Anger from Inside Out

Pickles

So maybe you know that the Baader-Meinhof Syndrome is when you hear a word or something for the first time and then seem to see it everywhere. And if you don’t happen to know that, you do now and so can expect to see it referred to again very soon.

Such as now. Baader-Meinhof is specifically about how the very first time you hear some word is followed by these other occurrences, so many that you can’t fathom how you never heard of this bleedin’ thing before. And that’s not what’s happened to me. I think I’ve had Baader-Meinhof Syndrome 2: This Time It’s Personal instead.

For I used to read screenplays extensively, then it dipped off to just occasionally enjoying one, then late last year there was a recommendation that one could try reading a script a day. The recommendation is on Hayley McKenzie’s website and I was persuaded by it. So I’ve done that.

Except we’re on 2 February as I write to you and so I should’ve read 33 scripts by now. I’ve slipped a teeny bit: just now I read my 112th. Look, I’ve had a lot of long train rides.

But having come back to being immersed in reading scripts, I’m now finding everybody’s talking about screenplays. It’s just that I don’t like everything I’m reading. Such as this:

“Even those of us who love movies may not realize the process from page to screen. I’ve read lots of movie scripts that don’t have any real excitement to them. It’s not until they become film that the beauty is revealed.”
Shawn King, Loop Insight

I’d give you a link to the full piece but a) that’s about it and 2) this Loop site is impossible to link to: do what you like and any link still routes you to the top of the front page and you’re expected to schlep through the entire site. To save you the trip, let me explain that King’s peg, his reason for saying this now, was that Pixar has released a video showing how a scene from Inside Out went from script to screen and I can link to the article that Loop linked to which linked to the video. When did you lose the will to live in that sentence?

Loop was quoting a site called Gizmodo which is here and its writer Julie Muncy takes the same angle but goes further:

“It’s a master class in how direction and acting can give a scene strength it doesn’t have on the page. While the action and dialogue is mostly identical between the script and the final film, the voice work, particularly Amy Poehler’s turn as Joy, lends drama and emotional resonance to work that doesn’t quite get there on the scripting alone.”
Julie Muncy, Gizmodo

May I give you one more quote?

“Bollocks.”
William Gallagher, right here

Truly, I read this stuff and it pickles me. That’s the word. I pickled up. I was unpleasant to people for an hour. And the chief printable thought I had was that these people should read some better bloody scripts. Of the 112 so far I’d rush them – hang on, let me count – 11. I’ve been reading chiefly TV scripts because, well, I like them, and of those there are ones from shows like Justified, Homicide: Life on the Street, Press Gang, Cheers and Sports Night that burst with verve and drama and rich comedy.

It’s not as if I think actors and directors and producers and the myriad other people bringing scripts to the screen aren’t necessary or don’t do anything or are not just as creative as writers. But if it’s not on the page, it ain’t ever going to be on the screen.

Except.

I keep thinking about one particular script I read back around 2003. Ronald D Moore’s script for Battlestar Galactica leaked online and I read it. Shrugged. It was okay, I thought, nothing special and I wasn’t fussed about whether I watched the show or not.

In fact, the DVD arrived at Radio Times at least two months before it aired in the UK and it was only late one Friday that I grabbed the first disc in order to have something to watch on my way home. By the time I got to Birmingham, I was steaming mad and pickling up because I hadn’t brought the second disc and it was going to be a week before I could see it.

If you haven’t seen Battlestar Galactica, it genuinely is a remarkable piece of drama and I could see that when I re-read the script. But I didn’t the first time.

I think I could muster an argument that Battlestar is science fiction and I wasn’t expecting this from that genre. I can throw in that it was a remake of a very gaudy, empty Star Wars knock-off from the 1970s. My reaction was coloured by low expectations.

But you’d think that would just make a fine drama feel even better. Yet there it was, all of it on the page and I missed it. I might go watch that Pixar video now. Or I might just read the Inside Out screenplay.

Sequels and lies

The Good Wife ended on American television last Sunday and I promise not to spoil it for you if you promise not to spoil it for me. I’m exactly 127 episodes behind. That’s five years, though at the rate I’m watching now I’ll have finished by next June.

So you gather that I like this show: it’s a US legal drama and I think quite extraordinary but I won’t press you to watch because people have been pressing me to since it began in 2009. Somehow I resisted them. No reason. Possibly stubbornness. I didn’t try an episode until earlier this year and as richly absorbing and engrossing as the show is, I’m not even going to try subliminally suggesting that you join us fans, join us, join us, join us.

I’m also not going to think about a show ending changes it. I find I can’t get into early episodes of How I Met Your Mother now that I know how he met your mother, but it’s not even that, not even a finishing of the story. There is something different. I remember Ronald D Moore saying of his best-known TV series ending and on the day after it finished airing that: “Yesterday Battlestar Galactica is this TV series, today it was.”

