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Understanding Screenwriting #77: Super 8, Cars 2, Larry Crowne, & More

Let’s go back to the first film for a minute.




Understanding Screenwriting #77: Super 8, Cars 2, Larry Crowne, & More
Photo: Paramount Pictures

Coming Up In This Column: Super 8, Cars 2, Larry Crowne, Page One: Inside the New York Times, Follow Me Quietly, Desperate, The Malta Story, Some Late Spring-Early Summer Television 2011, but first…

Fan Mail: David Ehrenstein, to no one’s surprise, objected that I said that in The Tree of Life “The poetry overpowers the characters and story.” His point was that there should be room for a Cinema of Poetry. I agree there should be. The problem I had with the film is that Malick did not structure his poetry in as compelling a way as he could have. With a little more attention to connections via not only characters and story, but visually and thematically, the film would have been better.

Olaf Barthel raised several interesting points, specifically in regard to my references to Kubrick. He pointed out that the unreality of certain films, and it is true not only of Kubrick, is part of their artificial style. That’s true, but if the artificiality becomes distracting, then there is a problem. He suggested that the only way to solve the problem is for the filmmaker to do everything. I’d suggest the opposite. Kubrick tried to do everything, and it meant that he probably was not getting the collaborative input that can be so crucial to making a film.

A note for my Portuguese-reading fans. My book Understanding Screenwriting has now been translated into Portuguese. It was published in Brazil in May by the Zahar publishing company under the title Por Dentro do Roteiro. Erik de Castro, a former student of mine who is now a writer/director in Brazil, helped with the translation and tells me that one line is funnier in Portuguese than it was in English. I was making fun of Lucas’s silly names and wrote of Count Dooku “try saying that name out loud and not laughing.” In Portugeuse Dooku means something really dirty. In Brazil the name was translated in the subtitles as Dookan, but people heard it anyway and laughed.

This is the first official translation of one of my books. In the early ‘90s there was an unofficial translation of Storytellers to the Nation: A History of American Television Writing. I found out about it from a student of mine. Maguy was a French woman who went back to Paris during one of the vacations. She was talking with some friends of hers from the Ecole Lumiere film school. When she mentioned she attended Los Angeles City College, one of her friends asked her if she knew me. She said she did, but asked how they happened to know of me. The friend said they were reading Storytellers in class. She asked if they were reading it in English. Many were, but the teacher had provided a French translation. Maguy asked to see it, so they went off to the library where it was on reserve. She read about five pages of it and later told me it made no sense at all. So that’s the French: they love Jerry Lewis, Sharon Stone, and me in a bad translation.

Super 8 (2011. Written by J.J. Abrams. 112 minutes)

The Tree of Kaboom: I saw this one two days after I saw Tree of Life (see US#76) and because of the similarities I was struck immediately at how much more textured this is than Tree. We are in small-town America, with a bunch of pre-teen boys, one of whose father is not perfect, and right away we are dealing with death. In this case, it is the mother of Joe Lamb, who will turn out to be our main character. She has died, and we see the ways people are grieving. The actions and emotions are much more specific than anything in Tree, as are the physical details of the town, the houses, the rooms, the streets. Film is a concrete medium not an abstract one, and the details here are very particular.

The emotions and the characters are also very specific. We quickly get the gang that Joe hangs out with. Look at Joe’s reaction when Charles, the would-be movie director of the group, tells the guys that he has asked Alice to appear in their movie. And Abrams follows that up with a nice scene of Joe and Alice as he applies her makeup for the film. Like most kid filmmakers Charles (a wonderfully satirical take on directors of all ages) wants more “production values” in his film, so when they are filming one night at an abandoned train station and a train shows up, they quickly arrange to shoot—Kaboom! The train crashes. Big Time. As in what Leonard Maltin calls the “swell train wreck” at the end of De Mille’s The Greatest Show on Earth. We are no longer in art house cinema land. But that’s OK. No, really it is.

