Monday, March 20, 2017

Reviews The Front

The Front
The Front
Woody Allen stars as a small-time slacker who becomes a front for several Blacklisted Hollywood writers, placing his name on their work.
The Front is a 1976 dramedy based on real-life events which did not age well. Woody Allen is his Woody Allenest, and the screenplay is humorous, but the "farcical" slapstick comes across as forced pandering. The juxtaposition of comedic styles fails the film - as do the dramatic scenes, which also feel obligatory. The writing is capable, but nothing stands out, and the writers missed almost every opportunity the premise grants. The most important aspect of the film is the subject matter, and it does a decent job with that for the little time it is given.

SPOILERS

The Front is an important film - not just because of its subject matter, but also its cast and crew. While still relevant, the movie does not hold-up well.
The Front is a 40-year-old film about events that occurred 25 years earlier, and while that was part of the movie's charm in its day, without historical context, much of this is lost on the audience. It has a lot of ground to cover, but - since the subject matter was recent, and still controversial, in 1976 - it forgoes that to tell a love story.

That's the film's biggest flaw: A movie about TV sit-com writers using a bumbling, barely literate, bookie as a front which focuses on the main character's love life is 90 minutes of missed opportunities. Further, most of the romantic scenes rely on Woody Allen's signature cerebral anxiety - too much of the movie does, in fact (as do all of Allen's films) - where The Front should instead have emulated the dialogue, plots, and sensibilities that were prevalent on TV in the 1950s to satirical effect.

The movie lampoons its subject, but the humor is subversive, with that "insider" feeling all showbusiness films have.
To its credit, this much of the movie is great - the jokes are dark and crisp, and the barbs sting even today - but most of it is lost to the time and focus given the romantic angle. In fact, were The Front a TV sit-com episode itself, the actual subject of the movie would be the B-story to the love story.
The movie feels anachronistic in general, but I'm no expert on the '50s or '70s. It may be the color palette, clothing styles, phrases employed - I'm not sure - but it seems like it was trying to be current while capturing the feel of a bygone era in a timeless way. We see this a lot, even today - a period piece filtered through modern sensibilities - and these movies rarely age well, especially when dealing with timely and/or controversial issues. In fact, the sensitivity of the issue may well be the reason the movie focuses on the romantic plot.

The Front's confused tone should be redeemed by the revelation that many of its collaborators were themselves victims of The Hollywood Blacklist, but it isn't. The ending is anti-climactic and unsatisfying. It could be interpreted many ways - his testimony changed nothing, but he got the girl and that's what matters; political correctness as a tool of oppression and censorship is an ongoing issue; you all know how the story goes, so we'll end our show here - but it plays like they ran out of money and just pulled the plug.

What should have been a scathing, satirical farce of history, politics, and the TV industry is instead a mediocre, slice-of-life, everyman-as-hero rom-com. The Front had a lot of potential it did not live up to, but political pressure and the prevailing attitudes of the time may be to blame.

© C Harris Lynn DBA The Weirding, 2017

Monday, March 13, 2017

Boner Burns Down the House

Why do B-stories exist?

In American, half-hour sit-coms, a B-story is a concurrently running storyline which has little or nothing to do with the episode's main story. They are included in almost every sit-com episode yet - while entertaining - they rarely contribute to, or advance, the story. Sometimes, they converge with the main storyline to provide plot-driven comedy, but not often enough to make them necessary.

The question is: Why do non-essential B-stories exist in sit-coms? I received some input from other writers, but I'm still not convinced that a B-story is absolutely necessary to every sit-com episode.

Here's a theoretical example of a typical Growing Pains episode featuring Boner in a B-story:
Due to a mailing mishap, Jason is set to receive the Nobel Peace Prize - but Maggie is kidnapped while abroad, forcing Mike and Carol to master Jeet Kun Do to protect their family. Boner burns down the house.

The B-story is sometimes used as comedic relief, but a sit-com is necessarily comedic. You can present any serious topic or situation, as long as you find the humor in it. If you need comedic relief in a situational comedy, the writing (and/or acting) isn't strong enough to tackle that issue - or the issue may not be one sponsors, producers, or studio networks feel comfortable handling in a humorous fashion.

