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Understanding Screenwriting #60: Boardwalk Empire, How I Met Your Mother, Castle, & More

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Understanding Screenwriting #60: <em>Boardwalk Empire</em>, <em>How I Met Your Mother</em>, <em>Castle</em>, & More

Coming Up in This Column: Boardwalk Empire, How I Met Your Mother, Two and a Half Men, Mike & Molly, Castle, Hawaii Five-0, Undercovers, The Defenders, The Whole Truth, 30 Rock, CSI, Blue Bloods, Desperate Housewives, but first…

Fan Mail: I figured David E. would provide his usual insight and perspective on Lord Love a Duck (1966) and he did. And, sorry David, but Black Narcissus is way over the top. And don’t call me Shirley.

Diego Sulic hopes that Nikita will stick around, but is afraid it will go the way of other shows such as Bionic Woman and Dollhouse. This is always a problem fans have with television. We may love a show, but if it does not get high enough ratings on the over-the-air networks or cause enough talk or win enough Emmys on cable, it goes away. I did not watch any of the new Bionic Woman and only one episode of Dollhouse, so I can’t say much on either one except that Dollhouse just didn’t grab me. See if any of the shows I cover in this all-TV column float your boat.

Boardwalk Empire (2010. “Pilot” written by Terrence Winter, based on the book Boardwalk Empire: The Birth, High Times, and Corruption of Atlantic City. 75 minutes.)

Mommy, do I have to watch this?: Yes, son, it’s not tv, it’s HBO. But mommy, we’re watching it on our— Son, it’s directed by America’s Greatest Living Filmmaker. Aw, Mom, after Gangs of New York (2002) not even Harvey Weinstein is still saying that about Marty. Well, son, it’s created by one of the Emmy-award winning writers of The Sopranos. Come on, mom, you know I could only get through one episode of The Sopranos. I just don’t care about gangsters any more. But son, it’s about America. No mom, it’s a regional— Son, I am going to wash your mouth out with soap if you EVER use the term “regional” about anything connected with the East Coast of the United States. You know that is the term we use only for the South, the Midwest, the West, and in the case of George A. Romero, Pittsburgh.

Well, it’s not as bad as I was afraid it was going to be, but the pilot took a LONG time to get going. Yes, it starts with an action scene (hijacking a bootlegger’s delivery truck), but then takes God’s own time to get back to who’s doing the hijacking and why. The period is set precisely: the beginning of Prohibition in 1920. According to Adam Stovall’s article on the series in the September/October 2010 issue of Creative Screenwriting, Winter debated for a long time as to when the series should start. Given that this is going to be a long series, I think he guessed right. He establishes Nucky Thompson, based the real life character Nucky Johnson, as both the treasurer of Atlantic City and someone with his finger in a lot of not-so-legal pies. And some other things; yes there is the obligatory bare breast scene. Winter changed the character’s name so he could play around with where his Nucky might go and what he might do, a smart move. The problem I had from almost the beginning is that I did not find Nucky that interesting as a character. When he realizes, late in the episode, that Prohibition is not going to be as easy to deal with as he first thought because of the violence involved, he becomes more interesting, and as the series goes on, he may develop.

The other characters are pretty much standard issue. If you have seen any Warner Brothers gangster movies of the ’30s, you have seen them all before. Unfortunately, since this is HBO, it moves at a snail’s pace, without the speed or the energy of the Warners films. One potentially interesting character is Margaret Schroeder, a lower class woman who asks Nucky to get a job for her husband. Nucky doesn’t but gives her some money, which the husband finds. He beats her up, and Nucky’s boys get revenge on him. For now, Margaret is just sort of sad-eyed, but Nucky obviously likes her and an interesting relationship may develop. A point is made in the script that women are on the verge of getting the vote. Given the women characters in The Sopranos, I hope more is done with Margaret and the other women. As often happens when Scorcese directs, the women characters are underserved. As I talked about in discussing this year’s Shutter Island in US#43, Scorsese is a rather humorless director and he skims right over what could have been some funny lines. I look forward to seeing what other directors do with the material.

How I Met Your Mother (2010. “Big Days” written by Carter Bays & Craig Thomas. 30 minutes.)

How I Met Your Mother

Nope. Still haven’t met her yet.