Super 8 shows the advantage of having a writer (and a director; Abrams also directed) who has learned his craft by working constantly, both in film and especially in television. I mentioned in my item on Tree that Malick may have “developed” the life out of the material by working it over so much. That can be a disadvantage of having too much time to work on a piece.

Abrams started out writing features, including the comic book Armageddon (1998) and the more subtle Regarding Henry (1991), but he made his name writing and producing for television, where both story and character are often more crucial than blow-’em-up-real-good scenes, and speed is of the essence. Both Felicity (1998-2002) and Alias (2001-2005) not only focus on character, but on female characters. Not surprising that in Super 8 Alice is the smartest person in the group and we spend as much time with her as we do with the boys, something that would not likely happen in say, a Steven Spielberg movie. But wait a minute, this is a Spielberg movie.

Abrams had the idea for a film about a bunch of boys making Super 8 movies and he talked to Spielberg about it, according to the interview with Abrams in the May/June Creative Screenwriting. Spielberg told him he needed to develop it further, and Abrams remembered an idea he’d had about an alien creature from Area 51 escaping from a train. Spielberg liked the idea and mentioned that he had wanted to do a movie about divorce but couldn’t make it work until he added an alien. So the director (but not the writer; that was Melissa Mathison) of E.T. (1982) became one of the producers of Super 8. But Abrams did not lose his sense of balance. Yes we get big scenes suggesting the alien on a rampage (influenced by Jaws [1975] where we don’t see a lot of the shark), but they are balanced by the character scenes with the kids. And unlike the younger Spielberg, Abrams is good at character, both as a writer and director. Yes, the adults here are pretty much standard issue, but his work with the kids is excellent. I did not think much of Elle Fanning in Somewhere (2010; see US#68), but she is spectacularly good under Abrams’s direction, as is Joel Courtney as Joe. When Abrams the director gives them close-ups, it is because Abrams the writer has given them some emotions to express.

Not only does Abrams’s work in television make him focus on character, it also has taught him storytelling. The train wreck comes as surprise, and Abrams immediately begins setting up questions. Why was the kids’ science teacher driving a truck into the train? Why does the Air Force swoop down on the wreck? What are those red trucks with the white dots? Why are all the pets running away from the town? What are those little white things that look like Rubik’s Cubes? And why, in one of the most memorable shots in the film, does one of them attach itself to the town’s water tower? Most of those questions get answered, although I am not sure about the red trucks. It may be that Abrams is a little too profligate with his twists and turns. Between the twists and the elaborate (and sometimes evocative) special effects, the last hour of the movie gets exhausting. One begins to long for a simple Terrence Malick loping, poetic dolly shot following a kid down a leafy street.

Spoiler alert here. Skip this paragraph if you have not yet seen the film. It turns out the alien only wants to get back to his home planet. But he is no cute little E.T. He looks like something out of the Alien movies, and I had a hard time buying the “sensitive” scene between Joe and the alien. As with several of the adults, Abrams’s gift for character is less present with the alien.

But when Abrams has his mojo working, he’s very good. There is a nicely written and directed scene of some of the characters attacked in a bus by the alien. The scene is almost as good as the sequence with the two trailers, the baby T-Rex, the rope, the winch, the cracking glass and the backpack that David Koepp wrote and Spielberg directed in The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1997).

Cars 2 (2011. Screenplay by Ben Queen, story by John Lasseter & Brad Lewis & Dan Fogelman. 106 minutes)

Cars 2

Passion: When I wrote about WALL-E in US#2, I mentioned that when we walked out of seeing Cars (2006), I turned to my wife and said, “This is the beginning of the end of Pixar as we know it.” I was wrong, of course, about it being the end of Pixar, as you can see in my comments on not only WALL-E, but also Up (2009, in US#27) and Toy Story 3 (2010, in US#50). Given my feelings about the first Cars, you can imagine I approached 2 with some trepidation. Especially when it got a Rotten Tomatoes rating of only 35% from the critics, who hadn’t liked the first one either. And while it opened well, 2 dropped 52% at the box office in its second weekend, and another 52% the third weekend. But Cars 2 does turn out to be a better film than Cars. And it may just be too smart for the room, the room with both the critics and the audiences in it.

