Saturday, December 17, 2011

Revealing things to your characters and to your audience.

One of the most important parts about screenwriting is your ability to control and manipulate information. This basically means creating situations that get the audience interested in your story. If you can do it well, the whole process of writing becomes much easier and much more enjoyable.

When it comes to writing, I think a rule of thumb is that it's almost always good to have certain elements in your story that aren't immediately revealed to everyone. Because if all the cards are face up from the start, it's pretty hard to get your audience excited.

This also applies to your characters. If they know everything about what they want to know and there's no mystery left, it's pretty hard to get them excited and to react to anything either.

So you have to be pretty smart about who knows what and when they get to know it. Keep things secret if you can. Reveal information gradually and mislead the audience without alienating them.

I don't know if there's a better example of this than the sixth episode of 30 Rock's second season. In 'Somebody to Love', Liz Lemon suspects that his neighbor Raheem is a terrorist because he acts suspiciously.

After certain misleading revelations Lemon becomes so convinced about Raheem running a terrorist cell that she decides to contact the Department of Homeland Security.

Raheem is taken away and Lemon feels like she has done her job as an American citizen. Only later will she and the audience find out that Raheem isn't a terrorist. Instead, the maps in his house and the video that he did with his brother in the park was to audition for the Amazing Race.

Lemon feels embarrassed and Raheem.. well, he promises that he'll show everyone (as if as he would become a real terrorist).

Honestly, I don't think the pay-off could have been any better and boy did Lemon feel bad about her mistake. She couldn't have been any more wrong about them.

The episode was written by Tina Fey which didn't really surprise me at all. Everything works in it, information is gradually revealed, the audience is mislead but not alienated, the final reveal is one of the best that you'll ever see and there's even a lesson to be learned.

If you want to learn something about storytelling, this is an episode that you want to watch again and again.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

About that upcoming JFK miniseries on HBO.

It's not exactly a secret that writing is supposed to be about character and truth. So what happens when you have a project in the works that doesn't have much to do with either of them? Well, that's basically what the Tom Hanks production about the assassination of John F. Kennedy is going to be all about.

It won't have much to do with character or truth.

That's because Tom Hanks' miniseries tries to convince us that John F. Kennedy wasn't killed by a conspiracy but instead by a lone gunman called Lee Harvey Oswald. The only problem with this narrative of course is that Lee Harvey Oswald (unfortunately?) did not shoot or kill John F. Kennedy.

If you want proof, read for example this book.

Thankfully, you don't need to know about the medical evidence, ballistics, eyewitness testimonies, secret service behavior, JFKs policies etc. Whew. One crucial witness is what it really takes to demolish the whole Oswald-did-it-alone nonsense for good.

Yet for some unfathomable reason Tom Hanks and HBO are funding this hopeless project that is based on Vincent Bugliosi's book 'Reclaiming History'.

The book by the way runs for more than 1600 pages in trying to convince the reader that the president was killed by a guy who didn't have any motive for the deed and who even said that he didn't do it - before he was silenced by, surprise surprise, another 'lone' gunman.

I'd honestly like to see how someone constructs a script that could create an even remotely believable scenario based on these ingredients. Because that would take a lot of talent and even more magic tricks to pull off and to make it seem plausible.

Oswald had no motive, he said that he didn't do it and there's every reason to believe that he was a CIA controlled fall guy and that rogue elements of the government with the help of anti-Castro Cubans killed JFK.

But anyway, if they'll make the miniseries and find him.. errr... invent that missing motive, hatred for Kennedy, determination, etc...

I would like to see how they show Oswald shooting from the sixth floor. Him doing the shooting is something that still hasn't been repeated by anyone. No marksman has been able to pull off what Oswald supposedly did in less than six seconds.

Then, I'd like to see Oswald descending to the second floor while managing to evade Victoria Adams - the witness that Warren Commission tried to discredit. (the proof about the deliberate fraud by the government is in the book that I gave a link to).

But most importantly, I'd like to see them show how only a couple of minutes after the shooting Oswald is seen drinking or at least holding a bottle of coke (latter part is an uncontested fact) after pulling off the most stressing feat that one even can think of - killing the most powerful man in the world.

I mean, that would be such a weird sight. To see Oswald trying to put those coins in that vending machine while on that adrenaline rush. It would look so implausible that no sane person in the world would believe it. Nobody kills a president and then casually buys a coke. Nobody.

Oswald didn't do it, so seriously, Tom Hanks and HBO - what are you thinking here?

Friday, November 25, 2011

My favorite episode of The Simpsons.

It's pretty hard to choose one single episode of The Simpsons that is better than the rest but I think 'Krusty Gets Busted' from the first season is one of the best of the series. It's the episode in which Sideshow Bob frames Krusty the Clown for an armed robbery. Krusty goes to jail and Bob takes over his comedy show while Bart is convinced that his hero is innocent.

There are numerous reasons why 'Krusty Gets Busted' is a really good episode. One of the most important reasons is that everything in the episode happens for a reason. There's hardly anything in the script that doesn't serve a purpose. Compared to today's sitcoms, the difference is pretty huge to be honest.

When pretty much everything in the script happens for a reason it means that the writers are telling you a story. Pick any random moment from this episode and you'll notice how the writers are either advancing the plot or showing us the values and traits of the characters that are needed for the story to exist and to make sense.

One of the best parts about the episode is how efficiently and effortlessly the writers use exposition in the episode. In the very first scene they already manage to tell us that Krusty means everything to Bart (he's ready to kill himself for Krusty), that his show is a bit lowbrow (throwing pies) and that sideshow Bob isn't happy with it (he's shot from a cannon by Krusty).

From that scene on things start to develop. There's the robbery that Homer is a witness to, there's Krusty's arrest, his trial, Bart's hunch that Krusty didn't do it, the search for proof that he's innocent, the reveal that Sideshow Bob had a lot to gain and finally the well-timed confrontation in which Bart tells everyone how it couldn't have been Krusty and that it was Bob who did it.

