John Ostrander: Radical TV Surgery

Castle-TVby John Ostrander

It was announced this week that Stana Katic, who plays Detective Kate Beckett on the ABC seriesCastle, was not going to be asked back IF the series is renewed for a ninth season. The reason cited was cost cutting which also accounts for the shortened 13 episode season planned IF the show comes back.

The premise of the show is that mystery writer Richard Castle, played by Nathan Fillion, worms his way onto the NYPD and helps the detectives solve actual murder mysteries rather than the fictional ones he creates. Central to the series has also been his relationship with Beckett; he started by annoying her but, after as many complications and delays that the writers could conceive, they fell in love with each other, acknowledged they were in love, and finally married.

Which makes the loss of Katic/Beckett difficult to understand for me. The show may have been titled Castle, but its core was that relationship between the two leads. Yes, I originally tuned in the show because I had really enjoyed Fillion on Firefly (and the movie that concluded that series, Serenity) but it wasn’t the sometimes predictable mysteries or the often interminable story arcs that made me a big fan of the show. It was the relationships between the characters and central to it all was that relationship between Castle and Beckett. That WAS the show so far as I was concerned and has been since the first episode.

Look, I get the idea that the longer a show is on the more it costs to produce and ways need to be found to cut those costs. I would think that going to a 13 week season would do that but evidently not enough to suit the suits at ABC. However, it’s a big risk.

ABC and Fillion have both expressed confidence that the show can continue without Katic/Beckett but I’m not sure. One thing I have learned in comics over the years is that every time you make a big change in a title you run the risk of alienating the fans. The general reason for the gamble is that, hopefully, you will gain more new readers by making the change than the ones you will most certainly lose by making it. You don’t want to give readers a reason to stop reading.

Some titles seem immune to this for some reason. It almost doesn’t matter which creators are doing Superman, for example. The title is going to be there so long as DC keeps publishing. That’s less true for most comics, however, and even less true for most TV shows.

Could it work? Could ABC drop Katic/Beckett from Castle and hope for it to go on? Conceivably. There will be a curiosity value for some fans, at least for a few episodes. Might that bring in new viewers and/or old viewers who have been away? Conceivably. Much will depend on how they handle it starting with how they explain and then deal with the loss of Beckett. I don’t know how they’ll do it. I’m not privy to their thinking. It seems likely to me, however, that they will kill off the character. I suppose they could put her in an off screen coma but I suspect there will be a desire to close the door.

Given this great love the show has established between Castle and Beckett, Castle would have to grieve her death as part of Season 9. If they have him just go out and start romancing and/or bedding a flock of new ladies, that will be a problem for many viewers, myself included. I personally know what it’s like to lose someone you deeply love and that doesn’t get resolved in an hour minus commercials. That takes time. Castle himself would be changed by Beckett’s loss and, if he isn’t, that just trivializes the love affair that has been at the center of the show for eight seasons. It might even undercut the revenue that the reruns of the show generate on other channels.

ABC hasn’t definitively announced one way or the other if Castle is even renewed for that ninth year. My suggestion – don’t. If in order to bring the show back even for a shortened season they have to destroy the central relationship in the show, then don’t do it. Do something else. Let everyone involved go on to other work.

When Tom Mandrake and I were doing The Spectre at DC, we knew about a year ahead of time that the series would be ending due to slowly eroding sales. DC gave us the opportunity to end the book on our own terms and we were able to put a cap on it that made the entire run one story. The ending completed it.

Right now, the ones still watching Castle are the fans. Do the right thing, ABC. Don’t piss all over them. End the show and do it with some style.

It’s not always about the money.

John Ostrander is one of LB’s favorite writers in any medium. This post originally appeared in his most excellent blog at ComicMix.

JJ Abrams Tells Us About His Mystery Box

In other words – some outstanding writing/directing tips here!

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Another Ted Talk

What Really Makes a TV Series “Work?”

by Diana Black

Why does one series succeed and another, with all the same hopes, dreams, and good intentions, fail?Miss-Phryne-Fisher

There are many reasons, of course, starting with the oft-quoted adage, “Nobody knows anything” when it comes to what’s going to grab audiences, and ending with “What a stinkeroo!” which probably is said much more often even though nobody seems to want to step up and claim authorship.