Two and a Half Men (2010. “Three Girls and a Guy Named Bud,” teleplay by Dan Foster, Eddie Gorodetsky, & Jim Patterson, story by Chuck Lorre & Lee Aronsohn. 30 minutes)

Two and a Half Men

Is he coming back or is he in the slammer?: This episode looks as though it was first conceived when nobody knew whether Charlie Sheen would be able to show up for the season, due to his legal difficulties in Colorado. He did, and so his Charlie appears, but in a secondary role. Secondary, but not without interest: Charlie has decided to swear off drinking, but he is not very successful at it. Meanwhile Alan is getting it on with Lyndsey, the mother of Eldridge, one of Jake’s friends. Lyndsey is played by Courtney Thorne-Smith, who usually plays goodie-goodie types. Lyndsey seems like one of those, but her inner bitch pops out from time to time. Alan and Lyndsey have not told their kids about the affair, so this episode deals with them finding out.

More importantly, the show is finally getting around to Jake’s sex life. You may remember I have been complaining that they haven’t for two years. When Alan comes home, he sees a teenage girl sneaking across the patio from Jake’s room. Then another one. Jake is grilled by Alan, Charlie, and of course Berta. Jake makes a convincing case that the girls are surfers who were going to sleep in their car to hit the waves early, and that Jake let them stay in his room and his bed while he slept on the floor. Of course Jake would do that. Except that later at his mother’s house, we see one of the girls sneaking out of her backyard. And they are twenty miles from the beach. When Alan, Lyndsey, Eldridge and Jake have dinner together, Jake mentions the girls are surfers. Eldridge starts to say they are not, but Jake shuts him up. Well, finally, we are going to get into some promising material that the writers have been avoiding. Maybe the concerns over Sheen returning will end up being good for the show.

Mike & Molly (2010. “Pilot,” written by Mark Roberts. 30 minutes.)

Mike & Molly

Is that a fat joke in your pocket, or are you just glad to see me?: This is a new sitcom, created by Mark Roberts, who has been one of the staff writers on Two and a Half Men for years. The set up is that a large-sized Chicago cop, Mike, meets a large but not-quite-so large schoolteacher, Molly, and they start dating. The pilot was, you should pardon the expression, larded with fat jokes. Since we are supposed to be sympathetic to Mike and Molly, that seems self-defeating. One hopes the writers will cut down on the fat jokes as the show develops.

So far the characters are also standard issue. Mike is a large cop, and the comedian playing him, Billy Gardell, is not particularly expressive as an actor. He can deliver jokes, but he will need more than that. Especially since he is up against the wonderful Melissa McCarthy (Sookie in The Gilmore Girls) who currently can eat him for breakfast. Mike’s partner is a fast-talking black guy, Molly’s mom is snippy and Molly’s sister is a slut. This is what the Eve Arden part in all those great ’30s comedies has come down to: instead of a smart woman, we get a sleazoid.

Castle (2010. “A Deadly Affair,” written by Andrew W. Marlowe. 60 minutes.)

Castle

Nice comeback: When we left Castle and Beckett at the end of the first season, he was involved with his ex-wife and she was involved with Detective Demming. He went off for the summer to write a book, indicating he would return in the fall. Well, here it is in the fall and he hasn’t shown up. Beckett’s a little pissed, since her thing with Demming went south. So then the cops find Castle at the scene of a murder. With a gun in his hand. This leads to a nice scene in the interrogation room. We have been in the room a lot, but never with the kinds of overtones that Marlowe has here. Eventually B&C make a bet: if he can solve the case, he can come back and work with her. If she solves it, he has to stay away forever. Yeah, guess who is going to win that one. He does, and we are back in the saddle.

Hawaii Five-0 (2010. “Pilot” written by Peter M Lenkov, developed by Robert Orci, Alex Kurtzman, Peter M. Lenkov, based on the series created by Leonard Freeman. 60 minutes.)

Hawaii Five-0

One block of wood replaces another: The original Hawaii Five-0 was one of the longest running police on television, going from 1968 to 1980. It was also one writers hated to write for, since they had to put up with the diva-ish behavior of its star Jack Lord. Jack Lord had done minor film work; you probably didn’t even realize he was the first Felix Leiter in Dr. No (1962). The show made him a star and he believed every word of his publicity. One of the legendary stories about the writing of the show involved writer Eric Bercovici. He got fed up with Lord and wrote a final page in a script in which the villain pushed McGarrett off a cliff, looked down at the body and said, “McGarrett’s dead.” He turned in the script. Bercovici said later, “They got hysterical. Lennie [Leonard Freeman) was having a big contractual problem with Jack Lord at the time, and kept threatening him with Steve Forrest. Lennie said, ’By God, we’ll shoot it the way it is.’ However, the next day they said, ’Could you give us the real page?’ which I’d already written.”