'Krusty Get's Busted' is basically a 'who done it' episode and yet it doesn't really feel like one, which makes it even better. There are so many Awful shows like CSI that have nothing going on for them except the 'who did it part' and unfortunately with those shows even the 'who did it' very rarely makes sense.

But in 'Krusty Gets Busted' everything makes sense and the audience even sympathizes with the future arch-villain Sideshow Bob - which probably played a crucial part in making the episode as good as it turned out. Thankfully we got to see more of him later on.

The best moment of the episode for me is in the direction when Bart figures out what the 'mighty big shoes to fill' said by Sideshow Bob means. That moment couldn't have been executed any better and it shows the almost unlimited potential of cartoons if done right.

By the way, I decided to check out from the credits and it looks like the episode was directed by some guy called Brad Bird. I wonder what happened to him?

Monday, November 21, 2011

Why Enlightened isn't a good series.

I've seen every episode of Enlightened - seven episodes so far - and I think I'm finally done with the show. There are so many fundamental problems with it that I can't pretend that those problems don't exist. My issues with the show are mostly:

1) Pretty much nothing happens.

It's not exactly that I'm not a fan of plot-free shows. Storytelling is hard and if there's no recognizable story, it means that the writers are simply cutting corners. There's no excuse not to have a compelling tale to tell.

In this case the lack of story and the lack of interesting characters is probably a result of the writers falling in love with their own nonsense.

They thought that since the show is about enlightenment, just about any random feeling or experience would constitute as a story. After all, we happen to live in a postmodern world where every thought is supposedly equally valuable.

2) I don't give a damn about the main character.

It's not always necessary for the protagonist to be likeable but there's a difference between being unlikeable and being completely pathetic. What were they thinking when they decided to make the protagonist a cheater who's also ignorant, arrogant and has no social skills?

I have to be honest here - if I knew in real life someone like Laura Dern's character, I would stay as far away as possible from that person.

3) The show doesn't know what it's about (lacks self-awareness and doesn't have a point).

Watching Enlightened makes me miss those Charlie Sheen interviews all the more. After all, earlier this year this 'train-wreck' managed to be self-aware, funny and consistently made great points about life. Enlightened hasn't managed to make a single good point about anything. (unless of course copy-pasting Zen literature counts)

4) Nature unintentionally trumps everything else.

One of the things that I actually have liked about Enlightened have been the lovely scenes that involve nature. That's where the 'enlightening' part of the show is.

It's just that once we get back to normal scenes it becomes evident that the scenes about the nature are much more interesting than the actual characters. There's no balance between nature and the man and it's something that weighs the show down even more.

5) A show about enlightenment needs enlightened writers.

The problem is that very few - if any of us are actually enlightened. Anyone who decides to create a show about the meaning of life is setting the bar pretty damn high and that person had better provide some answers.

That's why I would never take on a project like Enlightened myself. I don't think I'd have answers. At least I couldn't give you answers without telling a good story.

Unfortunately, there's no story here and that's why Enlightened is not a good series.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Train-wrecks get ratings.

One of the weirdest things about this tv season have been the high ratings that certain shows have been getting. I'm talking primarily about The Big Bang Theory, Two And a Half Men, Two Broke Girls, all on CBS and also that 'New Girl' on Fox.

These shows have gotten great ratings and yet they all have been terrible when it comes to actual quality. The Big Bang Theory for example has pretty much been on a meltdown mode this season.

Who can forget that infamous Raj episode that openly mocked disabled people or Amy & Sheldon officially becoming a couple last week? (Amy after all is the Jar Jar Binks of television) Nevertheless, it's the most watched comedy out there.

On Two and A Half Men Ashton Kutcher probably hasn't made me laugh even once. My friends haven't laughed either and yet Kutcher replacing Charlie Sheen is widely hailed as a success. (That is of course as long as ratings mean success and that actual content doesn't really matter)

Two Broke Girls also got a great 4.8 rating in the 18-49 demographics a couple of weeks ago so the show is a 'success'. But on the other hand it looks totally cheap, the actresses are terrible, the writing is abysmal and it probably took like three minutes to come up with the concept for the show.

Then there's that 'New Girl'. I've heard it's going to be a hot show to spec. Some aspiring writers are already writing scripts for that show. The only problem with the New Girl is that it's totally horrendous, shallow and empty. The show has nothing to say about anything. But it's a success - because people are apparently watching.

I mean, I can understand why people (me included) keep watching The Big Bang Theory. You never know if it would miraculously become better again. It's also hard to let go of something that you cared about and in Two and A Half Men's case you also kinda have to watch it because Ashton Kutcher is so bad that it's almost good.

But why on earth are people watching shows like Two Broke Girls and New Girl? I have no clue. Both have sucked from day one and there seems to be no potential whatsoever.

Yet people watch.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

The good and the bad of the 2011 fall season.

I haven't enjoyed watching television this fall unfortunately. It's not that I haven't watched tv, in fact, I've watched just about every new show and all those old shows that have been even remotely worth checking out.

It's too bad that almost everything has sucked.

Modern Family has been pretty disappointing and meaningless. The Big Bang Theory has been even worse than I expected and the new pilots have been - truth to be told - so bad that they leave me (and I bet others too) rather speechless.

Modern Family has been disappointing for numerous reasons. The characters have become less interesting than they used to be. The plotlines have become weaker and Cam & Mitchell have become caricatures.

However, the biggest problem has been that the writers in some episodes have had five separate storylines. It's something that cannot be pulled off. I think three separate storylines in one episode is pretty much the upper limit.

The Big Bang Theory, as expected, has continued its decline qualitywise even though its rating have been great. The episode in which Raj dates a deaf girl has to be the show's worst. It was not only unfunny but also managed to be offensive. Making fun of impaired people - what were the writers thinking?

