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



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Friday, July 31, 2009

Some fellow has done his best to unravel (retcon, really) the time travel in various time travel movies. Here's the TERMINATOR timeline, or timelines, if you will, since each instance of time travel changes history. Interesting if you're thinking of writing the next PRIMER.

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Thursday, July 30, 2009

I know that you said a script is probably dead if you don't hear back within 3 months. If an agent does like the script, about how long should it take to hear back from him/her?
How long is a piece of string?

I can't really answer that, because the answer is: shortly after they read it. And they'll read it when they're not busy.

Some agents and producers are good at getting back really quickly. Some only get around to stuff later. I'm still getting calls from producers interested in stuff I pitched at Banff.

It also depends on who reads it. In a small agency, there's no process: the agent reads it, likes it, calls you. In a larger agency, they might have to get other people to read it, and then talk about whether you're a "fit" for the agency. That takes longer.

Generally though, if it's going to happen, it usually happens within a month.

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Tuesday, July 28, 2009





The things you miss when you leave Montreal in July!

(Thanks, Matt!)

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I have two screenplays going into the various Canadian and Quebec funding agencies for rewrite funding this round, which means I'm writing a whole bunch of auxiliary material for the applications: long synopses, short synopses, dramatis personae (!), "author's vision."

It's odd to write an "author's vision" of a screenplay; I mean, read the screenplay, eh? And if the author's vision doesn't come through, then it's not a very good one. And anyway, who cares what the author's vision is; it's what comes through in the screenplay that counts. On the other hand, this is for a rewrite funding application, so by definition the author's vision isn't coming through perfectly if the thing needs a rewrite. So the document helps the funders figure out what you are going for.

I hate writing synopses of a completed script. Just hate it. But I've found two ways to make the process work for me.

The first is to try to write the synopsis off the top of my head, without looking at the script. This gives me a shorter, snappier, clearer synopsis. It also tells me if the story is holding together. If there are spots where I can't remember what comes next, then the plot isn't as strong as it could be.

The second is to write the synopsis for the rewrite, not the synopsis for the current draft. I spent a couple of hours driving over the mountains to New York talking over a thriller synopsis with Lisa. We talked over what made sense and what didn't make sense. Some character motivations got changed. Some scenes got dropped. Some got changed. One may get added.

(There's really nothing like a long drive for working on screenwriting stuff, I've found. We've created a lot of our TV ideas in the car.)

I know it's easier to write a synopsis by blitzing through the pages and writing down what you see. That's certainly faster. But if you use every opportunity to come at your script from a different direction creatively, you'll see room for improvement. A synopsis can be a chance to strip your script back down to its story. Often, problems that weren't apparent when you're looking at the pages become obvious when you retell it as a story. You realize that once scene doesn't follow, or it's framed wrong, or it needs to be completely switched around.

I wonder what we'll do on the road to East Hampton?

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Monday, July 27, 2009

Has anyone been to the NSI (National Screen Institute)? Thoughts / reactions / critiques?

(Extended discussion in the comments below.)

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Friday, July 24, 2009




My buddy Rob Sheridan (the one with the horns, right) kindly invited me to watch him pontificate as the "token Canadian" (his words) in a panel of comedy writing luminaries at the Just For Laughs Comedy Conference.

The thought that jumped out at me came out of a question about how it's different breaking into comedy writing now. Back in the day, you'd write a spec. These days, you still need a spec, the panelists felt. (And there's no real point being a p.a.) But what you really need to stand out is a short comedy film. The reasons being that (a) comedy works best when it's brought to life by an actor and (b) what's your excuse not to do a short? Back in the day, making an 8 mm or 16 mm film was a serious chore. Now getting your hands on a decent camera and Final Cut is not too difficult. And you have to find a way to stand out.

(Photo courtesy Matthew Cope)

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Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Here's a video of a panel on TV writing at the Academy. Seem to be about the usual questions ("how did you break in") but you may find it interesting.

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Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Stephanie Morgenstern and Mark Ellis are the creators of FLASHPOINT, and extremely nice people. I planned to interview them at the Banff Worldwide Television Festival, but they tricked me by asking me all about my projects for twenty minutes, leaving me only ten minutes to ask them my questions. Fortunately, they very kindly followed up with me by email. So this is a mix of the questions I was able to ask, my notes from the Master Class they gave with their CBS exec, Christina Davis, Senior Vice President for Drama Series Development, and their additions to my transcript.

