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Peter Rogers's Blog
Artist-in-Residence at Chez Firth

Thursday (2/25/10) 8:01pm - ... wherein Peter answers formspring questions about TV & film.

Here are all the TV/film questions I've received so far on formspring.

What TV show makes you laugh the loudest? [1/28/10, automated]

Arrested Development.  There's just such a glorious overabundance of stuff to laugh at in every episode. :)

What was the worst movie you've ever seen? [2/4/10, automated]

In a theater?  Probably Beverly Hills Cop III.

So you know a lot about screenplays...why does there always seem to be a sassy gay friend/black friend/young friend in romcoms. Is this harkening back to some ancient trope about sidekicks and we fill in who ever isn't in the "dominant" cultural group? [2/11/10, by juliejezebel]

Why, thank you!

On to the question, and my handwavey guesses at some answers...

Part of it is just cultural inertia.  We're used to romcoms being a certain way, everybody knows that that structure works, and the genre is in no way 'experimental'... so it just stays the way it is.

That said, there may be logistical reasons why this happens.  In a lot of cases, the lead in a romcom is the woman.  This is presumably because the target audience is largely-female, and you want your target audience to be able to identify with the protagonist.  Now, in film, it's no good if your protagonist is just 'thinking stuff'.  You have to find ways to translate that character's thoughts into actions and dialog.  The easiest way to do this is to give your lead a sidekick to talk to.

You might think, "Can't she talk to the male lead, then?"  But often the structure of a romcom relies on *separating* the leading couple for much of the running time.  And even when the couple is together, the plot will dictate all sorts of reasons why they can't tell each other the truth.[1]  So who is your leading lady going to talk to?  The simplest answer[2] is that she's talking to her best friend.

Now, unless you want the plot to get complicated, her best friend is not a heterosexual male.  In that case, the audience immediately thinks it's this convoluted thing where she's pursuing one guy but actually should be falling for this 'friend' guy, and why is this guy in the 'friend' zone anyway, especially as he'll be played by some very attractive actor?  It could also be problematic if it's a heterosexual female, on the off-chance that the audience senses a vibe between the *friend* and the male lead -- wait, are they competing for the same guy now?  The best friend has to be out of any potential love triangles, or the lead won't be able to have honest, straightforward chats with him/her.

Also, it really helps if this best friend is some kind of stereotype.  You want the best friend to be a clearly-defined character.  You want to be able to sketch in that character quickly -- remember, this is just a secondary character, so you won't have that much time to introduce him/her.  And frankly, this is a 'comfort food' genre of film where you're not really aiming to blow people's minds with your originality.

So you need a character who's a comic stereotype and who doesn't create any kind of potential love triangle in the audience's mind.  The 'sassy gay friend' pretty much fits the bill.

And yes, the film industry always puts marginalized people in 'sidekick' roles.  It would take a more knowledgeable cultural critic to explain why.  All I know is that (1) it lets the writer lean on stereotypes about that cultural group, and (2) it lets the writer include a segment of real-life society without alienating an audience unprepared to indentify with "those people" as the leads.

Wow, I just have boundless contempt for the audience, don't I?  Oh well.

[1] A RomCom where the two leads actually act like grown-ups and honestly communicate would last about ten minutes.

[2] ... and simplest answers tend to be the best ones, when you're writing a screenplay.

What's your favorite TV show of all time? [2/11/10, unknown]

Freaks and Geeks is my favorite TV show of all time.

I say this fully aware that The Wire is the *best* TV show of all time.  But I know that if some Lacuna-Inc.-like company went through my brain, busily removing all my memories of one TV show after another, Freaks and Geeks would be the last one I'd hold on to.  I'd be backed into a corner, gripping it tightly, and snarling, "You can't have this one.  It means too much to me."  Every time I watch it, I'm amazed by it all over again.

I mean, that last scene in the pilot, with Styx blasting on the soundtrack... I mean, *shrug* that's what it's all about, right?

Side note:  LOST is the show I'm having the most fun watching right now.  And some of you need to immediately drop everything and watch The Middleman.  Okay, I'm done now.

You have a chance to assemble a dream team of actors for a script you've written. What would it be about and who would you cast? [2/18/10,  unknown]

Hmm.  I can't think of anything offhand, but readers would do well to check out these posts --
post 1, post 2, post 3 -- wherein I pick out groups of actors and invent various TV projects for them.