The show has had one good episode this season. Not surprisingly that episode involved Sheldon's arch enemy Wil Wheaton. Having a strong antagonist always helps.

The new pilots have been bad and the reason for this is pretty much that all the new shows look cheap, the characters are unlikable and the pilots lack even decent premises.

Fortunately there have also been a couple of good shows on air this fall - so it's not all bad. The two shows that I have enjoyed this fall have been a bit surprisingly David Kelley's Harry's Law and not that surprisingly, South Park.

Harry's Law especially had an excellent episode a couple of weeks ago that reminded me that there's still some honor and dignity left in Hollywood. It felt so good to watch something that respects the viewer's intelligence. I just hope that the show doesn't get canceled.

Because David Kelley still has it in him.

The other good one, South Park, is a show that probably isn't at its best anymore. Some fans have started piling on it and last week's 'deus ex' episode simply wasn't any good. Nevertheless I think it's still a funny and a creative show that manages to remain relatively self-aware and honest.

I mean, I don't know if there is a better example than the episodes (You're getting old & Ass burgers) in which Stan Marsh gets depressed because he feels that today's entertainment industry is literally full of crap.

Not only were these episodes well written and funny but they also contained the truth. What we see on tv today really is mostly full of crap - and to see someone as talented as Trey Parker to agree with me (and I bet with so many others) feels pretty good to be honest.

Even though it totally sucks of course.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Emmy Awards - self serving and all & not that different from U.S. politics.

Television fall season has begun and the old shows are back on air again. The new pilots have aired. Unfortunately there's not much good to say about any of these. The old shows aren't getting better and the pilots were subpar as expected.

Also, Emmy awards were given last week and not that surprisingly the show was a mess, lacked a theme and wasn't funny. I just wasn't able to buy into the self-serving hype, pat on the back and 'cruel is funny' mentality that has permeated the industry.

I did watch the show though and Amazing Race deservedly won again after Top Chef's unexplainable win last year. Ty Burrell also gave a speech so eloquent and honest that no Hollywood writer would ever even dream of writing it. So it wasn't all bad.

In any case, the broadcast would have been a somewhat non-eyebrow raising event for me, had there not been Steven Levitan's acceptance speeches for Modern Family's Emmy wins. Because he really made me do the full 'Phil-move'.

To be exact, Levitan gave two acceptance speeches. The first one (for comedy writing) was pretty superficial, but since I found it to be at least somewhat funny, I gave it a pass. It was about how his children had caught him and her wife in action.

On the other hand the second time he was accepting an Emmy for best comedy series, I couldn't give him a break anymore. That is because I found it pretty disturbing when he said (message behind his joke) that Modern Family has changed the way Americans think about gays.

That's right. Cameron and Mitchell have supposedly changed the way republican bible thumpers perceive homosexuals.

I guess what this is supposed to mean is that there's no need to worry about gay hate crimes or gay discrimination anymore. No need to worry about getting bullied and there also won't be any more proposition 22s because our caricature gay couple has come to the rescue (while playing lion king in the background).

I don't think so.

To me these kind of statements are pretty revealing and also rather irresponsible.

I mean, first, even if the whole thing was only meant as a harmless joke, which I bet it was, the truth is that Hollywood does very little to promote social justice. It rarely provides substance even though that's what it's supposed to do. Given their abysmal track record, the joke was about as funny as president Bush joking about not finding those weapons of mass destruction.

Let's face it folks, Cameron and Mitchell won't change a thing.

The other problem, the revealing part, I have with these people is that they honestly seem to think that their problems, being super rich and white, represent the problems of the blue collar America. They think that they understand your pain, your worries and your anguish.

It's too much like with the politicians on Capitol Hill where these same rich white guys live inside their bubble thinking that the biggest problem facing the country is their corporate paymasters not getting enough tax breaks.

Apparently Hollywood (as in the case of Modern Family's episode) seems to believe that if you get caught in the act with your wife, it's pretty much the worst thing that could ever happen to you.

Is it?

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

More spec script mistakes - loglines that confuse.

Writing about mistakes isn't that much fun, but nevertheless, here's another edition of spec script mistakes and this time about loglines.

I don't think there's anything easier than writing a logline that is at least okay when it comes to its quality. Even when the script otherwise is going to suck, the logline usually won't be the thing that lets the cat out of the bag.

That is because your logline is just a logline. It's something that doesn't give away every beat of the story, it doesn't give away your writing style and usually doesn't give away your ability to deliver or not to deliver.

It just requires you to give the reader some information about your script and your story threads. So it's basically a sure thing.

Like for example on Modern Family, description for one of the storylines could be as simple as Claire not believing that she's good enough as a parent. That's simple, logical, makes sense and kinda gets you in the mood and ready for the read.

Or maybe on Entourage Turtle finds about an interesting business opportunity (with person x about thing y). That makes sense, right? Logical, simple, doesn't confuse you and etc.

Or maybe on 30 Rock Jack Donaghy feels that he needs a heir to the throne. Again, simple and clear.

So it seems that it's very hard to write a bad logline and that at the very least it takes spectacular lack of talent to do that. But unfortunately it indeed is possible to write an incomprehensible one.

I found one when I was doing some due diligence, digging up information on a certain writer and his certain spec script. The script that he (or she) wrote was for Two and A Half Men.

The logline is: "Alan bets he can date a new woman every week for longer than Charlie can date the same woman".

Loglines should always be 100% unambiguous. I don't know about you but this logline gives me a headache and is confusing even though it shouldn't be.

This logline can mean two things: First, Alan keeps dating different women every week whereas Charlie tries to stick to the same girl as long as possible.

Doesn't really make sense (if you go through the logical process) so we have to go for our option number two.

In that case it means that they fight for the same girl which unfortunately in the context of the show's premise doesn't make that much sense. Yet I guess we can assume that this is what the writer meant here.

But in that case the logline should have been something like this: "Alan thinks that if he and Charlie fight for a girl's attention, Alan is going to win".