The idea for FLASHPOINT originated with a hostage taking in Toronto's Union Station in 2004. As Morgenstern and Ellis relate, "We watched it unfold in real time. And in the end, the gunman was shot. And we wondered, what is the rest of the day going to be like for the police offier who took that shot? We'd seen lots of films about criminals and detectives and victims, but rarely the SWAT officers. They're usually just anonymous guys who show up at the last minute, shoot the bad guy, and walk away."
"At the time we were making plans to adapt a short film into a feature - our writing wasn't very TV oriented. We happened to have a meeting with our agents the morning of the Union Station incident, and Lesley Harrison started to think about about its possibilities as a MOW. She made a call to CTV that day and that got the ball rolling. After a few weeks of thinking and research we pitched it over coffee to Lesley Grant. She was intrigued and asked for a one-pager."

From there, the project rose up the pile to a potential series, with exec producer Anne-Marie La Traverse its first real champion. "We had to compress a two hour movie of the week into a one hour series pilot."
"We didn't set out with the goal of making a border-crossing product. It was about the story. We were just curious: what is life like behind the ballistic shield? What is the messy, complicated, human thing that breaks your heart when you have to take someone’s life? This was our point of departure. This is what was keeping us up at night.

"We met a cop, Jimmy Bremner, who had been involved with a couple of shootings. Jimmy was the team leader in a hostage taking incident. And he told us, if you can get a hostage taker talking past his deadline, your odds go up a lot for a peaceful resolution. And they'd got this guy talking past his deadline, but then suddenly he raised his gun and aimed it at the police negotiator. Jimmy had to shoot him from 2 meters away. It was the first time he’d had to shoot somebody. And he was back on the job the next morning.
"There was a domestic dispute two days later. And he got into a struggle with a guy. And suddenly there was blood on his hands, and he realized he'd shot the man.


"It's a rule of thumb that if an officer doesn't get treatment within 48 hours of shooting someone, or takes a drink in those 48 hours, then he's in trouble. Jimmy went through some really tough times before he came out on the other side and his stories went on to inspire some of our stories. The obstacles he faced felt to us like the heart of a TV show. The challenge then became, how do you create a mainstream net procedural show that is going to maintain that level of inner interest and passion along the way?
"As a policeman, you're three times more likely to die of violence from your own hand than on the job. It's safer being at work than being alone with your thoughts. How do you go home at the end of the day?

"So with Anne Marie La Traverse producing, we had a completed pilot which set the tone, the premise, the characters, the world of the show - and its very ambitious, polished look. It was at this point that CTV's Bill Mustos was returning from a sabbatical, and he made the decision to step outside CTV and become a creative producer. Anne Marie teamed up with him and they became the creative-producing engine that set up the foundations with us for full-fledged series. Working closely with CTV we created a package to go with the pilot: full character profiles, premises for future episodes, etc. And it included a second completed script, "First in Line," which established the show's long-term template in a way that the pilot didn't - i.e. one crisis per week, framed by team activity at the station before and after, a montage denouement underscored by Canadian singer-songwriter talent...

We were drawn to RESCUE ME. The show is sort of RESCUE ME with cops, though we don't go into the family life so much. There's darkness, but there's redemption. At the same time, we were watching CSI — single serving shows. And we wanted to stay within the realm of the broadcast network wheelhouse. We wanted to be mostly episodic while finding a way to reward the frequent flyers.

"This was already very close to the writer’s strike in the States. At this point Bill and Anne Marie took it across the border."

Christina Davis continues:

"The writer’s strike started Nov 1, 2007. And the networks were all shocked. And we jumped into, what are we going to do if the strike goes a year? We were looking at every international format: New Zealand, Israel, the UK, Australia. Really canvassing the creative community globally. I developed a relationship with [Executive Producer] Bill Mustos. He said, "I have a filmed pilot." And we watched the pilot and it just clicked. This particular angle had a unique emotional hook — the personal cost of heroism. And Enrico Colantani was someone American audiences are familiar with.

"As a Canadian show, it was strike-proof. And with a beneficial financial model, it was really a no-brainer. But it started because of the creative angle.

