Cassandra Hennessey: What Makes AMC’s THE WALKING DEAD So Damn Good?

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by Cassandra Hennessey

What makes AMC’s The Walking Dead so damn good?

Well, everything. But let me break it down for purposes of explanation.

First and foremost is the writing, of course; and as a writer, I thoroughly appreciate and admire the painstaking attention-to-detail and realism that the writers pour into every script.

Of course there’s the source material—the Robert Kirkman graphic novel—that has showcased its gritty portrayal of a post zombie apocalyptic world for over a decade. This being said, the show “reality” and the comic “reality” actually exist on two entirely different planes; with variations in timelines and characters’ fates, but the main theme—that the survivors themselves are indeed “The Walking Dead”; struggling to maintain a modicum of humanity in the most inhumane of predicaments prevails throughout.

And that is one of the main reasons for both the comic and television show’s success. That those who find themselves immersed in the storylines and characters all ask themselves, “What would I have done in that situation?”

Let’s discuss some of the main elements of the writing.

Character Development: Multi-faceted and ever-challenged in their day-to-day struggles to survive, these characters all do what they think best. Whether it is the noble actions of former Sheriff Rick Grimes or the dastardly destruction of The Governor, each motive for every action is well thought through and executed. With the stakes being set so high for these characters, tension and conflict is a given. How to combat hungry zombies? Where to get food, water and medicine? How to secure safe shelter? The most basic of necessities naturally breeds drama!

Character Arc: We see these characters grow and learn and mature through their travails. Some learn from their adversities; and others succumb to them. Either way, we as viewers are invested in these journeys, no matter how harrowing they may be. Most notable is the character of Carol Pelletier, who went from Season One as a mousy, abused wife to one of the strongest female characters on television today, in my humble opinion.

(Side note: Arguably, The Walking Dead is replete with strong female characters. There are no ankle-twisting, shrinking-and-shrieking damsels in distress clichés. That’s so 1980…)

A, B, and C Story: The “C” story is self-explanatory; it’s survival, plain and simple. The “A” story revolves around a basic premise; searching for something/someone. Procuring something. The “B” involves personal struggle or discovery. However, these writers are so clever, so skilled, that they are continually progressing the plethora of characters through situations that test them, laud them or ultimately doom them. What’s wonderful is that these stories are so intermingled and seamless that the “formula” is well-hidden, even from the most studious of writers. I watch first as an ardent viewer and THEN as a writer.

What of the Walkers themselves? They aren’t used as “jump scares” or “prop pieces” or simply obstacles. There’s a careful and calculated way in which they’re presented. Are they dangerous? Yes. Do they pose an imminent and perpetual threat? Absolutely. But the show admirably strives to produce moments in which to remember the walkers’ former humanity and bestow upon them their dignity.

Another part of the mass appeal of the Walking Dead is the study of how a semblance of civilization can be maintained by the straggling few members of society who have managed to live through the daily deluges of the undead. Nothing demonstrates this more than the early part of Rick Grimes’ struggles (going back to Season One) where he found no matter how he tried to protect the group, no matter what decision he made and how right it seemed at the time, there was some horrible twist in fate that would befall him. By Season Two, Rick and his group sought shelter in a prison, where they could be safely locked IN away from the harsh new world. By the end of Season Three, the Shangri-la behind high barbed wire fences had been lost, and Rick and his group were scattered, without solace or safety. Season Four depicted the strife of separation from the group and the anguish of being cast back out into unsafe environments.

The beginning of Season Five premieres tonight, where again, we find ourselves locked in with Rick and the group in the purported “Heaven-turned-Hell” of Terminus. But this time, they’re locked in a boxcar, not of their own volition, and they are in grave danger. It seems they not only have to worry about being eaten by Walkers, but by living humans as well…

Showrunner Scott Gimple says this upcoming season will be “nuclear”; and I, like so many other fans of the show, cannot wait for this season’s harrowing ride.