Today, just for the hell of it, let’s head ‘down under’ and explore the fates of two Aussie dramas – Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries (Debra Cox and Fiona Eagger, 2012 -2015) and The Dr. Blake Mysteries (George Adams, 2013–).

If we run a ‘Compare’ (similarities) versus a ‘Contrast’ (differences) on these productions, there’s of course a lot that’s similar and yet in other ways, they’re worlds apart.

Why bother, I hear you ask? What’s in it for us as writers? Well, a lot actually – if we’re willing to wear two ‘hats’ simultaneously, that of the viewer and of the script analyst.(Drives my ‘significant other’ nuts…same in your household, huh?) Placate you S.O. with a bowl of popcorn – but none for you because you’ll be too busy juggling hats and writing furiously to eat.

As emerging TVwriters, we really, really need to do this exercise often if we’re to become better writers. You’ll be ever so pleased you paid attention and did your homework in that expensive screenwriting class(es) – because it’s all there in these two shows – you’ll be ticking boxes all over the place – or not….

Dr. BlakeOkay, let’s compare. Both shows belong to the ‘crime/mystery-solving’ genre, they’re period pieces (anything older than 30 years), set in Australia and both ‘procedurals’ with the protagonists determined to solve the fresh, new murder mystery at hand, which they invariably do.

In each episode and as each Series progresses, humor is juxtaposed against a backdrop of mystery, violence and an exploration of the protagonist’s character and into their troubled past. Both use diagetic and non-diagetic sound and from a technical standpoint, shot in HD – 720 p.

So how are they different? While the list is extensive, most of the items are things we’d have little-to-no control over unless we had an ‘in’ with the Showrunner/Producer.

The screen aesthetic of Miss Fisher v Dr. Blake – sumptuous v austere – almost bleak – the lighting – light and soft v dark, bordering on ‘noir’; coloration – pinks and creams v dark blues, black and gray; the musical score – light and energetic for the most part v dark and dramatic – is something the writer can only look on at (just like the viewer, no?)

But what of the aspects we as writers usually do (or should) have control over? Character is foremost and secondarily, plot.

Miss Fisher (Essie Davis) is a glamorous, drop-dead gorgeous private dick who ‘takes charge’ – brilliantly, and without so much as a grimy smudge on her beautiful costume or flawless make-up. Dripping genuine charm, warmth and compassion, she’s highly seductive. Her intelligence and sharp eye for detail makes everyone else, even her ‘foil’ – the handsome and complex detective (Nathan Page), grossly inferior. The undercurrent of humor is playful and lightly done.

Then there’s Dr. Blake (Craig McLachlan). He’s a plain yet sincere man, ‘damaged goods’ from the ‘get-go’, struggling to rise above his post-war addiction and personal loss while attempting to fill his extremely popular father’s role as the local doctor and part-time Police Surgeon. He does so in an efficient, sensible and lack-luster manner. That sense of humor mentioned earlier – it seems obvious and forced. Indeed, the characterization in this series borders on one-dimensional with the character traits for many of the leading roles somewhat hackneyed and obvious.

While the standard narrative arc of bringing criminals to justice ensues in both series, it’s the dialogue and action and the effect on the pace that provides us with a ‘cautionary tale’. To be fair, this fundamental difference is more apparent in earlier episodes.

In Miss Fisher…thanks to economical dialogue rich with sub-text and action, it gaily trips along with the energy and verve of a ‘Charleston’.

For Dr. Blake… its dead slow to the point that yes, go get yourself that bucket of popcorn, you’ll have plenty of time to munch and take notes. The dialogue early in the series lacks subtext and then later, when they’ve obviously copped flack over this issue, its ‘loaded’ with sub-text to the point of being obvious; same for the action – overdone. This in turn, compromises the actors who are doing their best but burdened as they are – their performance comes across as ‘forced’.

Writers, be kind to your potential cast – give them a break and don’t weigh them down with heavy, cumbersome actions, dialogue or an imbalance or lack of subtext…please! Think about what goes down on that page – you’re responsible for it.

Oh, speaking of success. Miss Fisher is off the air in Australia but a massive hit on Netflix and the pirate downloading sites. Dr. Blake – well, he’s going strong in Aussieland and on the UK’s ITV Network (home of a dozen other mysteries done in the show’s style, actually) – yet all but invisible internationally.

