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Lost, The Final Season
The last season of Lost is upon us, and it gives writers of every medium an opportunity to watch masters of the craft push the television medium to places it has never gone. Lost is the first example of video game story structure transposed to TV, and the results have revolutionized the medium.
The old model of television involved the stand-alone episode, best exemplified in a crime or detective show. A murder was committed at the beginning of the episode, and then the cop uncovered the criminal and brought him to justice by the end. The next week a new crime was committed and solved. So plot was limited to what could be unraveled in 45 minutes.
With shows like Hill Street Blues and ER, the technique of the serial was added to TV. The cops, lawyers or doctors now had ongoing personal problems that extended over many episodes while retaining the stand-alone elements where a crime or medical emergency was solved by the end of the episode.
The creators of Lost had a big realization: the TV medium has not been used to its full potential, especially in the area of plot. So they shifted their focus from the single episode to the entire season. If you multiply 45 minutes per week by the 24 weeks of a network season, you have a story that is 9 times the length of a movie!
That's Dickens' territory. But the model the Lost creators used to construct this mega-canvas was not the 19th century novel, because that doesn't take advantage of the crosscutting power of film and TV. Instead they cross-pollinated TV structure with video game structure, potentially the most plot intensive of all story forms. This meant three things above all:
1. the huge importance of the story world 2. an almost infinite number of characters 3. tremendous plot, because you can keep going deeper into the same world and find more reveals.
Like all multi-main character stories, the storytelling in Lost is all about juxtaposition and story weave. In the first three seasons, the writers were funneling out, adding layers and layers of plot, increasing the story's scope by increasing the number of characters. But by the end of the third season the writers had reached the limit of plot: first, there were so many characters that they seemed like pawns and not people, and second, plot came to feel like a huge stall where further complications were just pointless.
That's why, in the last two seasons, the writers have been funneling down, concentrating on the six "survivors" as well as John, Jack and Ben. This speeded up the plot by giving the many strands a convergent point, and switched the emphasis from the puzzle of plot to the emotional satisfaction of character.
In the first four seasons, the conflict focused on characters in space. Last season Lost shifted to conflict in time. In other words, time travel. Time travel is always a fun plot device. But what does it really mean? The ultimate thematic point of time travel is to compress into one view a character's moral failings vs. the final moral judgment against him or her. Through the crosscut, the viewer can suddenly see in one view a single character's life span, and the choices that make all the difference in the quality of a human life.
Sure enough, in the middle of season five, we saw a series of episodes in which each of the main characters had their own show. Instead of strictly plot reveals for a mass of characters within the world, time travel allowed the writers to create strong emotional character payoffs for each of the nine major characters. At the same time the plot reveals for the entire show continued to come over the course of the whole season, which satisfied the plot cravings of the die-hard viewer.
If last season was about time travel, this season the writers are using the story technique of alternative history, contrasting actions on the island with an alternative present for each of the major characters back in the real world. The purpose of the alternative history technique is the same as it is for time travel. Both contrast the moral choices that caused these characters to come to the island in the first place. Each episode gives a character a chance at two paths, the island that tests their great flaw and real life where each person can finally make things right.
Besides being a lot of fun to watch, Lost gives writers a chance to see some of the best storytellers in the world, in the middle of their creative process, working the craft and pushing the magnificent medium of television. I've been saying for years that the best writers in America are working in TV. Even if you've never watched this show, you owe yourself the pleasure of seeing what great writing can do before Lost is gone forever.
Alice in Wonderland (2010)
Alice in Wonderland
Alice in Wonderland is one of the greatest stories of all time, with arguably the best story world ever invented. It is also notoriously difficult to turn into a film. And the reasons all have to do with the script. The most recent version of Alice, written by Linda Woolverton, is the latest disappointment, and a close look at the choices she made are very instructive to those of us who love the craft of screen writing.
Alice is a classic fantasy story, and in many ways it set the form. A little girl, living in a highly organized, mundane world, travels to an upside-down fantasy world of illogic and returns to the real world freer and a little more grown up as a result. The overall structure of the original story is very tight. The problem comes in the middle, because the middle is structured according to the myth form, not fantasy.
