Did GIRLS reveal the truth about college writing courses?

Um…probably. But should we really be surprised at what they’re like?

hannahwritesby Molly Hannon

In episode two of the new season of Girls, Hannah, played by Lena Dunham, attends a workshop in which classmates applaud a story by second-year African American student DeAugust. They love its spare language and how it addresses gender issues in an “almost offensive, but not offensive” way.

“I would cut off my arm to just read three more pages. I just have to know what happens,” one student gushes.

“I thought it was obvious,” Hannah says. “The mom dies.” The room falls silent.

When Hannah gets around to reading her own story, it’s immediately lambasted. She’s accused of trivialising abuse and lacking sympathy for the male perspective. When she tries to defend herself, her teacher cuts her off and tells her to wait until everyone’s done critiquing.

Ironically, it’s DeAugust, the unspoken class favorite, who unexpectedly defends her. “That’s her voice,” he says. “We can’t squash what she’s trying to say.”

The episode, which shows workshops as places where moaning comes ahead of critiquing and in which questions about gender are a minefield, made me grateful I’d chosen journalism school over an MFA program. In journalism, editors are the bottom line, ahead of wannabe writers. And teachers don’t cut you off.

Hannah’s first foray in MFA-land also brought to mind Chad Harbach’s MFA vs NYC n+1 essay about the pros and cons of graduate school in terms of making it as a New York writer.

In Girls, Hannah has left the New York hack scene behind and moved to the seemingly cosy atmosphere of graduate school. She’s a perfect fit for Harbach’s essay, since he focuses on rising enrolment in American MFA programs and wonders whether the industry can support the rising tide of writers.

Just what kind of writing does an MFA program hone, asks Harbach? Does it train a writer to improve, or just to write more acceptably in eyes of fellow wannabes?

Though Girls is not a mirror for everything in American society, Dunham does a solid job in showing how aspiring writers tend to respond to what they read based on personal bias and pre-established preferences. The critique of Hannah’s writing seems to have less to do with what she’s written than her background. Social class, perceived entitlement, gender and political correctness all play a part.

Read it all

Cara Winter: The Anglo Files 11: HAPPY VALLEY

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by Cara Winter

“I’m Catherine, by the way.  I’m forty-seven, I’m divorced, I live with my sister who’s a recovering heroin addict.  I have two grown-up children; one dead, and one who doesn’t speak to me.”

So begins Happy Valley, a BBC drama created by the fiercely talented Sally Wainwright (Season One available on Netflix).

The heart and soul of this show is Sergeant Catherine Cawood, who’s no ordinary woman; she’s adept with a truncheon, she chases (and oft tackles) bad guys, and is oddly proud of getting kicked in the face.  Oh, and the little boy she’s raising calls her “Granny”. Because she is one.

Happy Valley is a beautiful and stunning drama, starring Sarah Lancashire as Catherine, who simultaneously battles the drug-riddled streets of her small Yorkshire town, and her own demons.  Yes, this is a “cop show”, or it would be if one were overly concerned with categories.  But it is the most unique cop show I’ve ever seen, and surpasses all (yes, ALL) of it’s American brethern, by leaps and bounds.  IT IS A MUST-SEE.

My beef with most American cop dramas today, is that the horror of certain acts is glossed over, lost in the shuffle of smooth talk and pressed pants suits, and too-pretty detectives.  No one even registered shock when they found my friend Gia Mora shot to death on an episode of Castle, recently.  (Holla!  You were a pretty, pretty corpse.)   To me, it seems the creators of these types of shows are concerned with solving the mystery for the viewer in 48 minutes, they forget the very human “drama” altogether.

Not so, with Happy Valley.  And here’s why:

1. By firmly, openly, and graphically addressing the violence before them (as one would in real life), events take a natural and emotional toll on the characters – yes, even the cops who are trying to stop it.

2. By putting Catherine at the center of both the current crime, and a past crime (the rape of her daughter, for which her rapist was never punished), everything becomes intensely personalized for her.  Almost everything at work reminds her of what she’s lost at home, and it makes her even more determined to see justice done.