Another writer noted that B-stories provide sit-coms more "action" - the audience is so energized by all that is happening, they don't have time to consider changing the channel. I had never thought of it that way, but he's right! They are also used to give actors more screen time - I've heard of actors contractually demanding a certain amount of screen time per season or episode, or that their characters be developed into primary castmembers.

Either way, I understand B-stories being used for these purposes - it just isn't always the case. In fact, the B-story usually has absolutely nothing to do with anything - it's just there. It provides little or no character development, contributes nothing to the main plot, does not exist to provide relief from serious discussion, comprises less than two minutes of screen time, and has no lasting consequences (a recognized convention of the sub-genre). So, has a B-story become a convention of the form?

Rom-coms have a meet-cute; horror movies show their victims being brutalized; Victorian novels feature deus ex machina endings - these are conventions of those genres. And, while a teleplay is a form, situational comedy is a sub-genre of Comedy (as are romantic comedies). Is a B-story merely a staple of the sit-com sub-genre - an upheld tradition amongst sit-com writers, like holiday-themed episodes? After all, they tend to be included even as C-stories - again, seemingly only because audiences (or producers, or executives, or sponsors, or the writing room - someone) expects them to be there.

Here's another - totally real - episode synopsis from the '80s sit-com classic, Growing Pains, to illustrate the point:

Jason and Maggie travel to China to argue for Democracy. There, Ben develops a crippling opium addiction, forcing Mike and Carol to use their newfound kung fu skills to rescue him from white slavery. Boner buys a necktie.

Obviously, I'm exaggerating for effect, but the point is: If there isn't enough humor (or action, drama, suspense - whatever it is that keeps audiences interested) in your main story, conventional wisdom suggests you either rethink your concept or punch-up your script - not add a superfluous storyline featuring a background player. And, if you are forced to do so for contractual reasons or due to studio network interference, you should use that opportunity to somehow advance the character, plot, or story (unless it exists solely for comedic relief). Yet they're rarely handled this way; B-stories are often included for no clear reason.

Keeping in mind that "the characters never change" is a recognized staple of the sub-genre, what is the purpose of including a B-story even when it is completely unnecessary? And, is it okay to excise B-stories if the episode works without one, or should we include them because they are an expected convention of the
network TV sit-com?

© C Harris Lynn DBA The Weirding, 2017

Monday, March 6, 2017

Reviews Schitt's Creek

Schitt's Creek
Schitt's Creek
A formerly wealthy family is forced to move into a backwater town called Schitt's Creek, which the father jokingly purchased for his pansexual son years earlier.

I really wanted to like this one but, while occasionally brilliant, Schitt's Creek is flawed in many departments, including the writing.
Marketed as a sit-com, it needs to pick an age demographic and a direction.

The writing is miles ahead of the acting, and that's one of Schitt's Creek's biggest downfalls: The actors are routinely unable to convey the depth of non-comedic scenes. The other downfall is that the writing isn't that great.


SPOILERS
 
For one thing, they keep placing these actors in non-comedic scenes they can't carry. For another, most of the cast are one-dimensional plot devices, not fully-realized characters, and many of them are repetitious and unnecessary. Schitt's Creek hasn't figured out what story to tell or how it's best told, either - it frequently bounces from '80s teen sex-romp to '90s teen dramedy to buddy situational to rom-com to indie film, sometimes in the span of a single scene! Many episodes establish the children's ages as late-30s, but they dress, look, and act like 20-somethings, and the stories paint them as precocious teens - which should be hilarious but, like most comedic opportunities in Schitt's Creek, it's barely touched-upon.

This uncertainty carries over to the plots, which are staples of whatever sub-genre the show is emulating that week: The pampered, urban family goes camping; the clueless, rich kids are forced to get menial jobs; the gay guy and his female best friend get drunk and "accidentally" sleep together; and so on. Instead of recycling weak, B-stories that remind us the Rose family was once rich, or Moira Rose was once undeservedly famous, it should spend that time furthering ongoing storylines while referencing those points with running jokes.


A rich backstory filled with comedic promise is instead a nest of missed opportunities, but Schitt's Creek is not without its charm. While not strong, the actors are personable, and easily one of the most attractive casts on TV - it's kind of like Baywatch with their clothes on, only more entertaining. The early episodes of season one, in particular, are funny almost as often as they are uncomfortable. This might be the show's saving grace, as the actors' natural likeability could sell scenes that might otherwise fail, or be too dramatic to maintain an even tone. The show can't decide if it should laugh at certain subjects, characters, and characteristics or identify with them, so neither can the audience.

