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Understanding Screenwriting #83: 50/50, The Mill and the Cross, Pan Am & More

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Understanding Screenwriting #83: <em>50/50</em>, <em>The Mill and the Cross</em>, <em>Pan Am</em> & More

Coming Up In This Column: 50/50, The Mill and the Cross, What’s Your Number?, A Single Man, The Playboy Club, Pan Am, Prime Suspect, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, Whitney, The Good Wife, but first…

Fan Mail: Yes, David, I am definitely trying to take Hero’s Journey Soup off the menu. And you will get no argument from me about Jean-Claude Carrière’s status as a screenwriter. As far as I can tell, his nonfiction book The Secret Life of Film has not, alas, been translated into English.

50/50 (2011. Written by Will Reiser. 100 minutes.)

Tone, nuance, restraint: When Casey Robinson researched cancer for his script for Dark Victory (1939), he became determined to make it as medically accurate as he could. Between Warner Brothers and Bette Davis that didn’t last very long. The film ended up being probably the first in which the leading character gets Movie Stars’ Disease: they look great until late in the picture when they cough once and die. See Love Story (1970) and Terms of Endearment (1983) for later variations. And all the thousands of television movies that have come along since. What makes 50/50 so fresh is that it avoids all, and I mean all, the cliches of the genre.

Part of that comes from the fact that Reiser, a writer and producer, got a particularly bad form of cancer when he was in his mid-twenties. So he is writing about it from the inside (see the comments below on The Playboy Club for an example of a show that is researched rather than felt), but with a very clear eye about the experience. He owns this world in the way Hecht and MacArthur owned newspapers when they wrote The Front Page. His surrogate, Adam, is a NPR producer working on a story on volcanoes when he gets the diagnosis. Reiser does not beat the volcano symbolism to death, and the volcanoes have a great, quiet payoff later in the film. The diagnosis comes from a doctor who seems to be unable to look him in the eye. Who of us have not had a doctor who is not very good at delivering the bad news? The cancer is a tumor on the spine, which is tricky to operate on, so Adam begins with chemotherapy. At this point the film could go the traditional way.

But Adam’s friend Kyle is a different sort of best friend. Kyle is based on Reiser’s friend Seth Rogen, who plays him in the film. Like a Seth Rogen character. Kyle is raunchy, with all kinds of semi-inappropriate ideas for Adam, like using his cancer to attract women. Kyle is not above using his helping his friend to score with women. Kyle’s function in Adam’s life and in the film is to bring a raucous counterpoint to the illness, which keeps the film from getting too maudlin. When my wife had breast cancer in 1987 (don’t worry; she is 24 years cancer-free now), I was put In Charge of Hugs and Humor. And the humor was very, very dark. Generally films avoid that, and this one doesn’t, which helps both Adam and us get through this. The tone of the film is serious, but not solemn, and you never know what outrageous thing Kyle is going to say or do. For a long time in the film we assume Kyle is behaving this way because, well, he’s Kyle, but look at the small detail of a book Kyle has that tells us he is consciously doing this.

Kyle and Adam are great roles, and Rogen and Joseph Gordon-Levitt act the shit out of them. This is Gordon-Levitt’s best performance; he runs with all the little nuances that Reiser gives him. Look at his reactions in the scenes with his counselor Katherine the different times she touches his arm. One thing I particularly like about Reiser’s script is that unlike a lot of male writers, he does not underserve his women characters. Katherine is not a middle-aged maternal figure, but a 24-year-old student just working on her Ph.D. Adam is just her third patient (and look how Reiser tells us that), and she really doesn’t know how to do all this yet. She’s also not yet completely clued in on the professional ethics involved in the question of how much she can get emotionally involved with Adam. One element I have grown to hate over the years is the storyline where the professional falls in love with his/her client/student/patient. (How I Met Your Mother has a nice running storyline now about Robin’s involvement with a therapist she was seeing that deals with the issues in a nice, if more sitcomy way.) In Reiser’s case, making Katherine a beginner makes her scenes livelier than just the standard shrink/patient scenes. It also helps that they have the great Anna Kendrick to play her.