I'd like to write more of those posts, but I'm having a devil of a time coming up with another promising group of actors.  (Recommendations are welcome!)

There's also another, far more significant direction we can go with this question, and it has to do with the TV show Castle.

Castle stars Nathan Fillion as Richard Castle, a mystery novelist who helps an NYPD homicide cop ('Kate Beckett') solve murders.  It has pleasant little whodunit plots, it has bits of humor, it has the usual UST between the writer and the cop.  It's an adequate, innocuous little show.  But there is one piece of dream casting that could make Castle truly a show for the ages.

The show needs Alan Tudyk as an invisible cowboy that only Castle can see.[1]

I know, I know, it seems blindingly obvious in retrospect.  At the risk of sounding patronizing, let me talk everyone through this.

See, here's a snippet from a recent Castle episode:

[Ryan, Beckett, and Castle meet in the squad room.]
Ryan:  This is his column from two weeks ago.
Beckett:  "Cano Vega must pay?"
Ryan:  The article talks about how Vega betrayed the Cuban community.
Castle:  Well, that sounds like a threat to me.

Okay, *now* let's imagine that same scene with the presence of an invisible cowboy  that only Castle can see, played by Alan Tudyk.

[Ryan, Beckett, and Castle meet in the squad room.  The invisible cowboy that only Castle can see lounges nearby, idly strumming a guitar.]
Ryan:  This is his column from two weeks ago.
Beckett:  "Cano Vega must pay?"
Ryan:  The article talks about how Vega betrayed the Cuban community.
Cowboy:  Well, Castle, I reckon you don't yell at horse if'n you don't mean to ride it.
Castle:  What does that even mean?
Beckett:  It *means* that Ruiz clearly threatened the victim.
Castle:  No, not you --
[Beckett and Ryan give him a puzzled look.]
Castle:  Never mind.

The difference is night and day.  Clearly, adding this one simple and obvious bit of casting takes Castle from 'competent procedural' to 'climbing the highest mountain and punching God in the face.'

But some small fraction of you may, against all reason, remain unconvinced.  Maybe you think Mr. Tudyk cannot suitably play a cowboy.  After all, on Firefly, Wash was the least cowboyesque character in the bunch.  You doubting-Thomas types need to view "High Poon", the Spike TV "PG Porn" entry featuring Mr. Tudyk in the lead role.  It's NSFW, but it does illustrate the full range of cowboy nuance that Tudyk can bring to the table.

If you're *still* unconvinced of this idea's eminent greatness, consider the following:  the cowboy would slightly-but-perceptibly glow.  Modern special effects are up to the task of giving this invisible cowboy a faint 'aura', even on a weekly television show, and this would only add to the character's impressive, magical quality.

Also consider that the presence of the invisible cowboy makes one very important thing possible:  musical numbers.  Let's face it:  Castle is in dire need of occasional song-and-dance to lend emotional depth to its by-the-numbers procedural storylines.  Imagine a world where we can stop the story just long enough for Tudyk to serenade us all with a lovely cowboy song.  Alan Tudyk could do for Castle what Jonathan Richman did for There's Something About Mary, or what Grant Lee Phillips did for early seasons of Gilmore Girls.

So in the end, that is perhaps the only dream casting that matters:  Alan Tudyk, on Castle, as an invisible cowboy that only Castle can see.

[1] I share credit for this idea with Mr. Kevin Miller.

I enjoy reading your thoughts on TV and media and I think our brains work in similar ways in that arena. So what is one show you think I would love but probably haven't discovered yet? [2/25/10, from jtmaxwell]

Thank you, sir!  I am always happily bewildered to discover people read those lengthy review posts.

I am going to totally cheat and suggest a bunch of shows, in hopes that at least one of them will be one you haven't seen.

First off, every theater person I know needs to drop everything they're doing right now and watch Slings & Arrows, the Canadian dramedy-á-clef about the Stratford Shakespeare Festival.

Why are you still reading this?  GO!  WATCH THAT!  WATCH IT RIGHT NOW!  I CAN LOAN YOU THE DVDS!

Okay.  Moving on (because I suspect you've already seen that) I'm going to suggest a few animated series.