I’m paraphrasing but the essence is right, the essence is of how for the maker of a show, the end is the same wrench we all feel when we leave a job or when a relationship ends on us. I get that as a viewer and actually I don’t get it often enough: I’m trying to think of series where I watched up to the end and wished it had continued. I’d wandered away from Battlestar and still haven’t caught up, for instance. Certainly there’s Veronica Mars.

But usually TV shows are like British politicians: they always end in failure. The most successful British politician will eventually lose an election. It’s not like the US where you have a fixed term as President, here you end in defeat. That’s so British.

I am presently wishing for the end for various current politicians but somehow I wish The Good Wife had continued until I’d caught up with it. I can’t account for that, but there is something different now. Something different between a series in progress and a series that has concluded. There is the practical side that the finale was a big deal and it has been hard to avoid finding out what happens. Only last night, there was a trailer for a last-season episode on Channel 4 and both Angela and I actually sang loudly, a kind of broken, staccato La La La as we tried to find which of us had the TV remote.

We never used to have spoilers. I think that word, in this context, must surely be one of the those ones recently added to the dictionary because nobody did or could’ve spoiled something like the answer to who shot JR. I remember seeing on TV news footage of the next episode of Dallas arriving in the UK. It was a film or possibly video canister, I can see it being wheeled across from an aircraft to Heathrow or somewhere.

Obviously I mind spoilers but I don’t mind that they exist. I like very much that drama creates an urge in people to find out more and to rush around telling people. These are made-up stories about made-up people, there is no reason we should be interested and yet we’re avidly interested. In the best television drama, you worry about the characters from week to week: I think that is ridiculous and I think that is fantastic and I think I wish I knew how to write that well.

The downside of this way that drama characters get into us us not that there are spoilers that will ruin your day and could take a shine off the next 127 episodes for me. It’s that we struggle to let characters go and that means we get sequels.

It can work. There’s Frasier, for instance: strictly speaking it’s a spin-off from Cheers but it aired afterwards so call it a sequel. Similarly, there’s Lou Grant. But I think it’s telling that Lou Grant began airing 39 years ago and it is still the only hour-long drama to spin out of a half-hour sitcom. I don’t think anyone else has even tried to do that, it’s such a hard thing, but then also it would never be allowed today.

TV networks don’t really want sequels: they would like the original show to somehow start again and be the hit it was. Forever, please. I think we’re the same: what we really want when we love a drama is to have that same experience again. To be where we were and who we were when we first got hooked by these characters.

It’s not possible so we hanker to stay with the characters in some way and that gets us sequels. I don’t know if there will be a sequel to The Good Wife – I can hardly look it up without spoiling the aforementioned 127 episodes – but I’ll bet money that it has at least been considered. Maybe piloted. A pilot script to a How I Met Your Mother sequel was commissioned and I’ve read it: the list of reasons I’m glad it wasn’t filmed begins with how the only brave creative decision in it was to give it the wrong title. It’s called How I Met Your Dad. So near and yet.

That didn’t fly and maybe we’d be better if sequels never did. We would definitely be better off if we could learn to let go. A thing is a thing, don’t try to draw it out.

But we can talk about that next week.

He’s not dead, Jim

Without spoiling anything in case you haven’t seen it, the latest series of Endeavour ends with our hero in a bit of a pickle. Without spoiling any show ever, they always end with a pickle. But no matter the size or shape of the pickle, we know everything will be fine. We know.

I think I’m okay with that. Part of me feels that this is an extraordinarily bad thing, that we have somehow become accustomed to having thrills but always a happy ending. To always have tunnels of love but with the reassuring information that “this is not a dark ride”. Our entire society is so hungry for happy endings that we don’t accept anything else.

But then another part of me thinks bollocks.

We have seen thousands upon thousands of hours of television drama in our lives and we are TV literate. We know the hero will survive not because we long for it in our hearts, not because we couldn’t face being upset, but because we know without the hero, there’s no show next week. And we know there’s a show next week. Even if Endeavour got cancelled, we’d know that the guy must always be okay because the show is a prequel to Inspector Morse and we’d have noticed if there were no Inspector Morse character in that.

So maybe we make a little pact that we will suspend our disbelief, that we will pretend we don’t know. Maybe. Probably.

I don’t know that’s a wonderful thing, though, because I think it’s somehow taken us in directions that are a bit tedious. There is death in drama and it can be done very well. I’m struggling to think of an example and I am subsequently struggling to think of an example where it wouldn’t wreck things to tell you. Please provide your own example for me, okay?