But she’s not the only well-written woman in the film. There is Adam’s mother, who seems when she learns about his cancer that she has stepped in from a more melodramatic cancer movie. Not true. That is just her character, and we see more sides of her as the film progresses. It also helps that they have the great Anjelica Huston to play her. Adam’s girlfriend at the beginning of the film, Rachael, tells Adam up front that she is going to stick with him, which we know means that, no, she won’t. But she’s not as awful as Kyle describes her in one of his foul-mouthed tirades. It also helps that they have the great Bryce Dallas Howard to play her.

It of course helps keep the movie from being a tearjerker that Adam does not die. He eventually undergoes surgery, which gets all the cancer, and he resumes his life. The emotional restraint of the writing and acting pays off beautifully. At the risk of sounding like I am turning into a quote whore by writing a blurb, this is one of the best original screenplays of the year.

The Mill and the Cross (2011. Screenplay by Lech Majewski and Michael Francis Gibson. 92 minutes.)

The Mill and the Cross

Sunday in the Park with Pieter: One of my favorite Stephen Sondheim musicals is Sunday in the Park with George. In the first act we follow artist Georges Seurat as he completes his masterpiece Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grand Jette. We see the people who become the figures in the painting and get their stories. The first act curtain is the painting coming together in its final form. Majewski, who also directed, and Gibson are doing something similar with Pieter Bruegel’s 1564 painting The Procession to Calvary. But without, alas, Sondeim’s hummable tunes.

Majewski has been combining art and film for some time. He wrote the original story for the 1996 film Basquiat, and he wrote the novel and screenplay for as well as directed the 2004 Garden of Earthly Delights, which includes references to Hieronymus Bosch, among others. His 2000 film Angelus tells multiple stories, each one beginning with a room designed like a painting, from which the stories come to life. So he knows his way around this sort of thing.

The writers begin with a scene that lets the audience know what they are up to. Bruegel and a village dignitary, Nicolaes Jonghelinck, are walking through the landscape of the painting. The film is using CGI as effectively as I mentioned Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame (2010) did in US#82, but here it is to provide the background of the painting as a semi-real backdrop for the action of the film. In this opening scene we see several of the village characters who will show up in the rest of the film. We also get Bruegel explaining what the painting will be about. We are in Flanders at the time of the Spanish occupation, and Bruegel is using the subject of the Crucifixion to comment on the brutalities of the Spanish. The painting is political, but we still get some of the earthiness we expect in Bruegel’s peasants.

We do not get their stories in the way Sondheim and James Lapine, who wrote the book for Sunday, give us stories. After the titles, the film begins by showing us the daily activities of the peasants: getting up, starting the mill at the top of the mountain, taking care of the kids, etc. But there is no dialogue among the peasants. OK, I love silent films and telling the stories visually makes sense in this context. Especially since the dialogue we do get is awful.

The few major dialogue sequences are with Bruegel and Jonghelinck, played by Rutger Hauer and Michael York, respectively. Their scenes are in English, and are not well written. I assumed in watching the film that the English dialogue came from Gibson, but Majewski has worked in English before both as a writer (Basquiat [1996]) and director (Flight of the Spruce Goose [1986]). Whoever wrote the dialogue here did a very bad job of it. Jonghelinck has a long monologue near the beginning in which he explains, in the baldest way possible, the political situation in the village. Michael York is not as bad an actor as you believe from listening to him in this scene.

Fortunately there is not a lot of the English dialogue, and as we follow the peasants, the film begins to make connections between them and their roles in the painting. We can see them, and we don’t have to hear about them. The filmmakers are tying together the threads of the story, going in and out of the details of the painting, so we can see how the painting is built up. The final shot of the film starts on the painting itself in a museum and pulls back to capture the whole paintings and the others paintings nearby on the walls, suggesting there are many other stories to tell about them. I’d be in favor of that, assuming they get somebody who can write English dialogue better.