Alice is on a journey in Wonderland, which means that the story is highly episodic. Each scene is a new encounter with strange new characters. While these individual scenes are invariably fun and extremely creative, they do not build. This is the great challenge of any writer using what I call "journey plot" (see "The Anatomy of Story"). It has stumped writers from Cervantes (Don Quixote) to Dickens (Oliver Twist) to Twain (Huckleberry Finn). The main reason the episodic element doesn't hurt the original Alice in Wonderland is that the book is so short. But that won't work for a feature-length film.
If we look at what Woolverton did in adapting the original story, we can see that almost all her choices were designed to overcome this episodic quality. The problem is that while her choices decrease the episodic quality, they also represent paint-by-number storytelling that gets increasingly boring as the story goes on.
It's ten years later. The new Alice is a young woman trapped in the same stifling world and facing the prospect of a stultifying marriage to a rich fool. The trip to the fantasy world is supposed to force the heroine to confront her personal weakness. But notice in this set up, the craziness of Wonderland won't force Alice to change because she's a rebel from the beginning. The single greatest feature of the original Alice in Wonderland is that the fantasy world is based on illogic. So it attacks the very way that logical Alice and the audience think, the way we construct the world. Because this new Alice is never shown to be part of the "normal" worldview, fantastical Wonderland is just a series of strange landscapes.
To focus the story, Woolverton suggests the ending by showing a scroll in which Alice kills the Jabberwocky in the final battle. This sets up the vortex of the story that is supposed to sequence events at increasing speed. Now Alice's journey has an endpoint, so each stop is not a stand-alone moment but a step on the path to her final destiny where she will save the kingdom.
But by turning Alice into an action hero, Woolverton has made a pact with the story devil. Action stories typically have even less plot than myth stories, not just because big action set pieces stop plot but also because the audience knows that nothing big is going to happen until the final showdown. And in this film nothing does. Woolverton is still stuck with the journey plot, which makes it extremely difficult to add plot through reveals. Without surprises, the plot must die.
The other major technique Woolverton adds to overcome the episodic quality of the original story is to bring some of the major characters along for the ride. So, for example, instead of leaving the Mad Hatter after the tea party, he comes along as an important ally to help Alice kill the Jabberwocky and defeat the Red Queen. Bringing characters along on the journey and having a single ongoing opponent is always a good idea when you're writing a myth story. It allows the audience to care about the characters more intensely and increases the power of the opposition. But the value of these two techniques is largely removed when the heroine's goal is so predictable and mundane as fighting a dragon in a big final battle.
Many people have expressed disappointment with director Tim Burton for this visually stunning but boring film. But visuals have always been what Burton is good at, not story. I find it fascinating to compare how a visual artist like Burton (Batman and Batman Returns) and master screenwriter-storytellers like Christopher Nolan, Jonathan Nolan and David Goyer (Batman Begins and The Dark Knight) handled the same Batman story material. Frankly, there is no comparison, and it's one more proof that movies aren't a "visual" medium, they are a story medium.
Ironically, screenwriter Woolverton's efforts to unify and build the story stripped the film of the great strength of the original story, which are the breathtakingly original characters and scenes. And Burton's vaunted ability to create strong visual worlds totally misfired when he failed to base his visuals on the defining principle of the Alice in Wonderland story world, which is the brilliant illogic and nonsense that only a professor of logic could create.
One day a screenwriter may solve the riddle of making a great Alice in Wonderland film. That will be a great accomplishment that I would love to see.
All the police departments in American are populated by beautiful people
The police procedural has always been one of the most popular sub-genres in TV Drama, and CSI is the ultimate police procedural. This form emphasizes the crime fighting process, and focuses on the scientific gathering and analysis of evidence. One of the keys to the success of CSI is that it takes the police procedural form to its logical extreme, using microscopic imaging of the effect of the weapon on the human body. This microscopic evidence then serves as the foundation for a recreation of the crime using one or more of the suspects.