I hope that's clear and simple enough and doesn't leave room for interpretations. Because there really shouldn't be anything that confuses the reader.

I'd honestly be rather surprised if any intelligent script reader was actually willing to read past that logline.

The weird twist here: this logline and spec script actually managed to win the 2009 Scriptapalooza sitcom competition.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Why spec writers love Community and Parks and Recreation.

Lately I've been reading loads of spec scripts by other aspiring writers. To be completely honest, it has been an eye-opening experience for me. Or should I say that it has confirmed what I already suspected or thought about the quality of their writing.

Going through all those spec scripts also helped me to understand why shows like Community and Parks and Recreation are so popular among spec writers. I mean, these two apparently are the hot shows to spec.

Now you might think that I read spec scripts for these two shows. Well, coincidentally I didn't. Instead, I read maybe like a dozen Modern Family spec scripts first. After doing that, to figure out what's going on, I got curious and read like five or six _actual_, produced Community and Parks and Recreation scripts.

(I initially read Modern Family because I have specced the show and wanted to check the competition)

So, my experience was that none of the Modern Family spec scripts that I read were good. Unfortunately, all of them were bad. At the same time, I have to say that none of the actual produced scripts for Community or Parks and Recreation were any good either. Every script sucked.

All of them were horrible.

Now, to give some perspective, actual produced scripts for Modern Family on the other hand are, if not great, at least most of the time relatively well written by relatively competent writers. So there's a huge difference between a random Modern Family spec script and an actual produced Modern Family script.

On the other hand, even though I read Modern Family specs and not Community or Parks specs specifically, I think it can be safely said that there cannot possibly be much of a difference between a mere spec for Community and an actual produced Community script.

That is because all the scripts that I read, no matter spec or produced, had the same problems: endless tangents, terrible exposition, purposeless name dropping, no flow, no recognizable characters, no story development or complications, no nothing. The exact same problems.

Both sucked on so many same levels that it just boggled the mind. Kinda sad and pathetic to be honest.

In the end what I'm saying here is that no matter how outrageously bad the script is qualitywise, as long as it's a Community or Parks and Recreation spec, nobody can tell that you're any worse than the staff writer who got his or her episode eventually produced.

In all likelihood, this is the reason why film school students (and critics too) love these two shows. Watching and writing about these shows makes you feel like you're part of the gang and way better than you really are.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Why X-Files was that good.

I think it's safe to say that mid-90s was when tv entertainment was at its best.

We had The Simpsons, ER, Friends, Picket Fences among other shows. This was the real golden age of tv. Quality shows after quality shows after quality shows. This was when it seemed that everything was possible. For X-Files it kinda was.

Trying to explain why the show was so good is kinda like trying to explain why an apple falls from a tree. That is because the show had a premise that was axiomatic, that is, simple.

X-Files consisted of two likable and relatable main characters, FBI agents Fox Mulder and Dana Scully trying to find out the truth out there. One believer, Mulder, and one sceptic, Scully.

Mulder was convinced that his sister had been abducted by aliens when he was a child. Scully, of course, wasn't convinced. There were other possible explanations, she said. Mulder, however, didn't budge.

This simple but effective setup put them on journey together that won't be easily surpassed.

But that wasn't the only reason the series was so good.

I guess one of the strongest aspects of the show was that not every episode was about the 'plot' that Mulder and Scully were trying to uncover. The seasons also consisting of stand-alone episodes let the writers develope the characters and not rush things too much.

That's one of the reasons that storylines were so well thought out, innovative and fresh. The episodes didn't wear down the audience, which is a problem with so many failed or mediocre shows.

The show also had a wonderful supporting cast. Who could for example forget Skinner, cigarette smoking man, lone gunmen trio, Alex Krycek, Deep Throat, Mulder's father, etc? Just about every character on the show was well thought out and believable, providing humor and drama, depending on the situation.

It was also clear that the writers had done their homework about certain aspects of history that you don't tend to hear about. Mixing the paranormal stuff (fantasy?) with conspiracies (reality) and handling these issues with maturity (or childlike enthusiasm) contributed to the show being such a hit.

I guess one might have thought that the show being about UFOs, paranormal activities, and conspiracies would have made it implausible and far-fetched. That it could have gone all wrong.

In lesser hands this probably would have happened, but fortunately not in the hands of Chris Carter. Here we had (and still have) a guy who was willing to go the distance. Not only was his show ambitious and full of idealism, Carter himself as an invididual raised the bar for others in the industry.

That is because he had the rare ability to take criticism. In fact, he was so good at it, that when an internet poster pointed out what was wrong with a particular episode, Carter not only agreed with the poster but even asked if that person was willing to join the writing staff.

Where else in this industry do you see humility like that?

In the end (I think) we really didn't get to the bottom of the 'alien plot'. Some of those big questions were still left in the air, like the big alien conspiracy that those other 'bad guys' were either trying to abett or trying to prevent from happening.

But I don't think that was really the point of the show. No single reveal or twist or conclusion was something that the audience was desperately waiting to see. X-Files was about characters, humanity and idealism and we as the audience knew that we were in good hands enjoying the ride.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

'Getting it' when others don't (low ratings).

One of the things that puzzles me is when tv viewers rave about a show that is supposedly awesome but in reality usually isn't.

Like, for example, Arrested Development, an ├╝berpromoted series that even managed to win an Emmy but was eventually canceled because nobody ever watched it. A show that had huge amount of hype, but in the end very little substance.

Fans who supposedly 'got it' say that it's the best comedy series of all time. So many references and inside jokes and stuff...

But when it came to the show's ratings nobody watched. And when nobody watched despite the network giving the show a hard push, that was a bad sign. The show must have had some serious problems.

Indeed, Arrested Development had plenty of those. Among those that can be 'objectively' quantified were things like the shoddy camerawork, quick editing and misleading 'in the next episode' "jokes".

