Diana Black Continues the Hero’s Journey

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The Hero’s Journey in Episodic Television – Part 2
by Diana Black

As we established in Part I, ‘normal’ life – taking the kids to school, fixing the plumbing…yet again, or attending/hosting the obligatory ‘Happy’ Holydays – rarely provides an opportunity for heroism or maybe they do; depending on your relatives. Let’s hope we don’t have to put our lives on the line (or the children’s) when we take our beloved little sub-units to school…too horrible to contemplate.

To recap, how can we walk the path of the hero and experience pain and triumph? By proxy – through watching someone else suffer or succeed. Caught up in the narrative, at some subconscious level, we’re still back in that primeval forest, slaying the dragons of uncertainty about ourselves and the world around us – will we survive? In this way we get a ‘survival lesson’ for free.

We’ve already explored this via the big screen, by mapping the journey of Frodo and Sam in The Lord of the Rings, but is the ‘Hero’s journey’ likely to be the same animal via that little box in the corner? Or via other media-viewing platforms; many of them hosting the television program peppered with sponsored advertisements? Hence, the importance of awesome, nail-biting cliff-hangers just prior to Act breaks.

But there are two issues here. So far we’ve only explored the heroic adventure in relation to ourselves, but what about ‘the’ hero/heroine in that television program? Can they undergo the heroic transformation in episodic/serialized television…well not really…so why not?

Let’s recap the structural road map of the hero’s journey – perhaps it offers a clue as to why this isn’t feasible in episodic television. Recall we see the hero in his/her ‘normal’ life. Then the inciting incident calls the hero to action – they’re dragged kicking and screaming because they‘ve no desire to undergo an inner transformation; in their mind there’s no need for it. However, they’re not given a choice…fate has anointed him/her for the task. They devise a plan to address the situation… it fails.

Girding their loins, they try again and even with help/back-up, they still fail with one obstacle after another making their life hell. Yet there’s no getting off the roller-coaster at this point. When everything is going to ‘hell in a basket’/ the ‘all is lost moment’, the hero/heroine reaches a crisis point. They’re confronted with the need for inner/spiritual transformation – that is, if they’re to be successful. This generally requires sacrifice – death of old self or death – all in the service of others/the cause.

We’ve or (they’ve) reached the climax of the narrative, the hero/heroine prevails/triumphs – either alone or with help. Then the denouement – we see the hero/heroine alive, but changed forever –older, wiser or perhaps damaged, but now living or perceiving their life differently in some profound way.

So, what’s the problem with this in relation to our television hero/heroine? If we stumble upon the pilot episode and love it, we’ll be like Sam and stay the course – remaining faithful and forgiving by not missing a single episode, so there’s no problem – for the character, us or the commercial stakeholders.

But what about the viewer who stumbles upon the series midway? If pandering to their primeval brain that wants a ‘survival lesson’ via a heroic transformation, the new recruit will be sadly disappointed and thinking wtf? And what about the ‘suits’, how do they recruit and keep lots of new viewers who’ll begrudgingly watch the commercials in between Act breaks; all because they’re emotionally invested in the character/s? This is what makes heavily serialized programs problematic; leading to the rise of DVD sales with the enticement of binge viewing; in order to get these guys up-to-speed.

So as television viewers, we must make a pact and fall in love with the character as they are, not for what they could become. Hence those characters have to be thoroughly engaging – bad-ass/ adorable/whatever, but worth emotionally investing in.

The only alternative to that is to switch channels. However, our primeval brain still wants to via proxy, to accompany ‘a hero’ on ‘a journey’ and learn from them, so flipping channels isn’t the answer.

Thus television characters that we love or hate don’t tend to grow and transform – the emphasis is on the adventure/criminal case itself – a marketing strategy to extend the life of the series, especially on commercial-dependent networks and aspiring television stations. Our hero/heroine is just fine as they are. This is also the reason behind ensemble casting – there’ got to be someone in that ornery bunch that you like and identify with, isn’t there!


Diana Black is an Australian actress and writer. TVWriter™ is proud to call her a member of Larry Brody’s Master Class.

Writing About Writing About TV

Gather ’round, aspiring writers about TV writing, we at TVWriter™ are proud to bring you this truly intellectual discussion about the kind of thing we do right here every day (till we get a gig writing actual TV, in which case, “Whoa, Nellie!”)


