May 27, 2010

The Good Wife

American television is as good as it’s ever been right now, which means it has the best writing in the entertainment industry. American film isn’t even close. This week we saw the end of one of the greatest shows in TV history, with the finale of Lost. If you love great writing like I do, that’s a big loss. But there’s a lot of talent in TV right now. So while we’ve been reluctantly bidding farewell to Lost, The Good Wife has quietly moved up the ranks until it is now one of the five best dramas on TV.

When you watch a terrific single episode of television, you naturally want to praise the author of that episode. But a huge amount of the credit for any episode must go to the original construction of the show itself. In fact, creating a great series on TV is almost totally dependent on the show’s structural conception.

In my TV Drama class, I talk extensively about the seven key structural elements that determine a successful show and how to write them. One of those is the character web. Character web is crucial in any work of fiction, but especially in TV drama where the audience returns to the same family of characters week after week, hopefully for years to come.

Character web has to do with how all the characters in a story hang together as a single fabric. Notice we’re not just talking about the main character here. We’re talking about how all the characters relate to one another, both connecting and contrasting. If you come up with a unique character web, in which each character is set in opposition to the others in the right structural way, you will have a successful series that can run forever. Of course, that’s easier said than done.

If you study the character web on The Good Wife, you see one of the reasons this is the best legal drama to come along in some time. There are many elements that go in to creating a tight character web, including character hierarchy, role, and archetype. But the element that most distinguishes the character web on The Good Wife is the moral relationship of all the characters.

Legal dramas have been shading the line between good and bad, guilt and innocence, for a long time. The days of the righteous defender against the oppressive prosecutor are long gone. David Kelly has done a number of legal dramas that highlight the moral complexity of being a lawyer. But The Good Wife has taken the moral conundrum to a new level.

The key technique for constructing a moral character web is to start with the central moral problem of the hero. Then make all other characters some variation of that moral problem. In The Good Wife, Alicia Florrick, the main character of the title, begins as a “good person.” In fact she is perceived as a paragon of virtue because her husband, the state prosecutor, has been caught cheating on her and is in jail for corruption. Alicia must go back to work as an attorney to support her family while under the harsh glare of publicity.

As the first season progresses, however, Alicia finds herself in a number of morally difficult situations that call into question just how good she really is. Most prominently, she feels a strong attraction to her boss and has to use her husband’s possibly corrupt connections to defeat a colleague who is competing for her job. From her initial elevated position, Alicia can only decline when forced to succeed in a morally impure world. As Sartre said, we all have dirty hands.

Creating this interesting main character is the first step in building a strong show. But what sets The Good Wife apart is the way the show’s creators, Michelle and Robert King, have constructed a web where all the characters must traverse morally dangerous ground. And each character, like Alicia, must find some balance between love and business success without becoming morally corrupt.

Having set up a character web where each character is caught between guilt and innocence, the Kings can play out a story structure in each episode that combines stand alone and serial elements and is dense with reversals and betrayals. Each episode tackles a legal case that serves as the fulcrum for all the characters to have to confront tough moral decisions. With so many characters conniving and choosing, each episode feels like a moral cyclone where everyone is simultaneously jockeying for success without losing their soul.

This story structure gives the show two major strengths. First, even the minor characters have complexity, so each is compelling and together they are a knockout. Second, each episode is packed with plot: the writers tease the audience with a moral challenge in the opening and then relentlessly turn the screws until the final scene.

Because this show was constructed so well from the start, I expect it will only get better as it goes on. Whether you are interested in writing for television or not – and you should be – study The Good Wife to see how master storytellers work the craft. Goodbye Lost, hello The Good Wife.

May 7, 2010

Date Night

Date Night is a so-so comedy thriller. For those wishing to master the screenwriting craft that’s a good thing, because you can often learn the most from a movie that isn’t too good or too bad. Its strengths and its flaws are easier to see.

With stars Steve Carrel and Tina Fey it’s hard to avoid comparing the film to The Office and 30 Rock. That just gives us another instance of the truism that the best writing in comedy is in television, not film. But the brilliance of those shows is actually more difficult to explain. With Date Night, techniques and choices, successes and failures, are clear.

The biggest challenge when you write a comedy screenplay is setting up the comic structure, what I call the “clothesline,” on which you will hang the jokes. This clothesline is essential in sitcoms too, but it is much harder to create in a movie because it has to stretch for at least 90 minutes, not 22.