"It came to us in a very convenient situation, where they'd already filmed the pilot so you could see the production value, but they weren't so far along that we couldn't have any creative input. The content fit so perfectly, we were able to see a pilot which was really unique, but you guys hadn't moved so far forward that we couldn't be part of it. You had a CTV order, so there was something we could jump on board with. We did a bit of recasting... The tendency is when you go too far down the road, we're not able to collaborate you, but this was an open valley.

"It took place in Toronto, but they didn't make a meal of it, so that worked for us.

"So we said, okay, we need this as soon as possible. We struck the deal in January '08, they started production in April, and we were on the air by July. We had 8.7 million viewers for the US premiere, which worked its way down to 6 million on average over the season. It's working well on Friday nights."

Q. What are some of the things you learned from your experience?

Morgenstern/Ellis: One of the buzzwords in the room was something we got from Christina, which was, "all of your first six episodes should be pilot episodes". In other words, you have to keep re-introducing the core characters.

Another expression we used was using the "eyedropper." We picked this up from Dick Wolf, as seen on LAW & ORDER: you get to know your regulars at the same pace as you do real people, a little more each day, instead of in huge chunks of backstory exposition. You do it by 'eyedropper' rather than by 'soup ladle.'

For example, at the end of our bottle show, we show Ed going home, and inside his garage he's got a secret locker filled with articles and press clippings and souvenirs of every screwup, everything near miss where he almost got somebody hurt. And his wife comes in unexpectedly, and instead of shutting it, he thinks a sec, then opens it for her to see for the first time. We play the whole thing silently. A moment like that can take the place of a monologue.

Q. What do you think about Canadian government support for TV?

M/E: We are really public funding babies. We've been supported by everyone from the Canada Council to Telefilm to the OMDC to Women in the Director's Chair. And that has opened so many doors. Doing the short film — every step of our careers was supported by emerging artist support. And we come from Canadian theatre, where actors are often involved in workshopping new plays. We even met doing Fringe Theatre — public funding makes all of those possible.

Stephanie Morgenstern: It might look like this all happened very suddenly - out of nowhere these two actors suddenly know how to write a TV show. But it's not true. We're part of a culture that cares about the arts, and we would be nowhere without that support. Grants make career growth possible. So "should we be investing in Canadian television?" Absolutely. It wouldn't exist without that support. And we have to not only invest in television funding, but also in grass-roots artist support. That's the research and development branch of the business.

Mark Ellis: And there's a message buried in FLASHPOINT that I think is very Canadian: let's keep the peace. We're comfortable with that as Canadians. We're a nation of peacekeepers. Canada is a model for nonfatal outcomes. The show is about trying to understand what's going on, and using confrontation only as a last resort.

Stephanie Morgenstern: The show conspicuously takes place in Toronto, though we tend not to refer to it by name, any more than real Torontonians do on an average day. We use Toronto locations and landmarks and street names, and the mailboxes are red. The uniforms have little Canadian flags on the shoulders. Most of us Canadian actors who get cast in American shows that shoot up here have had to train ourselves to say "praw-cess" instead of "pro-cess", or "saw-ree" instead of "so-ree." Well, we had a Canadian actress on Flashpoint who'd worked a great deal in LA, and I noticed that by habit, she was doing the American version of "sorry." It was a real pleasure to whisper to the script assistant to let her know her, "It's OK to say "So-ree."

Mark Ellis: And we had a scene where one character sends another out to Timmy's for a double-double.

[Note: It was interesting to hear Stephanie and Mark talk about how proud they were about the Canadiana that they were able to put in the show, while from Christina Davis's point of view, it was good that they "didn't make a meal of it." It makes sense, though: the Canadian audience doesn't need maple syrup to know a show is in Canada, while the Americans aren't going to notice the references to Yonge Street and Tim Horton's. So long as you don't put up too many portraits of the Queen, all the local color just reads to Americans as flavor.]

Q. As you took the project from concept to MOW, to pilot, to series, who was guiding you?

Mark Ellis: Tassie Cameron came aboard during the transition from pilot to series. She has a tremendous experience in Canadian TV. She's a fantastic human being and understood the show. The way the show is structured, there's no single showrunner as the voice of the show. That's a bit rocky when there is conflict. But it means we've been able to retain a lot of say in the process. We get the final rewrite on every episode.