CSI Las Vegas is the original and still best of this popular franchise. One of the reasons for that is the character web. In the TV Drama class I talk about a key distinctions between movies and TV. Hollywood blockbuster films emphasize a single main character going after a single goal with relentless speed and energy. TV, on the other hand, emphasizes a group of characters in a community that the audience enjoys visiting once a week.
The character web in CSI Las Vegas is an outgrowth of its unique genre, the police procedural. Team leader Gil Grissom is a modern Sherlock Holmes, extremely cerebral, master of detail and the inductive method that goes from the small to the big. For the rest of the team, CSI uses the basic technique that goes back through ER all the way to Hill Street Blues. This is a veritable United Nations of characters, men and women, white and black, with the only absolute being the TV requirement that they all be really attractive.
Funny how all the police departments in America are populated by beautiful people.
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Grey's Anatomy (2005)
The best show about high school in years
TV drama is ascendant right now and Grey's Anatomy is at the top of the heap. It's worth taking a look at how this show works to get a clue about writing for a drama show and maybe even creating one of your own.
Grey's Anatomy is the best show about high school to come along in a while. The interns are the freshmen, "the Nazi" is a junior, Burke and McDreamy are seniors, and the Chief Surgeon is the principal. The fact that this is high school in a hospital only affects what the characters do for their class projects. Think bio class with human guinea pigs.
Besides being brilliant, this high concept premise for a TV show indicates that the show's creator, Shonda Rhimes, understood the first rule about TV: it's about a community of opponents. Sure we bring in guest characters every week. But the audience tunes in so it can live for a moment in this community, in this extended family. We watch the family members fight but we love them anyway and know that they love each other. They just have a hard time living together under the same roof (just like us).
High school has all the highs and lows of living in a community, but taken to the nth degree. As Charles Dickens, a notorious nerd, once remarked about his own high school, "It was the best of times; it was the worst of times." (He was also the first to write that line in the school yearbook.) By pushing high school into the adult world of the hospital, Rhimes lets the viewer relive that heightened state, at its best and its worst, without limiting the audience to actual high school students.
There are many elements that go into a well-constructed show. Let's look at one of the more important ones, setting up the oppositions.
One reason Grey's Anatomy is so popular is that it has very clear oppositions among the ongoing characters, and it has a lot of them. The first set of oppositions is between the "freshmen," the interns. There are three women and two men, and each is very different from the others. In fact they are so schematically different they border on cliché. But then high school is famous for the various groups with the simplistic labels. The two guys here aren't just two young doctors. One is the narcissistic ladies man who wants to be a plastic surgeon, while the other is such a pathetic hang-dog (he even looks like a St. Bernard) I keep waiting for the writers to hang a keg of whiskey around his neck. The women are just as extreme. That can make for some ludicrous scenes on occasion. But the important point is that in TV your characters have to begin recognizably different. You've got plenty of time to add texture to these people as the seasons progress. What you don't have is time to identify how your main characters oppose each other in fundamental ways.
Having five unique interns would be enough for most shows. But Grey's adds a second set of oppositions between the interns and the doctors. This is an opposition based on experience, on learning the craft of medicine. And that focuses primarily on how the doctors and the interns deal with their patients in life-and-death situations. The nice touch here is that while the doctors know best how to operate and deal with the patients, in love they are just as dumb as the freshmen. The basic concept here is that when love comes to town we are all in high school for the rest of our lives.
Which leads to the third set of oppositions. These doctors are involved in all kinds of twisted opposition in their love lives. They are led by the nominal main character of the show, Meredith, who is a revolutionary character for TV. Meredith is the first girl-next-door prom princess who loves sex (ie, she's a slut) and isn't ashamed of it. But it does cause her all sorts of complications, which the audience loves to watch. Meredith looks and sounds like a high school girl, and she's in over her head with the cutest senior in school. Who can resist that? Using love as a major opposition is a two-edged sword on a TV show. It generates intense passion, which is great for drama and comedy. But it also forces the writers to constantly rip characters apart and put them into new relationships. The sense of farce and soap opera has already begun to take over the story lines.