Let’s go back to the first film for a minute. I wrote about in US#2 that my problem with the film was that “Previous Pixar films…focused on characters and story. Cars, especially in the never-ending opening race, seemed much more interested in how dazzling the animation could be.” The GAPS (Geniuses at Pixar) were over-impressed with how flashy they could make the animation, so it detracted from the film rather than add to it. The filmmakers tried to give the car characters the kind of depth that they had done with the toys in the Toy Story franchise, but the GAPS couldn’t do it, and the film simply did not have the emotional resonance the other Pixar films did. John Lasseter’s love of cars got in the way of making the film as rich as the other films. A lot of the critics seemed to hate the idea of a sequel.

So why would John Lasseter want to do a sequel? Well, he still has a passion for cars. And for the characters. And as some cynics have suggested, a passion for the money he can make from the toy tie-ins. But Lasseter is also smart, which you shouldn’t have to be told at this point. So 2 is different. It is not trying for the emotional qualities of Up and Toy Story 3, and it is not as good a film as those, or other Pixar classics. Lasseter recognized instinctively that Lightning and Mater won’t take you down that road. So the emphasis is more on the fun we can have with these characters. Lasseter wants to play with the characters the way kids play with toy cars, and he wants us to enjoy the game. Ben Queen, the screenwriter, told Danny Munso in the May/June issue of Creative Screenwriting, “John, from the beginning of this movie, just wanted it to be a fun ride. I’m not saying that’s going to trump the emotion of it, but it’s not a tearjerker. We really wanted it to be a fun time.”

As a result, the focus is more on plot than in the first film. For the first film, Pixar had a sequence of Lightning taking Sally to a drive-in to see a spy movie with British secret agent Finn McMissile. The sequence was dropped because it took away from the main story, but Lasseter loved the character. As he toured the world for the openings of Cars, he imagined how Lightning would behave in places like Tokyo, Paris, and London, which brought him back to McMissile. Lasseter loved Hitchcock, so he put those characters into a spy story. And then he decided that people would assume that Mater, the redneck tow truck, was really a master spy.

What?!? Mater was the Jar Jar Binks of Cars. He’s a character actor, not a leading man. Never underestimate the artistic intelligence of the GAPS. Real logic says don’t put Mater in a starring role, creative logic says, sure, if you surround him with a lively story, terrific “location” work, and a whole pile of other characters. Plus the great joke that while we know Mater is a doofus, everybody else thinks it’s all a disguise. The Lightning-Mater relationship was key to the first film, so it makes sense it is key to the second one, but in a wholly different situation. The balance is right, and the structure works. That’s Lasseter and Pixar: the balance between passion and artistic intelligence. Even if critics and audiences don’t necessarily see it.

The locations provide great opportunities for the Pixar designers. Each city is both real and not real, with assorted clever “car” details, some visual, some verbal (Big Ben is now Big Bentley). The opening scene, of McMissile on a set of oil derricks, is intentionally something out of a James Bond movie and makes you wonder if you have stumbled into the wrong theater. But it sets up the spy story in a flashy visual way, which lets the next scene spend some time talking, giving us that bane of all sequels, exposition.

The opening scene also establishes, as if it needs to at this point in time, that Pixar is the true heir to Walt Disney. One thing the Disney animated films did better than anybody else was water. Look at “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” in Fantasia (1940) or the whale sequence in Pinocchio (1940). The ocean in Cars 2 is the equal of those, so much so that I found myself getting seasick. Or maybe that was just the stupid 3-D and those stupid glasses.

Larry Crowne (2001. Written by Tom Hanks and Nia Vardalos. 98 minutes)

Larry Crowne

Well, they got one thing right: In US#34 I gave the then-new television series Community a hard time for geeking all the details about community colleges. I stopped watching after about the third episode, and nothing I have read about it since has suggested that got on the right track. Most of the critical comments have been about how full of pop culture references the show is. Cannot we call a moratorium on the use of pop culture references in movies and television? Citizen Kane (1941), Casablanca (1942), and Lawrence of Arabia (1962) managed to do OK without them. On the other hand, the Hope-Crosby road pictures are so full of them that the pictures don’t make a lot of sense to modern audiences.