Cassandra Hennessey is a Contributing Editor to TVWriter™. You can learn more about her HERE

Cara Winter: The Anglo Files 6

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Stephen Mangan, Matt LeBlanc and Tamsin Greig

EPISODES
(or, how REV. may have dodged a bullet)
by Cara Winter

In doing a wee bit o’ research for my article about the British show REV., I read (here, and here) that creators Tom Hollander and James Wood had been in talks with ABC about turning their BAFTA-award winning show into an American sitcom. The American version would feature a doe-eyed pastor from the woods of Wisconsin, thrust into an inner-city parish in Chicago, yuddah, yudda… but since 2012, I can’t find anything about it in the trades. Googled it;  nada, nuthin’. Not a G-D thing.

So, what’s up with that?!  I suppose it could still be in development hell; lord knows there’s always that possibility. Maybe ABC is having issues with scripts, or casting, or finding it a spot in their lineup. Or maybe the person championing it at ABC now works for The Food Network.

Or maybe, just maybe, showrunner Bob Daily and/or Wood and/or Hollander happened to catch Showtime’s EPISODES… and thought better of the whole endeavor.

If you haven’t seen it yet, Showtimes’s EPISODES is penned by evil geniuses David Crane (FRIENDS) and Jeffrey Klarik (MAD ABOUT YOU).   Sean and Beverly Lincoln (played with razor sharp wit by Stephen Mangan and Tamsin Greig) are British writing-team-slash-married couple whose BAFTA-award winning show is brought to America and subsequently ruined.  The rubber-necking begins when, instead of hiring the renowned, elderly gentleman who made the show a hit in the UK, the network wants Matt LeBlanc (who plays himself – or, one would hope, a fun-house mirror version of himself).  As their “baby” is slowly destroyed bit by horrifying bit, Sean and Beverly start to lose it — and by “it” I mean their connection to the show, their connection to each other, and all ties to Sanity itself.

EPISODES is a rare thing in American sitcoms, right now.  It’s smart.   It’s dark.  It’s right on the money.  And it has heart — you actually do feel for LeBlanc, despite his douche-baggery, when he starts to worry that he’s becoming fat, or irrelevant, or that maybe not all the other Friends would attend his funeral.  And watching Sean and Bev attempting to Keep Calm and Carry On around network boss Merc (John Pankow) and his #2, Carol (Kathleen Rose Perkins) is a little like watching a kitten trying to get a plastic 6-pack holder off it’s neck:  you feel for the poor creature, you really do, but it’s also way too hilarious to even consider putting an end to it.

EPISODES has been nominated for Emmys, BAFTAs, and Golden Globes, but has only won once (LeBlanc, for Best Actor).  In light of how brilliant it is… this makes one wonder if the lack of wins is a message from Hollywood.  Maybe the powers that be are a tad bit annoyed about a show where they’re depicted as dysfunctional, warped and twisted.  Or, maybe they’re so dysfunctional, warped and twisted… they don’t actually get the joke?   Think on that, for a nano-second. (Do it. You’ll either start to feel like Kierkegaard, or like you need some tequila.)

In the end, the show is a cautionary tale about the lengths even perfectly smart, sane people will go to for a little recognition, a little fame, a little fortune.  Suddenly “success” becomes the aim, even if it means nuking the most beautiful thing you’ve ever made.  This makes the show a tragedy, at bottom; a really, really funny tragedy.  One worth watching.  Now.  GO.  NOW.

Seriously, now is a great time to catch up EPISODES, as Season 4 starts in January 2015 (which is much, much sooner than you probably realize).  (If you don’t have Showtime… go ahead, you know you want to…)


Cara Winter is a Contributing Editor to TVWriter™. You can learn more about her HERE.