You create the clothesline using two major structural elements, the comedy sub-genre and your hero’s desire line. This is where most comedy writers go wrong. They don’t realize that there are seven major comedy sub-genres, including romantic comedy and farce, and each has a completely different set of story beats you have to hit to tell the story well (see the Comedy Class for the beats in all 7 sub-genres).

In Date Night, writer Josh Klausner uses the comedy thriller form (a kind of action comedy), which goes back at least to the early Hitchcock films. Here we have the innocent couple on the run, forced to battle criminals or spies. This form is not used much nowadays because combining comedy with thriller creates real problems of tone. If the opponent is too deadly the jokes aren’t funny. There’s also a number of contrivances you have to explain away, most notably how two average shmos could possibly compete with, much less defeat, hardened criminals, and why don’t they just go to the police.

The Date Night script gets barely passing grades in these basic areas of storytelling. The unbelievability of Steve and Tina going up against professional killers is always present. But this isn’t a fatal problem because the audience just falls back on the fact that this is a comedy.

The advantage of using the comedy thriller sub-genre is that it gives the script a strong desire line that extends to the end of the story. Much like the detective line in The Hangover, this couple’s desire to escape attack and find the incriminating flash drive creates a strong narrative drive on which the writer can hang any number of funny but episodic scenes. It also allows him to save the funniest scene for last, which is one of the gold standards in a comedy movie and almost never happens.

As a comedy writer, your goal is always to make the comedy build. The laughs should stand on the waves of the laughs that come before until the audience is gasping for breath. That rarely happens in a movie comedy because you have to extend the story for 90+ minutes and because you have to tie up all the story business as you get to the end of the line.

Klausner solves this problem in Date Night, first by setting up the thriller line and second by keeping the final battle simple. Without a last complex action scene to divert the audience from the jokes, Klausner can keep the focus on two top comic performers doing an incompetent pole dancing routine that brings the house down.

With the strong if hokey clothesline, the strength of the movie can come through, which are the funny bits that pop up throughout the story. Lines like “He turned the gun sideways; it’s a kill shot,” gags like the painfully slow motor boat and scenes like the marital spat between the Tripplehorns are laugh-out-loud funny. In Hollywood, the rule is if you have three laugh-out-loud moments in the film you have a hit. That’s a low bar for movies as opposed to television, but the important thing for writers to focus on is how you get those laughs. And that comes from the comic structure that supports the gags.

If setting up the clothesline is one of the big strengths of Date Night, the attempt to make the comedy come from character is one of the big weaknesses. Most writers have heard how valuable it is for the comedy to come from character, but few really know what it means, or how to do it. I discuss this a lot in the Comedy Class, because if you can master this set of techniques you immediately become one of the top comedy writers in the business. Let me focus on one technique in this area.

You must begin the story by establishing a deep weakness/need in the main character – in this case a couple – which then will be solved by the story line. In other words, the hero’s weakness must be embedded and solved all the way back at the premise line. The premise is your story stated in a single sentence. The Date Night premise might be described like this: a couple whose marriage has become predictable defeats criminals and renews their love.

The premise is like the hypothesis in a science experiment. It’s the fundamental truth about the world you are trying to establish. In an experiment you may determine that your hypothesis is wrong. But in a story you have to prove the premise. The sequence of story events must display in detail the truth about life you describe in one line. This is also called fulfilling the “promise of the premise,” the promise you make to the audience when they agree to come to the theater to see this story.

Klausner clearly wants to tell a story that proves the premise because he spends a great deal of time at the beginning showing that this couple’s marriage has grown stale from the demands of work and children. Even their date night hits the same old routine. The thriller structure is supposed to be the vehicle of renewal. It’s the same technique used, correctly, in Rear Window, where the Jimmy Stewart character learns to respect and commit to the Grace Kelly character by solving a crime with her.

But while this process is given lip service here, it never actually happens. Sure, escaping killers and bringing them to justice makes for an exciting night and a fun makeout session on the lawn the next morning. But it has nothing to do with changing what’s wrong between these two and how they will act differently toward one another for a 1001 nights in the future.

Klausner is definitely doing some things right here that most comedy screenwriters, even those with films under their belts, are not doing. He’s not reaching the level of the sitcoms in which these stars normally appear, but those sitcoms don’t have to tell a funny story over 90 minutes. Still, I can’t help feeling disappointed with this film. When a writer knows how to create comedy from character, you get great thematic comedies like Groundhog Day that express recognizable truths at the same time they make you laugh. Date Night is simply not in that league.