3. One, and only one, major crime is at the center of the six episode arc.  You’d think this might make it too slow, but au contraire –  with plenty of moving parts and twisty turns, Wainwright keeps us on the edge of our seats.   There is little or no “fix you a cuppa tea?”, unless it is accompanied by backyard cigarette and a talking-to from Catherine’s concerned sister Clare, played with grace and soul by Siobhan Finneran (who was also Downton Abbey’s “O’Brien” — but virtually unrecognizable as such, here).

Precisely because of the long arc, meaningful events (both past and present) have time to “land”, main characters’ home lives can be expanded upon, delved into, deepening how much we care about crimes, both past and present. No sooner are we introduced to Catherine, her challenging job, her teetering home life, and her troubled past, we are thrust into a young woman’s kidnapping, a plot instigated by an ordinary, work-a-day accountant Kevin Weatherill (played with frightening realism by Steve Pemberton).

While some have complained that the accents are too thick, I never found that to be true.  Even if you have trouble with the brogue, that is no excuse!   Just enable the subtitles, renew your Netflix subscription, and strap in.  For while Happy Valley is disturbing, no doubt about it…  it is also the best TV drama since Breaking Bad.  And I can’t wait to see Season 2.


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

Has ARCHER lost its way?

And, if so, how? Why? Who’s to blame?

Hmm, considering that this is an animated series and nobody’s complaining about its technical expertise, meaning that its look and sound are still just as good or bad as they’ve ever been, we’d say it’s the writers who need to man up to the blame or take credit for the wonderfulness of their creation. Let’s see what Vox, one of the most critical sites on the interwebs when it comes to TV, has to say on the matter:

archerpicby Todd VenDerWerff

Archer launched its sixth season on FX … with an episode about a Japanese soldier still fighting World War II and a once-destroyed office that was reconstructed exactly as it had been.

Along the way, there were plenty of meta jokes about everything getting back to normal, after the partial reboot of the show’s premise in season five. (Long a show about spies, the fifth, highly serialized season was about former spies trying to sell off a massive haul of cocaine.) But it was the former plotline that resonated more. Archer just feels tired of fighting old battles now; it’s not hard to blame it.

Archer is still a reliably funny show, with great gags and moments in every episode. But it’s also a comedy in its sixth season, when it’s not uncommon for shows to lose a step, and it’s a show coming off of a season that proved hugely divisive within its fanbase. (I loved it, even if I didn’t think everything about it worked.) What’s more, this is the first season of a two-season order, and such things have a long history of feeling sort of safe and unexciting. There’s nothing like knowing for sure that another season is coming to kill off innovation.

I don’t want to suggest Archer has completely lost its way. But this was by far one of my favorite shows on TV in its second and third seasons, and I loved the raw ambition of season five. And now, it feels a touch sluggish in the season six episodes I’ve seen (six, so far).

Here are my best guesses as to why.

1) The characters are stuck

That Japanese soldier feels, in some ways, representative of everybody on the show at this point. Archer used to be my go-to for a show that was primarily about jokes, but also boasted seriously great character development. Normally, putting “character first” in comedy means injecting some more pathos-ridden, dramatic moments. (Think The Office or Cheers.) ButArcher was proof that the characters could be utterly insane, but still capable of surprising depth.

With every season, creator Adam Reed (who has also written the vast majority of the show’s episodes) gave these characters new facets. He filled in more and more of their back-stories. He turned one-gag characters — like mad scientist Krieger — into figures you understood the motivations of, even as you were cracking up at them. He incorporated elements of spy stories and sci-fi in them, but he never let those elements take over. And they all felt like they weregoing somewhere, even if that somewhere was straight to Hell.

In the show’s fourth season and the first bit of season six, however, Reed seems uncertain how to proceed. He can’t keep introducing new, weird facts about the characters, because the time for that is over. (This sort of exposition is usually best confined to the first couple of seasons.) And characters’ story arcs feel frozen, consequently. Super-competent agent Lana, for instance, has a baby now (and Archer’s the father, no less), but it’s never been precisely clear what the show is doing with this plot point, even now that the kid is on screen. (It’s not a coincidence that the season’s best episode so far is its fourth, which gives us more of one prominent character’s back-story.)