 

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by Linda Holmes

It was years ago that TV critic Alan Sepinwall said something to me that I’ve remembered ever since and that he doesn’t remember saying: that writing about television was shifting its focus from what is said before shows are on to what is said after shows are on. It made sense to me, since my career writing about TV started with writing recaps of shows I used an actual VCR to record. With tapes. I didn’t get screeners, I didn’t get advances — I just taped things, and then I wrote about them. I think now, that shift is so obvious that it’s taken for granted.

This came up again recently when Quentin Tarantino sat down for a long and searching interview with New York Magazine. After he expressed, among many other things, his affection for the departed HBO drama The Newsroom, interviewer Lane Brown mentioned the show’s mixed reviews. Tarantino’s response, in addition to wondering whether anyone reads TV criticism, included: “TV critics review the pilot. Pilots of shows suck.”

There’s plenty of room to debate whether anyone reads TV criticism anymore (or any other criticism, for that matter), but the other part of the response suggests it’s maybe been a while since Tarantino did. (In fairness, he’s busy.) While looking at pilots is certainly part of what lots of critics do and a bad enough pilot, or particularly an actively off-putting or offensive pilot, can get your show written off if it’s bad enough, criticism of television has long since become — particularly in the case of anything with any ambition — much more about the visit and revisit and re-revisit. There are shows that don’t get that treatment, but The Newsroom did. Whether you think its reviews were fair or unfair, they were not, in the main, the result of nobody reviewing anything after the pilot.

Writing about TV is in a weird place, for some of the same reasons TV itself is. “Here’s a new show; they sent it to me in advance; here are some thoughts including whether it’s good or not” is still part of the picture, just like the traditional fall rollout of broadcast network shows is still part of the cycle of TV. But just like delivery has changed and content has changed, writing has changed, too. And that traditional vision, in which your task is to generate a single review of a new show based on a pilot and then perhaps to do a remembrance when it ends, is entirely incomplete.

As shows have gotten more serialized and more complicated, and as online writing has provided a lot more space, the practice of writing about every single episode of a show has gotten more common. Shows like Mad Men and Breaking Bad have been proving grounds for people who built audiences by breaking down metaphors, commenting on form, dissecting story directions, and generally working alongside viewers who want a more thoughtful experience out of watching television.

Of course, even that has gotten trickier to do. Early in this series, we talked about how the full-drop model, in which seasons of shows are released all at once, complicates public conversation. It complicates criticism, too (in a way that, were it true that TV critics just review pilots, it wouldn’t). Just now, The New York Times is posting two-a-day reviews of the episodes of the new Netflix show Narcos, because … it’s as good a method as any.

Well, wait. Technically, those aren’t reviews; they’re recaps, and if you want to get a weird and surprisingly boisterous argument going that’s of interest to a tiny number of people, get the TV critics of your acquaintance to reach agreement on how different those things are and how you tell them apart. (Spoiler alert: they won’t.) For me, recaps are a little more driven by the structure of the episode and the commentary follows that structure, while reviews are structured more like traditional cultural criticism. But there are countless gray areas and countless writers where “recap” and “review” both seem like reasonable labels to attach to their work. Of course, I came up writing 15-page scene-by-scene epics about episodes of Survivor that didn’t publish for four days, which is the kind of thing that simply wouldn’t/couldn’t happen now. At the time, people sort of went with it. You will now typically be asked at least once why a piece is so long if it runs past about 500 words, and the actual answer I would have given then – which was “…For pleasure?” – would not suffice….

Read it all at NPR

More Great TV Writing Career Advice from Ken Levine

More wisdom from an excellent writer who keeps on keeping on inspiring. (For reals. We mean it. Honest.)


 

Shameless

Another writing secret to success

by Ken Levine

As if you’re not already bombarded with enough of them. But if you’re an aspiring writer, versatility could give you a big leg up.

The style of BIG BANG THEORY is very different from KIMMY SCHMIDT and VEEP is a different style from either of them. So is SHAMELESS. So is LOUIE, not to mention MODERN FAMILY (which I just did).