Christina Davis: CBS was a little more nervous launching the show not knowing who the showrunner was and their experience. Bill Mustos and Anne Marie La Traverse are such creatives, but on the American iside it all goes back to the idea and the writer. And an idea is an idea, but who's going to execute it, and create a template for the life of the series, which hopefully is 150 episodes. But with Tassie Cameron coming in, we had a comfort level. Those 13 episodes gave us a great opportunity to understand you guys [Stephanie and Mark] better, how you stepped up as a producers. Now she's on to other projects, we'll let you figure out how to work it out.

Q. You started as actors. What made you decide to write?

Mark Ellis: It was never a decision to start writing as such. We came across a true story that Stephanie and I wanted to turn into a short film — it wasn't "I want to be a writer," but "I have a story I'm burning to tell." This was "Remembrance," which is in development as a feature.

Q. What lessons have you learned about the craft of making TV from your experience working with an American network? Or to put it another way, what do you feel Canadians can learn from the American system, to the extent you’ve been exposed to it.

Mark Ellis: We're learning as we go along, to keep re-rooting yourself in the vision of the show. To stay true to your voice. Personalities and execs will change, but the creative is the constant in the show.

Of course it’s your job to be open to notes and direction and you must consider every scrap of wisdom. And the first time you're on a call with CBS, you think, "I'm on a call with CBS!" It takes a while to get over that.

Stephanie Morgenstern: They bring a vast amount of experience and context to the notes and ideas that they offer. Over time, though, you also develop a sense of them as human beings, and you learn to trust your own judgment in that mix, to get past the surface, and find the essence of what they're saying... and of course to find an organic balance with the notes of the other network.

Mark Ellis: The collaborative process is ingrained. We were never the kinds of writers who never wanted anything changed. We've workshopped plays. And, like theatre, TV is extraordinarily collaborative. So a good position to take is to be humble and yet to stay true to a vision. We're not confrontational. I know there are US showrunners who are confrontational, who will kick chairs... and maybe we’ll get to that... (They laugh.)

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Thursday, July 16, 2009

The Emmy noms are out:
Best drama: Big Love, Breaking Bad, Damages, Dexter, Lost, House, Mad Men

Best Comedy: Entourage, Family Guy, Flight on the Conchords, How I Met Your Mother, The Office, 30 Rock, Weeds

Best Drama Writing: four (four!) MAD MEN scripts and one LOST.

Best Comedy Writing: four (four!) 30 ROCK scripts and one FLIGHT OF THE CONCHORDS
If you're wondering what to spec, it probably can't hurt to spec something with an Emmy nom. That's what network execs and showrunners are watching, in all likelihood. If it's been cancelled, of course, don't spec it.

Complete noms here.

No FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS? Really? No BATTLESTAR?

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Wednesday, July 15, 2009

I'm rewriting an old script of mine which, I discovered once I had some perspective on it, was trying to be both a romantic comedy and a coming of age comic drama, and wasn't doing either that well.

So the first thing I did was, write myself a short recap of the script, as much as possible without looking at the script. I had some new ideas for the ending, so I wrote them up too.

Then I cut it all up into index cards. That left a big hole in the middle. So I started writing index cards up to fill in the middle. Many of them were for scenes from the script. But they began to take on slightly different functions and meanings as I wrote them up anew. And sometimes they wound up in different places than they had in the script.

Then I took my index cards and wrote up a new step outline for the new draft. And ran it by Lisa.

I should really have pitched it to her out loud, ideally without looking at the cards. But she nicked the outline while I was getting a decent pen from the car and was halfway through before I got back. At least, that's my excuse to myself for not practicing what I preach.

Now I'm rewriting from the new outline. I think the new script is in many ways going to look like the old script. I'm not sure there will be that many brand new scenes. But the old scenes are going to focus better on the story, and the whole thing should hold up better.

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Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Brad Ideas posts the most coherent critique I've read of why BATTLESTAR GALACTICA'S finale felt like such a betrayal of both science and its own mythology to so many of its fans.

And proposes an alternate last 3 minutes that he feels could have saved it. (It would have resolved almost all my issues.)