Peer Production: We aren’t the Only Ones Who Love BECOMING RICARDO

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We’ve written about the web series BECOMING RICARDO numerous times on this site. So, for that matter, have its creators. (Do a site search and be amazed. Go on. We’ll wait.) Now, though, it’s time to tell you how the Web Series Channel, a primo peer production destination, feels about this subject:

Becoming Ricardo is a half hour quirky, fun family sitcom! It’s about a girl, named Jesenia, a struggling actress who aspires to be a famous non-struggling actress – and will do just about anything to make it happen. Lucky for her – there is an Open Call audition for the HIT TV show – Crime, Law and Justice.

But there’s one tiny hiccup – their only looking for a MALE lead. So, with some special effects makeup help from her sassy cousin Sonia, she disguises herself as an extremely attractive macho man named Ricardo Montalban, auditions for the show and GETS THE PART!

But the fun does not stop there! Along with landing this AMAZING part – Jesenia has to deal with a medaling mom, a hot tempered Dad, a crazy ex-boyfriend, a handsome new boyfriend, a female co-star who falls in love with her, well Ricardo, all the while trying not to get caught by the studio heads or anyone else who knows her! It’s a tangly web indeed!

Becoming Ricardo is guaranteed to deliver the funny about the battle between the sexes! How do women think men think? How do men think women think? Or – Do we think the same? This is PULITZER PRIZE WINNING stuff! Becoming Ricardo – is a hilarious, gender bending, mind opening, family uniting, side splitting, good-ole fun-time sitcom!

Whoa, who’d a thunk? Their enthusiasm makes ours look like indifference. We agree with everything above, though, except maybe the Pulitzer Prize winning thing. And, hey, you never know, right? So give Jesenia and her show a whirl. It’s a great way to be ahead of the pack.

Cara Winter: The Anglo Files 5

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Martin Freeman as Watson and Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock.

On Sherlock Holmes
by Cara Winter

As we all know, since 2010 two shows (CBS’ Elementary, and the BBC’s Sherlock, which has also been picked up by PBS Masterpiece) have reimagined Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous detective Sherlock Holmes within a modern setting.   As a writer trying to modernize a Victorian piece myself, I have been wondering  why, exactly, one of these modernizations has set the world on fire… while the other is just on?

It all starts with the fact that the BBC’s version came first.  In 2012, when CBS (as has been reported here and here) approached creators Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss about remaking Sherlock in America, Moffat & Gatiss politely declined.  Smartly, CBS chose not to embroil themselves in a legal battle by ripping off Sherlock whole-hog… and instead did everything they could to make their take on a “modern Sherlock Holmes” really, really different from Sherlock.

I get it, I do. CBS wanted to move forward; Sherlock Holmes was sexy, all of a sudden.  Who wouldn’t want to capitalize on that?  But, as all Moffat and Gatiss really did was move the characters and stories they loved into our century, creator Robert Doherty would have to change more than just the ol’ anno domini.  (By the way, his show Medium?  Genius.  So, I know he’s likely not the problem…)

So change, they did.  But… at what expense?  If you’ve ever watched Elementary for more than five minutes, well, you know…  it isn’t ground breaking.  It’s a pretty standard network cop show, with a huge budget and all the pretty pretty things.  (A Sherlock Holmes purist might say they ruined it.  Which I am not.  A purist, that is.)   But, how?   How did this happen?  Well, apologies to my lawyer friends (sorry guys!)… but my money’s on the lawyers.  The writers probably wrote a hundred drafts, and each time CBS’ lawyers said “no”, for fear of being sued (which was justified, as they were, you know, running with an idea that wasn’t theirs to begin with).

Still, even with a possible lawsuit looming, methinks they could have done more to capture the heart of the original Sherlock Holmes stories.

Starting with:

  1. Location, location, location

Elementary is set in New York City.  Hmm.  Concerning.  Because Sherlock Holmes’s address is 221B Baker Street.   It just is.  There isn’t even a Baker Street in New York City.

