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Understanding Screenwriting #84: Moneyball, Blackthorn, CSI, & More

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Understanding Screenwriting #84: <em>Moneyball</em>, <em>Blackthorn</em>, <em>CSI</em>, & More

Coming Up In This Column: Moneyball, Blackthorn, Toast, Edna Ferber’s Hollywood (book), Arizona, Texas, CSI, Harry’s Law, Desperate Housewives, Suburgatory, but first…

Fan Mail: I pretty much knew when I was writing it that David Ehrenstein would take exception to my pan of A Single Man, and he did. What was interesting about his comments was that he spent so much time talking about Christopher Isherwood’s book. I am perfectly willing to believe everything David says about it and its importance in Isherwood’s life and career, but Ford and Scearce have not written a good script from it. I suspect the problem is that the novel is very interior (what is going on in George’s head during that day) and the screenwriters have not found a way to make that clear to the audience. As for Ford being a good director, I am not convinced, but I will give him one more film to persuade me.

Steven Maras, who wrote the terrific book Screenwriting: History, Theory and Practice that I reviewed in US#38, sent me a couple of interesting items. You may not know that there is a Screenwriting Research Network that puts on a Screenwriting Research Conference every year or so. This year one of their guests was David Bordwell, one of the leading American film studies scholars. Bordwell wrote a blog item about the conference, which Steven sent me a link to. I found it, especially his opening comments, rather interesting coming from him. For years, he resolutely ignored screenwriting and screenwriters. His and his partner Kristin Tompson’s Film History: An Introduction, which is, as the title suggests, supposed to be an introductory text, hardly mentions screenwriters at all. It is only within the last ten years that he has begun to pay attention. He discusses in general terms in the blog why that’s so, without completely admitting he’s writing about himself. Then he gives you a nice view of some of the issues that come up in studying screenwriting. Bordwell and the Network and Conference are making the studying of screenwriting almost academically respectable. You can read the blog here.

Steven’s second item was sadder. He mentioned that Edward Azlant had passed away. That name may not mean much to you, but for those of us in business of studying the history of screenwriting, his unpublished 1980 dissertation, The Theory, History and Practice of Screenwriting 1897-1920 was essential. When I started work on my book FrameWork: A History of Screenwriting in the American Film, his dissertation was one of the first things I looked at. After Steven wrote, I skimmed over the footnotes in the silent section of FrameWork, and I was surprised that there were so few citations, since it was an enormous help to me, and certainly pointed me to a lot of other sources that do show up in the footnotes. I met Eddie only once, in the summer of 1983. I had finished my sabbatical year in which I did a lot of research, particularly on the silent screenwriting. In the spring I had been at the Library of Congress comparing the Thomas Ince films to the Ince scripts. My wife and I were up in the Bay Area for the wedding of my cousin’s son, and we arranged to stop off in Los Gatos. Eddie was at the time the landlord of an apartment building his uncle had left him. He was delighted to get away from landlord problems for an hour or two and talk screenwriting. We talked about Ince, and the section on page 44 of FrameWork on the use of “O.K.” in the Ince scripts could almost been a verbatim transcript of our discussion. We were cackling like fiends trying to come up with all the possibilities of what the “O.K.’s” meant. We couldn’t stay long, since we had to get down to King’s Canyon National Park by nightfall, so his wife Joan, who was pregnant with their second child, made us some sandwiches to eat on the trip. That was the kind of people they were. Eddie read the silent screenplay section of my book and of course gave useful comments. A few years later I sent him a copy of the complete first draft, but it was sent back to me as undeliverable. I guess they had moved, and I never heard from him again. The obituary Steven sent a link to shows he had a very interesting life beyond film.

Moneyball (2011. Screenplay by Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin, story by Stan Chervin, based on the book Moneyball: The Art of Winning An Unfair Game by Michael Lewis. 133 minutes.)

And you thought baseball was a slo-o-o-ow game: You can see why people wanted to make this movie. A lot of people. It’s been in development for years. It’s the true story of Billy Beane, the General Manager of the Oakland A’s, who comes across a statistics whiz kid who shows him different ways to evaluate baseball players. That means that Beane, whose spending on buying players is severely limited by his owner, can get players who can help the team for small amounts of money. Nobody in the game immediately understands it, but eventually Beane puts together a winning season. And still doesn’t get any further in the playoffs than he did the year before.