Fun fact: Brad Templeton, the essayist, is chairman of the Electronic Frontier Foundation. Always fun when your fellow fanboys are up to some serious stuff IRL.

(Thanks for the link, David!)

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Monday, July 13, 2009

Gordon Rogerson was kind enough to interview me for his blog The Greenlight.Com. Check it out!

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Thursday, July 09, 2009

Q. Do you think Friday Night Lights would be worth speccing? I don't know if I should bother trying to write a script for it since the reader will know that the actors are encouraged to ad-lib a lot of the time.
As far as I know, they're encouraged to ad-lib off the script, which they've memorized. That means they might change a few words in a line here and there, and add handles ("Look, ...") and hems and haws. But I guarantee you there are lines in them there scripts. Check'em out yourself.

As far as I know, FNL is a good spec these days. The tricky thing, as always with a serial, is how to fit your spec into their timeline. You can either try to squeeze one in between two episodes, try to make your ep relatively free-floating, or write a season opener. The latter will be tricky, because as you know, Coach is no longer coaching the Panthers as of the season finale, and who knows who's going to be in the show next year. (And it will do you no good to just make up a slew of new characters, since that's not what a spec script is for.) But that's another headache entirely.

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Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Carson Reeves is getting hold of major scripts in development (like Aaron Sorkin's script for a movie about the founder of Facebook), reading them, blogging about them, and in many cases, linking to the script. Check out the competition.

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Tuesday, July 07, 2009

[QUEBEC] SODEC is doing their COURS ECRIRE TON COURT program again, soliciting the best short film scripts in both English and French from emerging but professional screenwriters between 18 and 35. There are two prizes for best script, and there's even a $1000 CBC prize for best English script. Check it out.
Applicants must:

- be between the ages of 18 and 35 (i.e., younger than 36 as of the submission deadline on August 17, 2009)
- be pursuing a professional writing career (i.e., high school, college and university undergraduate students are not eligible)
- be a resident of Quebec for at least two years
- be available between September 7 and October 19, 2009
- submit all the required entry material to SODEC
- never have been selected as a finalist in a previous edition of the contest.
Note also that the next deadline for the Young Creators program is in November. (PDF.)

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Monday, July 06, 2009

Box Office Mojo has listed the top grossing movies of all time as adjusted for inflation.

If you really want to gauge cultural impact, you'd have to adjust the list further according to US population at the time -- when GONE WITH THE WIND hit theaters, the country was half the size it is now. But this is a heck of a lot better than the un-adjusted list.

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Saturday, July 04, 2009

I was listening to Brooke Gladstone's ON THE MEDIA podcast about the difficulty of obliterating public misconceptions (e.g. "Barack Obama is a Muslim"). She was talking about how people don't remember "not" well. If you try to sell people on the concept that "Barack Obama is a Christian," you might convince some of them that he's not a Muslim. But if you try to sell people on "Barack Obama is not a Muslim," it might have a short-term effect, but in the long term, all anyone remembers is "Barack Obama" and "Muslim." Your efforts actually entrench the misperception.

Similarly, when Richard Nixon said, "I am not a crook," people identified him (even more than they already did) with the word "crook."

Partly this is the Denial Paradox. When a guy denies he's a crook, what goes through most people's minds is, "why does he have to deny it? There must be some truth to the accusation."

But there's something deeper going on. Negation is a surprisingly advanced concept, it turns out. I know because I got my 5 year old daughter's "report card." She's mildly autistic, so she's speaking at roughly a 3 year old level. She's learned basic grammar (SVO) and lately she's mastered the more difficult protocols for using "I" and "you." These are difficult because she can't just repeat what the teacher says. She has to swap the words. "I give you the brush" becomes "you give me the brush.") The two main things she hasn't learned at all are tense (was/is/will be and negation. If you ask her, "Give me the ball that is not red," she'll give you the red ball. So negation is at the same level of abstraction, it would seem, as time.

How does this help you writing scripts? Be careful when you use negation. It's easy to write a line like this:
  • Sandy's wearing a lot of makeup, but it's not at all whorish. It's actually rather well done.
Unfortunately, while you know what you mean, and your reader is intellectually capable of parsing your meaning, what she will actually take away from the sentence is the word "whorish." It's visual and grabby. The word "not" requires too much processing. It's likely to get lost. Your character will appear whorishly made up in her mind.