I’m kidding, of course; it’s not the address.  It’s that, even at home, Sherlock is an outsider.  Holmes doesn’t fit in to the one place he’s supposed to fit into.  That makes Sherlock Holmes’ relationship to ‘home’ tricky, and layered, and very important to his story. (Which, in turn, makes ‘home’ one of the characters in the story.)

By making Holmes an ex-pat living in New York, Elementary has completely ruined this lovely, all-important layer.   One could argue (and I do!) that if they wanted to set it in New York, make Holmes a New Yorker!  That way, the larger point could be conveyed that even when Sherlock Holmes is at home, he doesn’t quite fit in.

Which leads me to my next point:

  1. A Fine Bromance

In CBS’ Elementary, Dr. Watson is a woman.   Now, trust me, I love to see great women characters on TV.   But… the beauty of the Holmes/Watson relationship is that they are both men.  I’m sorry, it just is.  Blame it on societal conventions, or Sunday Night Football, or the whole of Christianity if you want.  Fact is, we live in a world where dudes aren’t supposed to be so fond of each other – yet Holmes and Watson are.  Sherlock gets this right, and as their friendship grows, it’s very moving and powerful to watch.

By making Dr. Watson a woman, Elementary has cut us off at the knees.   There are other gender roles you could play with; make Lestrade a woman, or give Sherlock two mommies!  Something!  Don’t change The Great Original Bromance, arguably the first and finest ever created, the one relationship which lies at the very heart of the whole thing.

(And not for nothing, there also seems to be absolutely zero chemistry between Lucy Liu and Johnny Lee Miller.  They’re both cute, but they treat each other like strangers!   Conversely, the chemistry between Freeman and Cumberbatch is electrifying.  Come to think of it, everyone seems to have palpable chemistry with The Batch.  Oh, for a walk-on…)

But I digress.

  1. Laughter Is the Best Medicine

Moffat & Gatiss (or “MoffGat”, as I like to call them) have loved Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories since childhood.  Their genuine joy for the work, therefore, comes through in the final product.  (Imagine that!)  And everyone involved with the show seems to share that love, and also have a sense of humor about what they’re doing (making telly, not curing cancer!).  As a result… Sherlock is funny. Very funny.

Elementary …is not funny.  I can’t even put my finger on why; it’s just all as serious as an E.R. heart attack.  Or, a 24 heart attack.   It’s as if Elementary is made by children trying to seem grown up, whereas Sherlock is made by grownups who enjoy life as though they’re still children.

Great adaptations take care, they take love, and they take a deep understanding of the source material.  And, as in any story (original or adapted), locations matter, but they matter because of how they inform the characters.  Relationships matter even more; relationships must be clear and universal, and most of all meaningful to the story.  And for the love of all that’s holy, let us laugh!  If you can get your audience laughing, they’ll care, and then they’ll follow you to the ends of the earth.  Or, if not to the ends of the earth, at least as far as PBS.

PS:  Fellow writers, it was very enlightening to examine these two shows side by side.  Next time you find a show “meh”, wait before you change the channel… see if you can figure out why.


Cara Winter is a Contributing Editor to TVWriter™. You can learn more about her HERE.

Diana Vaccarelli Sees the VERONICA MARS Movie

 

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by Diana Vaccarelli

I have never watched the television show VERONICA MARS, but the premise of the film intrigued me.

After a very successful Kickstarter campaign, Rob Thomas, the creator and showrunner of the series, has brought us this feature-length sequel. In the film, Veronica, now living in New York and interviewing for prestigious jobs at law firms, is pulled back into the life of a private eye when her ex-boyfriend, Logan Echolls, becomes embroiled in a murder mystery involving old high school friend Carrie Bishop.

Kirsten Bell stars as the super private eye just as she did in the series. She’s good, but as a fan who loved her in FORGETTING SARAH MARSHALL, I expected better. She she does have good chemistry with Jason Dohring, who reprises his role as Logan, and they play off each other well. But overall, the acting in the film is subpar. Every major cast member I’ve seen before has been better before than they were here.