Or how about the fact that about half of every episode consisted of Ron Howard's voice-over. I mean, honestly, can you narrate a 21 minute show to death and still expect the general audience, masses, to watch?

That was a terrible, terrible mistake. No wonder people didn't 'get' it. In the end Arrested Development just wasn't that good.

The thing is that when some people say that they 'get' certain shows that aren't watched by many, in reality it likely means that they're simply forgetting and ignoring the (fatal) flaws that keep the general audience from watching.

That's the most likely reason that shows like Firefly and Pushing Daisies got axed early. There were just way too many mistakes. But some people reaaaally 'got' these shows.

Let's face it, when a show is genuinely awesome, like X-Files, there really isn't much to get. It's simple, it works and people will come.

[Of course just because a show is a hit, doesn't mean that it's any good. But low ratings almost always tell the truth about the quality of the show.]

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Common spec script mistakes.

'Oh no, what am I supposed to do? I'm so confused'.

Yes, that's Homer Simpson apparently being completely clueless about his job. Poor Homer. But what does this picture have to do with spec scripts, and to be more precise, spec script mistakes?

I would answer to that question by saying that looking at this picture and thinking about it is a good way to start writing a spec script.

In this picture Homer is in trouble - a good start for storytelling. Having problems, being in trouble that is.

Sounds almost too simple, but unfortunately it really isn't. Because when you read spec scripts, you'll notice (or at least you should notice) that most of the time the characters aren't in trouble and there aren't any real problems to solve.

The problem is that without problems stories cannot exist. Yet people write spec scripts that lack this ingredient. No wonder those scripts aren't usually any good.

Another thing that you can learn from the picture is that knowing the character is more important than knowing what the character actually does.

By that I mean that you don't need to have a great grasp of nuclear physics in order to write an episode of The Simpsons in which for example Homer is working at the nuclear plant.

Sounds simple but that's only how it sounds. Not needing to know something doesn't stop writers from giving us these unnecessary chunks of information.

For example, if someone writes a spec for ER, the script too easily tends to consist of medical jargon that isn't essential to the episode.

The same goes for lawyer shows. Writers give us endless dialogue about sections and paragraphs and stuff that nobody wants or needs to know.

They forget the characters and the big ideas that drive the episodes. They forget their Homers.

Third, if you look at the picture and think about it, you might figure out that despite being clueless and in trouble, Homer is going to be alright at the end of the episode.

By that I mean that despite all of those usual warnings about not writing a script without a proper plan - also called an outline - I'm saying that you can't really plan everything.

The only outline I personally have ever used is that I need to have strong enough premise and that I have material for the second half too.

So may I suggest that you forget that detailed outline those other writers are talking about. Just keep in mind that you have a problem that is big enough to give you a story, don't forget your Homer Simpsons and remember that you're a Homer too.

You can do it, just be smart about the basics.  Writing scripts isn't rocket science.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Britain's Got Talent rules. (not the U.S. version though)

Hooray! First auditions of this year's Britain's Got Talent aired on Saturday. I was so happy because it has been one of my very favorite shows on tv.

So many good acts have been on this show in the last four years: Paul Potts, Susan Boyle, Diversity, Spellbound, Stavros Flatley, Bessie Cursons, Andrew Johnston, Signature etc.

I love the show for at least two reasons. First, because this show is about people with talent. Second, I like it because Brits really know how to pull these things off.

I know that some people loath this show because it's supposedly 'cynical' and 'manipulative' and things like that...

But for me Britain's Got Talent is not about these things. For me it's about the human experience. It's about capturing and sharing these precious moments in life with the audience. It lets me feel and that's what makes it real.

At the same time when I'm saying that I like the British version, I'm not saying that I like the U.S version of the show. Because I really don't.

In theory it's the same show, but in reality it is not. It's more forced and fake. You get a feeling that America's Got Talent is a lot more about money and fame and stuff that in the end isn't really important.

Take a look at this one: no story, rushed, unfocused, just painful:

Compare it to last week's Britain's Got Talent:

The difference, oh the difference!

Perhaps it has something do with the, uhh, dare I say, fact, that Americans are more superficial and shallow than the Britons. Because the difference between these two shows is simply astonishing.

Anyway, can't wait till Saturday and the 2nd week of Britain's Got Talent.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

First season of Harry's Law.

It's not exactly a secret that I'm a fan of Harry's Law's creator David E. Kelley. After all, he's the guy behind shows like Picket Fences, Chicago Hope, The Practice, Ally Mcbeal, Boston Public and Boston Legal.

Over the years I've been rather religious when it comes to watching his shows. His best shows (Picket Fences being probably the best) are about soul, substance and entertainment.

Also, about meaning, significance and relevance.

When Kelley brings his A-game, he's one of the best writers that has ever existed. On the other hand, when he doesn't deliver - and to be honest, that too has happened many times - his writing is pretty weak. Girls Club, Wedding Bells, Snoops..., uh oh.

The first season of Harry's Law?

Well, it was okay, but unfortunately, not consistent enough. There were parts that worked very well: Kathy Bates, Paul Mccrane, Christopher Mcdonald and Nate Cordry. The rest of the characters, unfortunately, didn't.

The shoe store stuff didn't work either and one can hope that they move to another place in season two. This original setting was meant to provide an underdog feel to the show, but in the end it felt pretty forced and contrived.

What was good about the show, not surprisingly, was the courtroom stuff. There's something genuinely great about the way Kelley writes these scenes. Somehow he manages to spellbind the audience and make it feel like we're living and taking part in those decisions.

That's because Kelley, like his mentor Steven Bochco, go with idea that the we (the audience) are not idiots and the our judgement matters. When you watch Harry's Law, it clearly shows.

But that doesn't mean that it's easy to write that well. For example, let's take a look at this another lawyer show, The Good Wife.

The Good Wife has cases that aren't really interesting or clever. The characters are bland and the dialogue is almost ridiculously forced. In the end, there's no real debate about the issues. I'm personally still having nightmares about that Michael J. Fox episode. It was that bad.

