Friday, October 24, 2014

Multi-cam sitcoms can be a great learning tool.

As I've probably written about it on this site before, when it comes to writing a spec script, very few things are as important as choosing the right show that your script is going to be based on. In fact, it might actually be the most important decision that you're going to make.

One of those important things that you need to consider when you choose a show to spec is to make sure that the show has a lot of potential as a series. If you have any ambitions as a writer, you can never choose a show that isn't any good.

All good shows are well written or at least have the potential to be well written. The characters in them are believable and you can relate to them. The storylines have a connection to reality and the stakes are - if not always high - they still exist.

The reason you should choose a good show is because that way you get to challenge yourself. Choosing a good show gives you a chance to come up with a good spec. Writing a script based on a bad show won't give you that chance - you won't write anything good.

But there are other ways to challenge yourself too, because it's not only about choosing a good show, It's also about choosing a format that will teach you the most and  will be the best learning experience for you.

When it comes to sitcoms, you can choose between two formats: you can either choose a single camera show like Modern Family, or a multi camera show like The Big Bang Theory (multi-cam shows are recorded in front of a live studio audience and have "laugh tracks").

As far as I know, pretty much everyone agrees that it's at least somewhat more difficult to write multicam sitcoms than it is to write single camera sitcoms where you are not bound by locations. In single camera sitcoms there are far fewer restrictions.

Multicams are harder to write because there are only so many places where your characters can go and there are only so many things that they can do. You need better and stronger ideas for multicam sitcoms than you need for single camera sitcoms.

Not only you need stronger ideas, but in many cases - like for example in Frasier or on Everybody Loves Raymond, you need like really good ideas. You might have just one central storyline - and to make things more challenging, it might happen in one single room.

This is the reason that writing specs for The Big Bang Theory is so challenging. It forces you to think really hard before you can start writing. You need to think about the characters, what their strengths and weaknesses are and what you can do about them.

Nothing comes for free. If you don't have that big central idea that would get you through the script, you are screwed. You don't have those two or three other parallel storylines to bail you out. It's hard work to come up with one plot point after another.

Of course I'm not saying that you won't learn stuff from single cams sitcoms - but I would definitely recommend that you check out multicams too. They're harder to write, but in the end I think you'll probably learn more from then than you'll learn from single cams.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

"When television is good, nothing is better. When it's bad, nothing is worse."

Some months ago I managed to find and read Newton N. Minow's landmark 'Wasteland speech' about the state of television. In it the former FCC chairman talks about the responsibilities of those who produce programming for television networks.

It is a wonderful and an eloquent speech about the need for quality programming. It was penned when John F. Kennedy was still the president of The United States - more than fifty years ago. At that time there were only three network channels on television.

In his speech Minow has a lot to say: he correctly warned us about many things that are wrong about television entertainment: unnecessary violence, bad dramas, unfunny sitcoms, implausible characters and families in situations that make no sense - and so on.

Today we have more than just three channels: we have hundreds of them. There's much more programming on tv nowadays, reality television, documentaries and scripted television, sitcoms and dramas among other things.  The list is almost endless.

It's not a secret that there actually are some good tv programs today. In reality though, more than ever before, television programs tend to be of very low quality. There are very few shows that are actually worth watching today.

One of the biggest problems with today's television is that basically nobody seems to be brave enough to say what Newton N. Minow dared to say more than fifty years ago: that is that most of the stuff that you see on tv is simply horrendous and has no value.

What he said was really daring. I don't think you can really say anything like that today in our politically correct environment where 'everything is awesome'. It's just safer to bow your head and say that this is the golden age of television™.

As sad it is, this kind of denial runs so deep in the entertainment business.  It's so depressing to read about these usual lies about the awesomeness of tv: like network executives backing their atrocious shows that nobody even watches - they call it "niche tv."

It's equally heartbreaking when you constantly read positive reviews by these so called "tv journalists" for shows that clearly don't have any redeeming qualities. They are extremely poorly made by people who don't have what it takes to entertain and to educate us.

Truth is, as Newton Minow said, that when tv is good, almost nothing is better. The best shows probably do make us better human beings: shows such as the early seasons of The Simpsons, Star Trek, the best of David Kelley shows, Amazing Race and so on.

At the same time, as he also said, when television is bad, almost nothing is indeed worse. Almost nothing is as depressing as seeing bad television programs. Bad tv makes us seem vain, self-absorbed, superficial, ignorant and worthless.

In any case, television is potentially a wonderful innovation. It allows us to communicate our ideas. It also allows us to entertain and to educate people. But it is up to us to set the bar higher. If we don't care about the quality enough, we don't really deserve better.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Modern Family's worst storyline ever - "The Cold".