Creature Comforts, season 1
You may have seen the short film "Creature Comforts", where Aardman Animation interviewed people about various topics, and then used the interview footage as the basis for stop-motion animation of zoo animals.  So:  instead of (say) a random kid talking about the zoo, it's a random polar bear talking about the zoo.  They made a TV series out of it, and the first season is almost as entertaining as that short.

Red vs Blue, season 1
(I'm guessing there are strong odds you've already seen this, not least because Shannon has done some voice work for this company.  Anyway...)  You know that one improv troupe with five douchey twenty-something guys who all wear baseball caps and spend their entire show trying to out-insult each other?  Y'know, the troupe that they keep cloning at some secret installation in the Mojave Desert and dispatching to major urban centers?  I'll admit, Red vs Blue has a *little* of that vibe going, with its constant profane bickering.  What elevates it above that, in my opinion, is that (1) the jokes are actually funny, and (2) at least in the first season, they pull off one of the better farces I've seen lately.  The convoluted plot is built like a Swiss watch, and lines like "I dunno.  I just asked for it." approach Fawlty Towers-like levels of greatness.

The Tick (animated series)
I'm still befuddled that people favor the live-action series over the cartoon.  The live-action show did what it could with its "Seinfeld for superheroes" premise, but the animated series?  It's one of those rare animated series that really 'gets' that you can use animation to do *anything*.  So it floors the 'surreal' pedal and caroms through a world of pig-legged villains, arm-removal rays, and belovéd family pets resurrected as floating brains.  ("Is this a tender moment, or should we be disturbed?"  *shrug*)  Ben Edlund would go on to write for Firefly, Angel, and (now) Supernatural.  Pretty much the rest of the writing stuff would go on to do The Venture Brothers.  Somehow that seems appropriate.

So there you go.  If you've already seen all of those, fire me another question and I'll see what I can do.

Who is your favorite and least favorite character on LOST?  Would your answers be different if I had asked you during earlier seasons? [2/25/10, by amirawizig]

At this point, my least favorite character is Kate.  There are some pretty specific reasons for this, reasons that have little to do Evangeline Lilly -- who is, as I have pointed out before, smart, talented, and absolutely adorable.

No, this is more to do with the writing.  Generally, I've found that the best-written characters on LOST tend to be the ones they either (1) wrote for specific actors (Hurley[1], Sun) or (2) rewrote significantly for actors who showed up early in the casting process (Sawyer[2], Charlie).  They wrote Kate long before they cast her, and they didn't cast her until the very last minute (so no rewrites to tweak it for the actress).  As such, I feel like they wrote Kate in a much more generic way than other characters in the pilot, and I don't feel like they ever quite got beyond that.  Kate runs from stuff, and... that's about as much as I know.

But what puts Kate in "least favorite" category for me is her long, long, *long* love-triangle plot.

I get that a love triangle is a good plot for, say, a romantic comedy.  Girl is torn between two boys, girl makes a decision, girl lives happily ever after.  Sure, great.  It's a simple plot that's about the right size for an hour and a half of comfort-food cinema.  And also, remember that movies are pitched at kids, not grown-ups.  Kids have more "Oh noez, will I go to the prom with Buzz or Brady?" problems than grown-ups do -- often there's nothing else really going on in a teenybopper's life.

But you transpose that same plot to a TV show, and there are problems.

Side note:  most everybody in TV-land believes in "the Moonlighting curse".  On the 80s dramedy Moonlighting, the show completely fell apart after the two leads finally got together.  Everyone takes this as an object lesson:  "Don't let the leads hook up, or your show will crater."  But it turns out this was the exact *wrong* lesson to take away from Moonlighting.  The show *really* fell apart because (1) due to logistical problems, the two leads couldn't shoot any scenes together, and (2) their brilliant, audacious showrunner quit.  (More info here.)  Regardless, ever since then, showrunners have decided that you can never actually *resolve* sexual tension.

And that causes problems.

The obvious problem is that a TV show is much longer than a movie.  And as Jordan F. often points out about the Mulder/Scully relationship on The X-Files, after enough years go by, will-they-or-won't-they? is just kind of sad.  You just feel sorry for everybody.  After all, if all you do with five years of your life is decide on who to take to the prom, you've kind of failed at living.

