Death by “As You Know”

No doubt, the real reason I don’t happen to watch the hit sports comedy “Ted Lasso” on Apple TV+ is that it’s about sports. I did love Aaron Sorkin’s “Sports Night” but then that’s the show that famously said:

“It’s about sports. The way ‘Charlie’s Angels’ is about law enforcement.”

Doubtlessly, “Ted Lasso” is about more than its football subject, but unfortunately another reason I don’t watch is that I did read the pilot script. And in scene 2, somewhere in the first half-dozen lines of dialogue, there was this:

HIGGINS: Mrs. Mannion– Excuse me – Miss Welton – George is here… The manager?

Higgins did not say “as you know, George is the manager,” but that’s really what the line is. It’s an “as you know” moment, with one character telling another something they cannot possibly fail to already know –– but we, of course, don’t yet. If there is one thing worse than an “as you know” line, well, it’s the type of line that immediately followed it in “Ted Lasso”:

REBECCA: Yes I know who George is, Higgins.

You can write that line as sarcasm, you can play it as anything you like from that through to impatient annoyance, and none of it matters. Where the “as you know” line is the writer giving notes to the audience, so the response is not a character actually speaking, it is the writer excusing the “as you know” part.

They needn’t bother trying because the excuse is just a megaphone for anyone who missed the clunking “as you know”.

That exchange threw me out of the “Ted Lasso” pilot script and I don’t think I really got back into it again. Certainly I didn’t feel compelled to go watch the show. I am told, quite repeatedly, that the show is better than the scripts –– just typing that has made me twitch –– and that the performances are everything.

I agree that performance is everything. I just also know that directing is everything. That producing is everything. And that writing is everything.

The greatest performance in the world can make a piece better, but performance is interpretation. You are taking something and interpreting it, you are taking something and performing it. If the it doesn’t work, there’s only so far you can possibly make it watchable.

I suggest, then, that this particular “as you know” moment is probably a rarity in the series. I suggest, then, that if people say this is a great and funny comedy, that the scripts have to be great and funny.

But “as you know” shot me out of the story and it always does. You put it in, or networks demand that you put it in, because there’s a terror that the audience won’t immediately understand and so they will immediately stop watching. This manager guy –– who, as you know, is called George –– comes in to see Rebecca and she fires him. Making him an ex-manager is enough, that’s all we need to grasp that he was the manager and now isn’t. Since this appears to be a character we will never speak of again, I’m really not sure it was worth spending an “as you know” on him and the job he hasn’t got anymore.

Actually, reading on a little, I think that whole section clunks, but I was already in a bad mood because of the “as you know” syndrome.

So you throw in an “as you know” to please the network and retain the audience, but the result is – always – that you annoy the audience. There must be some proportion of viewers who miss that moment because they’re on Twitter, although the fact that they can miss it and survive not knowing George’s old job is another clue that the line wasn’t necessary.

And there have to be a larger proportion of viewers who don’t care. You can’t please everyone and it would be a pretty anodyne show if you could. But you don’t have to tell the audience they’re stupid and you cannot, cannot excuse doing that by having another character confirm that they know what we know they must already know.

You also can’t dismiss a hit that’s been picked up for three seasons, you can’t ignore the whole thing because of two lines of dialogue in the pilot script. But it’s not my job to watch any particular show, it isn’t my job to keep reading scripts from any particular series. If you lose me, you lose me and I’m not saying I’m a loss, I’m saying it’s unnecessary.

Take “State of the Union” by Nick Hornby, for instance. It’s a series of ten episodes, each ten minutes long and each set in the moments before a couple go into their weekly marriage counselling session. Part one ends with the man bolting, running up the street before the session door is opened. So in part two, you are dying to know if he came back and joined the appointment.

LOUISE: How are you feeling about this week?
TOM: As you know, I missed the start ––

No, no, okay, this is how that scene really goes:

LOUISE: How are you feeling about this week?
TOM: Well, pretty sure I’ll be there from the beginning.

In terms of straight plot information conveyed, we’ve got what we needed to know. And we got it without an “as you know”. I offer that we really get much more, it’s part of an exchange that says little but speaks volumes about the characters.

“State of the Union” is replete with dialogue that’s heightened but feels natural, feels just how these two characters would really talk. Over and over, it’s about them, and yet constantly it is also filling us in on the plot. Since every episode is set in the ten minutes before their appointment, we of course get the tension building up to what’s going to happen, but we never see it. We have to wait for the next episode and then we get filled in on how that previous session turned out.