Maybe nobody really knows anything after all.

Diana Black is an Australian actress and writer and formerly a member of Larry Brody’s Master Class.

Getting Started as a TV Writer

Earl Pomerantz calls himself “a regular person” who “thinks about things and then writes about them.” But his work as a writer on Cheers, Becker, Major Dad, Amazing Stories, The Cosby Show et al show him to be the kind of special dude new writers can – and should – turn to as they enter the Biz:

by Earl Pomerantz

I never wrote mean. I never wrote sexy. I never put characters in humiliating situations. And I never wrote dumb. And I still got a thirty-year career and a pretty nice house.

Visitors to my blog have repeatedly asked me to talk about my writing experiences on shows they enjoyed like Taxi, for which I wrote nine episodes. I hesitate to comply, because the half-hour comedy terrain has been so radically altered that I seriously question the relevance of my experiences with what’s happening in comedy today.

There’s a lot of comedy on television I love; I just couldn’t write it. I love Extras, though the lead character endures humiliation after humiliation, like a man who has a tub of soup showered unceremoniously over his head every thirty seconds of his life. The show can be literally painful to watch. And yet, it still makes me laugh.

I enjoy Curb Your Enthusiasm, a show in which Larry David, or at least the character Larry David, behaves abominably on a regular basis. My wife calls the show a cringedy. You laugh, but you cringe at the same time. It’s a funny thing. In old show business, a comedian would reveal only the best side of his personality on his show, while remaining a despicable human being offstage. I’ve met Larry David; he’s thoughtful and polite. It’s only on his show that he’s despicable. This reversal of a show biz tradition – now it’s “Nice offstage, horrible onstage” – is a telling reflection on the expanding parameters of current comedy.

Polite doesn’t cut it anymore. That’s your parents’ comedy, or maybe your grandparents’. To keep audiences onboard, the comedy envelope continues to be pushed further and further to the extremes. I’m referring to cable comedy. Network comedy has virtually disappeared.

Network comedy is dying, because commercial limitations – Rule Number One: “Offend No One” – prohibit comedy from venturing to those necessary extremes. The advertisers won’t allow writers to go there. Even the most successful comedy on the air, Two and a Half Men– which is basically The Odd Couple with sleepovers – handles sexual situations with an obligatory obliqueness, compared to, say, how sex is dealt with on Entourage. Cable comedies are censorship-free, or censorship-lite; network comedy creativity is defeated by the paralyzing dread of “getting letters.” That’s why the two systems are different, and why one is flourishing while the other’s in the tank….

Read it all at Earl’s Just Thinking blog

Peggy Bechko’s World: The Hero’s Worthy Goal

by Peggy Becko

Taking time out to put something simple and basic out there for the writers who join us here – readers too who enjoy getting a peek into the writer’s world and just what goes into a good read. What a writer wrestles with to come up with that eyeball-grabbing story that keeps a reader up half the night because the book just can’t be put down.


It’s plainly written above. It’s very basic. Is the goal that’s been set for the hero of the story a worth y goal. And by that I mean,  there are lots of things a hero can strive to achieve. BUT choosing the right one, the one with the right outside motivation, can be tricky and can require a lot of thought on the part of the writer. Is it a big enough goal? Is it a goal that is worthy of the hero?

It sounds pretty direct, but without thinking about it, deep down, the reader is automatically asking questions while the story unfolds.  Does that goal  set for the hero fulfill a basic human need? Safety and security? Love? Belonging? Physiological? Some fulfillment of self-esteem?

Why are we all looking for that element? Well, it reminds readers of their own goals and desires, then draws them into the story to find out whether the hero does attain his goals and desires, and if so, how.

Another question regarding that worthy goal is, is it logical and attainable? Really, if one is wrapped up in a story, there is little worse than the exclamation, “that doesn’t make sense!” or seeing through a paper-thin plot and knowing deep down that this guy couldn’t really accomplish that goal no matter how willingly the reader dives into the pool of suspended disbelief.  If that happens the writer has lost the reader. Not good.