Not only that, but it reduces the TV show to one long, long act of bridging.  You pretty much know what the endpoint of this storyline is, and there are no real surprises as you meander towards that point as slowly as possible.  And as you see the boy and girl (yay heteronormativity) *almost* get together for the fiftieth time, you notice that the stories are getting repetitive.  And hell, you never get to the surprising stories on the other *side* of the inevitable hookup.  What happens *after* they get together?  I don't know!  It'll be something new!

The other *big* problem with this sort of extended-love-triangle is that it almost always undercuts the female character's accomplishments.[3]  Say you have a girl who's a brilliant med student.  She has to choose between a residency at her dream hospital and some other podunk place.  But! it turns out that the podunk hospital is in the same city as... *gasp*... one of the toolish guys who's been kind-of-sort-of-off-and-on pursuing her![4]  So off she goes to St. Podunk.

I'm not saying that's a *bad* plot.  I'm just saying that it implies that suddenly, the girl's objectives aren't *really* about saving lives.  It's about her love life.  Deep down, the only thing that matters to TV-girl is "Which boy do I think is dreamier?"  This is so prevalent in American film and TV, that most shows and films fail the Bechdel Test.

I'm not opposed to love stories.  But I want stories where the women are about more than their relationships to men.  And it seems like TV should deliver those stories.  The TV audience is mostly female, and TV shows directly benefit  from a less reductive attitude towards their female characters.  So when a TV show falls short in this arena, I get irritated.

And, yes, it's especially difficult for *me* to appreciate a good love triangle plot.  Guys generally don't go for love stories.  And hell, my life has very little dating in it.  Frankly, I've been bewildered the few times *one* person has pursued me romantically -- being pursued by two simultaneously makes about as much sense as flying to Neptune.  So I suppose I can't exactly relate to that love-conflicted heroine's tribulations, or muster much sympathy for her plight.

So I see Kate, and I see her torn between two boys, and I see this go on for five years, and I just roll my eyes.  Let the character make a damn decision.  Let her be her own woman.  And while you're at it, writers, give her some lines that pass the Epstein Test.[5]

As for my favorite character, I think I'll go with Faraday.  Again, a very specific reasons for this comes to mind:  they manage to nail a 'scientist' character in a way that rings very true to me.  Recall that I was a biochem major back at Rice, and wound up encountering lots of scientists in those days.  When I watch Jeremy Davies play that role, it feels accurate.  The permanent vague daze is accurate.  The fact that the first thing he'd do on Craphole Island is run experiments with chronometric rockets -- that makes sense too.

But most of all, watch Faraday try to explain scientific concepts to other characters.  This may just be my imagination, but I think you can see in his eyes that sense of doom that comes from "Oh, crap, I'm trying to explain advanced quantum physics to somebody who hasn't taken basic algebra.  Yeah, this'll work greeeeat."  The vibe I get from scientists is that trying to explain their work in a pidgin that I will understand is a little like trying to fit a boulder through a straw, and is every bit as hopeless.

Even when he finally explodes at Eloise Hawking ("Yeah.  That's a great idea.  Really... inspired."), I don't see it as an ego thing.  It's not "BEHOLD I AM MORE BRILLIANT THAN ALL OF YOU."  It looks more like the frustration that comes from knowing he's going to have to fit the boulder through the straw for the zillionth time, and possibly get shot if he can't. 

Honestly, I haven't seen a character like Faraday on TV before.  I've seen scientist characters before, but they're usually exaggerated in ways that don't ring true.  They're crazy, or they're raving egotists, or they're the labcoated squares you might associate with '50s educational films.  Faraday is a little like Harris on Freaks and Geeks -- you see him and you think, "Wow, I've known guys like that my whole life, and they finally put somebody like that on a show."

Moving on:  who would I have liked and disliked in earlier seasons?

In the interest of brevity (ha), let me focus in around season two.

At that point -- watch, as everyone loses all respect for me -- my favorite character was Jack.

People might expect me to strongly dislike Jack.  But there are two points I want to make about Jack.  First off, believe it or not, there's actually a medical term for people who have a god complex, are desperate to fix everything around them, and look at the whole world from a viewpoint of put-upon narcissism.  They're called "surgeons."  (Hey-oh!  Tip your wait staff!  I'm here 'til Thursday!)  Seriously, I think LOST nails the 'surgeon' personality type much better than most medical dramas.  It just makes me giggle.

