Jun 18, 2007

The Sopranos

For years I have been saying that the best drama writing is on television. Last week marked the end of the finest drama in TV history, The Sopranos. The talk has been all about how the last show ended. But the final scene was a miniature of the entire series. It was an anti-conclusion, just as the show was an anti-drama.

The Sopranos was great for all kinds of reasons. But those reasons are all aspects of a single technique: the grafting of genre with everyday reality. In structure terms, this is combining myth with drama. Genre is highly prescribed, with set story beats and audience expectations to match. Everyday reality grounds the genre, reverses the expectations, flattens the melodramatic moments of genre so the form actually hits harder.

Usually we see this technique in individual moments of a story. In The Godfather, after they assassinate the driver (filmed in extreme long shot), Clemenza says, "Leave the gun, take the cannoli." Then, at the end of the film, all the killers are calmly and professionally preparing to do their job, which just happens to be mass murder. In Pulp Fiction, two men discuss McDonald's vs. Burger King before we find out they are hit men who commit the most grisly murder.

What made The Sopranos different was that the entire TV series was built on this technique. Here's the premise: a ruthless mob boss has problems with his mother, his wife and his kids and sees a psychiatrist. A writer for the show recently said, "The mob genre is the bait and switch for this show." The mob genre let them write about "kings and queens at court," while the everyday reality showed the king frustrated by a wife and kids he can't control. He could slap his son around but he couldn't keep him from being a screw-up.

The TV medium, still so terribly under-rated, allowed the show's creator, David Chase, to extend this technique across the breadth of a Dickensian novel. A lesser writer would have taken pains to remind the audience who all these characters were. But Chase held to the technique. "I said, 'I'm going to tell stories without all this exposition.' It's what I'd seen in foreign films. Someone says something, or something happens, but it's not commented on-there's no arrows that point to it." Using his fundamental technique, he produced a highly structured, multi-character American epic that was grounded in hundreds of everyday moments.

So was I frustrated by the ending? You bet. But I was supposed to be. I realized that was the only way the show could have ended, by not ending. Some have argued that Tony really was whacked. The last scene was told largely from his perspective. If someone shot him in the head from behind, everything would simply go black.

But I think the open ending was all about the fundamental technique of the show. Every character and action in that diner was both everyday normal and full of dread. Tony had become a king trapped in a state of nature, death on all sides, and it could come from the littlest nobody. At any time. That's the life he has sown.

Farewell Sopranos, the king of drama. You were big drama and small drama; big story and small story. Most of all, you were professional writers at the top of their craft. Thank you.

Jun 7, 2007

Knocked Up

For years Hollywood has been looking for the "high concept" story. That's a story with a big (and highly marketable) plot twist. Now, because of Judd Apatow, that's starting to change, at least in comedy. Apatow is the father of the "low concept" story, and every studio in town is looking for one.

Low concept is a story based on an experience that anyone in the audience could have. Like an accidental pregnancy. The potential audience for a low concept story is huge, because everyone can identify with it. It also has a built-in emotional resonance, and comedy is funnier and more successful when the audience makes an emotional recognition in their own lives.

Sitcoms have known this for years. That's what the form is based on. Until Apatow, nobody thought you could pull the audience out of the house by using that approach in movies. And the conventional wisdom has some merit in this case. Because even though low concept gives you a potentially massive audience that can identify with the story, it puts tremendous pressure on the writer to come up with a new take on an everyday experience the audience knows so well.

Not surprisingly for a low concept story, there isn't much plot in Knocked Up. Love stories are already plot challenged, so when you add low concept to it, you have a story with a big hole in the middle. By the time the boys visit Las Vegas, I felt like we were in another movie.

So how does Apatow overcome the lack of plot and fulfill the requirement that a low concept story put a fresh face on a familiar experience? It's all in the character set up. In the Comedy Class and the Love Story Class, I talk about how these two genres depend heavily on how you set up the character oppositions. In many romantic comedies, the male and female leads are set up as opposites in some way. Then each has a friend who gives them advice, usually wrong, having to do with the stereotypical flaws of the other sex.

Knocked Up starts with the classic opposition of man and woman. In fact, these two are such an odd couple that Apatow has to finesse the fact that Alison, played by Katherine Heigl, would never sleep with Neanderthal Ben, played by Seth Rogen, even if she were blindingly drunk. But this opposition-the mature woman and the man-child-provides the basic line on which the story hangs. It also gives Apatow the essential comic opposition from which he can create a lot of the jokes. True, these jokes play off the commonly perceived differences between men and women. But Apatow is so good at comic dialogue, and his story is so grounded in the emotion of the conflict, that these lines stand out from the usual and are very funny.

But the really brilliant move in the character opposition-indeed what makes the movie-is how Apatow sets up the allies. Ben's ally is not a lone bachelor but a group of adolescent boys in men's bodies. Alison's ally is not a single woman bitter about love and men, but a couple whose marriage is worn to the breaking point.

This character opposition takes the story beyond men and women having trouble dating to the much broader and deeper set of issues about how men and women live the length of their lives. On one extreme is the permanently adolescent man who has complete freedom but no love and no children. On the other extreme is permanent life as a couple, with love and children but no freedom, no sense of self, and the constant realization that one is growing old. By placing pregnancy within this much larger opposition, the emotional and comical resonances ricochet and build to a breaking point within every person in the audience.

The lack of story means the strengths of the character oppositions play out primarily within the individual scenes. But these scenes are often very strong and well worth study. In one remarkable scene, the sister, played by Leslie Mann, and an obviously pregnant Alison try to get into an exclusive club. When the gatekeeper refuses them entry, the sister lays into him, attacking him at his weakest point, which is his pathetic job. It's so real it's painful. He calmly takes her aside and calls her on her true weakness, the reality that has driven her to embarrass herself while trying to embarrass him. She's a stunning beauty but she's getting older, and she and her pregnant sister aren't going through that door.

Great comedy isn't about being funny all the time. Do that and you won't be funny at all. Great comedy is about creating a painful emotional reality, a charged atmosphere where the jokes become lightning bolts, showing you the truth, making you laugh and cutting your heart out all at the same time.