Still this is a beautifully constructed TV show for the long haul. If you would like to write TV drama, or even create your own show, take a look at the TV Drama Class and the TV Drama Blockbuster add-on, where you can find out all the structural elements that make a hit.
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Not the big hit it was hoped to be
Studio 60 has not been the big hit everyone at NBC hoped it would be. And it's taken more than a few shots, mostly from insiders who say that it's not an authentic view of a sketch comedy show. Why? Because it's not funny. And they're right; it's not funny. That could be because creator and writer Aaron Sorkin can't write funny. Or more likely it's because the show's not a comedy. It's a drama about working in a corporation, a corporation that just happens to be in the business of making culture.
Sometimes Sorkin gets too cute in his writing, typically from updating a classic story beat. He always does the beat well, but it's still a recognizable beat. And I get the feeling that he is writing so much so fast that for long stretches he just puts it on automatic and lets his considerable knowledge of story carry him along.
To see one of the reasons why Studio 60 may be having trouble with audiences, let's look at a technique that is crucial to a TV drama: the episodic desire line. In other words, what is accomplished in each episode? In a classic cop show, it's solving the crime. In a courtroom drama, it's winning the case. In a doctor show, it's saving the patient. On Studio 60 it's Well, we know what it isn't. It's not putting on a 90-minute comedy show. So what is it? The desire line in each episode is what gives the story its shape, and is one of the key elements of a show's DNA. You can create a show in which the desire line extends over many episodes, but you will have more difficulty holding a mass audience. So many shows provide at least one desire line that is accomplished by the end of the episode, and extend the others. Aaron Sorkin doesn't do that on Studio 60. It's not a bad thing. It's just not popular. Regardless of Studio 60's essential structure, there is a lot to like and learn from by watching it.
For example, we see a great technique in the second part of a two-part episode in which Harriet gets an award. It's the technique I call the "dialogue of equals." Good conflict dialogue should be a heavyweight fight. Punch/counter-punch. One throws a hammer blow. The other comes right back with a hammer blow of his own. Not only does each line have dramatic power, the scene builds in the sequence of the blows (lines), ending in a knockout punch.
To create a building punch/counter-punch, you have to have two equals, by which I mean two characters with an equal ability to verbally attack. If one is too strong, he or she will get in the most blows and the scene will not build. In the concluding episode of the two-parter, Matt and Harriet go at each other with ferocity. Matt is the obviously more aggressive and nastier of the two. But Harriet does not shrink back and ends up having the more powerful blows, including the lethal knockout punch.
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Mad Men (2007)
Ambitious with good cause
Mad Men is one of the best-written and most ambitious TV shows in some time. It is worth close study, not just for learning how to create a well-structured show but also how to write one that is truly original and potentially groundbreaking. Story world, or arena, is one of the key structural elements in any TV drama (see the TV Drama Class for how to create this element, as well as the other essential structural elements of a successful show). It is where the story takes place and it usually exists within some specific arena that not only delineates a recognizable unit but also has a set of rules, activities and values that defines the characters. One of the strengths of Mad Men is its story world. Instead of the usual arena of cops, lawyers, or doctors, Mad Men takes us into a Manhattan advertising agency in 1960. Besides being totally unique in TV, this story world is extremely detailed. And the detailing isn't simply a matter of the set design, which is fabulous. It is written into every episode. The writers weave all manner of cultural icons of the late 50s-early 60s, including TV shows, ads, and fashion. This has two great advantages. One is the pleasure of recognition. If you were a kid at that time, as I was, the show is a virtual time machine. And even if you weren't, the authenticity and texture immerse you in the world and make you feel that "You are there!" The other great advantage is that this past world tricks the audience into believing that this is how it really was back then. The first thing we notice when we see all of these details is how much the world has changed. Everybody smoked back then. The men were in charge and the women were all secretaries and housewives. That sets up the kicker. By first thinking how much we've changed, we then realize, with even more impact, all the ways we haven't. This story, set in 1960, is really about today, or more