2) So are the relationships

Going hand in hand with Archer‘s heavy focus on character has been the necessary corollary that it has some of the best-defined relationships on television. At the center of the show are the relationships between Archer and his mother/boss Malory and the relationship between ex-lovers Archer and Lana. Both of these core relationships have changed and evolved over the course of the show, revealing more of their depths of hideous, hilarious co-dependency.

Read it all (but the two notions above certainly seem to reflect on the writing, y’know?

Cara Winter: The Anglo Files 9

luther-300x175LUTHER
by Cara Winter

10 things that went through my mind upon watching the pilot episode of the UK’s LUTHER

  1. “Nice, Idris Elba. He must be the aforementioned “Luther”. Good day to you, sir. Looking fit.”
  2. “Hmm. He’s kinda angry.”
  3. “Woah, wait, he’s the good guy?  He just let that guy die! Or, maybe even caused that guy to die!  But I thought this was a show about a cop!”
  4. “Oh, he is a cop. Woah…”
  5. “He’s so angry. What’s he so angry about?”
  6. “Dang, he just kicked in that door.”
  7. “And his estranged wife is standing right there, watching him kick in her door. I’m a little afraid for her.”
  8. “Maybe she should call the cops – oh, wait.”
  9. “Okay, he didn’t hurt her. He can stay.  He’s fierce.  I like him.  This is awesome.”
  10. “Wow.  This show could never get made in the U.S.

So, imagine my surprise to hear that LUTHER is going to be remade, here, in the US.

If you haven’t seen it, the original LUTHER is an interesting show. The formidable and god-like Idris Elba portrays the title character, a complicated detective who is consumed by his work.  He’s ruthless, obsessive, and more interested in results than in doing things ‘the right way.’  When he gets angry, it’s visceral, and you feel afraid for those around him (or excited that some bad guy’s about to get it!). And when he softens, and his vulnerability is laid bare… you feel afraid for him.

It’s a good set-up, well-written and well-acted.  So why wouldn’t it work in the States?   I think it could.  But here’s the rub:  Will American TV executives put an African American man in the lead of a dark and complicated show, portraying a guy who isn’t “nice”?  Will executives (in this case, those who work at Fox) allow us to see an African American male lead who’s strong, human, and flawed, complicated and deeply emotional, one who’s NOT a drug dealer or some other negative stereotype?

It’s a really interesting question, isn’t it?  It’s rumored that Elba isn’t going to play Luther in the American version.  If not, who is?   (If they cast a white dude, I’m literally going to destroy my television and move to Uzbekistan.  Or at least I will figuratively.)  Of the major networks and cable outlets, Fox seems to be doing a better job than most of casting African American men in comedic roles, and a few supporting roles… but a leading man?  Complex, conflicted, ruthless, and uninterested in the moral high ground?   NOPE.  Not one.  Not yet, anyways.

Why?  Why hasn’t this been done before?  And why would it be so ground breaking to do it now?  Sheesh, I mean, I can’t count the ways.  But surely you’ve heard or read some of these stats, like… 1 in 3 black men in America will spend some part of their lives incarcerated, or 48% of African American men don’t finish high school, let alone go to college.  In other words, the kids are not alright.  Why?  I could go on for ages, but we won’t (here); suffice it to say, anyone who doesn’t think that most African American men face horrible discrimination — in the classroom, within the justice system, and in society at large — is either a fool, or has been brainwashed by Fox News.

So if you write a show about an American “Luther”, race relations are going to have to come up. They MUST play at least SOME PART in why Luther is the way he is… or else the whole thing is a horrible lie.  I mean it, people, this isn’t a sitcom!  You can’t show us this guy’s personal demons, and his dark side, and his vulnerability, and ignore have the fact of his race, considering what race means in America!  You just can’t.