What’s Your Number? (2011. Screenplay by Gabrielle Allan & Jennifer Crittenden, based on the novel 20 Times a Lady by Karyn Bosnak. 106 minutes.)

What's Your Number?

Guess again Tad: Way back in the April 11th issue of The New Yorker, Tad Friend had a long, thoughtful piece on the issue of whether women can be funny and raunchy in movies. His focus was on Anna Faris and this movie. Here’s why trying to predict the future will kill you, especially in the movie business. I assumed, like Friend, that Anna Faris would be the star to break through the “woman can’t be raunchy” wall. She was sensational doing just that in 2008’s The House Bunny (see US#3), and I had high hopes for her and for this film after reading the article. Unfortunately…

If you go back and read my comments on The House Bunny, you will see that I pointed out how smart the script was. Shelley, Faris’s character, only seems dumb, but she turns out to be the smartest person in the room. She relates to the other characters well, and we are rooting for her all the way. Ally Darling, Faris’s character here, is stupid at the beginning of the film and only gets stupider as the film goes along. She gets fired from her job in the opening minutes. She doesn’t even look for a new job whereas Shelley went from getting kicked out of the Playboy Mansion to becoming a sorority housemother in nothing flat. Instead Ally becomes obsessed with an article she reads in a magazine that suggests that women who have twenty or more lovers will not find husbands. As written, Ally believes this. OK, I know we are in the old Johnny Carson land of “You buy the premise, you buy the bit,” but her belief in this nonsense does not do her or Faris any favors. You could write Ally so that she sort of believes it and sort of doesn’t, but is bothered enough to do what she does in the movie: track down her ex-boyfriends in hopes that one of them is the man she was meant to marry. The writers and Faris’s Ally is just frantic. Mark Mylod, the director, does not help by pushing Faris’s frantic qualities, especially in the opening scenes when we should just be getting to know her. But then Mylod’s direction is frantic in other ways. The opening shots have him whirling his camera all over the place. The film takes place in Boston, but you would hardly guess it from the opening shots. Mylod has directed mostly television before, so he may not yet feel the difference between television and film. The Friend article begins with Faris and Mylod watching the film. He notices she isn’t saying much and asks, “Is there anything you’re cringing at?” and she replies, “My face.” Friend reports Mylod broke into laughter. But Faris was right: she is as badly photographed in this film as I have seen a star photographed in years.

The two screenwriters have written for television and this is their first theatrical film. Allan wrote for Scrubs and Crittenden wrote for both The Simpsons and Seinfeld, so they at least should have been able to shape scenes and write dialogue better than they do here. The scenes are unfocused and until the end there is not a single memorable line of dialogue (it’s in a phone call from one of Ally’s exes). If all the other dialogue is straight from the book, Allan and Crittenden should have known better and corrected it. I assume the fact that the exes Ally tracks down are not very interesting is the fault of the book, but more could be done with them. The one partial exception to that is Tom Piper, a black politician whom Ally goes to Washington to see. We get a couple of moments of her reacting to the upper class levels of D.C., and the punchline is not bad: Tom’s gay and he wants to marry her to cover it up.

Several reviewers have pointed out that the opening scene (Ally getting out of bed to put on her makeup before the guy she has slept with wakes up) is a direct steal from this year’s Bridesmaids. I would have thought that since Bridesmaids came out in May, they might have reshot that scene, but in the film it becomes a running gag, so they probably couldn’t without a lot of major reshooting. Would this film seem better if it had come out before Bridesmaids? Maybe, since not only the opening gag, but the wedding scenes would not have seemed second hand. Bridesmaids was a big hit, and for all its flaws (see US#76), it is a sharper, funnier and even raunchier movie than this one. As indicated by this: Ally’s sister is played by Ari Graynor, who had the great toilet scene in Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist (2008, see US#10). Here Graynor simply smiles a lot and shows her freckles. I like her freckles well enough, but if you want raunch, this woman can deliver it. As can Faris if you give her the material.