There are lots of comedy writers who are one trick ponies. They can write the shit out of BROOKLYN NINE NINE but would be buried trying to write THE MIDDLE. You might say, “well I like BROOKLYN NINE NINE better. It’s more my sensibility.” And that’s great except what if the only opening was on THE MIDDLE?

So can you write a good episode of 2 BROKE GIRLS (assuming that’s even possible) and a good episode of EPISODES?

In a very competitive field you do yourself a big favor by being able to answer yes.

What this unfortunately means is extra work on your part. Don’t just write your one spec pilot and wait for offers. It’s still helpful to write scripts for existing shows. It’s still a big plus to have both a single camera spec and a multi-camera spec.

Being a “funny person” is not enough. I would hope that aspiring comedy writers really study different shows. The tone and storytelling of NEW GIRL is miles apart from the tone and plotting of MOM. You’ll be miles ahead of “Mr. Funny Person” if you learn them….

Read it all at Ken Levine’s great blog

Fear The Walking Dead – The Beginning of The End

by Cassandra Hennessey

(The following review has MAJOR SPOILERS, so don’t say I didn’t warn you!)

There are a lot of fans comparing “The Walking Dead” and “Fear The Walking Dead”. It’s natural, of course, to want to find similarities between the two, but that’s not necessarily reasonable. One story takes place in the midst of the global pandemic of zombification, while the other chronicles the contagion from its outset.ftwd-logo

Is there any correlation between the two shows’ main characters (TWD) Rick and (FTWD) Nick (English actor Frank Dillane)?

Well, Rick’s a cop.

Nick’s a teenaged junkie.

Opposite ends of the spectrum, wouldn’t you say?

The only similarity they have is Rick sees the horror of the Zombie Apocalypse in the hospital after awakening from a coma; and Nick sees the horror, tries to flee from it and a minor run-in with a car lands him in the hospital.

No one believes Nick when he says he’s seeing “dead people”. After all, he’s an addict, fresh off a mind-altering high. He’s in restraints on a hospital gurney. He probably hallucinated the whole thing, right?

I mean, it brings to mind the song “Rosetta Stoned” by Tool. All right, maybe Nick wasn’t ranting like that, but the dialog did allude to him sounding irrational to the police and medical staff as he was relaying reality as he saw it– fellow junkie Gloria was nom-nomming some dude’s face like it was seven layer nacho dip.

And when Travis (Cliff Curtis) goes to that horrible husk of a church where the addicts all congregate for “Junkie Communion”, he discovers a BIG pool of blood and gore; however no bodies.

Who wouldn’t doubt Nick’s story?

It’s like Travis said, “Dead bodies don’t get up and walk away.”

The badge of dubiousness is pinned securely to Nick just because he’s an addict and a wayward son; he’s deemed unreliable by — of all people — his own mother.

As Maddie (Kim Dickson) rationalized to Travis as he tried to argue the validity of Nick’s story about the church, “Bad things happen there.” She’s a mother who has been through disappointment and despair time and time again with her son, while working as a guidance counselor, setting teenaged students on the path toward their hopeful futures. Seeing her own child throwing his future away must be gut-wrenching. Kim Dickson’s performance depicts a woman who is about to throw up her hands and walk away from her own flesh and blood.

At first, I didn’t like Maddie (nowhere next to the almost obligatory universal disdain for Lori Grimes, but…) However, I did give consideration to her reactions towards her son. It seems he’s been on a downward spiral for a while; and there’s been a series of interventions, rehabilitation and epic failures. She’s in the midst of another of these cycles, and losing hope. Then I “got” her character, and the seemingly “blasé” exterior. But believe me, it’s only a veneer.

But what about the walkers?! We want more walkers, some viewers were yelling.

Patience is a virtue, my friends.

Character development — when it is done well– does require some time. After all, this is the pilot, the show’s premiere, and it is formally introducing us to new “people”. How else are we going to acquaint and grow to know these characters if they are not fully developed? Why would we care for them if we didn’t feel we “know” them?

The deliberate slow pacing of the show is to be commended and not condemned, for it is realistically depicting the genesis of any outbreak scenario. Trust me, the chaos and collapse of society as we know it is imminent. Imagine it being like turning a faucet; first a few drips and then a mighty gush!