Doing that ten times, or whatever, would make me murderous if each one had an “as you know, in the previous session we…” conversation, but there isn’t a single one. Not a single moment in ten episodes where it’s solely the writer filling in the audience. It’s always these two characters talking naturally and it’s a tremendous piece of writing. And of acting, and of directing. Also, actually, of photography: “State of the Union” is a web series but it looks like feature film.

It’s also always doing more than one thing in its dialogue, more than ticking a box to tell us who George is. Maybe that’s what I’m unhappy about, maybe that’s what I’m objecting to. Dialogue that only does one job at a time. “As you know” is annoying, but when there’s nothing else there, nothing telling me more about character, its annoyance is magnified. For me, anyway.

I watched the whole “State of the Union” ten episodes in one day. I will give “Ted Lasso” a go. But it is about sports and I struggle to summon any interest in that.

As you know.

The show comes first

There are several things that I believe in, most recently the fact that if a hotel says nope, there’s no room at the inn, you should check their website and suggest that maybe they look again.

This is on my mind because I’ve just had the best night’s sleep of my adult life in a hotel that had taken one look at my exhausted face and had initially decided it would be fun to suggest I get back on the motorway and drive for another hour.

But that’s not what’s on my mind to talk to you about. Nor is this: I believe that it is always better to be crew than passenger.

The belief I actually want to natter with you about and which I’m delaying discussing at all, is that the show comes first.

Doesn’t matter what show.

Doesn’t matter what it needs or what I need or what I want. If I’m working on a thing, then I’m working on it and the job is to do whatever it takes. This is why I’ve never watched a clock when working: I suppose I’ve often enough been hired for certain hours but in my head it’s not 9 to 5 or whatever, it’s When I’m Needed until When I’m Not O’Clock.

This is so deep into me that this week the belief overrode all common sense.

I’ve been running a writing workshop series for Writing West Midlands and the Birmingham and Midland Institute. It concluded this week and for the last session, I wanted two things. One was a guest speaker to talking about what one needs when preparing writing for publication and one was to somehow cover editing and rewriting.

The guest was Katharine D’Souza who is also an editor and in an unrelated crime has been editing my collection of short stories.

So last Monday, I was planning this session and actually having a lot of trouble getting it right, getting it to be good. Katharine chooses that moment to let me know that she doesn’t like my stories. “It’s not all awful,” she didn’t say but nearly did. “They are typed very well.”

And my first thought is not a typical writer’s feeling of rejection, which takes many flavours but always adds up to ow.

Instead, my first thought is ooooh.

My first thought is that maybe we could discuss this in the session. She’s going to be there anyway, I’m going to be there anyway.

“Are you sure you want your writing ripped into bloody pieces in front of people?” she also didn’t say but I’m certain was thinking it. (Actually, I’m sure she did mention blood.)

“N – ye – no – yes – no – yessss,” I said, with total and instant certainty.

I say that to you as a joke but I did hesitate, just not over whether I was happy doing this in front of an audience. The hesitation, the thing that I think drove Katharine toward madness in that phone call, was that I vacillated over this point: whether it would be interesting for the workshop or not.

I also worried about how much time it would take: I needed something quite substantial, the session needed a really chunky, quite long piece. “Not a problem,” she didn’t actually laugh. “It’s ten stories, I could fill a month.”

So on the night, we took the starts of two of my precious new stories, the best things I’ve ever written, and examined why they are not the best things that anyone has written.

It was the right thing for the workshop, it was interesting and it got everyone examining text, looking at when to rewrite, when to give up writing and go home to a different career, William, and it so perfectly fitted in with the next part about publishing that I’m actually proud of that session.

Only, since this is just you and me here, I’d like to confess something.

It is true that my first thought was the show.

But my second was that it sounded like I was going to be destroyed here and if it were going to happen, doing it in a workshop was the safest thing. You know what it’s like when you’re presenting something, you’re in Performance Mode and I figured that no matter how excoriating the criticism I’d get was, I’d be playing the host and my concentration on the audience would mean the knives wouldn’t penetrate as deep.

Also, I’m less keen to admit this bit but it’s true and you’re looking at me like that, so here it is: I did think I’d look pretty good being willing to do this. I’d look like a mensch.

That bit didn’t work out.

But then nor did the criticism. Instead of this one editor, Katharine, telling me that I shouldn’t rule out moving to accountancy, I had something like 16 people telling me yeah, you should listen to her.

Or, to put it a slightly different way, I had a total of 17 talented writers improving the short stories that I care most about.