The problem I had with Community is that it shared the general condescension that exists in America toward community colleges. Listen to any references to the CCs from any late-night comic. A colleague of mine at Los Angeles City College, Jonathan Kuntz gets interviewed by the media all the time, but since he teaches part-time at UCLA, he gets identified as “an adjunct professor at UCLA” rather than as a full-time one at LACC. Recently he was asked by the New York Times to do a piece on Elizabeth Taylor for their online blog, and he was identified as someone who teaches at LACC as well as UCLA. That may be the millennium coming, but I suspect somebody at the Times got fired for letting it through. Interestingly, that condescension toward our CCs does not exist overseas. We got a lot of foreign students who attended LACC because they didn’t know they were not supposed to. And I recently supplied a blurb for a book published in England, and to my astonishment I was identified as being from Los Angeles City College.

So you can see why I wanted to see and like Larry Crowne. Larry is an early middle-aged guy who loses his job at a big box store because he never went to college (the writers really have to do some tap dancing to make that even slightly convincing). At the advice of a neighbor, he enrolls in a community college. And it is not treated as part of his failure in life, but as a way to help him out of a difficult situation, which is one, and only one, of the things the CCs are there for. So Larry Crowne starts out ahead on points on my scorecard. Then it goes to hell.

The writing is very flat and “on the nose.” We get very few details about Larry, and they are not very expressive. We know he was a chef in the Navy, but that does not come into play until late in the film. There are a couple of mentions of his ex-wife, but we learn nothing about her. Larry mentions to his friend that he intended to live with his wife and watch his kids grow up in his home. But the line never makes it clear whether he had kids, or was just thinking about having them. When he has to give up his house to foreclosure, he drives away from it for the last time. Unlike the long shot of the similar scene in Tree of Life, we hold on Larry’s face in a closeup, but the only expression we get is sadness. There is a lot more that could be done with that scene. Meredes Tainot, his teacher in his Informal Public Speaking course, is given a little more detail, but it is standard issue. She is a borderline alcoholic who has a husband who surfs Internet porn all day while claiming to be writing a novel. Their arguments are nothing we have not seen before.

And those are the star parts. Hanks plays Larry Crowne, and directs as well. Unlike Welles, Olivier, and Eastwood, he does not direct himself well, so there is a hole in the middle of the film. Julia Roberts is Mercedes, and the writing gives her some stuff to do, but not that much. The implication of the promotion for the film is that the story is going to be a love story between Larry and Mercedes, but that only develops late in the film. Most of the film seems to be about Larry developing self-confidence from taking classes. I applaud that for obvious reasons, but it means most of the film plays like Julia Roberts is the elephant in the room.

The writing of the supporting parts, and Hanks’s direction of them, is much better. So the film will not be suggesting that all CC instructors are borderline alcoholics, we are given an instructor Larry has in an Economics class. He is Doctor Matsutani, and he is given a lot of character detail. He is played by George Takei in a way to make you forget he played what’s-his-name on that old TV show. Larry’s platonic classmate, Talia, is a lively character, as is her suspicious-but-not-too suspicious boyfriend. And the students in Mercedes’s class seem like a real collection of community college students. I suppose for now we have to make do with that.

Page One: Inside the New York Times (2011. Written by Kate Novack and Andrew Rossi. 88 minutes)

Page One: Inside the New York Times

Structure, structure, structure and structure: William Goldman says in his Adventures in the Screen Trade that screenwriting is structure, etc. He is right. And that applies to the structure of documentaries as well.

