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Sunday, August 09, 2009

Casting about for good TV to watch, I borrowed DAMAGES from the Bibliothèque Nationale, and we watched the pilot.

It's an interesting beast, this pilot. A young woman lawyer, Ellen Parsons (Rose Byrne) is hired by Patty Hewes (Glenn Close), a hotshot lawyer with a reputation for abusing her staff. And we think we're in the vein of stories about a neophyte hired by a tyrant, who either has to man up or get shredded, e.g. THE DEVIL WEARS PRADA.

We had a tough time watching the pilot because the pilot did a lot of things that didn't make sense -- at least, at first.

/* spoilers */

For examples, when Ellen is asked to interview for the job on the Saturday of her sister's wedding, she refuses. Hewes shows up at the wedding, and decides she likes her. Hewes says "you remind me of me" and hires her anyway. Since Ellen is a bit of a drip who never says anything smart or tough, we weren't convinced.

Then Ellen's sister in law turns out to -- surprise! -- have, as an investor in her restaurant, the very same rich man, Frobisher (Ted Danson) whom Hewes is suing. And Ellen finds out that the case against Frobisher hinges on something her sister-in-law may have seen. That seemed terribly convenient for the writers.

Then Ellen's sister in law is being stalked by Frobisher's private detective. Her dog turns up murdered, to leave a warning to keep quiet. The threat backfires, because Sister-in-law decides to turn witness. I always hate seeing pets murdered -- it's usually a cheesy way to shock the audience -- but it also seemed unlikely, since if Frobisher wants to threaten Sister-in-law, he merely has to threaten to withdraw his investment in her restaurant.

Well, it turns out all the things we were bumping on were clues. Hewes, it turns out, only hired Ellen because of the connection to her sister-in-law, which she knew about all along. And she's the one who had the dog murdered, to provoke Sister-in-law to testify. Clever clever.

That's why Ellen didn't need to say anything particularly clever to Hewes at the wedding, or blow off her sister's wedding to have an interview -- because Hewes wants her for other reasons. Ahhh, it all makes sense now.

This is dangerous territory for a screenwriter. Having characters do things that are seeingly out of character, or don't make sense, can be a lovely misdirect for the audience, or it can lose the audience's trust entirely, if they decide you're a crappy writer.

It's also dangerous because we don't know what story we're being told. If we think we're in a story about a neophyte lawyer put in the grinder at a law firm run by a bitch queen, then all the inconsistencies keep derailing the story we think we're watching, instead of those same inconsistencies driving the story.

What you want to do is make sure the audience knows what story it's watching by throwing out little hints that, yes, there is something odd about what's happening, pay attention.

So, for example, we never find out how good a lawyer Ellen is. We first meet her professionally when she's getting a job offer from a fancy law firm. They've offered her a whack of money, but when they find out that Patty Hewes has called her, they give up -- they know Patty Hewes gets what she wants.

But what if it's not quite such a fancy law firm? What if it's clear that Ellen is not the best young law school graduate in town? And what if the other law firm calls attention to that: "Really? Patty Hewes? Is she friends with your family, or what?" And maybe even Ellen asks her: "Why me? I'm not the top of my class." And then Hewes can bust out her "You remind me of me," but we start to suspect there's something else going on. And we can follow the story.

I love a good mystery. But the first requirement for a mystery is that you know it's a mystery. If your main character's brother has been found dead of an overdose, and it's going to turn out he was actually murdered, then make sure we know he wasn't a junkie. If he crashed his car, then tell us he was an epileptic and never drove. Otherwise we just take the facts at face value: if he died of an overdose, well, junkies do that. If he crashed his car, well, lots of people die in car crashes. It's sad but it's not a story.

To be fair, the series starts will Ellen, bloody and half-dressed, wandering the streets. So we know something is going to go horribly wrong. But that's a fairly broad hint.

And the show further muddies the waters by lost opportunities elsewhere in the pilot. When Frobisher suborns one of the plaintiffs, who turns the whole body of plaintiffs around to accept a lowball settlement, Hewes just lets it slide. Yet at the meeting between the plaintiffs and Hewes, the corrupted plaintiff has so obviously been coached that it is shocking that Hewes never busts him on it. Surely a top litigator knows what a coached witness sounds like. In fact we never see Hewes being a particularly smart lawyer -- just a ballsy negotiator. So when Ellen fails to show any sign of being a clever lawyer, it does not come across as a clue for the audience; we figure the writers just don't know how to show that someone's smart.

(And incidentally, it's so easy and fun to show that someone's smart. Just have a character pick up on a few small details and put them together. For example, if you had wanted to show that Ellen was supersmart, then when Hewes shows up at the wedding, Ellen twigs that when she was asked to interview during her sister's wedding, Hewes must have already known her sister was getting married, and set the interview at that time in order to test her. And then Ellen busts Hewes for her moral failings -- and it's the spunk combined with observation and intuition that makes Hewes want to hire her.)

I've heard very good things about DAMAGES, and Glenn Close does a fantastic job playing Hewes. I'm sure the show gets better. Certainly once you're past the pilot you'd know exactly what story you're watching. One of my flaws as a viewer is I'm horribly impatient -- I want them to be good right away, while it seems to me that a lot of y'all will give a show two or three episodes to get going. And I've come back to shows later and enjoyed them once I got past the pilot. I didn't love the TERMINATOR: THE SARAH CONNOR CHRONICLES pilot, but now I'm waiting anxiously for the Season Two disks to come out.

But it did seem to me that a few hints up front about what story we're watching would have given me a much more enjoyable pilot experience.

Track your audience. What do they know? What do they suspect? A great storyteller doesn't leave things to chance. You let the audience figure things out for themselves, yes, but you do it by waving clues in front of them. Depending on how sophisticated the audience is, you may have to hang a lantern on the clues, or you may go subtle. But you have to calibrate things so they do in fact pick it up. Otherwise you're not telling the story.

Imagine you're telling the story at a campfire. The audience should be stopping you to say, "But why did she hire Ellen anyway?" If they're not asking that question, you haven't done your job. If they do ask that question, you're on the right track. You don't answer it, of course. You smile and say, "Why indeed?"

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Alex - I think the Damages pilot tells us exactly the type of show we're watching: one that requires patience. The function of a pilot (for viewers, not producers pitching to networks) is to get us hooked on these characters and plot/scenario. The pilot does much better on the plot than characters (watch the rest of s1 for more character strength), but the key bit of info from the pilot is that the show will misdirect & deceive us, so pay close attention. You might have felt cheated in the moment, but the payoff is in the long view with patience.

By Blogger Jason Mittell, at 12:04 PM  

Huh, I think you hit the nail on the head of why I've had such a hard time getting into The Wire, despite the claims that it's The Best Show of All Time. That pilot is just so damn impenetrable - is it a cop show? Who are these characters?

By Blogger Raz, at 2:34 PM  

I had the same initial reaction to Damages. In fact, I'll warn you that it will take a few episodes to accept it. The cast and non-linear format kept me watching until it picked up. The twists actually do get a lot better, in my opinion and might inspire ideas of your own.

By Blogger Broken Synapse, at 4:51 PM  

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