Lewis’s book went into a lot more statistical analysis than the movie does, or could, so it was necessary to find the story, which I presume is what Chervin did. Zaillian did the early drafts with Sorkin coming in after a change in directors. I assume a lot of the great dialogue is from Sorkin, although since they are sitting down and not walking, it’s hard to tell. The script gets off to a good start. The A’s lose in the 2001 playoffs and their three top players leave for other teams. Beane goes in to talk to the owner, and they start talking in cliches, but we know they are cliches, and they know they are talking in cliches, which gives the scene a nice texture. Then the owner gets down to business and lets Beane know he is not going to have a lot of money to refurbish the roster. So Beane goes off to the Cleveland Indians management to talk some more cliches before getting down to trading players. He notices that the baseball guys and the management seem to be subtly deferring to Peter Brand, who even though Jonah Hill has slimmed down a lot, is obviously not an athlete or even an ex-athlete. Beane hires him as his assistant. They put Brand’s ideas into practice, and the scouts, the manager, and everybody else objects. For a long time. For a very long time. My wife dozed off for about 40 minutes during this section and did not really feel she missed anything. I am sure all those people did object, but we don’t have to watch it at this length.

The film picks up when Beane finally explains to everybody what he is doing and why. This film should be used in business schools as a starter discussion on management skills. Beane, in the film, could have sped up the process a lot by just letting people know what he was doing and why. Communication is an essential management tool. The management skill the film does show in a positive way is how to fire people. We get scenes of Beane doing it and a scene where Beane has Brand do it. I suppose business schools these days do have to teach their students how to fire people, as sad as that may be.

So soon everybody gets with the program and the team starts winning. They even have a twenty-game winning streak. But they lose in the playoffs again, and Beane has a nice scene where he explains that you do not really win unless you win the last game of the season, preferably in the World Series. Beane is played by Brad Pitt, who stayed with the project through several drafts of the script and at least a couple of directors. It’s easy to see why. It’s a great part for him, and both Pitt the movie star and Pitt the character actor show up. The problem I had with his performance is that, as with Kate Winslet’s in Mildred Pierce (US#74), there is too much of it. We get a lot more closeups of Pitt than we really need, which also slows down the film, and we also get more shots than we need of his Beane walking out through the tunnel into the open baseball field.

After the playoffs, Beane goes to Boston to talk to John Henry, the owner of the Red Sox. One of the trickiest things to do in screenwriting is to let the audience knows what something means. How do you show that? In this scene, Beane is still disappointed, but Henry points out to him that his system has changed baseball, because any team that ignores it will not be operating as intelligently as they can. An end title points out that the Red Sox won the World Series a couple of years later using Beane’s method. Right, but the A’s haven’t won since, and with almost every team using some variation on the system, everybody is as equal as you get in baseball. Which is not much.

Blackthorn (2010. Written by Miguel Barros. 98 minutes.)

Blackthorn

Whose Butch?: The opening titles give us the backstory. Butch Cassidy, along with the Sundance Kid, were famous outlaws in the old west. In 1901 they went to Bolivia where they were killed in a shootout in 1908, but there is some evidence, gone into at length in the titles, that they may have survived the shootout. And so this movie is going to be about Butch 19 years later and his efforts to get back to the United States. Finally the movie starts. William Goldman’s screenplay for the 1969 film Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid says in its opening title, “Not that it matters, but most of what follows is true.” Granted, the studio made them cut the “Not that it matters,” but it is still a more creative opening. Particularly since in 1969, nobody remembered who Butch and Sundance were. By 2010, we all know who they were. Paul Newman and Robert Redford don’t look a thing like the real characters, but if I say Butch Cassidy, you think Newman. Goldman’s version is part of our culture. Which means two things. One, you don’t need to tell us now who Butch and Sundance were. Two, if you are following in Goldman’s footsteps, you have an awfully big mountain to climb.

According to IMDb, this is Barros’s first feature screenplay and it’s not awful. I began to suspect as the film got going that he may have intended it to run without those opening titles. There is this older gringo in Bolivia who has been training horses. He writes a letter to his “nephew” (we eventually learn he is Etta Place’s son) saying he, Butch, is going to come back to the States. The letter is signed “Butch” but that may not have been enough on its own to let us know. The gringo sells his horses and on the way home is shot at by Eduardo, a Spanish guy who came to work in the tin mines. The gringo’s horse runs away with all his money, and Eduardo, who is likeable, persuades the gringo to go with him to an abandoned tin mine to retrieve a bunch of money he has stolen. Now wait a minute. In Goldman’s version, based on history, it was Butch who was the likeable one, and Sundance the restrained one. Here it’s reversed. Based on the script and Sam Shepard’s wonderfully laconic performance as the gringo, we would be more likely to believe he is Sundance than Butch. Why? Because the 1969 film has established, in the way movies do, what we think we know about those characters. And Barros is not yet a good enough screenwriter to overpower 42 years of Goldman’s script.