At the time of the first Hawaii Five-0, William Paley, the owner of CBS, insisted that all his shows star adults. When Eric Fleming, the star of Rawhide, died, Paley refused to let the showrunners promote the younger second lead because he was too young. Clint Eastwood was in his early thirties at the time. Nowadays, the focus is on younger leading men, so Steve McGarrett in this version is, like Eastwood at that time, in his early thirties. The actor playing the part, Alex O’Laughlin, has starred in two previously unsuccessful series, and he is, alas, just as much a block of wood as Lord was. However, since he is not yet the diva that Lord became, the developers and writers have created a much more interesting gallery of characters to surround him than Freeman was able to do in the earlier version. In the ’70s series, McGarrett’s assistant, Danny “Danno” Williams, was not given much to do other than “book ’em.” The new Danno is a real wiseass and Scott Caan eats McLaughlin for breakfast (yes, there was a lot of that on the first week of the new season). In the original, the team was an official part of the Hawaii State Police, but in this version they are a special investigative unit answering only to the governor. In the ’70s, Chin Ho Kelly was just another cop. Here he is a cop who was thrown off the force for some kind of malfeasance (my hands were full of buttered popcorn as I watched this—my DVR was smoking the first week of the season—and I was not as thorough taking notes as I usually am). In the original, Detective Kono was a large male cop. Here Kono is not fat, not male, and only just graduated from the Police Academy. In the pilot she does not show all the martial arts moves Maggie Q does in Nikita (see US#59), but Grace Park is a more expressive actor.

The writers do not have to deal with Jack Lord, but they do have to remember what the real star of the series was: Hawaii. We get a lot of gorgeous locales in the pilot, and I am sure there are more to come.

Undercovers (2010. “Pilot,” written by J.J. Abrams & Josh Reims, created by J.J. Abrams & Josh Reims. 60 minutes.)

Undercovers

What a concept: bantering spies: This is Abrams in his Mission: Impossible mode. Steven and Samantha Bloom have been out of the spy business for five years and are now running a catering service. Suddenly, Carlton Shaw, of the Agency, shows up and asks them to track down one of their former colleagues who has gone missing, Leo Nash. They are reluctant, but if they don’t agree, there is no show. So off they go to Madrid, then a castle in Spain for a dance, then Paris, and finally Moscow, where we get the obligatory shoot-out in a warehouse. It looks as though the film crew, or at least a second unit crew, has gone to all of those places. This gives the pilot a very expensive look, but the trailers for the second episode (I am writing this before it airs) look a lot more restricted in terms of budget.

The writing, alas, is rather unfocused. The marriage of Steven and Samantha is supposed to be in a down period, but that is not dealt with. The suggestion is that all the spy games revitalize their marriage, but that’s pro-forma. My biggest complaint was that Steven and Samantha seem to pick up exactly where they left off, without a moment’s hesitation. Surely they would not still be as good at martial arts as they were. Nor would they be as up-to-date on the equipment. I would have thought the writers could get a little more mileage out of how rusty their tradecraft has become. Of the supporting characters, Gerald McRaney’s Carlton has his moments, but that is more McRaney than the script. Boris Kodjoe as Steven and Gugu Mbatha-Raw as Samantha are gorgeous to look it and more expressive than Maggie Q, but the banter they have been given is not up to the banter on Burn Notice or Covert Affairs or White Collar or…

The Defenders (2010. “Pilot,” written by Neils Mueller & Kevin Kennedy. 60 minutes.)

The Defenders

Ah, the return of the great Reginald Rose series: Alas, no. The 1961-65 series was one of the great series of the period, but it took the law and its place in society very seriously. Aside from Law & Order we like our lawyers a little funnier these days. See the two contrasting stills from The Defenders and LA Law in my book Storytellers to the Nation: A History of American Television Writing. David E. Kelly has a lot to answer for.