In writing about Tree of Life (we can’t seem to avoid it these days, can we?), I quoted Wiseman’s line that the editing of his documentaries is “non-rational, that is to say, irrational.” That may be his process, but the result is that his films end up with very rich and complex structures. Wiseman’s films of course deal with institutions, and what he looks for when he shoots is the way the institution relates to its clients. How does the hospital in Hospital (1970) deal with its patients? How does the Kansas City police force in Law and Order (1969) deal with both the crooks and the victims? The scenes then coalesce around the theme.

As the subtitle of Page One suggests, this film is going to take a look at the institution of the New York Times. Well, is it going to take the Wiseman approach and look at how the Times deals with its clients? No, because who are the Times’ clients? The readers? We get nothing from the readers here. The advertisers? We get nothing from them. So Wiseman’s approach is out. Well, how about the ideas of Robert Drew, the founder of the American Direct Cinema movement? He looked for situations that provided what he called “turning points,” and what others have described as providing a “crisis structure.” Certainly the Times, and print media, are seen these days as undergoing a crisis, but unlike the Kennedys trying to integrate the University of Alabama in Crisis: Behind a Presidential Commitment (1963), it is long rather than sort-term crisis. So the film is unable to follow that kind of dramatic structure. Do we follow a charismatic individual, as D.A. Pennebaker does in Don’t Look Back (1967)? Not really, although one Times columnist, David Carr, steals every scene he is in, so the filmmakers might have done better to focus on him. They could have made him our access character.

The problem may be that the Times is simply too big and complex an organization to be covered in one film. The filmmakers (Rossi also directed) had surprising but occasionally limited access to people at the Times, but as talking heads, those people don’t tell us much we don’t already know, if we have followed the problems the print media have had over the last decade. There are some sequences, such as the Times dealing with Wikileaks and the Tribune bankruptcy, that work as sequences, and do in fact connect to the themes of the film, but the filmmakers have not done enough of those well enough to keep the film from seeming unfocused. In other words, they have not found a workable structure for the film.

Follow Me Quietly (1949. Screenplay by Lillie Hayward, story by Francis Rosenwald and Anthony Mann. 60 minutes)

Follow Me Quietly

Forgettable: This popped up recently on Turner Classic Movies. It is directed by Richard Fleischer and sounded like it might be one of those great little films noir he did in the period. It was done three years before he did the classic The Narrow Margin.

So I started watching and almost immediately began counting up the standard film noir elements. We begin in a bar/café (it is RKO cheap, so use one set instead of two), run by a guy who bets on the horses. A beautiful woman reporter comes in looking for a police lieutenant to give her a story on the serial killer called “The Judge.” The detective shows up and brushes her off, but they later get involved. The Judge only kills on rainy nights and it’s raining…(one of the big problems I have always had with films noir set in L.A. is: where do all those wet streets come from? It never rains in L.A.) and The Judge throws a crusading newspaper editor out the window. Out of the clues the police do have, the detective has a mannequin built with similar features. That is a bit unusual, but I am sure I have seen some variation of it before in a film noir. The cop finally tracks down the killer and they have a nice chase through a gasworks, very much a standard in…wait a minute. It is not just that all these elements are standard film noir, it is that I had seen the picture before.

Usually I have a pretty good memory for films I have seen, but this one, which I probably saw in the last few years, had gone completely out of my mind. Yes, it has all the standard elements, but even in genre filmmaking you have to add a little creativity to the mix to make the cake rise. This particular cake has not put them together in any memorable way.
I am not the only one who forgot about the film. Richard Fleischer doesn’t mention it in his autobiography at all.

Desperate (1947. Screenplay by Harry Essex, additional dialogue by Martin Rackin, story by Dorothy Atlas and Anthony Mann. 73 minutes)


Not that desperate: Steve is your usual film noir veteran, now driving a truck. He gets talked into unknowingly participating in a heist. A cop is killed, and the boss’s brother is arrested. The boss wants Steve to take the fall for the brother. So the cops and the boss are after Steve. But then Steve does the smart thing. He calls his wife, tells her to take the train out of town. He catches up with her on the train, and after some adventures, they end up staying with relatives of hers where the cops and the boss can’t find them. Smart move, but what’s so desperate about that? I very often ping on movies for having the characters doing dumb things just so we can have some action. Why do those stupid kids keep going back to that camp in the Friday the 13th movies? Here Steve behaves intelligently and it kills the picture.

