right away. That's soooooo civilized.)

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Tuesday, April 12, 2005

DMc gives me the heads-up about a New York Times Magazine article about the all-important Nielsen ratings and how they're changing.

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Robin Spry's family is putting together a "book of remembrance" to honor his life and his career. If you'd like to contribute something -- an anecdote how you met him, or worked with him, a photo, a few lines about what he meant to you -- please e-mail them to Giles at mallabecfilms@sympatico.ca.

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Monday, April 11, 2005

I ordered stamps by mail from Canada Post.

Canada Post sent them -- in a big cardboard envelope. The kind the mailman won't deliver. The kind you HAVE TO GO TO THE POST OFFICE TO PICK UP.

WTF???

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Just ran across this saddening article about agencies turning their query letters over to internet script hawking sites. You write a letter to Paradigm, you get a letter back from ScriptPIMP or ScriptShark or whatever saying they'll read your script for $150 and then if they like it they'll turn it over to a proper agency -- and take a cut of the eventual sale, if there is one.

If this is still happening, it's sad. WGA-signatory agencies are not allowed to charge for reading scripts, and this is a way of farming out the charge. Okay, it's not sending people to Syria to be tortured, but it's not too ethical. (Unethical behavior in Hollywood? I am shocked, shocked.)

$150 to reject your script does not seem worth it. Most people will reject your script for free.

UPDATE: But see interesting comments from readers...

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Just got a notice apparently from PayPal saying my account was inactive and would I please enter my password. I'm sure they were going to ask me for my bank information next. After that there was probably some Nigerian named Sani Abatwa who had twenty million dollars that he wanted to get out of the country.

Yikes.

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One thing I need to investigate more is romantic triangles. Not personally, mind, but among one's core cast.

A couple of writers have made telling comments in interviews that in a character driven show, a romantic triangle gives you an endless well of stories -- at least till the audience gets sick of it. Without triangles, you wind up throwing all sorts of external problems at your core cast. Or new characters. I think The OC is doing this, with one character after another coming out of someone or other's past, doing their little song and dance over several episodes, and then departing.

With a romantic triangle you can answer the question, "what's the tenth episode of the third season?"

I'm trying to figure out how to put a romantic triangle into the mix in Exposure now...

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Sunday, April 10, 2005

I'm feeling a little dumb about pilots and bibles.

In Canada, where I work, you sell a show off the pitch bible, a ten page document like a short version of the show bibles of eld. That's because the government subsidizes the development of scripts.

In the States, though, it appears you can sell a show off the pilot episode. You don't have to have a bible at all. Many shows have no bible. Marc Cherry sold Desperate Housewives off a pilot. Josh Schwartz, apparently, ditto. Medium has no bible, except what's in Glenn Caron's head.

On the other hand, and this is where I'm confused, you read things like this post, from the brilliant, not-terribly-incognito writer of Why Television Sucks:
12. When pitching your pilot to the brand new head of the Network, who came over from FEATURES, do not get angry when she stops you two minutes from the end of said pitch and says, "I'm sorry, but I have other meetings, can you just get to the pilot story?"
13. Then, when everyone gets all panicked because she has just insulted you, and they gently explain to her that "That's not how it's done in Television. We have to sustain 100 episodes, so we start with a world and the characters." And then, when she turns to you and says, a little snottily, "Sorry, this is all new to me." DO NOT SAY, REALLY SINCERELY, "Oh, really? What... what did you do before? (Perfectly timed beat) Sell shoes?"
Which strongly suggest an oral bible, at least. And where there's a long involved oral pitch, there's usually gonna be a leave-behind. Which would be a bible. Wouldn't it?

But then, she's comedy.

Thoughts, guys?

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I'm writing my section on whether TV writing programs in film school help. I'm not convinced they do. So please comment:

a. If you've gone to film school, did it help your career? How? Did you learn valuable skills, or just make valuable friends?
b. If you've written for TV, did you learn anything in film school? Ever met anyone who did?
c. Did you ever hire anyone from film school?