Pete, the handsome one, gets dressed after an encounter with a flight attendant, then takes their firm’s new associate into an arraignment and leaves her there while he goes off on another case. Nick, the pudgy one, thinks the wife he is separated from is having an affair and has her tailed. The Prestons never did anything like that back in the ’60s. But this not only is now, but now in Las Vegas, and it is clear from the billboard the two partners are having put up near the Strip that they are not going to be dealing with high-class clients. Which could mean more fun for us. Unfortunately, the case we spend the most time on in the pilot is a standard lawyer-show case (guy accused of murder refuses to take a plea bargain, goes to trial and our guys get him off) that could happen in any town. The relationship between Pete and Nick is by far the most entertaining element in the pilot, and the writers can do a lot more with the Vegas as a provider of cases. Why, they can even try a case against client based on testimony from some of those CSIs who work in Vegas.

The Whole Truth (2010. “Pilot,” created and written by Tom Donaghy. 60 minutes.)

The Whole Truth

No, Jerry Bruckheimer does not produce The Defenders, but he does produce this one: Wait a minute. Blow ’em Up Bruckheimer? Yes. Bruckheimer the producer of the CSI franchise? Yes. Is there a disturbance in the Force? No. In the book of Understanding Screenwriting, in the Not-Quite-So Good section, I deal with the script for Bruckheimer’s production of Pearl Harbor (2001). I mention that underneath the production bombast of his films, there are very often interesting scripts, which is why he has had more success in television than a lot of bigger film names.

The idea here is an ingenious one. We follow one court case all the way through, intercutting between Deputy D.A. Kathryn Pearle and her prosecution team, and attorney Jimmy Brogan and his defense team. In the pilot, this works out rather well. The first act follows the prosecution, the second act the defense. We see what the prosecution knows and when they know it, and the same with the defense. Act three intercuts between them, and then acts four and five are the trial. It is tricky, but Donaghy makes it work, and his and producer Jon Wallace and Bruckheimer’s job is going to be finding writers who can work in that structure, the way Dick Wolf did with Law & Order.

In the pilot Rob Morrow is a bit over-the-top as Jimmy, although reviewers who have seen later episodes say he tones it down. Kathryn is the always-welcome Maura Tierney, recently of ER. You may have read that Tierney was in the pilot for Parenthood but had to drop out because she developed breast cancer. My wife had breast cancer many years ago, and for the last fifteen years she and I have raised money for breast cancer research by my walking in the Revlon 5K Run-Walk every May. Tierney said in an interview in Parade magazine that if she had her particular kind of cancer years ago, they would not have been able to diagnose it, but recent research made it possible to catch it at an early stage. It’s nice to know that at least a little of the money my wife and I raised did some good. Welcome back to the Show, Ms. Tierney. My wife and I are glad to have helped you be here.

30 Rock (2010. “The Fabian Strategy,” written by Tina Fey. 30 minutes.)

30 Rock

Liz Lemon! In a real relationship!: Several people writing about 30 Rock over the years have criticized the show for not being fair to Liz in her private life. The complaint is that the show makes it seem impossible for a woman with a real job to have a satisfying relationship with a man, or a woman, for that matter. I assume that Fey and the writers have not wanted to get into this too much since it could change the nature of the show, turning it into a domestic sitcom. Nobody wants to see that. So what Fey and the writers started in the last couple of episodes last spring was a story about Liz meeting Carol, an airline pilot, who seems perfect for her. But perfect is a problem, which begins in this episode to show us the reasons Liz has had trouble with men.

Fey has said in the lead-up to the season premiere that she hopes this season to deal with relationship issues. It is probably smart they have waited this long, since we now have a gallery of wonderful supporting characters who can comment on her love life. Jack gets the honors this week. Jack is pushing Liz to take her relationship to the next level, but Liz is reluctant. She is happy just seeing him every few weeks between flights. The twist is that he is not. He breaks down to her and tells her he wants all the standard relationship stuff. She finally agrees to try, but without very much enthusiasm.

CSI (2010. “Shock Waves,” written by David Weddle & Bradley Thompson. 60 minutes.)