What I found interesting was Nick’s dysfunctional family unit; two previously married adults (Travis and Maddie) in love, trying to merge their families together, while dealing with tumultuous estranged relationships and emotional baggage. (Maddie’s daughter Alicia harbors resentment toward her brother Nick — the Prodigal Son — and yearns to escape the drama when she goes to college after her senior year; and Travis’ estranged son Christopher holds a grudge against his father’s compassion for Nick).

This is a classic example of a “modern-day” family with all its faults and foibles.

I believe we’re going to see some powerful moments with this family; and their struggles to stay together and ALIVE.

The other touches of modern-day tropes of technology were all-too-familiar; Alicia’s (Alycia Debnam Carey) text messages to her artist boyfriend Matt (Maestro Harrell) going unanswered and being miffed but not-yet-concerned; in class watching the viral video via smartphone of a police confrontation with an insanely violent suspect that just wouldn’t stay down, even after being loaded with lead.

Signs of the times, wouldn’t you say?

Both Gloria and the “crazed” guy on the back-board who attacked the EMS worker and was gunned down in the viral video by police were direct references to the “Miami Zombie of 2012”.

I mean, we all look like Zombies during the day, skulking around, head hanging, reading tweets, texting, or checking e-mail.

Think of how often you utilize your own smartphone. A lot, right?

When the “collapse of civilization” does happen, there will be no more tech, no more net, hell, no electricity. The sudden inability to get “information” will definitely be a huge shock to the system for these characters, as it would be for us in real-life.

Anyone who has been through a power outage when neglecting to charge one’s phone before the lights went out will attest to that!

Okay. Time for the section I like to call “Things I Didn’t Like”…

…The “Oo, is this guy a Walker?” teases. Namely, The Student with his head on his desk in Travis’ English class; and Maddie’s POV shot of the back of the Principal as he sat suspiciously motionless, but was merely eavesdropping on classes through the PA system, “evaluating teachers’ performances”. These were not “OMG!” moments; they were unnecessary and annoying anticlimactic moments of manufactured suspense.

Shame! Shame on using this cheap trick! I’m surprised there wasn’t a cat used for a jump-scare in the church scene, then!

And the “Nick Escapes The Hospital Scene”. People expire in the hospital all the time. You mean to tell me there wasn’t one instance of some corpse going “full on Walker” somewhere in that hospital? In the ER? In the morgue? Just saying. I think they missed an opportunity to really freak Nick out and send him running for Cal for his hookup to dull his memories of the horror.

Now, “Little” things I did like: The SOUND of LA. Police sirens. Copters overhead. Anyone who’s ever been there knows these sounds are an authentic Los Angeles experience.

The MUSIC. The Nine Inch Nails inspired despair-and-dystopia soundtrack is unnerving and frenetic. Brings to mind the “Fragile” album of 1999. (By the way, my discerning ear “nailed” it; NIN producer Atticus Ross crafted the music).

Hmm… 1999. Strange. Back in ’99, we were wondering if the world was going to end. Not by a Zombie Apocalypse, but by Y2k. Lest, I digress…

I don’t know. Maybe we TWD fans have been unwittingly bestowed the powers of Nostradamus; seeing what is to come before it actually happens in this tale of contagion and chaos. We’ve witnessed the full-blown effects of a Walker-riddled world before seeing the slow descent into destruction.

“Fear the Walking Dead” is The Beginning of The End.

The trickle of incidentals. Missing persons reports. Strange news stories of irrationally violent suspects attacking innocent civilians. More and more children absent from school. Adults not showing up to work. All precursors to something much more sinister.

This hell wouldn’t suddenly break loose. But when it does… Oh, but when it does, it does so in an exponential, uncontrollable fashion.

I have to say I really liked the Internet conspiracy-theory savvy kid Tobias. I do feel sorry that he’s found himself caught in a real-life Creepy Pasta. I can’t tell you how many kids his age I’ve met who are well-verse of the latest “underground information”. They make Jesse Ventura look like Ryan Seacrest.

The climax of the pilot’s building suspense had a freak-out factor of 10; the freshly-turned Cal getting run over not once but twice by Nick in Travis’ truck, and still moving in his reanimated crumpled-heap state, much to the horror of Maddie and Travis.

The atmosphere of the show is tense, unsettling. The walkers in their “freshly-deceased” state are unnerving, because their previous visages of humanity are still very much there. Hats off to Greg Nicotero for creating the nightmarish vision of “new” walkers.