Please mention if you work in TV or film.

Thanks!

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Saturday, April 09, 2005

Chris Abbott (of Magnum PI, Dr. Quinn Medicine Woman, etc. fame) is doing a book tour for her new book Ten Minutes to the Pitch.

I'll be interviewing her in these pages over the next few weeks, and so will other bloggers. In the mean time, (thanks for the heads up, Lee) she's doing a book tour in LA. According to the press release:
According to 25-year Hollywood veteran Chris Abbott (Magnum P.I., Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman, The Bold and the Beautiful), there are three key mistakes new writers make "in the room" when trying to sell their ideas to network and studio executives:

1) They're in the wrong place
2) They don't know the people in the room
3) They don't tell the story they’ve come to tell

On April 13 at 7:30 p.m., Abbott and guests Charlie Hauck (Frasier, Home Improvement), Tom Schulman (Dead Poets Society, What About Bob?) and Eric Tuchman (Just Cause, Early Edition), will gather at The Barnes & Noble at The Grove in Los Angeles to redress these problems and share their experiences and advice about what to do in a pitch meeting - and what not to do.

The event will begin with a public, pitch-to-the-camera practice session. Following that, Abbott and her industry guests will select audience members to "pitch" their ideas before she discusses common pitfalls, helpful hints and her new book, "Ten Minutes to the Pitch". Following the session and Q&A, the same audience members may "re-pitch," hopefully with newfound knowledge, to the panel. The most improved pitch of the evening will receive a free, autographed copy of Abbott's book.
Sounds like you don't want to miss it.

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From my interview with Moira Kirland, Supervising Producer on Medium:
Our best shows are when we completely subvert the audience's expectations, and we do that consciously. For example, in "Coming Soon," Alison has a dream that there's a threatening man in her house. Then she sees the man from her dream. He's a witness to a crime, a Good Samaritan, doing his civic duty. Apparently a nice guy. But when she shakes his hand she's sure he's a serial killer. And the audience is thinking: this is the one where Alison has to convince everyone he's a serial killer, and no one will believe her, and he'll kidnap her and she'll have to escape. But the way we play it out, in Act Three, she realizes all her visions are of events taking place in the future. He hasn't started killing yet. So in Act Four, all she can do is find the girl who will be her first victim and say, "You're gonna meet this guy. Don't get in the car with him. If he tries to get you to do it, fight him." And that's all she can do. ... What we try to do is to set up the paradigm and then alter it. In Desperate Housewives and Lost, you go, I think I know where that's going. But you're wrong. And that's more satisfying. It's always satisfying to be surprised.

CRAFTY TV WRITING: But sometimes you want to be right about where it's going, don't you?

MK: There are fewer shows now like Murder, She Wrote or Touched by an Angel that allow you to see clearly where we're going. But sometimes you want that. A nice quiet hour of comforting, unchallenging TV. It's like macaroni and cheese. It's not that exciting, but you know what it's going to be, and that's comforting. Law & Order I enjoy but I'm not surprised. You know the first person they interview is not the killer. You get the template. Or they have guest stars. On this one show, the fiancée was Kelly Martin, and she goes away after the first act. Of course she did it. She's got to play her big thing in the fourth act. You're not going to have Kelly Martin on the show and she didn't do it. Sometimes you don't want to work that hard. It's a cool medium, not a hot one. It does everything for you.

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Friday, April 08, 2005

Another friend writes
The CFC can certainly open doors for its students as it makes a point of creating industry contacts for its filmmakers. People I've known who were especially successful at the CFC (ie: worked on short films that were really well received) often were able to get introductions to talents agents, producers, etc... sometimes even launching their careers.

It seems like every year the Toronto gatekeepers are watching to see who the new wonder kids are at the CFC. You can actually get a buzz behind yourself on the basis of a short (tough to do on your own) because the CFC is so good at marketing their graduates.