CSI

Didn’t we just see this earlier this month on The Closer?: A nasty person is setting up to kill a lot of police at a memorial service/funeral. In the season ending episode of The Closer, Brenda Leigh get the bad guy before he does any damage. In this episode of CSI, the attack comes at the funeral of the police officer who was killed in the last episode of last season. Somebody has put a bomb in the coffin and another on a gravestone. But those are just to frighten people to run toward the parking lot, where a much bigger bomb is placed inside a van. Fortunately Nick, who was with the cop when he was killed, has been asked by Brass on behalf of the family to, well, get out of their sight. So he figures out something is wrong with the van and manages to save people’s lives. So then the gang is off trying to figure out who did it. They do, or at least one of them. An explosion at the end after the first bomber is killed proves that, as Catherine says, it’s not over.

If the plot is familiar, the best part of the writing is our guys dealing with Ray’s near-death at the hands of Dr. Jekyll as well as Nick’s dealing with the aftermath of the shootout that killed the cop. CSI usually doesn’t go into such depth with the emotional toll working the cases takes, and it’s nice to see it here. The best scene is Dr. Robbins, the ME with artificial legs, visiting Ray in the hospital and giving him a beautiful walking stick. Just a little scene between friends and co-workers, but nice.

Blue Bloods (2010. “Pilot,” created and written by Robin Green & Mitchell Burgess. 60 minutes.)

Blue Bloods

The ’stache is back: Yes, I know, Tom Selleck has been doing the Jesse Stone television movies, but here is he back in a series. The pilot is a bit lumpy, as pilots often are.

We are focusing on the Reagan family. Henry (Len Cariou) is a former chief of police in New York. Frank (Tom Selleck) is his son and the current chief. One of Frank’s son, Dannie (Donnie Wahlberg), is a bend-the-rules detective. Frank’s daughter, Erin (Bridget Moynahan), is a deputy D.A. A middle son died in the line of duty, so the youngest son Jamie (Will Estes), has given up law school and become a cop as well. Yes, we get the inevitable family Sunday dinner where they argue about different approaches to law enforcement. Was Danny’s putting a suspected pedophile’s head in a toilet to find out where the kidnapped child, who desperately needed insulin, was being hidden really necessary? Frank brings up the old “if you knew the terrorist had a bomb…” business. By the end of the meal, there are only a couple of people still at the table. Are all their family dinners like this?

Selleck’s Frank does not have much to do in the pilot, since we spend most of the time with Danny doing standard cop action. Like the law case in The Defenders, the genre stuff is the least interesting. The characters do not yet get beyond standard issue, but they are developable. It will be a question of finding the balance between characters and plot and getting the most out of both.

Desperate Housewives (2010. “Remember Paul?,” written by Marc Cherry. 61 minutes.)

Desperate Housewives

Easy question for Sondheim fans: what lyric is “Remember Paul?” from?: As I wrote in US#24, Marc Cherry ran out of Sondheim song titles and started using bits of lyrics for episode titles. For those of you non-Sondheim fans, “Remember Paul?” is from “I Am Not Getting Married Today” from Company.

Oh, yes, the show. Mostly this season opener (which was hardly hyped at all, since ABC probably assumes it will be its last season) is setting up plots and characters for the new season. Paul, Mary Alice’s husband, has been freed from prison, since Felicia Tilman, whom he was assumed to have killed, turns up alive. She is still out to get him for killing her sister, which he did in fact do. Now Felicia is in jail, but at the end of the episode she tells her cellmate she is going to arrange to have Paul die, and can do it because she had friends on Wisteria Lane. Paul meanwhile has rented Susan’s old house and intends to buy his former house and obviously has a plan to get revenge on the people who did not support him at his trial.

Carlos finds out from the hospital that Juanita is the baby who was exchanged with another baby by a nurse, but he is afraid to tell Gaby. Although given how Gaby gives Juanita a hard time about everything, I would think she’d be glad to get rid of her. Gaby has learned it was Bree’s son Andrew who killed Carlos’s mother, and she is afraid to tell Carlos that.

The most interesting development is the arrival of Wilhemina Slater—oops, sorry, Renee Perry, Lynette’s friend from college. Renee is married to a New York Yankee and usually flies Lynette out to New York for their visits. She shows up on Wisteria Lane and she and Lynette trade zingers, as they admit they always do. But the zingers get a little edgier than normal, and Renee tells Lynette her husband cheated on her and she is going through a divorce. So we have a new vamp on the Lane. And a nice new playmate for Felicity Huffman. I would not have immediately thought that Huffman and Vanessa Williams would have such good chemistry, but do they ever. Hijinks will ensue.

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.