A Single Man (2009. Written for the screen by Tom Ford and David Scearce, based on the novel by Christopher Isherwood. 99 minutes.)

A Single Man

Too precious by half: I didn’t get to this one in theaters, but picked it up recently on DVD. George is an English professor in 1962 whose lover Jim died eight months ago. He’s been in an understandable funk ever since, and the day the film shows us is the day he decides to kill himself. At least Ford and Scearce don’t outright tell us that, but let us figure it out as the film progresses. One problem is that George on this day is a very one-note character. Colin Firth does everything he can to bring a little variety to the part, but the writing does not support it. The other characters are shallow as well. We get Jim in flashbacks, but he is just an object of desire. Charley, a woman friend of George’s, is one of those grotesque cliches that show up in too many gay male authors’ works: the straight woman determined to sleep with the gay hero. I suppose the equivalent in straight male writers is the guy who thinks getting a lesbian to sleep with him will turn her straight. Julianne Moore gives what color she can to Charley. The worst characterization is given to Kenny, a student of George’s who seems to have the hots for George as well. Which leads to a lot more mooning-around scenes than you need. Kenny is also a very one-note character, and Nicholas Hoult, the actor who plays him, is not experienced enough to do more with the part, unlike Firth and Moore. Late in the film Kenny shows up at George’s favorite bar and they go back to George’s house. At one point Kenny says that he is worried about George. There is nothing elsewhere in the script or Hoult’s performance that would make us believe that. It would have been easy enough to write that Kenny is truly concerned while also attracted to George, which would have given their scenes a little texture. It would also give the scene where George discovers Kenny is sleeping with the gun George intended to use to try to kill himself a lot more impact.

Tom Ford is primarily a clothing designer, so as you can imagine, the film is art directed to within an inch of its life. George’s house is neat and gorgeous, which works against the story. When George tries to shoot himself, his fumbling attempts to get in the right position simply look silly in his perfect house. Ford has made the film look like a television commercial, which makes it seem shallower than it needed to be.

The Playboy Club (2011. “Pilot” written by Chad Hogue & Becky Mode. “The Scarlet Bunny,” teleplay by Chad Hogue, story by Chad Hogue & Karyn Usher. 60 minutes.)

The Playboy Club

Relax Gloria, it’s already been cancelled: Gloria Steinem first gained fame by going undercover as a Bunny in the New York Playboy Club and writing about it in a 1963 article called “A Bunny’s Tale.” She wrote about the long hours, hard work, and ridiculous costumes the Bunnies were required to wear. It made her reputation, so you can understand that when the new series about the glamour of Bunny life in the early ’60s was announced, she condemned it sight unseen. After all, she has a reputation and a movement to protect.

If she had seen it, she would have been even more upset for one obvious reason and one less obvious one. The series was created with the help and support of Hugh Hefner. He does a voice-over narration, going on and on about how liberating it was for women to work at the Club, how freeing it was for them, and how it was in its own way the forerunner of women’s liberation, although he never uses that term. That is historical revisionism of the worst sort, a false nostalgia for a world that only exists in Hefner’s head. His magazine and his clubs did help America free up sexually, which I am sure Hefner assumes that women’s liberation was all about, but it still presented the women as sexual stereotypes.

The less obvious reason Steinem would hate the show is that it presents the material from the Bunnies’ point of view rather than hers. The local NBC channel in Los Angeles had an interview with a former Bunny in which she talks about the experience not in unpleasant terms. OK, local network news often does promo news stories on network shows, but getting an actual Bunny? To speak positively about the experience? I was surprised, though, that the news did it, but not that she spoke positively. Several years ago Kathryn Leigh Scott, who before she was an actress in everything from the original Dark Shadows to Alain Resnais’s 1977 film Providence, was a Bunny in the New York club. At the same time Steinem was there. And was profiled in the piece. She and the other women in the club felt betrayed by Steinem, who had not told them what she was up to. But it was more than that. Scott felt that the article was condescending to the other Bunnies, since Steinem had made no effort to get to know them. So in the ’90s Scott set out to track down not only the other Bunnies she worked with, but as many others as she could find.