Steve eventually goes back to talk to the police, who are not really interested in arresting him. That does not increase the desperation factor, at least not until we learn the cops are using him as bait to catch the boss. We do get some nice suspense at the end as the boss (Raymond Burr, not only at his most villainous but at his most sensuous if you can imagine it) threatens to kill Steve at the stroke of midnight, when his brother is to be executed. We end with a nice shootout in a stairwell. But the ending hardly makes up for the sagging middle.

The Malta Story (1953. Screenplay by William Fairchild and Nigel Balchin, story by William Fairchild, based on an idea by Thorold Dickinson and Peter de Sarigny, with material from Briefed to Attack by Sir Hugh P. Lloyd, K.C.B. K.B.E. M.C. D.F.C. 103 minutes)

The Malta Story

Actors, you have to see this film: I picked this up from Netflix, since I think I had seen it when it came out, and I wanted to take another look at it. I was not going to write about it, but one element demands mention. This film has the worst single performance Alec Guinness ever gave on screen. And it is not like he was just starting out. He had already done Great Expectations (1946), Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949), The Lavender Hill Mob (1951), and The Man in the White Suit (1951). What happened?

As you might guess from the number of contributors to the screenplay, the problem begins with the script. The film is about the English Royal Air Force and Navy on the island of Malta in the summer of 1942. They are under constant attack from the German’s, since from Malta the Brits can disrupt German shipping to the Mediterranean. Much of the material is given the kind of documentary treatment I discussed in writing about The Wooden Horse (1950) in US#75: assuming that the fact that these things happened is enough to make it interesting. It’s not. The screenplay is very unfocused, skipping all over the place. After a scene that goes nowhere, we get a lot of stock newsreel footage. I suspect the reason the incident of the Ohio, a tanker ship bringing fuel, is used is that they had footage of the crippled tanker coming into the harbor in Malta.

And what does this have to do with Guinness? Well, not much, unfortunately. He is playing Flight Lt. Peter Ross, whose specialty is taking aerial reconnaissance photos. He is on a flight to Cairo that lands in Malta. The Germans bomb the plane and he is assigned to stay in Malta. Guinness starts out playing him as a rather whimsical character, probably because one of the other military men describes him as “not exactly military.” But nothing more is done with that, and Guinness seems completely lost in the picture. The director, Brian Desmond Hurst, does not help. In one scene Ross is supposed to fall in love at first sight with a Maltese woman, Maria. Hurst has him give the most obvious reaction he can, rather than the kind of subtlety Guinness is noted for. Neither the script nor Hurst, nor Guinness for that matter, have any idea how to play this non-existent character, even when he becomes heroic late in the picture. Actors should see this film to learn how even a great actor can be at sea without a smart script and/or a smart director.

The Good Wife

Some Late Spring-Early Summer Television 2011. No, I haven’t stopped watching television this spring, but I have gotten behind on writing about it. Here are some assorted comments on assorted shows.

Because of the end of the school year and my retirement and other stuff, I did not get around to watching the season finale of The Good Wife until late June, but it was worth the wait. “Closing Arguments” had a teleplay by Robert and Michelle King from a story by Corinne Brinkerhoff. Will and Alicia win a tricky case and they go out for drinks afterwards. What follows is probably the best six minutes the show has had. We pick up the two of them in a hotel bar, and they are both a little tipsy. Will tells her that his girlfriend Tammy was going to fly off to London the day before. He was going over to talk her into staying, but just then the crucial piece of evidence showed up. So Tammy is gone. Will says he and Alicia always had bad timing and wonders what it would be like if they had good timing. Tammy’s gone, Alicia has dumped Peter. Sounds like good timing to me. But the writers are very smart not to rush into it. At the reception desk, they have trouble getting the attention of the clerk, who is on the phone. Then there are no rooms because there is a convention in town. Well, there is the Presidential Suite, but it’s $7,800 a night. Look at Alicia and Will’s reaction to that. Will pulls out his Gold Card. Yeah, I think she’s worth too, Will. The first elevator that opens its doors is full of service carts. Some joker has pressed all the buttons in the second one, so Will and Alicia take their time, necking in the elevator. Then Will’s door card does not seem to work. And they both take it very coolly. Alicia turns his card upside down, and it works. Now, that is true suspense. Charles Bennett’s Fat English Friend’s would be proud.