exactly, the ways that human nature only puts on a new skin and the same fundamental challenges of creating a meaningful life must be faced by each of us, every moment of every day. Another structural element that immediately jumps out at you if you want to create a TV show or write for one is the desire line. In Mad Men the desire that structures each episode is fairly nebulous, and that's probably going to cut into the show's popularity (I hope I'm wrong on this one). Desire is the main reason almost all TV shows are set in the cop, lawyer, and doctor arenas. These jobs give their shows a simple and repeatable desire line that tracks the episode every week. Catch the criminal. Win the case. Save the life. But of course this is extremely limiting. Most people don't spend their daily lives solving crimes, prosecuting bad guys, and saving lives. So while the desire line on this show may be more nebulous, it is far closer to what most Americans do in their daily lives. These Mad Men are in the business of selling, which, as Arthur Miller pointed out long ago, is the archetypal American action. But they aren't selling a particular product. They're selling desire, some image of the good life that, because it is a fabricated ideal, is always just out of reach. Writer Matthew Weiner's brilliant conception for this show is to connect the selling of desire to America to the personal and work lives of the ad men themselves. The ad men want the image of the good life in America that they are selling to be true, even if they intellectually make fun of the poor suckers out there who buy it. Main character Don Draper is handsome and talented, with a beautiful wife and two cute little kids. But he has some secrets he's keeping like a mistress in the city and he feels a terrible void he has no idea how to shake. Draper is a master at manipulating desire and creating facades, so when he tries to live the promise for real, the "good life" falls apart in his hands. We are in Far from Heaven and American Beauty territory here. And the second episode even had Draper give his own version of the Existentialist credo of Sartre and Camus that was seeping into pop culture during the late 50s (how's that for a sweet detail on a TV show?). We'll have to see whether Mad Men can extend beyond a few episodes without imploding. Besides the lack of a clean desire line, the subject of hollow suburban existence will make it extremely difficult for the writers to develop the show over the long term without beating a spiritually dead horse. In the meantime, I'm going to sit back and enjoy some great dramatic writing, and nowadays TV is the only place you'll find it.
Fun twists to the police procedural
Life is a 1-hour drama that has been trying to break through after a strike-shortened season last year. I hope it does because it adds a number of fun twists to the police procedural that is the staple of American TV drama.
In the TV Drama Class, I go into all of the structural elements that must be present to construct a successful show. One of these has to do with the genre. Like film, TV requires that you take an existing popular genre or combination of genres and give it a unique twist. Life is a mix of detective, crime and buddy picture, and that's a pretty strong combination. Yes, we've seen cop shows with partners many times before (for example, Law and Order SVU), but they aren't using the buddy picture techniques. A buddy picture is a kind of action comedy in which the buddies form some kind of odd couple. The buddies love each other in a platonic way, but they act like a married couple, with constant lighthearted bickering.
In Life, the odd couple is Charlie Crews, a cop who was framed for a multiple murder-robbery and sent to jail before gaining his freedom and returning to the force along with $50,000,000 in "We're sorry" money. He's gained a Zen sensibility during his twelve years behind bars. And that drives his partner nuts. She's Dani Reese, a practical, by-the-book cop who also just happens to be drop-dead gorgeous, like any number of other drop-dead gorgeous cops in Hollywood crime shows (for example, Law and Order SVU). Just once I'd love it if a character on one of these shows would ask our investigator if she realizes she's beautiful enough to be an actress.
The two lead characters play well off each other, and I believe one of the reasons this show hasn't done better is that the writers have not played this element up even further. One reason might be that the Reese character lacks detail. For a buddy picture to work the buddies must be equal. The writers have given Crews tremendous detail, to such a degree that he is clearly the hero of the show. This imbalance is a big mistake. William Goldman once told me that when they were shooting the early scene in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid where Butch has to fight Harvey for leadership of the gang, director George Roy Hill kept Sundance on his horse to visually increase Sundance's stature relative to Butch. We forget that before the movie came out, Robert Redford was a nobody and Paul Newman was Paul Newman.