But thankfully we have our Kelley and if we do get a second season for Harry's Law, I just hope that he figures out what didn't work and fixes those problems. If that happens, it's going to be all good.

Oh, and here's a recent interview of him by the way:

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Dehumanizing characters: The Big Bang Theory.

Here's one of the weirdest things I've ever seen.

The Big Bang Theory's scripts for some reason use last names for two of their characters: Howard Wolowitz and Rajesh Koothrappali.

I have no idea why they do that.

Not only are Koothrappali and Wolowitz rather hard to write and pronounce, but it also dehumanizes Howard and Raj. To me it's almost like describing them as character X and character Y.

I think that's simply wrong.

For example, could you imagine if scripts for Friends had Chandler Bing as 'Bing' or Rachel Green as 'Green'?

I don't think so. Thankfully that didn't happen. We had Chandler and Rachel (and Joey and Ross and Phoebe).

I'm not saying that there can't be any exceptions. House for example uses House for Dr. Gregory House. But that's okay because House is an abbreviation and well, House has an attitude.

But when it comes to The Big Bang Theory, I have no idea what Lorre and Prady were thinking.

No wonder the show lacks character development. You can't develope your characters unless you treat them as real human beings.

Shame on you guys with your last names.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Lessons from the cancellation of Two And a Half Men.

I think this incident shows how important it is for everyone's well-being that the showrunner delivers quality scripts for the show.

I think it also shows what may happen when the star (actor) of the series is more talented than the showrunner himself.

It's not exactly a secret that 2 1/2 Men has been pretty awful since season three. It's not a secret either that Charlie Sheen is more talented than Chuck Lorre.

I doubt anyone saw this incident coming. But it shouldn't surprise us that the target here is Lorre and the person making accusations is the guy from Platoon.

The lesson here is that if you're a showrunner and your star starts calling you a hack, you'd better be prepared.

The best defense you can think of is very easy and simple.

Don't be a hack.

It solves so many problems at once.

Just don't be a hack.

I mean,

the cast will be happy.

The crew will be happy.

The network will be happy.

The audience will be happy.

Even members of the academy are going to be happy.

Only thing you need is : don't be a hack.

The problem with Chuck Lorre is that he doesn't have a defense.

Which is to not be a hack.

Now, I'm not saying that it solves your every problem as a showrunner but it certainly is a good start.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Celebrity Apprentice 2011.

Two episodes in of this latest season of Celebrity Apprentice and I think I already have a pretty good idea of what's going on in here.

If you're like me, you like underdogs and don't like egomaniacs and divas. You like positive, humble people and dislike people that are negative, superficial and shallow.

So you probably tend to like a guy like Gary Busey and hate a person like Star Jones.

I mean, hate is a rather strong word but Star Jones really seems like a horrible horrible human being.

But that's cool. I'm okay with that, as long as she gets fired as soon as possible.

Unlike Richard Hatch, she doesn't seem to have any self-awareness at all, which is a really bad thing in a competition like this.

Other than that, I have to say that Dionne Warwick didn't impress me either.

Jose Canseco seems like a harmless goofball despite the steroids.

LaToya Jackson doesn't seem that bad and it was nice how Trump told us that her brother was a really good person.

Meat Loaf seems like a great guy and the country singer John Rich is apparently down to earth too.

Also, I have already been proven wrong this season. Because supermodel Niki Taylor seems like a really lovely person and rapper Lil Jon has impressed me too.

Obviously this season won't be as good as last season was. But I guess that's okay too. Nothing wrong with underdogs like Bret Michaels but I seriously doubt anyone wants to see a contestant almost dying in the competition this year.

I expect Marlee Matlin to win. Not because she's deaf or smart, but because she used to date David E. Kelley.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

The Big Bang Theory - writing a script.

Here's a link to one of my Big Bang Theory scripts:

I have to say that I wrote a complete synopsis of this episode and thought about posting it here. But then I read it again and had to conclude that reading a synopsis is like watching paint dry.

The thing is that a script isn't about what it's about but how it's about it. So I thought that posting the synopsis would serve no purpose because it wouldn't answer the question of "how it's about".

You have to read the full script if you want to both know and feel it. (what and how)

Anyway, some brief observations about my two premises that were:
1) Sheldon wants to get Leonard Nimoy to give the guys a lecture.
2) Howard and Raj fight for the same girl.

In hindsight one should see that the first one had its own set of potential pitfalls. It was doubtful that you could actually get Leonard Nimoy to guest star in the episode in question. Another problem was that episodes with stars playing themselves usually aren't good.

Therefore, a relatively safe solution to this problem was that we wouldn't get to see Nimoy (not Sheldon and not anyone else either)

But this created another problem. If the plot hinted too much that we were going to see Nimoy and that in the end it wouldn't happen, the audience would have been very disappointed and would have felt cheated.

So even though the episode was going to be about Leonard Nimoy, at the same time it couldn't be about him. It had to be about something else that the audience would find more interesting than Sheldon meeting Spock.

I hope that my "Sheldon with kids" is a twist that the audience would appreciate...

When it came to the other storyline, it had to be as simple and straightforward as possible. So what it meant was that the storylines had to be well integrated. The whole second act happens at their university and only two sets are used - the university hallway and the lunchroom.

Hopefully I managed to fix most of the problems that I had while writing the script. For example, the first draft had the girl also in the second act but I changed it, so that instead of Howard meeting the girl, he only tells about the meeting.

Other than that, there's a lot of stuff going on in the script. Maybe even too much and it's hard to tell whether the first act works. But at the very least I did my best to have the episode based on character and truth. And I think I made (or kept) the characters likable too.

Monday, February 14, 2011

The Big Bang Theory's staircase problem.

May I ask you to to take a look at the picture above? It has Penny, Sheldon, Leonard, Raj and Howard in it. Nothing special there, right? Standard stuff?