The next test is does the hero have an emotional attachment to the goal? Is he or she passionate about achieving whatever it is whether it is saving the life of a puppy, preventing a bank robbery or curing cancer? The protagonist absolutely must be passionate; must have a soul-deep motivation for plunging into whatever circumstance follows. If the attitude is a wimpy, it’ll be nice if I can achieve it, then the reader follows the same path, doesn’t care and gives up on the story.

Related to the emotional attachment is the question, what happens if the Hero doesn’t succeed? What’s at stake?  Does the world explode? Is a child’s life at stake? Will an evil force succeed? Will a ship sink at sea? If he doesn’t get back in time to donate a kidney will his wife die?

There has to be a powerful motivating factor and hit has to be real to the reader. It puts a lot of pressure on the writer.  See, readers, see what you do to all those slaving writers out there?

And at the same time, readers motivate writers to always improve, to come up with the next fascinating, exciting, dramatic, love-filled tale of adventure, success, mourning or joy.

Peggy Bechko is a TVWriter™ Contributing Editor. Learn more about her HERE. Peggy’s new comic series, Planet of the Eggs, written and illustrated with Charlene Brash-Sorensen is available on Kindle. And, while you’re at it, visit the Planet of the Eggs Facebook page

Interview with SHREK Writer Terry Rossio

Like the article below says, Terry just may be the highest-paid screenwriter of all time. And he’s pretty damn good at the actual, um, storytelling thing too. So, without further ado:

by John Robert Marlow

terry_rossioTERRY ROSSIO is probably the highest-paid screenwriter in the history of the medium. He prefers to write with a partner, which is almost invariably Ted Elliott. Together, they’ve written the screenplay and/or story for films such as: Aladdin; Godzilla;The Lone Ranger, Shrek; the Pirates of the Caribbean, Zorro, and National Treasure movies; and far too many others to mention here. Terry also co-wrote (with Bill Marsilii) the record-breaking Deja Vu spec script—which sold for $5 million–andLightspeed, which sold for $3.5 million. Terry is also a producer. (Read Terry’s official bio here.)

I interviewed him for the book, Make Your Story a Movie: Adapting Your Book or Idea for Hollywood. And while much of Terry’s adaptation-specific advice appears there, it just wasn’t possible or appropriate to include (in that format) the wisdom he was kind enough to share on other topics. And so you find it here…

JRM: How did you break in, and how did you come to be where you are now?

Terry Rossio: I’m going to try to not give the usual boilerplate answers in this interview, and that means not going along with false presumptions, no matter how seemingly benign. The question about breaking in seems perfectly legit, but really it’s not. A writer must create compelling work, and then try to sell it. Once sold, the writer has to do the same thing again. It’s really not true that the writer ‘breaks in’—that’s an artifact of the belief that the person is being judged, not the work, and also of the belief that there is an inside and an outside, which I don’t think exists. There are too many screenwriters out there with only a single credit for there to be an inside, and too many writers on the outside making sales, to too many markets which are either new, changing, or undefined.

In truth buyers are just not that organized, your buyer is not my buyer, or in some cases, you can become your own buyer. Courtney Hunt was nominated for an Academy Award this year for best screenplay for Frozen River, and she’s never sold a screenplay. Is she on the inside or the outside? In truth, anyone, at any time, can come up with South Park or Superman or Sandman, and that’s all that matters.

I know writers want to think it’s all about access, and it’s true that for me, at this point, I can get a screenplay read, far easier than most. But that doesn’t mean much if it doesn’t sell, and no writer is so inside that anything they write sells. Lawrence Kasdan has three unsold specs. Shane Black has films he wants to get made he can’t get made. When every studio passes on your project, let me tell you, that feeling of being on the inside disappears fast.

Sure, of course, when it comes to breaking in, there are techniques to market work, which should be used. Any single avenue is possibly correct, but you only know the right avenue in retrospect. In our career, we broke in through sending query letters and spec screenplays, but so what? New writers have to try every technique, all the time. This includes query letters, phone calls, networking, contests, seminars, internships, working on spec, blind submissions, creating your own website, making films on your own, working as an assistant, targeting an agent first, targeting a production company first, working in other media, optioning properties, etc., etc., you get the idea. One approach will eventually be effective, but that doesn’t mean the other attempts could have been avoided. You can’t fire just one pellet out of a shotgun….

Read it all at Make Your Book a Movie