Eduardo and Blackthorn, as the gringo calls himself, go to the mine, get the money, and escape to Blackthorn’s shack. Two Bolivian peasant women ride up to the shack and tell Blackthorn they have found his horse and his money. And then they start shooting, killing Blackthorn’s girlfriend/cleaning woman, Yana. Given a big twist near the end, Barros really needed to make the point that these were peasant women, not Pinkerton agents or Federales or marshals, but it slips by in the action, since we are feeling for Yana’s death. Then Blackthorn and Eduardo are chased. A lot. They go across salt flats that look more like the Nefud in Lawrence of Arabia (1962) than Utah and Colorado in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Goldman keeps his chase in the second half-hour much more interesting than Barros does. The scenery here, as elsewhere in the movie, is gorgeous. If you miss this in a theater, at least watch it on a hi-def television. Do not watch it on your iPhone.

Barros actually one-ups Goldman in the last half-hour of the film. You may remember that the Superposse was just “those guys,” as in “Who are those guys?” We learn a name or two, but never meet them. Barros has created the wonderful character of McKinley, a Pinkerton agent who came to Bolivia when he was chasing Butch and Sundance years ago. He was not convinced they were killed in the shootout and he has stayed in Bolivia, becoming a sort-of part-time American consul and full-time drunk. After Blackthorn is wounded and brought into a local doctor, the doctor asks McKinley if this is the gringo he keeps referring to. Talk about Ahab coming face to face with the white whale, with the whale unconscious. As Butch begins to wake up, we get a great scene between him and McKinley, beautifully played by Stephen Rea. I am not sure I agree with Barros’s resolution of the scene and McKinley’s story, but it’s still a terrific scene, even though here, as elsewhere, his dialogue is not a patch on Goldman’s. Well, whose is?

Barros also includes some flashbacks of Butch, Sundance and Etta in their younger days. Not only is he going up against the skill of Goldman, but against the combined star power of Newman, Redford, and Katharine Ross. That was really a fool’s errand, since the flashbacks are not needed. We know whose Butch, Sundance and Etta are our Butch, Sundance and Etta.

Toast (2010. Screenplay by Lee Hall, based on a memoir by Nigel Slater. 92 minutes.)

Toast

And more…: I’m not much of a foodie. Being from the Midwest, I am a slabs-and-mounds guy, slabs of meat, mounds of potatoes. (And hamburgers—I am delighted to see House and this column picked up Wendy’s as a sponsor, at least for a week or two; I ate at a Wendy’s near LACC for forty years.) So I am not that much into foodie pictures, as my comments in US#31 on Julie & Julia made clear. This one, based on a memoir of Nigel Slater, a famous British chef I have never heard of, is a little charmer. It was shown on British television, then played film festivals and now has a mini-theatrical release.

We start with young Nigel, aged 9, in 1967. His Mum is not much of a cook at all. She boils the tins of veggies by putting the cans in boiling water. Her default food is toast, which she barely manages. But Nigel loves her. Then she dies. His Dad is a bit of a grump, but he eventually hires Mrs. Potter as a housecleaner. Nigel hates Mrs. Potter. She is always waving her rear end around, obviously trying to entice Dad into a little hanky panky. But she is a fabulous cook. And Nigel still hates her. I began to get worried at his point in the film, since Hall has established that Nigel might be gay. Nigel looks a little longingly at the young stud gardener as he strips down to nothing to change into his work clothes. Is Mrs. Potter one of those dreadful caricatures of women that gay writers create (see my comments on A Single Man in US#83)? No, Hall avoids that. Young Nigel seems to object to her because she is lower class. So he is a snob, but in Oscar Kennedy’s great performance, we love him anyway.

Unfortunately we jump ahead to Nigel’s teenage years, and the role is taken over by Freddie Highmore, who based on his early work as a child actor, should have been perfect for the part. He’s not. He’s turned into a sullen twerp, and he shows none of the charm Kennedy does. So our sympathy shifts a bit to Mrs. Potter. She is still married, but she has run off to the country with Mr. Potter. Rather than trying to learn her cooking secrets, teenaged Nigel gets into cooking contests with her for Dad’s favor. OK, granted she does not suggest they work together, so there may be some fault on her side, but she’s still a character we would rather watch by that point in the film than Nigel. When he leaves her after Dad dies, I was thinking good riddance (at least until the sound went off. The theater I was seeing it at had all kinds of problems, but it was very near the end of the film. If anybody who has seen it wants to write in and tell me what happens after Nigel walks out of the house with her following with a cake, please do).