Instead, write this:
  • Sandy's wearing a lot of makeup, but it's beautifully done, like an actress going to the Oscars.
Use this power only for good. It would be wicked, in speechwriting, to say things like, "Sarah Palin is not a flakey bimbo," knowing the audience's poor ability to process negation...

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Friday, July 03, 2009


My friends Lara Azzopardi and Julia Cohen's pilot is airing on the CBC:
Throwing Stones is a half-hour drama (with a healthy dose of comedy), about the lives of five remarkable working class women who belong to a local curling club in Winnipeg. Starring Academy Award winner Patty Duke, Lolita Davidovich, Caroline Neron, Barbara Radecki and Stephanie Anne Mills, directed by Mario Azzopardi (ZOS: Zone of Separation), written by Lara Azzopardi and Julia Cohen. Produced by Original Pictures and Curling Productions. Airing Wednesday, July 15th, at 9pm EST.
Great cast! Alas, it didn't get picked up. But it sure looks like fun.

For bonus points, analyze what you think did or didn't work, in the comments.

[Note: the original press release said "July 1." Bad, bad, Lara.]

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Thursday, July 02, 2009


I've been reading 1959: The Year Everything Changed by my good friend (and Slate columnist) Fred Kaplan. The '50's is sort of an underserved period in popular history. We think of it as white bread, surburban, conformist, a period of unchallenged American dominance. But there was a lot of turmoil under the covers. The Beat Poets were the '50's, and jazz was going haywire, and the first mass market computers were coming in. Oh, and the modern Civil Rights movement really started up in the '50's. Meanwhile everyone was living in serious fear that there would be an all-out nuclear war.

Fred's written an expansive survey of all that, going into both the roots and ramifications of a whole slew of major events that happened in or around 1959. If you're speccing a MAD MEN, you might want to check it out to get a sense of the world the show lives in. Or, you know, because it's just interesting.

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From a brief interview with Steven Bochco:
One of the things I’ve always said to a new director who we hire -- somebody who’s doing it for the first time -- I always say, Your only job is to get invited back. Don’t try to win an Oscar; don’t try to win an Emmy; just get invited back. Because that’s how you progress in life.
I don't think you can usefully try to win an Oscar. You try to do your best work. You try to take the job seriously, and throw yourself into it. And most of all, you try to listen carefully to the people you're working with, and take their feedback seriously (which is not the same necessarily as taking it as Gospel). If you do all that, you may well win an Oscar, or an Emmy. But for sure you'll get invited back.

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Wednesday, July 01, 2009

There's a genre of kid's show where the kid lives in both a magical world and the mundane one. The kid has a door to the otherworld and uses it, but doesn't stay there. The narrative problem is relating the stakes in the magical world to the stakes in the mundane world. If he becomes king of Erewhon, but stays a picked-on kid at school (he's always picked on at school), what has he really gained? Because, after all, even kids know that Erewhon is really Nowhere spelled backwards. So traditionally, the structure of this kind of show is: kid has a Problem at School; escapes into the magical world; learns a Valuable Lesson (such as Stand Up For Yourself or Eat Your Peas); and returns to the mundane world where this Valuable Lesson turns out to just the very thing to enable him to solve the Problem at School.

Lisa and I have been working on a doctor show, so we've been watching a lot of HOUSE episodes. (Enough that Lisa has started becoming a bit of a hypochondriac on Jesse's behalf. I'm beginning to suspect that some of the problem with the American health care system is the plethora of doctor shows. People watch them and then expect the doc to MRI their bunions. But that's another story.) I was struck by how HOUSE has adapted this format.

The show has a medical A story, full of barely comprehensible jargon, and a dramatic, personal B story involving House and, sometimes, a member of his team. I've noticed that the A story often contains a resonance with the B story. A man whose right brain can't talk to his left brain because the corpus callosum has been severed appears in a story where we discover that House is delusional -- the intellectual side of his brain has made up a story to account for the actions of his irrational side. In another, a father has given leprosy to his son; meanwhile, Dr. Chase gets a visit from his toxic dad.

And, often, House figures something out from the B story that gives him the answer in the A story.

How very clever of Mr. Shore to adapt this structure for an adult doctor show!

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