The signs point to this being a Rob Thomas problem. Thomas both wrote and directed, and while the script provides the actors with plenty of witty and comedic dialogue to contrast with a rather dark story, the story itself is unconvincing. Possibly even to the cast.

Why, for example, did Veronica so easily give up the New York life she worked so hard for? Why was I supposed to care about the small town sheriff booted from office because of corruption?

And where are the twists and surprises we expect from a good mystery? To be sure, we’re presented with a number of subplots which could have been interesting, but most of them end up as loose ends seemingly existing only to distract us from the fact that VERONICA MARS takes a very predictable plot path and even ends exactly as I expected it to.

If you are a fan of the show, I’m sure you’ll appreciate the film and be glad to see the return of familiar fictional friends. But as someone who didn’t watch, its lack of originality was a huge disappointment, especially in a genre where the whole point is to keep the audience guessing.

Z NATION: TV Review

An interesting review of the latest new zombie (aargh!) series in the Hollywood Reporter. We like it cuz the reviewer actually addresses the writing. Too bad there’s nothing better to say about it. (Yeppers, kids, to paraphrase Stan the Man, “With great public exposure comes the chance for great humiliation.”) Oh, well, at least the article doesn’t come out and tell us the guilty writer’s name cuz writing about writing is one thing but writing about a writer? Nah!”

Is this what writers really look like?

Is this what writers really look like?

by Tim Goodman

The best thing that could ever happen to The Walking Dead is the arrival of Z Nation on Syfy on Friday. The super-popular but critically underappreciated Walking Dead may be seen more favorably for its writing, acting, visual acumen and storytelling capabilities now that Z Nation proves you can’t just put hungry zombies on the screen and have something worth writing home about.

On the other hand, if all you want to see are zombies, zombies, zombies — meaning it’s all about the gory and not about the story, then Z Nation may be your thing. In fact, as a B-level entry it’s at least entertaining, and if some of the sillier aspects of the pilot can be improved on could be one of those mindless entertainment options we all need now and again.

But as a top-notch drama — nope.

Z Nation has the normal zombie premise — there was a zombie virus and the world as we know it was overrun by crazed flesh eating dead people. (At least in Z Nation, like the film 28 Days Later, the zombies can run instead of stumble along which heightens the action quite a bit — some of the running dead are pretty damned fast.).

The series picks up three years after the virus has cut most communication, destabilized the government and any working order and left every man and woman to fend for themselves. Except that Lt. Mark Hammond (Harrold Perrineau), a surviving Delta Force member, is still trying to carry out his orders, which is to take Murphy (Keith Allan), the only known human to survive a vicious zombie attack, from the East Coast to California and the last functioning viral lab where they will try to make a cure from his antibodies.

Simple enough — as most zombie stories are. Getting from one coast to the next is also a nice bit, since it will take forever and mean lots and lots of action.

Along the way, Hammond meets up with a ragtag group that will assemble almost against their will to see the mission through. They are Charles Garnett (Tom Everett Scott), an active member in the National Guard; Roberta Warren (Kellita Smith), another National Guard member; Pvt. First Class Simon Cruller/Citizen Z (DJ Qualls), who is stationed/abandoned in the Arctic as part of the NSA listening base; Mack and Addy (Michael Welch and Anastasia Baranova), two college kids learning how to fight for themselves; Doc (Russell Hodgkinson), who’s not a real doctor but does sell illegal meds; Cassandra (Pisay Pao) a quiet but strong survivor they found who also looks fantastic in limited clothing; 10K (Nat Zang), a military sniper who doesn’t talk much but also doesn’t miss much – his goal is 10,000 zombie kills.

The trouble with Z Nation is in the writing, which in turn makes some of the acting seem off.

WTF does that last sentence mean? Find out – or not by reading it all