So what this means is, they’re going to have to ‘go there.’  Luther is poised to become the first show in America to spend even a little bit of air time talking about race relations.  And if they do, and if they can really and truly re-create Luther as he was in the UK, and if they can find someone as enigmatic and compelling as Elba to play the lead… it’ll be the most influential show on American television since M*A*S*H.

But… will they?  Do they have the balls?

Listen, Fox, if you’re reading this…  and I dearly hope you are… please know that we, your audience, want you to ‘go there’.  We are praying that you will.  Actually, I think we really need you to.  Because when Luther gets upset, when he puts his fist through that door, guess what?  This amazing thing happens… we feel for him.  We have empathy for him.  And empathy… is the whole ballgame.

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

Cassandra Hennessey: The Meaning of “Too Many Cooks”…?

TooManyCooksCapture

by Cassandra Hennessey

Adult Swim has always been known for its innovative and out-of-left-field programming such as Metalocalypse, The Squidbillies, Robot Chicken, The Venture Brothers, Tim and Eric, among many, many more shows.

For a week at the end of October at 4:00 a.m., Adult Swim aired this 11-minute alleged cheesy homage to 70’s/80s TV shows that soon morphs into something… well, even if you see it, you won’t believe it. On the surface, “Too Many Cooks” sucks the viewer into a friendly vortex of old-school TV nostalgia with seemingly familiar characters and premises but soon thereafter the warm fuzzies are gradually replaced by a deepening dread and general feeling of “What did I just watch?!” that will linger long after watching. (Even longer than the diabolically catchy earworm of a theme song!)

I won’t spoil it for you if you haven’t seen it.

If you’re brave, check it out here:

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DON’T SAY I DIDN’T WARN YOU!!!

“Too Many Cooks” is pure genius– pure evil genius– brought to us by its creator, Chris “Casper” Kelly (who also is the creative mind behind the aforementioned “Squidbillies”). He states he just wanted to do something weird– in the vein of his idols David Lynch, Andy Kaufman and fellow Adult Swim alumni Tim and Eric– but never gets into the specifics of “what it means”. Perhaps he himself doesn’t know or even wants to mentally delve into the chaos he has wrought in his audience’s minds.

Perhaps the allure of “Too Many Cooks” is that no one knows what the hell it’s supposed to “mean”.

Well, let me venture a guess (and this is just speculation on my part…)

I believe the “meaning” behind the most bizarre 11-minutes of viewing EVER is an absurd illustration of the gradual and subversive gratuitous violence that has become the norm in Television programming. This incremental and ultimately dominant pernicious presence; constantly in our faces, making us long for the “Golden Era” of TV all the more, while trapping us in its nightmarish landscape of mindless, unadulterated carnage…

…Or I could be completely full of crap.

I’m sure college courses will be dedicated to dissecting this video for entire semesters in order to decipher its true meaning.

Maybe then we’ll find out if there really is one….


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

Cassandra Hennessey: The 7 Deadly Sins of Overwriting

seven_deadly_sins_by_dantecyberman-d7bk6mt

by Cassandra Hennessey

There are many ways any aspiring writer can send red flags a-waving to a prospective agent or publisher.

Allow me to demonstrate:

INT. UPTOWN OFFICE – DAY

Our handsome hero, HARRY HOLMES strolls into the office which boasts a tropical motif complete with rattan furnishings and potted palm trees the size of luxury SUVS.

He saunters jauntily toward the RECEPTIONIST who is a youngish fiery-haired former cheerleader. She files her nails with a pink emery board. He adjusts the right lapel of his Jos. A Banks navy blue suit jacket, clears his throat twice and grins like someone’s just called his number at the supermarket deli.

HARRY
Hi. My name is Harry. Harry Holmes. What’s your name?

SUE
(puts down file, smiles sadly)
Susan; but most of my friends—the ones I’m on speaking
terms with—call me “Sue”. My mom still calls me “Suzy-Q”.
Since childhood. For as long as I can remember.
Even in front of my dates. I wish she’d stop doing that…

HARRY
(cringes comically, smoothes back gelled hair)
Sorry for the childhood trauma you’re currently
experiencing, Sue, but I was wondering if I could
speak with your employer, Mister Walters? You
see, Sue, I’m here to audit his books for embezzlement.

