Sunday, February 22, 2015

Your storylines shouldn't be too much alike.

Last week I wrote about how storylines shouldn't be too different from each other in an episode. If they're thematically and tonally too different, your script will suffer from it and there won't be much harmony in your screenplay.

At the same time, it's also possible to make your storylines too similar. If your storylines are too much alike, your script won't work either. This might happen when you think about 'harmony' a bit too much and go too far with the similarity aspect.

As usual, I'm using the award winning series Modern Family to illustrate how things might go wrong with your script. This particular example comes from the episode 6x13 'Rash Decisions', that aired two weeks ago. In this case the storylines are just too much alike.

The episode in question had four storylines. The problem here is that if you pay any attention to them, there are only two original story ideas. The remaining storylines the writers pretty much got from duplicating the first two. 

In any case, the first 'similar' storyline one was about Stella. In this one Gloria suspected that their son Joe was allergic to the presence of their French bulldog. This lead to Jay having to give up on her for a week to see what happens. Mitch and Cam would take care of Stella.

The second storyline was about Andy being prepared by Phil so that he could become a real estate agent. Phil was testing him and asking questions about different aspects of the profession. Andy was afraid that he wasn't ready.

The third storyline was about Mitchell doing some pro-bono for a week. Instead of working at his law firm, he was helping his father Jay. There were some legal issues that needed to be sorted out. Basically Mitchell wanted to see what went on at Jay's firm.

The last storyline was about Alex preparing herself for a college interview. She was nervous about getting it right and not screwing up. Haley was teasing her and making her feel even more insecure about the upcoming meeting.

As you might hopefully be able to see, there's basically no difference between Andy's and Alex's storylines. They're pretty much identical. The only difference is that we had different characters playing those roles. Thematically there was no difference. This was not good.

As I kept re-watching the episode, I noticed that not only were the first two storylines duplicates, in reality so were the other two. Stella went from Jay's world to Mitchell's, Mitchell went to Jay's world - and there was no real link - causality - between these storylines.

The end result of having an obviously duplicated storyline combined with another so called 'harmonious' pairing made the episode as a whole feel manufactured. There was no way that these storylines would 'naturally co-exist' in real life.

Alex prepping for an interview vs. Andy prepping for a big moment. Mitchell one week at Jay's place to see what happens vs. Stella from Jay's place to Mitchell's for one week in order to see what happens. These storylines were just way, way too much alike.

Not surprisingly it made me have rather negative feelings towards the writers of this episode. Did they think that this was good screenwriting? Perhaps they specifically thought that this is how one writes an elegant episode. Unfortunately, that's not how it goes.

In the end, what we should learn from this all is that you shouldn't try to write storylines that are too much alike. When you can't really tell the difference between the story ideas, the script as a whole is going to suffer as a result.  

Monday, February 16, 2015

There needs to be a certain amount of harmony between your A, B and C - storylines.

One of the things that you can learn from most sitcom books is the idea that there should be some kind of harmony between your storylines. According to most authors, your storylines shouldn't be thematically and tonally too different from each other.

This kind of advice in most cases is pretty good. Indeed, there are instances where it's pretty obvious that a storyline doesn't fit in with the rest of the episode. The storyline in question feels out of place and makes the episode as a whole a mess.

One of the best examples of this kind of writing can be found in Modern Family's episode 5x12, 'Under Pressure'. This episode shows that sometimes you shouldn't try to put in a piece of a puzzle that won't fit in with the rest of the storylines.

In any case, this is the episode in which Alex Dunphy loses it - has an emotional breakdown due to stress - and ends up seeing a therapist. This storyline is probably the most seriously serious that the writers have tried - and failed - to integrate to an episode.

So there are a couple of fatal flaws in 'Under Pressure'. The biggest is likely that there are a total of five storylines in that same 22 minute episode - and all of them (besides Alex) are slapstick. This leads to the dramatic storyline sticking out like a sore thumb. 

Good drama is always about elegance. How do you pull off an elegant episode when you have not only too many storylines, but you also have a storyline that radically differs from the others in every imaginable way?

I mean, Cam the gym teacher is dressed as a cowboy at school. Claire does her usual physical comedy. Jay and Phil smuggle alcohol. Jesse Eisenberg rapid talks with Mitchell. Luke and Manny have a crush on the same girl - and then we still have that, uhhuh, therapy storyline.

It makes no sense to have a really dramatic storyline in the episode when those other storylines don't support it. To make it even worse, Alex's story already climaxes in the very first scene. Everything that happens after that in her story is pretty much irrelevant.

Watching that Alex's storyline felt like watching a different show. When you watched it and compared to the rest of the episode, none of it made really sense. All her scenes were just thematically out of place and out of sync. 

This was not good stuff at all -  and yet - a lot of the critics liked it. Even though objectively speaking the script for the episode wasn't any good, it got even nominated for a writer's guild award. What were these people thinking?