Part of the reason we love Mrs. Potter is that she is spectacularly played by Helena Bonham Carter. I remember thinking, when Bonham Carter was appearing in all those E.M. Forster adaptations in the late ’80s and early ’90s, that her career would be over when they ran out of Forster novels to film. Oh me of little faith. She has of course become a great character actress, and her full skill set is on display here.

Edna Ferber’s Hollywood: American Fictions of Gender, Race, and History (2010. Book written by J.E. Smyth. 337 pages)

Edna Ferber's Hollywood: American Fictions of Gender, Race, and HistoryShe had me at Cimarron: J.E. Smyth is one of my favorite younger (compared to me) film historians. The first book she did was 2006’s Reconstructing American Historical Cinema From Cimarron to Citizen Kane. In it, Smyth looks at the historical films about America that Hollywood made from 1931 to 1941. What caught my attention right away is that Smyth figured out that if you are going to talk about the subjects of films, such as history, you are going to have to spend as much and probably more attention to the screenwriters than to the directors. And unlike older and/or more opportunistic academics, she seemed to have no hesitation about writing so much about screenwriters. Well, yes, it’s the writers who provide the content. In her first lengthy chapter on Cimarron in Reconstructing she spends pages writing about Howard Estabrook’s work on the screenplay, and not so much on the film’s director, Wesley Ruggles.

I suspect it was Smyth’s digging into Cimarron that got her involved in the work of Edna Ferber, who wrote the book the film was based on. Ferber was one of the most successful and popular American novelists of the twentieth century and she had more of her books made into more films, many of them more than once, than any other novelist of the period. There were three versions of Show Boat (1929, 1936, and 1951) alone. She did very little screenwriting herself, but kept a very close eye on the productions whenever possible. She worked out very impressive deals with the studios so the film nearly always had her name above the title, both on the film and in the ads.

As the subtitle of the new book notes, Ferber wrote about gender, race, and history, and Smyth is great at laying out what was in the novels and how that got changed by Hollywood, sometimes drastically, sometimes not so drastically. Jane Murfin did what Ferber thought was an adequate adaptation of Come and Get It (1936), but when Howard Hawks came in to direct, he brought in Jules Furthman to do a rewrite, which changed that characters and story around so their version became a typical bunch-of-guys-and-a-tough-dame script. The producer, Samuel Goldwyn, was upset by the changes, fired Hawks and Furthman, and brought in Murfin to do what she could and William Wyler to finish directing the film. On the other hand, a lot of what Ferber had in the novel of Giant (1956) survived in the film, and it was one of her more pleasant experiences, even if she had her usual quibbles. When I showed Giant to an American film history class I taught at UCLA in 1986, the class was astonished that a big budget American film dealt in such strong terms with both race and gender.

Great scholar that she is, Smyth has researched a variety of sources and collections, including not just Ferber’s papers, but studio files on the films. She also writes clearly, with virtually no academic gobbledy-gook. If she has a flaw, it is a minor one: she tends to take studio press releases at their word. She quotes the press book from the 1931 version of Cimarron as saying the studio spent $4,000 on books as the lead actor could prepare for his role. Don’t believe everything the press people tell you.

Ah, yes, one other thing for regular readers of this column. J.E. Smyth is the same Jennifer Smyth I mentioned in US#53 who got me to write an article for a book of essays she was editing. She couldn’t get my piece past the publisher’s readers, but I ended up getting it into the online journal Senses of Cinema. No hard feelings, Jennifer.

Arizona (1940. Screenplay by Claude Binyon, story by Clarence Buddington Kelland. 125 minutes.)

Arizona

Not Ferber: As I was reading Smyth’s book, this one showed up on TCM, along with the next one. Since this film was very obviously inspired by Cimarron, I thought I would give it a shot. In Cimarron, we follow the adventures of Sabra Cravat, a pioneer in the Oklahoma Territory in the 1890s through World War I. Her husband, Yancy, keeps wandering off to have adventures, and she runs the newspaper and gets involved in politics. In Arizona, we follow tough pioneer woman Phoebe Titus, who sets up a freight hauling business in the 1860s in Tuscon, while the man in her life, Peter Muncie, wanders off to have adventures. Ferber and Howard Estabrook took their history seriously, as well as their dealing with issues of race and gender. Clarence Budington Kelland was mostly a writer of light humor, best know at the time for his stories about Scattergood Baines, several of which were made into films. He is best known now as the author of the short story “Opera Hat,” which Robert Riskin turned into a great script for Mr. Deeds Goes to Town. Likewise, Claude Binyon was best known for his comedies. See anything in there that would make you think they could handle an epic western? Well, they can’t. There are some nice characters, including the occasionally drunk Judge Bogardus, played by Edgar Buchanan much like he plays a similar character 22 years later in Ride the High Country. But the characters are much lighter weight than those Ferber and Estabrook provide. The director of the film is Wesley Ruggles, whom you might remember directed Cimarron. His direction of Cimarron was not all that great, and his direction here is not either. He is in his serious Cimarron mode and doesn’t get as much out of the light touches Kelland and Binyon do provide as he could.