This may be why Life's writers retooled the show this season by giving Reese and Crews a new boss, Captain Tidwell, with whom Reese could get romantically involved. Donal Logue, who plays the boss, is a funny actor and a welcome addition to the show. But while the move has boosted Reese's importance a bit, the relationship between her and the boss is completely unbelievable. Hopefully the writers will strengthen this line, while also highlighting the more important buddy relationship between Reese and Crews.
Another structural element that determines a successful TV drama is the weave of the desire line. In other words, what gets accomplished in each episode and how are the episode's goals intercut? Life uses a technique found in most cop shows of combining two main goals, one short-term and one long-term. The short-term goal is to solve the crime of that episode. The long-term goal is Crews's determination to find the cops who framed him for the murder-robbery. The individual investigations all have a quirky quality that sets them apart from the standard crimes we see on most procedurals. For example, in a recent episode, Crews and Reese had to solve the murder of a mall Santa they find five minutes before the department store opens for holiday rush on Black Friday. They realize too late that the horde of hungry shoppers is going to trample their crime scene, and then discover that the shoppers have apparently taken Santa's body as well.
The long-term investigation is more problematic. The conspiracy behind the murder-robbery and Crews' frame-up is full of juicy possibilities, including one suspect who is Reese's father. The brilliant Zen cop who sits in his mansion trying to unravel the conspiracy that took twelve years of his life is, besides being very un-Zen, great stuff. Which is why it's been frustrating that the writers have done relatively little with it. I suspect that's because they realize that once Crews figures out who did it, this line is over. The show's creator has painted himself into a bit of a corner here. This concept is central to the premise of the show, and probably a good part of the reason Life got on the air in the first place. But it's a big dead end when it comes to the extendability of the show.
Still, the writers must deal with this line. Giving it one or two scenes a show doesn't work. Ignoring the line only makes it seem half-baked and unrelated to the main investigation in each episode. If the writers can expand this conspiracy from a single event in the past where Crews was framed to an ongoing, present-day corruption in the LAPD, this buddy picture of a Zen mind-master and his pragmatic, beautiful partner will turn into the hottest show on TV.
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30 Rock (2006)
Improved immensely from the pilot episode
September 2007 30 Rock just pulled off a big upset by winning the Emmy for best sitcom. No matter what you think of the result, this represents a stunning improvement over the show's initial start. Let's see why.
I wrote my previous breakdown of 30 Rock after watching their first episode, a big mistake for them and for me. In the first episode, show runner Liz ran all over the city looking for movie comedy star Tracy so he could head the cast of her Saturday Night Live-like show. Sitcoms require a large number of comic oppositions, which play off each other in rapid succession and which can generate comedy for at least 100 episodes. By taking the story out of the studio arena, the 30 Rock writers not only reduced the show to one (fairly weak) comic opposition, they gave the audience the wrong impression of what a typical 30 Rock experience would entail.
Subsequent episodes became much more focused in the studio, and that allowed the writers to generate different comic oppositions between regular characters at a much faster pace. That move alone was worth plenty. But the biggest improvement came from a season-long effort to sharpen the comic differences between characters. The opposition between Liz (played by Tina Fey) and Jack (played by Alec Baldwin) continued to be the primary one, but it improved dramatically. The Jack character is terrific, and Baldwin plays it brilliantly. But if he has no one to work off of, this character is wasted. So the writers sharpened Liz, making her more of a "machine" comic, undercutting the over-the-top "crazies" on the show. Fey also stepped up her game noticeably as a comic actor.
Keeping the stories more within the studio arena also allowed the writers to heighten the secondary comic oppositions. For example, "child" comic Kenneth - the innocent, idealistic and totally naïve page - became a perfect foil for both Tracy and Jack. This was tremendously valuable. Those of you who wish to create sitcoms or simply write a good one, notice that every time you create a new valid comic opposition like this, you get a magnified benefit: the primary opposition doesn't have to carry the whole load, you have more available story turns and the comic density of the show increases.