In any case, this episode didn't work as a whole at all - and if you want to see another Modern Family episode that suffers from 'harmony' problems, check the recent 6x13 'Rash Decisions'. That one doesn't work either - but for different reasons.

Monday, February 9, 2015

Ally Mcbeal: a Show Full of Soul, Substance and Entertainment.

There's probably no other show that has influenced me more than David Kelley's Emmy winning comedy series Ally Mcbeal. It's very likely the single biggest reason that I wanted to become a television writer myself.

There are many reasons why the show has had such a huge impact on me. One of the most important reasons is the fact that Ally Mcbeal showed how it's possible for one person to be responsible for pretty much all of the content on the show.

As far as I know, David E. Kelley almost single-handedly wrote the whole first season of the show. Considering that he also had other shows on air at that time made the feat almost impossible to pull off. He managed to write like twenty episodes all by himself.

In any case, what made Ally Mcbeal in my opinion so good is that it rather seamlessly managed to combine different aspects of peoples' lives into one show. It was about how we - as Ally and the rest - try to manage our professional and our personal lives at the same time.

The central theme of the show was how the main character and protagonist Ally tried to be as good lawyer as possible while she tried to find her soul mate in life. This, as we saw, was much easier said than done. 

Indeed, the show was a lot about dreams - and how things wouldn't always go as we hoped they would. In Ally's case, her soul mate, Billy, was already married to another person, Georgia, and they both also happened to work at the same law firm with her. 

The series had these characters representing their clients in cases that ranged from anything between suing God to trying to get the judge to agree to a three-way marriage. Very few things were off-limits for the show when it came to tackling social issues.

The series was very good at showing both sides of the argument. In most cases it was difficult to tell who was right and who was wrong. This is what made the court cases so intriguing. You wanted to know how the storylines and the cases would be solved.

Let's also not forget the supporting characters. One of the show's biggest strengths was that just about every supporting character was interesting too. From Ling to John and Richard. Everyone had qualities that made you root for them. 

This of course didn't mean that they were perfect. All the characters had not only good qualities but they also had some distinct character flaws. Richard was a sexist, Ally got easily frustrated, Elaine was nosy, Ling was too blunt and John stuttered.

The show was also famous for its over-the-top moments. There were a lot of dance sequences, Ally would hallucinate, John Cage's nose would whistle, they all shared the same huge bathroom, the judges were bizarre and so on. 

There were so many things why the series shouldn't have worked. Yet, for some reason everything just clicked. The show was an absurdist romantic comedy mixed with some very dramatic moments. It was something that we had never seen before.

In my opinion, Ally Mcbeal worked because it was a series that managed to make you think and feel. It would make you laugh and cry. There was soul, substance and entertainment in almost every episode - well at least during the first three seasons.

In the end, that is a something that is extremely rare when it comes to television entertainment - and it's something that makes me miss the show very much. I honestly don't think we're going to have a show like Ally Mcbeal on tv anytime soon.

Monday, February 2, 2015

Seinfeld's pilot wasn't any good - or was it?

One of the things that you get to hear when a sitcom pilot isn't any good is the saying that just because the pilot for xxx wasn't any good, we shouldn't necessarily be that worried. After all, Seinfeld's pilot wasn't supposedly good either. 

This claim has been repeated by so many people so many times that certain people in the media have started to believe it. They say that if a show gets cancelled today, it's not only because of the lack quality. It's more because the network executives gave up too easily.

Unfortunately, for them, there's one really big problem with their 'Seinfeld' defense. The fact is that Seinfeld's pilot wasn't actually bad at all. In reality, the pilot - if not totally awesome - was still pretty engaging and well made.

In any case, one big reason that Seinfeld's pilot works is because it manages to signal to the audience that it's a show about something. We get a sense that the show is not only character driven but it also has a well written story(lines) to deliver for the audience.

Another thing that works: the pilot for Seinfeld shows how important the very first scene is. The discussion between the main characters, Jerry and George gets the audience invested in the story and the characters (a girl is going to visit Jerry).  

The pilot works because it uses really well that "something is about to happen" device that most writers unfortunately don't understand well enough. This storytelling trick helps to get over the slow parts where the characters are being defined and the story lags a bit. 

The pilot also uses Jerry's stand-up routines - that we see later on in the episode. There are in my opinion are well utilized too and have a point. They mesh in rather well with the rest of the episode and manage to add to the story instead of taking away from it.

When it comes to the story, there's of course only so much you can do in a multicam sitcom pilot. There can't be that much of a plot in the first episode. Nevertheless, I thought that the ending where it's revealed that the girl is already engaged was well executed too.

Other than that, even though the show does get better during its later seasons, it's obvious that there's a lot of potential in the pilot. It manages to get most of the things right. It's not that 'funny' perhaps, but it manages to give us insight into how we think about things.

As you can see from the clip below - Seinfeld's pilot absolutely should not be compared to any of those failed pilots that never had any potential to begin with. It might not be the best pilot of all time, but it's still way better than most people give it credit for.