On the other hand... others I've known had less enthusiastic experiences. If the politics or preferences of the school don't happen to select you as their new darling, it can be an expensive way to spend a year or two, only to watch your co-students flourish.

So, what can I say? If you have the kind of talent that draws attention, it can jump-start a career. Otherwise, it's a very expensive film school. Especially if you don't already live in Toronto.

And, if you go to the States, people may make snide cracks about "CFC's polluting the atmosphere"...

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Thursday, April 07, 2005

You worked as a development executive, but then made the switch to full time writing, may I ask why? Was there a change it what it was you wanted to do that happened gradually, or had you always wanted to be a writer and just took a shot when the opportunity arose?
Hmmm, lessee. Writer: more money, less work, fun creative work, don't have to wear a blazer, can bring dog to work. Development exec: poor pay, no respect, no clout, no way up. Dog not welcome.

I think a job is a good one where you're working with your brain, but have to dress up to go out at night. If you dress better at work, it's not a good sign. Since I've just spent an hour working in my pyjamas, I think this is a good job.

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Another thing that came up in my interview with Ms. Hsu was the idea of challenging your core cast's strengths. Everybody knows you can base springboards on your core cast's weaknesses. Our hero Josh was shy with women, so we made him date two at once. But you can also challenge their strengths. If your hero has something only she can do, then she can also get in trouble no one else can get into.

In one of Melinda's episodes, Alison had to choose whether to get a murderer arrested -- knowing that this murderer is a pilot who may save a plane full of people from crashing. It's a hell of a moral quandary -- and one only a psychic would ever have to deal with.

If you're writing Smallville, what kind of trouble can Superboy get into that you or I couldn't?

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Wednesday, April 06, 2005

A reader asks if it's worth going to the Canadian Film Centre, and a friend of mine I asked responds:
Does he want to go to the Canadian Film Centre because he wants to go back to the USA or because he wants to stay here?

If he wants to go back to the USA, having gone to a Canadian film school will do him no good whatsoever... If on the other hand he's thinking of staying, the CFC is kind of like the mafia. You don't go there to learn necessarily - although you probably will -- you go there to "join the club" and meet contacts.

The moment I went to the CFC, the people at [network] who routinely dismissed me were forced to see me as "one of the elite."

It's the price of living in a parochial country that has a "toy" TV industry that's really a club. You gotta learn the handshake.

The same is also partly true for film schools in the States. You may not learn that much there -- you learn more actually working in the biz, even for free -- but you can get to know people at USC or NYU or UCLA who will prove useful later. On the other hand in the States, no one gives a damn about a film school degree, or any kind of degree at all.

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Interesting article in The National Post on Charlie Jade...

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I am an aspiring writer from Montreal (where I live at the moment). I have 5 years experience in the biz, having worked in Los Angeles at [snip], and started as an associate producer and researcher on a number of documentary projects.

When I was in L.A., my boss explained to me that a great way to get into writing and learn on the job (in addition to always working on the craft on my own time) was to find work as a writer's assistant or script coordinator. I thought it very sensible and so when I got back to Montreal, that's the kind of work I started looking around for. Trouble is, I didn't find any.

Have you worked on shows where that kind of work has been offered? If not, what would be the best advice you could give to someone like me?
Getting work as a writer's assistant is an excellent way in. You can observe a lot by looking, as Yogi Berra said, and nothing will give you more to observe than assisting someone who's doing. Being a TV writing assistant is practically the back door in, because people hire whom they know, and now they know you. If your writing is at all in the ball park, the writers will throw you a script if they can.

How you get these jobs is sticky, because everyone wants them. One way to do it is to intern (work for free) for a writer who's not currently on a show. If you do a great job as an intern, they will do their best to hire you when they get on a show. There are also ads in Variety for assistant jobs.

Unfortunately, the best way to get these jobs is to go to Beverly Hills High School (you know, the one in 90210). Then when your best friend's dad needs an assistant, your best friend can remind him that you're looking for a job. In New York, the high school to go to is probably Dalton (you know, the one in Manhattan), and yes, I went there, but no, I didn't get know Jenny Goldman very well, so I never got to know her dad. (She was cool, actually. But I was shy.) Or Jamie Redford. Or Nicole Fosse. Stupidly, I never got to know Jodie Foster very well when I was at Yale, either. What was I thinking?