Guess what? Not only did they have some good memories of their experiences, but they went on to be not only actresses (Susan Sullivan, Lauren Hutton) and singers (Deborah Harry), but also doctors, lawyers, and scientific researchers. Scott’s book of interviews with them came out in 1998 under the title The Bunny Years, and it is a fascinating read. If Gloria Steinem didn’t have a dog in the fight, she would love it, since it shows that women can go beyond the stereotypes men like Hefner have of them.

Now wait a minute. I previously said that Hefner took credit for liberating women and then I am saying the women went out on their own and did well. Doesn’t the latter prove Hefner was right? No, because there is no indication that in the early ’60s Hefner (or nearly anybody else other than the Bunnies themselves) conceived the possibility that would happen. So The Playboy Club gets caught between a rock and a hard place: it has to be nice to Hefner and his memories and it has to be nice to the Scott view of the Bunnies. In the first two episodes, it never quite manages that. The bits that seem to have come from Scott’s book (she appeared in a photo with the show’s Bunnies in the September 26-October 2 issue of TV Guide) sound more researched than felt.

Aren’t you impressed that I have written this much on this show and not yet mentioned Mad Men? A lot of the hype over this show and Pan Am (see below) is that since they are both set in the early ’60s they are ripping off Mad Men. Yes, they are, and they are doing it badly. As you may remember, one element I love about Mad Men is that it captures the tone of the era so beautifully. The sexism of the men in Men is casual and believable. The sexism of the men in The Playboy Club is obvious, again researched than felt. Even though Club is focused on the women, and they are not particularly well drawn, the lead is Nick, a Chicago lawyer with mob connections. He is written and cast to remind us of Jon Hamm’s Don Draper. Yes, Nick could lead to mob stories, as the killing of a mobster in the pilot episode does, but what does that have to do with the Playboy Club?

So much for the idea of sex selling: NBC cancelled the show after three episodes. Don’t worry, Gloria, you reputation is safe.

Pan Am (2011. “Pilot” created and written by Jack Orman, developed by Nancy Hult Ganis. 60 minutes.)

Pan Am

Humming the luggage: Like The Playboy Club, we are in the highly glamorized version of the early ’60s, back when flight attendants were called stewardesses. The show’s developer, Nancy Hult Ganis, was a stewardess, but from 1968 to 1970. Hmm, why move the show back… ah,well, you’ve guessed, Mad Men. Ganis had the idea for the series several years ago, but it took her this long to get it on. Part of the problem is that it took a while to convince the company that owns the Pan Am brands (the airline went out of business in 1991) that the show could be a marketing bonanza for them. So we get the stews’ carry-on bags shot loving detail. See how many little girls come trick-or-treating to your house this Halloween in Pan Am stewardess costumes. This is the sort of commercial for Pan Am that Don Draper would have rejected as too simple-minded by half.

The creator and writer of the pilot, Jack Orman, was a writer-producer on ER and other shows, so he knows his way around a big, multi-cast show, but he runs into a problem many pilot episodes do: he is trying to get in too much in one hour. The episode deals with the first flight on a new jetliner from New York to London. We are introduced to Maggie, a grounded burser, who is called upon to fill in for a stewardess who has gone missing. Another stew has to deal with her lover, who is on board the plane with his wife. We assume the wife does not know about her husband and the stew, but she does and gives the stew a hard time at the end of the flight. There are two sister stewardesses, one of whom is a runaway bride. There is a stewardess who is, or at least will be, involved with the C.I.A.. There is a weird matte shot of London when they get there that suggests Big Ben and St. Paul’s Cathedral are a lot closer than they are in real life. I did not see a kitchen sink, although there may have been one in Maggie’s first scene. Yes, we get a kid looking up adoringly at crew members, not once, but twice. The showrunners may sort out the overplotting, but it will take a little more work to scrape off the sentimental look at the ’60s. Mad Men is about as unsentimental as you can get.