Films can do it too. I’m going to spoil Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid because you should’ve seen it by now and I’m going to spoil Titanic because you almost certainly have. They are unusual.

There’s a novel – no, bugger, I cannot spoil this. Okay. There’s this novel, right, and just about exactly in the middle of it, the lead character is killed. It is the most enormous, eye-popping, turn back a page and read that again, surprise. I’ve been slapped by planks that didn’t jolt me so much. It is truly a brilliant moment – but unfortunately everything after it is ditchwater dull.

I think it’s the Ballykissangel Syndrome. Ballykissangel was a series about a priest and a barmaid, whether they would get together, and how they were surrounded by all these great supporting characters. The priest and the barmaid leave after a couple of series – spoilers! – and the show continued by moving those supporting characters to the foreground. It didn’t work an inch. Supporting characters are supporting. The show was cancelled and I’m not even sure how long that took because I was gone.

That great novel did a great thing but then had nowhere to go. But at least that death really mattered. Usually now, it doesn’t. Death doesn’t matter at all.

This week I’ve been reading These Are the Voyages, a book about the original Star Trek. (Quick summary: the author loves Star Trek a lot more than I do but the under-the-cosh, health-endangering pressures and the clashes of people under stress are terribly interesting.) You can perhaps tell I’ve been reading this because that’s where today’s title comes from: Bones McCoy was forever saying “He’s dead, Jim”. But only over characters we didn’t care about or most often barely knew.

One of my beefs with Trek is that actually nobody dies. You kill off Spock in one film, he’s right back in the next. Give me a break.

Science fiction brings back its characters because it thinks it can, it thinks that it can have some technobabble explanation that means it can give us the ultimate in drama by killing a character – but then saving him or her so the show can continue. They do kill characters, they do bring them back, the show does continue, but it’s a bump. I remember consciously thinking in Battlestar Galactica – in all other ways an astonishingly strong drama – that, okay, let Roslin survive just this once. But it was a conscious thought, I was out of the story and had to push myself back in.

Soaps also see death as the ultimate drama and they will kill characters off but it’s usually because the actor is leaving and we know that, we’ve seen that on supermarket shelves. Or they’re killing off a character who’s run their course, who has nothing left to give and we know that, we’ve been watching them.

Much more often, soaps go for the life or death peril and always choose life. Death isn’t the big thing because it doesn’t get that far, it doesn’t happen. Or death isn’t the big thing in Star Trek because if you wear a red shirt, make sure to write a will. Or it isn’t the big thing in any science fiction because you’ll be back next week regardless.

Death is trivialised by this and actually I think it’s trivialised by most TV drama, especially detective series. There is a particularly fine moment in Veronica Mars when a killer is brought to justice. I’m going to change the name of the victim to Bert, just to protect you. With that one change, this is the line of film noir-style voiceover narration we get from Veronica:

The one big downside of justice: it feels good, but it doesn’t change anything. A killer’s in jail, but BERT is still dead, which remains fundamentally unfair.

You really feel it, too. Such satisfaction that she’s solved the case, but such an awareness that a character we liked is still gone.

Death can work – I’ve suddenly remembered an Alan Plater episode of Lewis where the inevitable murder was deeply unsettling because the character was so great, was so alive. Actually, I read that script before filming and I remember telling him I fancied that character, even right there on the page.

So it is possible to make death hurt, so to speak, and it is possible to use it as a most effective piece of drama. But I offer that it should only be one, that it can only be one, that there is so much more to drama than whether one lives or dies or is resurrected.

If the only thing you have in a drama is a death and the story is only a whodunnit, then I don’t think you have drama and I know you don’t have a story. You have a puzzle. Quick litmus test: can you watch an episode of Columbo a second time and still enjoy it? Definitely. Can you rewatch a CSI? Nope. And I don’t think you need to rewatch CSI, it’ll be back next week with the same puzzle.

Columbo is about two great characters pitched against each other. The murderer has all the obvious stakes to lose – freedom, perhaps even life – and Columbo has nothing but job satisfaction and his perfect record at stake. But it is riveting drama because the characters are real and they are being put through a wringer and they are revealing more of themselves. More than they should. (There is one Columbo where he breaks that polite “oh, one more thing” persona and is visibly mad at a suspect. We only see it the once and it is extremely powerful because of that, but it’s always there under the surface, whether he’s playing someone, what he’s really feeling.)

You can rivet without the threat of death.

Endeavour has the extra problem that prequels bring in that we have to recognise that this is the same Morse we’ve known but it also has to give him room to become that Morse we’ve known. He isn’t going to die, I have no doubt he’ll get out of this particular pickle. But it’s what that pickling does to him.

There you go. Drama is pickling. I should’ve just said that.