You can help yourself, of course, by learning all the script programs, but particularly Final Draft. You'll need to know it.

You could try by shotgunning an extremely charming and polite and funny query letter, with a great resume, to members of the Writer's Guild who look from their credits like they can afford an assistant, but I have never in my life got a job or anything else this way.

John August has a terrific article on what writer's assistants do, but he's not 100% sure how to get the jobs either. Lee Goldberg also has a few choice insights.

As for Montreal, there is not a lot of work for writing assistants. Most Canadian producers won't spring for one except on a go show. One of my favorite young writers in Montreal just got laid off as a script coordinator. What I'd recommend you do is volunteer for the WGC. Just call'em up and ask what you can do to help, for free. Anything that will put you in contact with lots of writers. Actually volunteering for whatever charities are popular in showbiz at the moment is probably one of the best ways to get any entry-level showbiz job. You'll have to put in a fair amount of work before you get somewhere, but you'll get somewhere good.

Update: Here's a more formal internship program from NBC...

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To,
Alex Epstein,

Sir,

how are you? been long time. I want to tell you I have now written 10 screenplays. I sent four for coverage reports. I scored excellent in premise in all of them. they told me if I can get my dialogue to American accent then I have a market for my work in hollywood. I have found an editor willing to do that for me but am doing the rewrite to remove a few plotholes etc, etc.

here is what I want to know, DO YOU REALLY SEE ANY MONEY if you sell spec screenplays? (after all the cuts of agents, lawyers). a lot of poeple claim otherwise. I intend to sell screenplays so that I can raise money so that I can go and direct a low-budget of mine. I will keep the premise to excellent in my directorial venture also. the another question is, will I be able to sell my directed movie by luring distributors on the basis of premise and also have a few elements (sex, violence tec).

best regards...


Um, yeah. Agents get 10%. Lawyers get 5% if they go on a percentage basis. You get to keep the rest. That could be quite a big chunk of dough, though "half a million against a million" deals are still rare enough to make the news. However writing spec scripts is not a good way to raise money. You could go your whole life and never sell a spec. You could sell your first spec, though what Hollywood calls a "first" spec is rarely anything like a first spec.

Many people have no sense at all of how their writing comes across to other people. I have felt equally good about my latest scripts for the past twenty years. Fortunately, how other people have felt about them has gotten much more positive. It's like, the way your voice sounds to yourself, inside your own head, is much more rich and resonant than the way your voice sounds to other people. And your own children are far more charming than other people's children.

You don't write for the money. You write because you have to write. The money comes or it doesn't.

As for selling your movie, well, once it's a movie no one's buying it for the premise, they're buying it for the movie. But sex and violence always sells if done well. See Bill Cunningham's excellent post on how to make a great direct to DVD movie.

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My favorite empathic metamorph, Famke Janssen, is back in X-Men 3. (Which they'll probably call X3 or something ... they can't call it XXX after all.) But, says Variety, because Jean Grey was killed off, she'll come back as "the Phoenix."

Correct me if I'm wrong, as my submissive friends say, but did we actually see her killed off? I could swear I noticed that they never actually showed her being drowned, and thinking well, she did want to get out of the X-Men business...

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Tuesday, April 05, 2005

Working on the part of my book about going from beat sheet to pages -- outline to script. Not sure exactly what to say about that. "That's the easy part!" quoth Moira Kirland, Supervising Producer for "Medium." And it is easy ... for those for whom it's easy. I have no trouble cranking out ten pages in an afternoon. The most I've written in a day is probably 27 pages. (Not claiming they were brilliant pages, just finished pages.) But if it's not easy ... what do you tell someone?

Oh, sure. "Get in late, get out early" is one.