Prime Suspect (2011. “Episode One” developed and written by Alexandra Cunningham. “Carnivorous Sheep” written by Alexandra Cunningham. Based on the British television series developed by Lynda LaPlante. 60 minutes.)

Prime Suspect

No, it’s not Prime Suspect: Prime Suspect is the great British television series created and mostly written by Lynda LaPlante, beginning in 1991. It stars Helen Mirren as a tough Scotland Yard Deputy Chief Inspector Jane Tennison. She puts up with the casual sexism of the men she works with, she drinks more than she should, and she has been known to have an affair or two. And did I mention she’s played by Helen Mirren?

I love Maria Bello. She’s been wonderful in nearly everything I have seen her in. But she’s not Helen Mirren. And Cunningham has not developed a character for her to play. Yes, we get the generic stuff: tough, hard charging, but we have had a lot of women detectives who have had those qualities and more: Brenda Leigh Johnson in The Closer, Grace Hanadarko in Saving Grace, Olivia Benson in Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. And those women have dealt with the occasional sexism aimed at them. Like the sexism in Mad Men, it is part of the culture they work in. In this show, it is obvious and relentless, and for the supporting characters, such as Detective Duffy, that seems to be their only defining characteristic. Also, Bello’s Jane Timoney does not seem to be as in charge as Jane Tennison was. In “Episode One” she seems in charge, but not in “Carnivorous Sheep.” This may just be a difference between NYPD and Scotland Yard, but it throws the dynamics of the show off.

Law and Order: Special Victims Unit (2011. “Scorched Earth” written by David Matthews. 60 minutes.)

Law and Order: Special Victims Unit

Where’s that old L&O inventiveness?: One of the great joys of the Law & Order franchise is not that they did “stories torn from the headlines,” but they always gave them ingenious plot turns. I remember one episode that began what was obviously a ripoff of the Anna Nicole Smith death, but had twisted it away from that before the first ca-ching of the credits. As might have occurred to you as you followed the news accounts of the Dominique Strauss-Kahn affair, it is a perfect case for L&O:SVU: sex, power, diplomatic immunity, a flawed victim. It had it all. Well, it may have had too much. Matthews’s script follows the real case almost to the letter. I kept waiting for one or more of those great L&O twists. The problem is that the case already had all the variations you would expect from L&O. The only change is that the diplomat was actually tried at the end and found guilty, not of rape, but of unlawful imprisonment. Well, that’s no fun. Especially since Matthews set up a potential twist early on in his script. The diplomat in the show’s version was Italian, not French, and he says at one point that he thinks he may be set up by Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi to prevent him from running against Berlusconi in the next election. So I kept expecting that would pay off in an interesting way, but it does not pay off at all.

Whitney (2011. “Pilot” created and written by Whitney Cummings. 30 minutes.)

Whitney

She’s no Kat Dennings: This is the second show that Cummings had a hand in creating this fall. The other, and better one, is 2 Broke Girls (see US#82). In that one, we have a story and characters. The “Whitney”-like character in that one is Max: tough, smart-mouthed, take no prisoners. But she has to deal with Caroline, the rich girl, who comes to work in the diner and who stays in her apartment, with her horse. So Max has stuff to do, and as written and played by Kat Dennings, she is not just a smart-mouth, but her comments have to do with the other characters and the situations she finds herself in. The character relates to the other characters, including the horse. In the “And Strokes of Goodwill” episode (written by Jhoni Marchinko) Max takes Chesnut, the horse, out for a walk to do his business, and delivers a nice monologue to him.

In Whitney, Cummings plays the title character. She is living with her boyfriend of three years, Alex. They make jokes. They are afraid of marriage. They go to a wedding and make jokes with their friends. Whitney dresses up as a nurse to seduce Alex and he ends up in the hospital. They make jokes. Most of the jokes are variations on material from Cummings’ stand-up act, and so the show falls into the trap of a lot of sitcoms based on a comedian’s act: all jokes, no story, no characters. Half an hour of this just gets tiresome. Stick with 2 Broke Girls.