To those ends, Schitt's Creek needs to firmly position itself outside of traditional sit-com boundaries, and present those dramatic arcs it desperately wants to explore. A lot of the awkwardness of the show comes from its attempts to force humor, and a lot of the storylines involve serious changes in characters and relationships that never seem to resolve - all of which can be solved by refocusing the show as a dramedy.

Schitt's Creek is any quirky, '90s-era, coming-of-age film brought to series by an indie company - too many ideas with no decisive means of conveyance, trying too hard to be poignant and understood. Equal parts hyperbolic fantasy and self-effacing introspection, the most comedic aspects of Eugene and Daniel Levys' project are downplayed or ignored, resulting in a confusing and uneven tone. Worse, the actors are not strong enough to convey the more serious issues of the show - income inequality, social status, interpersonal relationships, sexuality - and complex character development arcs are routinely started then unceremoniously dropped.

No matter what you think of the show, Schitt's Creek is worth watching just to analyze the writing.

© C Harris Lynn DBA The Weirding, 2017

Monday, February 27, 2017

Working on Weekly

Few have noticed that I started blogging here again, and that's fine. I'm using it more as a passive sounding board than anything else these days, and writing about things I learn along the way helps me retain the information. I'll also be writing reviews again, but not only of written works - I'll still be reviewing the writing contributions to whatever product it is I'm discussing, I'll just be discussing more product outside of print.

I am currently enrolled in several online courses and working on a number of projects, so time is a bit of a factor, but I'm doing my best to bring you new content on a weekly basis. If nothing else, I'll update you on my course progress (try to contain yourselves). To be sure, I'll skip a few weeks here and there, but a weekly schedule is the goal.

© C Harris Lynn DBA The Weirding, 2017

Monday, February 20, 2017

Reboots, Remakes, and Existing IP

The Goldbergs (2013)
The Goldbergs (2013)
A while back, I wrote about nostalgia vs. a wont for good product. In further discussion, I note that one of the problems is that most of the viable ideas have already come to market in one form or another.

The classic emergency room, or hospital, drama is a staple on American TV - as an example - going all the way back to at least the Golden Age of Television. Basically, you can have a cast of any type of characters doing anything but, as long as it is set in a hospital, it falls into this category. NBC has been doing legal procedures under the Law & Order banner for 20 years now, and CBS has done the same with their CSI franchise. Neither is wholly original (even 20 years ago), as procedurals about cops and attorneys have proliferated the television landscape for decades.

Producers, financiers, and marketers are likely to be more congenial toward remakes specifically due to the fact that they are easier to sell - they're more marketable than an "original take" on the hospital drama, legal procedural, or cop show. It's doubtful your concept is all that original, anyway - you compare it to two similar films when writing your pitch - so attaching your work to an existing IP is not that big of a stretch.

Writers are then constrained by the previous incarnation of an established property, at least usually - "reimagining," "revitalization," and similar terms generally mean original content attached to an existing property. While this works for some properties, it is not a safe bet for "cult favorite" IP. No one is likely to be too upset about an all new cast of characters on a revival of ER, but cult TV shows are another matter entirely - especially if they're based on established property from another medium (such as Game of Thrones).

If your story is about a disabled, elderly, black male fighting vampires throughout the Civil Rights Era, and you call it Buffy the Vampire Slayer, fans and audiences are likely to be outraged. If exploiting that outrage is your marketing campaign, you might want to reconsider everything about your proposal. The Goldbergs is a great example of a successfully revived series which stayed true to the source material.

Older, and unsuccessful, properties are usually easier to secure the rights to, and offer a wider range of options for creators. Few people will remember the original series, so there's less chance anyone will be upset over a new take or direction - you have more creative control. But again, if you plan on diverging wildly from the original concept, you might want to reconsider - specifically if the property is a cult classic, or otherwise held in high regard.

Known properties tend to be easier to sell because they are easier to market, but securing the rights may be problematic - especially for established and well-loved properties, as well as those controlled by studios. This is why there are so many remakes and reboots of existing properties.

© C Harris Lynn DBA The Weirding, 2017