Well, to be exact, no. Because this picture from an earlier season is something that we haven't seen on the show in a long time. (for example not once after 16 episodes this season)

You might say that, "so what, what's the deal here?".

The issue here is that in my opinion the picture and the moment above defines the show, its universe and its laws perhaps better than any other from the series.

"But how and why?"

Well, the thing is that the staircase and the hallway in the picture might be the most important setpiece on the show. It is the place between the geek world (Sheldon's and Leonard's apartment) and the normal world (Penny's apartment).

The place in the middle, is where both worlds meet.

It's the place where Leonard and Penny first kiss (not drunk). It's the place where Sheldon manages to apologize to Penny. It's where Penny starts crying after being such a failure and it's also the place where Raj turns his pelvis after Penny hugs him.

(in my opinion one of the funniest and sweetest moments on the show)

It's the place where both groups have to make compromises in order to understand each other better. Our geeks trying to figure out normal life and relationships while enjoying their nerdy lifestyle. Succeeding, failing, making us laugh. Things like that.

Or that's how it used to be. Unfortunately, it hasn't been that way this season at all. This original good stuff has been missing. Lots of other things have changed too and not for the better.

For example, as you can see, in this picture the guys are still friends, probably ready to do something interesting together or at least having a common goal or a problem.

On the show however, they basically aren't friends anymore. They also don't seem to have tasks or challenges as a group either.

Well, they do hang around together, but usually with the weakest amount of motivation that you could think of - like in the university lunchroom, usually arguing about stuff that makes you wonder why they spend any time together at all. Or doing something else that makes you question their friendship.

What was so good about the staircase, (the entrance and the floors) was that everytime our geeks went up and down, they were functioning as a group and that their bonding and friendship was understandable and logical. It simply made sense. It was about strong motivation.

They might have had their disagreements, like about Middle Earth festivals or paintball sessions, or about wearing costumes to Penny's party, but it was still all good. The staircase signified their friendship better than almost anything else (including the livingroom table).

It gave the show energy, direction and balance. It made you feel comfortable and safe. And most of all, it gave the series meaning and purpose.

But that was when the show was at its best. During the first and the second season. When The Big Bang Theory was still both fresh and funny. When it was so full of actual promise. When it had almost gotten up there.

That's why it's a real shame that we haven't seen those walks anymore. It might be the single biggest reason that the show isn't good or funny today.

Is it too late to change the course? Maybe it is, maybe it isn't. Nevertheless, that picture, moment and scene above should remind us all what the show is really about.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Making pop culture references count.

If there's one thing that really separates bad writers from good ones, it is the way one deals with pop culture references.

In short, pop culture references aren't supposed to be empty, pointless, random or forced.

Instead they are supposed to have a context, sound natural and have a point. A good writer also knows that sometimes you need to hide your references.

Because it's not really about the reference. It's about the situation itself.

Doesn't seem that hard, right?

Depends really on who's writing the reference. It can be really good. It can be really bad.

Family Guy has made a virtue out of making empty, random and totally pointless references. The show is basically nothing more than flashbacks and cutaways to some 80's incident or person. No need to respect a show like that.

Nevertheless, one of the worst, if not actually the worst reference ever, was the reference in one of Community's episodes. An empty, random, pointless, out of the blue reference of one character saying "I love you" and the other one saying "I know". (Star Wars)

The fans of the show say that Community is about some clever meta-level stuff. But you don't have to go further than that to understand that there really is no there there.

No cleverness, no point, random, no context. It's just there in the open. Empty and tired.

But "I love you" - "I know" isn't necessarily a bad reference itself. You just have to know how to use it.

For example, how would 30 Rock reference it? Well, I would think that it would involve an exchange of thoughts between Liz Lemon and Jack Donaghy. Perhaps they would be drunk... and the following lines would be said:

Liz Lemon: "Oh Mr. Donaghy, you are such a wonderful person" (beat)

Jack Donaghy: "I love you too, Lemon" (beat) "I'm sorry, I meant to say I know".

Or you could switch and first say "I know" and then "I'm sorry, Lemon, I meant to say I love you too". Depending on which one would give it a better flow.

In any case, notice how the reference is consistent with Alec Baldwin's character. It's natural, it has a point and it's not completely obvious.

You didn't notice it? That's why it's a good reference.

Hot shows that really aren't that hot.

I don't know if there's a better example of cluelessness in the screenwriting "business" than the following one.

Not naming any names but there was a discussion about what tv shows are the hottest for a "spec" writer. A guy supposedly in-the-know said that those are Modern Family, Community and Parks & Recreation.

Obviously Modern Family is one. Emmy award for best comedy series and also a pretty big ratings hit. So no problems there.

But what on earth are Community and Parks & Recreation doing on this list?

When you think about writing a spec for an existing show, you have to think about three different things:

1) Is the show a ratings hit?
2) Does the show get awards or at least nominations?
3) Do showrunners like this particular tv-series?

So "Community" is the big thing right now? Online raves about it. Film school enthusiasts can't seem to get enough of the show.

Here's the reality check:
1) Community gets horrible ratings.
2) It doesn't win any awards or even get nominations.
3) Showrunners do not apparently think much of it.

One that I know called it simply "a tired show".

Steven Levitan, a showrunner for Modern Family said that Community "has some strong dialogue", which in reality means that it doesn't have character or storytelling strengths. So I guess it's not that good.

But the "online" loves it. And the film school people...

As for Parks & Recreation, it didn't get ratings, any awards or nominations and in fact, wasn't even on. Yet it's a "hot" show.

Somebody is simply not telling the truth here.

The hot shows to spec are still those that get awards or the audience. These are shows like 30 Rock, The Big Bang Theory, Modern Family... perhaps even 2 1/2 Men.

Oh, and South Park. Let's not forget that one.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Writing a Modern Family Episode: Part III hopefully getting it right.