Another comic opposition that improved over the course of the season was the one between Liz and Jenna (played by Jane Krakowski). The episode that featured Jenna getting in trouble talking about the war in Iraq was one of the funniest of the season and showed that she still has a lot of potential in her oppositions, especially with Jack.
Now that the writers have found their groove, look for the show to focus even more on the in-studio oppositions. 30 Rock may not be the best comedy on television - in my opinion, The Office is a notch above it - but it's one of the funniest in a long time and it's getting better.
---------- Sitcoms don't have the stature they had ten years ago, but they are still the second biggest form in television. What's crucial to understand about a sitcom is its success doesn't come from a list of good jokes. It comes from the original set up of the show, from what makes the jokes possible.
Again, there are a large number of structural elements required to set up a sitcom successfully, with one of the most important being the oppositions within the community. In sitcoms, that opposition is comedic, and each one must be an essential comedic opposition that never disappears over the course of entire show.
By this standard, 30 Rock is in trouble. There aren't enough essential oppositions and I don't see how the ones they do have are going to last. The first opposition is between Liz (played by Tina Fey) and Tracy (played by Tracy Morgan). This has an obvious visual opposition, but not a comedic one. Liz occasionally cracks wise, but as a character she is not funny. She is not pompous, nor does she go to the other extreme of deadpan (like a Bill Murray, for example) needed to make other characters funny. Tracy is mildly over-the-top, but in a limited, one-note way.
The one comedic opposition that does work, between Liz and Jack (played by Alec Baldwin), will be hard to sustain. Jack is the pompous corporate bastard who is both a narcissist and a creative idiot. Even the tame Liz will be able to cut him down to size, only to see him re-inflate within seconds. But how often can this corporate honcho appear on the set and create havoc? The real ongoing comedic oppositions on a show about Saturday Night Live should be within the cast and crew. But so far these characters, like the cat wrangler and the pretty, do-nothing receptionist, are defined by a single comic note. They may have an occasional funny line but they are not comic pillars. They do not stand in essential comic opposition with any other fundamental comic character.
30 Rock does have two real strengths: a number of funny lines and no laugh track. But neither of these can overcome the weakness of bad comic opposition. I'll keep watching, for a while at least, and hope they prove me wrong.
If you are interested in writing sitcoms, or creating a successful one, you'll find all the techniques in the Sitcom Writing Class and the Sitcom Blockbuster add-on.
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Insomnia shows one of the dangers of writing the thriller form. This is a very popular genre, but it is extremely narrow. Most writers of thrillers have great difficulty creating plot because there is usually just one suspect. The audience learns fairly soon who probably committed the crime.
In this film, casting compounds the problem of the single suspect. The audience knows you don't cast Robin Williams as the bad guy unless he's really the bad guy. The only surprise comes from how the opponent attacks the hero - which isn't much - and how the hero catches him.
The writer tries to compensate for this basic deficiency by making the hero morally culpable. But the result is that both the main plot line and the hero's moral decline are given short shrift.
Bottom line: if you are going to do a thriller, pay the dues and do the genre right. Hit the beats that make it a surprising plot. Without them, you have a small film that lasts way too long.
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Runaway Jury (2003)
John Grisham is a master of plot, specializing in the courtroom thriller. And in this complicated and underestimated writing skill, he has a lot to teach us.
Runaway Jury sets up as a battle royal between Dustin Hoffman's Wendall Rohr and Gene Hackman's Rankin Fitch, with Fitch the powerful opponent. Most writers would work their plot from there, using the hidden powers of the main opponent to provide most of the surprise upon which plot is based.
But Grisham adds another element that magnifies his plot tremendously. John Cusack's Nick Easter seems to be the innocent little guy who will, in classic thriller form, come under intense attack from the powerful opponent. But instead of using the reactive victim, Grisham gives Easter his own desire line, his own hidden agenda. The result: three sources of action and massive plot (see the Great Screen writing Class for details on plotting, opposition, surprise, the reveals sequence and plot weave).
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