My second point is that, even though Jack is somebody I would absolutely detest in real life, I think he's still perfect for this story.  This is a common thing for me -- I'm sure I could only endure GOB Bluth for three minutes in the real world, but he's great fun as a character.  It's rare that I run into a story that I hate because I don't like the characters -- though many novels (The Corrections, Special Topics in Calamity Physics, etc.) have fallen into that category.

But what I really liked about Jack at that point in the story was how they used his character to completely subvert the audience's ideas about heroes.  They set him up to be the perfect protagonist for an island adventure.  The first scenes of the show neatly establish him as the bravest guy on the island[6], the guy we're supposed to root for, and holy crap he did all that with a long gash down his side?!

TV shows are cowards.  If they find something that works, they hold on to it at all costs.  So if a show sets up a likeable hero, a guy doing brave stuff to save his friends, they will keep that character exactly like that for all umpteen seasons of the show.  They've found something that works.  Dear god, nobody even *breathe* on it.

But LOST is almost unique[7] in the way they keep breaking the show.  They get something that works nicely, and then they break it, try something new, put all their chips on double-zero, and hope for the best.  And I think that's what they did with Jack.  Instead of having Hero Guy keep on Being a Hero with his Heroic Deeds, they asked, "Mightn't the guy who's pulling victims out of the plane wreckage be... well, kind of messed-up?"

And so they explored that.  They developed Jack into the guy who *has* to save everybody.  It's a compulsion that wrecks his life, and it's only the result of other, deeper problems.

I suppose this reflects the way that LOST tends to progress.  The show doesn't so much barrel forward so much as it expands the frame over and over, and every time, it reveals that what you saw before wasn't quite what you thought it was.

As for who I liked the *least* early on in the show, that's tricky.  For me, it might be a toss-up between Claire and Michael.  I feel like the writers dropped the ball on those two.  They did a good job of defining the characters as parents:  Michael has a standoffish relationship with Walt; Claire, er, is the pregnant one, and then takes care of her baby.  But I think they kind of stopped there.  "Okay, we've got her down as 'the pregnant one', and him down as 'the distant father.'  That's all the characterization we need to do."  I never really got a bead on either one.

That said, I'm eager to see what crazy!Claire does next. :)

[1] Jorge Garcia first showed up to read the part of Sawyer.  And y'know, at first that seems silly:  "Ha!  That affable, trustworthy guy as some kind of con man?  That's just stupi-- wait a sec."  Then you realize:  he would be a *scarily* good con man.

[2] Sawyer was first written as a slick, suit-wearing NYC master-of-the-universe type.  Then Josh Holloway showed up with a feral, Georgia-accented performance, and they did rewrites.

[3] There seems to be a similar sort of thing going on with Aaron Sorkin, who almost always writes about women who are eminently successful in their work lives, but are just kuh-razy when it comes to handling relationships.  (This happens so often, and so only-with-women, that you start to wonder if he's got some kind of issues.)  It's like most guys will only write about a successful woman if her romantic foibles make her less threatening.

[4] Side note:  I'm especially fond of Jill Weinberger's take on this sort of thing.

[5] "Good dialog is when the character only says stuff that character would say; great dialog is when the character says stuff only that character would say."

[6] I go on a bit about the character introductions in this post.
[7] Yes, you *can* use qualifiers on 'unique'.  Shaddap.

I see you do this "descriptor!Name" thing often, and I don't understand what it means. I mean, I understand what it means (crazy!Claire), but I'm curious where it comes from/what it's about. Can you explain it?  [2/25/10, anonymous]

I can't, but
wikipedia can...

"In fandom and fanfiction, ! is used to signify a defining quality in a character, usually signifying an alternate interpretation of a character from a canonical work.  Examples of this would be 'Romantic!Draco' or 'Vampire!Harry' from Harry Potter fandom.  It is also used to clarify the current persona of a character with multiple identities or appearances, such as to distinguish 'Armor!Al' from 'Human!Al' in a work based on Fullmetal Alchemist.  The origin of this usage is unknown, although it is hypothesized to have originated with certain Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles action figures, for example, 'Football Player! Leonardo', 'Rockstar! Raphael', and 'Breakdancer! Michelangelo'."
~ hope this helps ~

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