When I read the synopsis for the episode that aired this Wednesday, I already knew that the audience was going to be in serious trouble. There was no way that the episode would make any sense. Reading just the recap made me nauseous to be honest:

Phil must make creative edits in Cam and Mitch's wedding video when footage reveals that Phil is responsible for a terrible cold that has plagued the family; Gloria and Jay try to help Manny cope with stress in different ways.

This was so bad because the premise of the episode made no sense at all. Why would anyone - weeks or months after the fact - give a damn about who "gave" the flu? Influenza is a totally natural thing to happen anyway. It's not like Phil created that particular virus.

So the whole thing was unbelievably stupid and made no sense. Especially considering that others must have known that he was sick - if he indeed was sick. In that video he was five and a half feet under and yet nobody else supposedly had a clue. 

Besides, why would anyone really believe that every other member of the family would get sick and after like a month or so it would then be Claire's turn to get the flu - and that it still would have something to do with Phil's condition. 

But the storyline got even worse, when Phil decided to fix this "problem" that wasn't really a problem in the first place. Using a green screen and other techniques to cover up his accidental sneezes? In what universe was that even remotely plausible? 

Phil superimposing Luke's head to replace him in the video. Having two Phils in the same scene and no one notices anything? How can any writer who's even remotely sane pitch something like this in the writers room? This was just pure madness.

This storyline was so bad that it really depressed and made me mad. What were the people in charge thinking here? Modern Family is supposed to have at least some kind of a connection to the real world. This was just a new low - and I knew it before I even saw it.

If this is the best that the writers can do - ('The Cold' was written by American Dad writers) then I think we're pretty much done with the show. Three episodes have aired and every episode has sucked donkey balls. I'm almost afraid to see what happens next week.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Gotham - looks better than it really is.

Even though I have never been that big fan of the Batman series itself, I was still rather excited about seeing these familiar characters on my tv screen again. I thought it was about time that we'd get an update on what's happening in Gotham city nowadays.

One of the biggest reasons that I liked the idea of getting a new show about 'Batman' characters is that 'Gotham' isn't that much about Batman's character itself. Instead, the show primarily revolves around commissioner Jim Gordon and his police department.

In essence, Gotham is a show about what happened before Bruce Wayne became Batman and before those other characters, heroes or villains like Catwoman and Penguine became who they were. This "origins" concept seemed pretty interesting to me.

I have now seen the first two episodes and I think I have a pretty good idea what the strengths and the weaknesses of Gotham are.  There are a lot of good things about the show, but there are unfortunately some really big problems that one simply can't overlook.

So let's start with the good things about Gotham. I have to be honest and say that the show looks pretty darn good. The production values are high, so you get the feeling that those who were responsible for the 'look' of the show did a good job.

I also like the casting in most cases. I think Benjamin McKenzie is not only pretty believable but also surprisingly likable as commissioner Jim Gordon. He's definitely a good actor who has evolved and grown over the last decade. McKenzie's definitely not an "O.C" actor anymore.

I also thought Donal Logue is pretty good as detective Harvey Bullock. He brings toughness to his character. Also, the child actors who play Bruce Wayne and Selina Kyle seem pretty solid too (some people haven't liked her at all). 

Nevertheless, I think pretty easily the best character so far has been Oswald Cobblepot who will eventually become the penguin. I think this character played by Robin Lord Taylor is genuinely fascinating. Here's a character that you either hate to love or love to hate.

Then there's the writing, which so far has been Gotham's weakest link by far. I found the lack of quality writing to be weird, because almost everything else about Gotham has been pretty good. There's really no reason why the scripts couldn't be really solid too.

There are numerous problems with the writing as far as I'm concerned. For instance, too many things happened in both episodes that I managed to see. They crammed as much plot as possible which made the episodes feel rushed. They story just kept jumping forward.

Too many characters were introduced in my opinion too. I'm not sure but it seems that they introduced like four different villains already, which felt so unnecessary.  It's as if we have almost seen every single character already.

Then there's also the problem with things not making sense. For example, I didn't like how they went after the person who supposedly murdered Bruce Wayne's parents. I also didn't like when Gordon's wife contacted the reporter. That was just too implausible.

You also tend to get the feeling that the story drives the characters too much and it's not the characters that drive the story. They are sacrificing character development in order to keep the story moving forward.  The penguin character is the one that has suffered the most.

When you watch the show, you get the feeling that there's so much potential here. This show could be really good, if only the scripts were a tad better. It shouldn't take that much effort, but it really depends on whether those in charge have the talent to pull it off.

All in all, 'Gotham' is a show that I'm very likely going to keep watching. The flaws are a bit too apparent,  but there are still a lot good of things about the show. Hopefully the scripts will get better because that's pretty much all that's missing.