And, "the end of your scene has to pop. Far more than the end of a scene in a movie, the end of a TV scene has to propel you into the next scene, assuming it's not already an act out, in which case it has to propel you so hard you're still going when the show comes back from commercial."

But how do you tell someone how to button a scene, or make it pop?

That's what I'd like to know.

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Just watched Charlie Jade ep. #17 with our showrunner. Man, that is one powerful bit of TV. It felt more like an hour of story than forty minutes, but at no point did it seem slow. Just dense and rich and strange. The characters are strong, the stakes are compelling... I think we all did a hell of a job.

Good on ya, Mr. Blatjang. And good on ya, especially, Bob.

If only we'd figured out earlier what the show was. We (the writers) really hit our stride in eps. 17-20, dammit. All the other episodes we has to either write or at least break story on within our first two weeks on the show; these we got to write after we had a sense what Bob's vision was. If we get a second season, we'll really be able to go to town on that show.

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I don't want it, so you can have it. If you can't figure out how to make this into a TV series pitch, go back to writing movies.

Oh, wait. It probably already IS a TV series...

Or at least viral marketing for SOMETHING. Try logging in without a password...

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Monday, April 04, 2005

Check out the new, revamped Charlie Jade website. Trailers, star bios, yadda. Fun!

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A friend of mine likes Eyes:
Good dumb fun. Tim Daly so likable you want to smack him. Intrigue, bravado. Flashy enough that who cares if it's not making total sense. It's Desperate Housewives for men.

Blind Justice had a nice pilot, but I think I'm done.

Who is doing ABC's development? Did someone kiss Sleeping Beauty and
release her from a 99 year sleep or something? Jesus, they're actually
getting stuff done.

To which I can add that West Wing is definitely back on its game.

Writer friends keep telling me Battlestar Galactica is terrific. Too bad I missed the entire goddamn season.

I hear good things about House, too.

I watched the first two eps of Season One of Deadwood. Yes, it's David Milch. Yes, it's HBO. No, I don't want to spend any more time in that dark a world.

But Lee Goldberg relays that Eyes is tanking...

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I had a lovely interview with Melinda Hsu, a young story editor on Medium. One of the things we talked about was tracking audience expectations.

The audience is pretty well attuned to writer tricks. There was a CSI where a woman in a red dress was murdered at a dance. One of the first characters to be interviewed by the forensics guys was another woman in another red dress, who then dropped out of the story. And there was some really helpful guy who really wanted to help the investigators.

Guess what? Yes, you guessed it. The really helpful guy did it. And he hadn't meant to kill the woman in the red dress. He'd meant to kill the other woman in the other red dress.

I mean, how often do you see two red dresses by accident in a tv show?

Now the thing is, the audience is attuned to this. They've probably seen even more television than you have. After all, you're reading a blog, and they're watching television. While you write, they watch television. While you cook, they watch television.

They see two red dresses, and the exact same thing is going on in their head -- there's gonna have been some mixup between the two dresses.

How do you deal with that?

First of all, you have to decide whether you want to tip off the audience. After all, in a mystery, the audience likes to figure it out for themselves and get a little ahead of the investigators. So long as you're not too blatant with that other red dress, the ones that figure out what really happened will be tickled pink, and the ones that missed it will feel very very satisfied that a second red dress was waved in front of their faces and they didn't get it.

I think a lot of people like to get ahead of poor Jack Bauer on 24. Every time he goes somewhere, he calls for backup. Lots of it. Except when he's going to get jumped. So if he goes somewhere dangerous without backup, you know he's going to get jumped. He, apparently, doesn't. (Not after three very long days of getting jumped every other hour. Silly boy. You'd think he'd learn.)

That's one kind of storytelling. It's more cerebral -- obviously knowing more than your hero is a little alienating, in -- no -- trying to restrain myself -- can't -- can't -- "in a Brechtian sense!" -- damn. Sorry.

If you're not looking at the world with your hero's eyes, you'll feel less for the hero than you will if you are.