SUE
(drops her emery board in shock, gasps)

Not Mister Walters! I’ve known Mister Walters for years!!
He’d never steal money!

HARRY
(shaking his head, dubious)

Sue, Sue, Sue, I believe you may not know Mister
Wayne Walters as well as you think you do!

Sue grasps the phone and frantically dials a five-digit extension. Waits for three seconds, practically holding her breath. When the phone on the other ends is picked up, she instantly blurts out—

SUE
(with hysterical tears on her flushed cheeks)
Wayne!! How could you do this? Wayne, say this isn’t true!
There’s a Mister Harry Holmes here, telling me you’re a
thief and a crook! Say something, Wayne!

END SCENE.

(Thank Goodness…)

OKAY!!

Can you guess what’s wrong here?

There is sooooo much to work with (to be truthful, it actually pained me to write something this horrible… but it is for the greater good, so I made the sacrifice…)

Here are the Seven Deadly Sins of Bad Writing (in no particular order…)

  1. Deluges of Details. Character appearance is not THAT important to note every single detail. I mean, unless the hangnail on the protagonist’s pinky plays an integral part in the story, I suggest you omit it. Same goes with surroundings. You want to set the scene, not “set dress” it.
  1. Going Through the Motions. There’s no need (or space) to start a running tally of gestures, expression, stances or involuntary tics and twitches.
  1. Too much supposition/narration either revealed by the character or in the descriptive action paragraphs. If it’s not essential to the story, it has no place in the script.
  1. Curb “Talking Head Syndrome”. Dialog should be brief and to the point.
  1. Too much exposition, like salt, spoils to the “plot pot”. (See Sin #4).
  1. Adjectives. Don’t. JUST DON’T.
  1. Overuse of a character’s name in dialog. Unless your character’s doing this for a specific reason (being obnoxious, or perhaps suffering from amnesia), one character should not address another by name every time he/she speaks.

When writing for television, trust that the director and actors will do their very best to “flesh out your characters”.

Yes. I used the word “Trust”.

It’s the best advice for your script.

Trust me.

I know. It’s your “vision”, your “brain-child”, your “baby”. I get it. But if you’ve written your best and raised, nourished and doted over this brain child of yours well enough, it can and will survive in the world all on its own.

Then you will be the proud parent-writer of a great manuscript!

To demonstrate, here’s the sample god-awful scene how it SHOULD be written:

INT. UPTOWN OFFICE – DAY

HARRY HOLMES enters and approaches the receptionist, SUE. She files her nails behind her neat desk.

SUE
May I help you?

HARRY
Name’s Harry Holmes. I’m here to see Wayne Walters–

Harry eyes her name plaque on the desk. It reads “SUSAN” but he says—

HARRY (cont’d)
–Sue.

SUE
It’s Susan. And your business with Wayne—Mister Walters?

HARRY
Let’s just say I investigate incidents like embezzlement.
So, may I speak with your boss or do I come back with a
subpoena?

Sue picks up her phone and dials an extension.

SUE
(into phone)
Mister Walters, there’s someone here to see you…
(whispers to WALTERS)
…About that situation, Wayne.

Sue opens WALTER’S office door to allow Harry to enter. WAYNE WALTERS rushes to block Harry’s entrance, but Sue blocks him. She tosses him her name plaque.

SUE
Consider that notice of my resignation.

(to HARRY)
Have a good day, Mister Holmes.

With her purse and emery board, Sue exits the office with a SLAM of the door.

…Aaaand CUT SCENE!!!

Better, right?

No description of the furnishings. No tics, twitches, gulps, blinks, grimaces. The dialog sets the tone of both characters. And Sue’s actions speak louder than words when she quits, without the use of exposition or supposition. We KNOW she’s more than merely a “receptionist” to Wayne. We KNOW she knows something’s rotten in Denmark, and we definitely know she doesn’t want anything to do with either Harry or Wayne.

TAA-DAA!!!

The 7 Deadly Sins have been eradicated, and the script has been saved!


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