It’s going to be interesting to discern the method to the madness of a city being plunged into chaos. We as viewers will get to see what happens to LA as opposed to not actually witnessing the fall of Atlanta.

Despite some critics and tweeters complaining about the slow pace of the pilot, 10.1 million viewers tuned in, making “Fear the Walking Dead” the Number 1 all-time pilot premiere in cable history and ensuring a legacy of Walker-driven programming for AMC.

Unlike the harsher critics, I’m just saying give the show a chance. Let it creep up on you. I’m sure once the Zombie Apocalypse hits its full stride in LA, it will be a gripping, nail-biting extravaganza.

Stay tuned.

Larry Brody Reads “Shoot Like Tarantino”

by Larry Brody

tarantinobookThe Good and the Bad:

As a loyal member of the Writers Guild of America, West, I’ve never let myself get too attached to Quentin Tarantino because for all his brilliance as a writer and director (and I really do think he’s brilliant) he’s also a great danger to all the professional TV and film writers out doing their thing these days.

He’s a danger because he refuses to join the Guild. And, you know, if enough brilliant writers never join or secede from the WGA it’s going to hurt all TV and film writers where we live: In the departments of health care benefits and that very scary “P” word – pensions. It’s a studio contribution problem. If studios hire more and more non-members of the Guild to do their things, employer funds that are the basis of our benefits will dwindle, and you knmow where they can lead.

But in spite of the dood setting such a bad precedent, I decided to sit down and read Christopher Kenworthy’s new book about him. It’s called Shoot Like Tarantino: The Visual Secrets of Dangerous Storytelling, and it’s damned good.

As in helpful.

Even inspiring.

Kenworthy doesn’t mess around. He analyzes the techniques Tarantino uses as a director and explains how all of us can use them as well. Yes, even as writers because elements like, oh, dialog and characterization, begin on the page. And he does it clearly and concisely, like – well, like a very good teacher, dammit, and not just a worshipping fanboy.

Check this thing out, gang.

ASAP.

Shoot Like Tarantino at Amazon

 

 

 

Indie Video: Everything you need to know to get a SAG actor on the set of your non-union production

Lately, we’ve been inundated with requests for more tricks of the trade. And since the way see it is that writing is only part of the trade of TV, film, and, yes, web production, and stars are a big deal everywhere, finding this article a couple of days ago is perfect timing:


 

SAG-Actor-Frank-865x505by Johnathan Paul

First, before we get started, let’s make sure everyone knows exactly what SAG is. If this word isn’t new to you, then know that it stands for the Screen Actors Guild. This is the official labor union for working professional actors. Much like the Directors Guild of America (DGA) or the Producers Guild of America (PGA), SAG offers its members collective bargaining services such as compensation, benefits, and working condition stipulations.

Whenever I’m directing a film, whether it’s fictional or a documentary with reenactments, I meet with actors to play roles for the parts I need. For the longest time, I never worked with SAG actors. I would instead try to find my talent from a pool of stage actors. And let me say, some of the stage talent I’ve worked with over the years are incredibly skilled at their craft — sometimes more so than the “professionals”.

However, that great stage talent joined SAG, which forced me to learn how to handle the details of working with the union. So, I’m going to impart to you the tips I’ve learned. Hopefully it gives you a leg up on securing the talent for your next project.

1. Hire a Casting Director

gather talent and make the phone calls. This was the single biggest move I’ve made in securing talent. While you can do all of this yourself (and believe me, I’ve done it), having a dedicated person to find talent is tremendously helpful. It frees you up to focus your energy on preparing for principle photography.

2. Take advantage of SAG’s agreements.

Before I started using SAG actors I thought they would be way too pricy for me to ever use in my micro-budget films. And then some of the actors I wanted to work with didn’t know for sure if they could work on non-union projects. What did I find out after talking with a few Agents? Yes, they can work on non-union projects. And, no. SAGactors aren’t always pricy.

SAG has done a great job of diversifying their agreements for student, documentary, experimental, and short narrative films. The rates for each are actually really reasonable. Plus, there’s also the possibility that the actor will wave their rate. But, if they do this, be sure to pick up the tab in other areas….

There’s more! Read it all at Premium Beat