In that case, you have to be careful. Do you offer the audience clues in advance? Or not? Procedurals like NYPD Blue give you the information the moment the detectives beat it out of their suspects. So you never see the clues before they do. Medium is about Alison's trying to figure out what her precognitive dreams mean, so while we get the clues when she does, we too don't know what they mean, exactly.

Other detective shows give you the clues but don't hang a sign (or a red dress) on them. They have to be careful, because the audience can sniff out any but the most subtle setups.

Another way you have to track your audience's expectations is when you expect them to root for or against something. You can't hang a story on a threat to the life of a core cast member -- not unless you're willing to run one of those teaser campaigns, "One of our core cast will die tonight!" The audience knows perfectly well that Jack Bauer or Andy Sipowicz or Sydney Bristow is not going to die. So don't expect them to get their panties in a knot if you threaten their lives. If you're going to threaten someone's life, have it be a recurring cast member.

I like to think that "the audience doesn't know, but they know." Who's going to win the election on West Wing, Alan Alda or Jimmy Smits? Gee, that's not too tough, is it? Especially when Alan Alda is playing every Democrat's dream Republican -- a nice twist on Martin Sheen playing every Democrat's dream Democrat. Do you think the West Wing audience is seriously going to waste energy rooting for Jimmy Smits? I don't.

UPDATE: based on the last West Wing and reader's comments below, I'm wrong about Jimmy Smits. But you knew Hoyns wasn't going to take it, or Russell, or Baker. 'Cause they're not stars, and you can't see them headlining the cast next year. I do think that if Alan Alda wanted the job, he'd get it.

I'd be fascinated to find out what personnel changes got West Wing back on its game.

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Sunday, April 03, 2005

My starter wife once said you could drive from Seattle directly to Alaska forgetting that yes, Virginia, there is a fairly large country in between. It was a braino, but still.

The New York Times seems to have forgotten this, 'cause in Joe Rhodes' puff piece about Cold Case, he manages to go a whole article without mentioning the successful and long-running Canadian television series, Cold Squad, which some feel bears uncanny resemblances to the later US series.

I have heard rumors that the Canadian series was, in fact pitched to the very same network before the US producers "created" their "own" version. I am also told you can look up John Doyle's articles on this in The Globe and Mail.

Why do US producers seem to feel they can rip off Canadian shows, but feel obliged to purchase the rights to British ones? It can't be because the writing is so much better on the British shows -- though it is -- 'cause the first thing the Americans do is take all the wit and bite out of them. The British Coupling is uncomfortable and hilarious. The US Coupling was unwatchable. Let's see how badly they muck up The Office.

Maybe it's revenge for all the runaway production...

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Ummm, please note the date on my previous Joss post... and I hope no one sics Niska on me.

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Friday, April 01, 2005

Watched the first two eps of season one of The O.C.. Wow! What a different show it's become. It was dark and fairly real, in spite of the glamor of "the O.C." (a phrase I feel sure they invented). Ryan had real problems in life; his disaffection made sense. His family was a train wreck, and he had no place to go except jail.

Hard to go from that to "Ryan gets in trouble for kissing Lindsay."

Too bad, really. The show isn't bad now but it's becoming a parody of itself. Too bad it couldn't have stayed as serious.

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MBNA Canada has now taken to having computerized voices call me AND ASK ME TO CALL THEM BACK at some number.

Are they out of their minds?

This is a truly horrible development.

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We're all wondering how Joss Whedon's recently announced move to Montreal is going to affect the television industry here. Is Mutant Enemy pulling up stakes entirely, or will they retain some presence in L.A.? If Joss moves, does that mean employment opportunities for all our writers, or will killer talents like Jane Espenson and Marti Noxon and Tim Minear flood the market? I hope not.

I was kind of surprised at the announcement, though one has been hearing rumors. Joss will probably have more control over his shows up here, given the level of government support. Obviously he's been freaking out a bit over the Angel cancellation, and Firefly and all that. It'll be interesting to see how he adapts to the culture here. And the winter.

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