Burn Notice has returned with an interesting change in the franchise. At the end of the last season, Michael was cleared to go back to work for the C.I.A.. That changes the dynamics of the show. In the first episode of the season, “Company Man” (written by Matt Nix), Michael is assigned to be part of a team that tracks down the guy he thinks got him burned. The guy is in Venezuela, and Michael insists he be allowed to take Sam and Fi on the assignment. Needless to say, when the official plan goes south, Sam and Fi can improvise and save everybody’s asses. Except for that of the bad guy, who dies. So Michael won’t get to talk to him about why he was burned. In the following episode “Bloodlines,” written by Alfredo Barrios Jr., Jesse, who is now working for a security company asks Michael to use his C.I.A. contacts to help him on a case. The third episode “No Good Deed,” written by Michael Horowitz, has Michael obsessed with going over the documents he has on his burn situation. So now we have the three elements that are going to play out in the season’s episodes: Michael’s friends helping him in C.I.A. work, Michael using his C.I.A. contacts to help his friends, and Michael still looking into his being burned.

Franklin & Bash is just what we need, another lawyer show. Well, no, we don’t need it, and you probably would not want to watch it in the winter, but it’s passable in the summer. Franklin and Bash are two hot-shot (are there any other kind?) young lawyers who are brought into a posh firm by its head to help shake things up. They do. They win cases. The best thing about the show is their boss at the posh firm. He is Stanton Infield, and he is what looks to be a retired hippy who has a variety of interests besides the law. He is played by Malcolm McDowell, and I was delighted to see that he actually handled a case in the third episode, “Jennifer of Troy,” written by Dana Calvo. The Chinese computer geek fixing Franklin and Bash’s computer system needs help dealing with a problem in Chinatown, and since Infield lived in China, he goes to talk to the “Council of Elders” gets the issue settled. I hope they keep giving cases to Infield, simply because McDowell is more fun to watch than anybody else on the show.

Necessary Roughness is The Good Wife with jockstraps. Dr. Dani Santino is a therapist who discovers her husband is cheating on her (the bed in the guestroom is a little too neatly made up) and kicks him out. To augment her income, she agrees to take on as a patient Terrence King, a pro football player who keeps dropping passes. She is also dealing with two teenage children, especially a daughter who is a real pain in the ass.

The good news is that the show finally gives the wondrous Callie Thorne a show of her own. The writers have given Dani has a lot of sides to her, and Thorne is up to the task. In the “Pilot,” written by Liz Kruger, Thorne was a little more than up to the task, but in the following episodes she has settled into the part. The franchise is going to be Dani dealing not only with King and other players on the team, but as word of her success gets out, other people in high stress situations. King continued as a patient, but in the second episode, “Anchor Management” (written by Jeffrey Lieber & Tracy McMillan) she is primarily treating a network TV anchor, and in the third, “Spinning Out” (written by Liz Kruger & Craig Shapiro) the patient is a race car driver. The downside of the series is that, as in all movies and most TV shows, the cures come very quickly, with just a smidgen of psychobabble. The writers keep the scenes lively and the storylines moving, but at some point you just have to say, did that psychological cliché really work? I suppose they do, but I am not the only one who is a bit dubious. The Los Angeles Times runs an occasional column called “The Unreal World” that gives you the truth about the medical cases presented on television. You can read the one about Necessary Roughness here.

Tom Stempel is the author of several books on film. His most recent is Understanding Screenwriting: Learning From Good, Not-Quite-So Good, and Bad Screenplays.

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