Okay, we have reached the final part of "writing a Modern Family episode".

Instead of revealing the story, I'm asking you to think about three things:

1. What is the funniest thing that could happen if Cameron and Mitchell took Lily for a baby swim?

2. What is likely the funniest thing that includes Jay, Gloria and bikes?

3. What is the funniest and the most dramatic story that would involve Phil as Homer Simpson and his high school buddy as Barney Gumble?

And how could one tie these story arcs together in the end?

So, I thought about Cam as Fizbo the clown.

I thought about Tandem bikes.

I thought about Phil actually showing character.

I thought about Freaky Friday.

I thought about Mr. Bean.

I asked myself what David E. Kelley would do.

I tried to remind myself that life's a laugh and death's a joke.

I read John F. Kennedy's quote about how laughter is the only part of God that we can ever try to understand.

I thought that writing a script really can't be that hard.

I wrote it in three days.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Writing a Modern Family Episode: Part II - specific problems with a specific episode.

Originally posted by me on:

Well, (continuing on my thoughts) a writer needs to understand that in Modern Family 21 minutes is a really long time and that it allows you to do a lot of stuff.

At the same time it means that what you write has to be well thought out. Otherwise you’re bound to run into serious trouble. The episode 2#11 "Slow Down Your Neighbors" was a rather good example of this.

First (wasn’t first that was introduced) we had Phil and his work-related stuff. I thought it was the worst of the three. It was bad because it was so muddled and the setup was non-existing (without setup there’s no plot).

Claire bullhorning about a speeder leading to Phil’s old work related friend leading to Phil not feeling like telling something to Claire leading to Phil doing something leading to Claire chasing that friend…

That might be okay if we were dealing with a single storyline episode. But to put all that confusion and weak motivation into one of the three plotlines is simply wrong. (even though Avclub gave it an A-)

The second plot was about Jay teaching Manny and Gloria to ride a bike. I don’t have a problem with the structure of this plotline but did any of you think it was a plausible storyline?

Childlike Gloria and a 13 year old Manny not knowing how to ride a bike without additional help? Out of character stuff. This is something that you should definitely avoid.

The third plotline. When it came to the Cam/Mitchell plotline, the doomswitch was the “twist” of the guy actually living in their playhouse.

The premise of the guy “upstairs” itself was hard to swallow but the twist simply wasn’t any good and was a letdown. (nevertheless, funniest of the three because Eric Stonestreet is the funniest guy on tv)

The thing is that if you have to do the twist, it better be something that 1) is unexpected 2) is something that the audience is going to really like and 3) is something that the audience doesn’t recognize as a twist.

Instead it's something different. The moment has to be seen as an awesome and yet as a smooth change in the direction of the plotline. Very hard to do, I guess. But it's not impossible to achieve.

So, what you should be able to do is to have 1) simple, clear setups 2) universal truths about us and about our characters = plausible storylines and 3) twist that won’t be seen as a twist.

My Modern Family script in Part III - coming up soon!

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Writing a Modern Family Episode: Part I - things to consider.

Well, it won the Comedy series Emmy so let's pay more attention to Modern Family:

Originally posted by me on:

I managed to write a Modern Family spec recently and made some observations about what works and what doesn't work on the show. I thought it would be nice if I'd share them here.

This is obviously not a complete list but I hope the reader nevertheless finds these tips helpful. Crucial points while writing a script in my opinion are:

1) Interviews shouldn’t be used after the cold open.
2) Don’t put too many characters in one place / episode.
3) Cam & Mitch are the funny characters.
4) Avoid story arcs that are too convoluted.
5) Don’t run out of your story too early.
6) Try to avoid storylines that don’t add up & forced happy endings.

1) Interviews are okay and sometimes really funny. However, they mainly serve as expositionary devices. They also slow down the episode and pull you out of the story. So if you use these later in the episode, the chances are overwhelmingly that you’re making a really big mistake.

2) Having too many main characters in the same scene/room is a big problem too. It makes the show feel directionless and even claustrophobic. That’s why I’d recommend to avoid the Dunphy house as much as possible (yikes!).

You should also limit the amount of main characters in your episode to give your episode some clarity. I dropped the kids from my spec script by the way.

Having said that, it’s okay to use guest stars and one/two line part characters. Also, make them go to new places as much as possible – because unlike in the multicam sitcoms – in this format they can and should go.

3) About Cam & Mitchell. These two are the best part of the show. Eric Stonestreet is the funniest guy on tv. Mitch and Cam are believable, relatable, refreshing and charming. In short, they are the main reason that the show won the comedy series Emmy.

If you don’t have them in funny situations and making funny comments, you’re script is toast. The rest are very hard to make funny so pay attention to the gay couple.

4) Convoluted storylines: there was this one episode that looked like it was going to have a solid beginning, middle and an end. However, the episode fell apart when it came to the resolution of the Claire/Haley watching tv in the bed together.

We had two other separate storylines that were going on and then there was this storyline where Haley thought that Claire was talking about herself (mom) and Claire thought that Haley was talking about herself (daughter). It was way too convoluted.

The point here is that you have to keep the storylines simple and straightforward. If you don’t, your script won’t work.

5) Story runs out too early: remember the episode where Mitch dressed as a spiderman at his work? Mitch in the booth wearing the costume trying to hide from his co-workers. Hilarious, absolutely great stuff.

Except that the episode continued for like 7 minutes after the climax. I think this was another of those “Claire has a thing for” episodes. The halloween scene after that at Dunphys’ was painful, miserable and tedious. Avoid mistakes like these.

6) Finally, the most problematic part of the show in my opinion: an emotional wrap in at least half of the episodes that we have seen. It almost always comes out of nowhere.

The characters haven’t learned anything in the episode or they might be at each others throats – but 15 seconds later a voice over or a couch interview or some kind of a montage with music resolves it all. Don’t do this unless you and the characters on the show have earned it.

Part II coming up soon!