The Good Wife (2011. “A New Day,” teleplay by Robert King & Michelle King, story by Meredith Averill. “The Death Zone,” teleplay by Robert King & Michelle King, story by Leonard Dick. “Get a Room,” teleplay by Robert King & Michelle King, story by Julia Wolfe. 60 minutes.)

The Good Wife

Patience: As you may gather from this column, the previous column, and the next one, I have been watching a lot of the new television season. That includes a lot of pilots (yes, there are some I have not written about). As was the case with both The Playboy Club and Pan Am (see above), many pilots are just stuffed to the gills with plot, character, and everything else. That’s why it was so nice to come across “A New Day,” the season opener for The Good Wife. You may remember from US#77, the last episode of the previous season ended with a great sequence in which Will and Alicia manage, slowly, given the complications, to get into the Presidential Suite at a hotel for what we assume is going to be great sex. “A New Day” is just that: what happens the next day.

How do we know it’s the next day? Alicia comes to work smiling. Will is nowhere to be seen. Work begins as she is assigned a case of a young Muslim accused of a hate crime. The prosecution in a pre-trial hearing gets him to admit he was driving a car at the time of the demonstration. So he has an alibi—the car was used later in a murder and how he is arrested for that.

And what about Will? He arrives in the office a little bit later, but he is not smiling. Hmm. Did something go wrong? When the secretary says Alicia was looking for him and does he want to see her, he says no. Ouch. At 18 minutes in, Will goes into Alicia’s office and we see them talk seriously, but we do not hear the conversation. God, what happened at the hotel? Diane notices that Will is being a “little hard” on Alicia and asks if anything is wrong. He says he is worried that she is a third year associate acting as if she is their equal. At 36 minutes, we cut from that scene to Will and Alicia. Together. Somewhere. Having sex standing up, mostly clothed. They both laugh when Will tells her about Diane’s question, then he asks her is he is being “too hard” on her. And she comes. Is this the first female orgasm on American network television?

Now you understand why CBS has changed its advertising campaigns for the show. The ads have featured Juliana Margulies with her head thrown back looking like she is in the middle of fun with Will. Now that they are actually having sex, CBS figured they could play that up, but I think their ads just cheapens and diminishes the show. As always, there is a lot more going on in The Good Wife than just sex. Not that there is anything wrong with sex. Although an irony-challenged woman wrote a letter to the Los Angeles Times saying she could not understand why the show is called The Good Wife, since Alicia is having sex outside or marriage, etc, etc.

In “The Death Zone,” the State’s Attorney, i.e. Peter, is asking for law firms to bid on the gig of being outside counsel for his state office. Lockhart-Gardner applies, but Peter wants them to submit to an independent audit, a requirement he has not made of the other firms applying for the job. Is Peter trying to get back at Alicia? Or the firm? There are hints of all of those in various episodes and will undoubtedly play out in future episodes.

“Get a Room” gets us involved in a case where Eli, whose specialty is crisis management and is now part of Lockhart-Gardner, has to deal quickly with a food poisoning case. He jumps in to action in the way that only Alan Cumming can do. My guess is that this is the episode Cumming will submit for his Emmy bid next year, and with good reason. The Kings have given him a great showcase.

This episode also introduces us to a new character, Celeste. She is the opposing counsel on a case where Will and Alicia are representing a woman harmed by a medical device. The case in mediation and the groups of lawyers are more or less sequestered in a hotel until the mediator can get them to agree. It becomes obvious that Will has dealt with Celeste before. Will and Celeste play cards at the hotel and she suggests that whoever loses the card game should concede the mediation. Will’s not buying that. It’s only after that we learn that she and Will were “together for two years.” Together how? Not clear. Later she mentions to Will that her firm is going under and she is looking for a new professional home, suggesting she could maybe come to Lockhart-Gardner. And we end the episode (our guys win the mediation) without learning what will come out in the next couple of episodes: Celeste is Will’s ex-wife. Hijinks will definitely 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.