The picture was produced by Columbia, which was better known for its B westerns. This was an attempt to do an A western, hence following the Cimarron pattern. The studio built a replica of old Tuscon outside the real one just for this picture. The studio turned it over to the city after filming was completed, and it has been used in a million western movies and television shows. The original adobe buildings have been added to a lot, but if you watch westerns, it will look familiar to you.

Texas (1941. Screenplay by Horace McCoy & Lewis Meltzer & Michael Blankfort, story by Michael Blankfort & Lewis Meltzer. 93 minutes.)

TexasNow that’s more like it: You will notice that this one is 32 minutes shorter than Arizona. Shorter is better. Arizona must have been enough of a hit that Columbia figured they could take on another state. But the story and script for this one do not even pretend this is an epic, even though Texas is a much bigger state than Arizona. Instead we have a slightly lighter story of two friends, Dan and Tod, who start out in Kansas, work their way south, robbing a stagecoach robber and taking his money. They split up and when they meet sometime later Tod is helping a group of cattleman trying to avoid outlaws, one of whom is Dan. Shootouts occur.

The script moves a lot faster than Arizona’s, which wanders all over the state. The director here is George Marshall, who had done Destry Rides Again two years before, and since he knows this is not an epic, he brings that same light touch. And the script gives us a nice twist. We assume Edgar Buchanan, playing an occasionally drunk dentist, is just the comic relief, but it turns out he is one of the higher ups among the criminals.

Yes, the Horace McCoy who worked on this script and many other B westerns also wrote the novel They Shoot Horses, Don’t They. Which is not a western. Lewis Meltzer has a couple of good credits on his resume, including The Man with the Golden Arm (1955) and The Brothers Rico (1957). And Michael Blankfort’s best credit is for a movie he didn’t write. He was the front for blacklisted Albert Maltz on the 1950 Broken Arrow. Aren’t you glad I am around to lead you through the thickets of writers’ credits?

CSI (2011. Multiple episodes. 60 minutes.)

CSI

Lighten up: CSI has always been a dark show. Well, searching through evidence of crimes, usually murders, will lead to that. The original leader of the CSI unit, Gil Grissom, cracked a slim smirk from time to time, but never an actual smile. His subordinates were pretty much the same. Well, Grissom left a couple of seasons ago, and the showrunners never seemed to be comfortable with promoting his second in command, Catherine Willows, to the top spot. They did last season, but kept undercutting her. Laurence Fishburne came in as Dr. Raymond Langston, but he was not the boss, and Fishburne’s command presence was not very effectively used. Fishburne left the show this year and now, at the start of the show’s 12th season, Catherine has been demoted and a new head is being brought. So the writing problem on the floor is: at this point in the series, who do you bring in and what qualities does he or she bring?

The season opener, “73 Seconds” (written by Gavin Harris), starts with the CSIs finding what look to be three bodies on the floor of a house. But one of the bodies gets up. He is D.B. Russell, the new head of the unit. He likes to lie where the bodies are to get a feel for what happened. Well, Grissom was into bugs, so this makes Russell just as weird as he was. Then in the middle of the investigation Russell’s wife calls and asks him to find out where there are any Farmer’s Markets in Las Vegas. And Russell does. This is the team’s first dealing with Russell, and a much more interesting introduction than if they all just had a meeting. Harris not only establishes Russell as a lighter character than Grissom, or Langston for that matter, but gives the other characters something to react to. At the end of the episode, Russell overhears Catherine talking to Nick Stokes that he has to be more by the book, since she has been demoted for being too easy on the crew. Russell overhears this and invites them all to breakfast with him. We don’t see the breakfast, which is a smart move on Harris’s part. There would be too much exposition that is going to be better if it is doled out in small doses over several episodes.

By “Maid Man” (written by Dustin Lee Abraham), the fourth episode of the season, Russell and the CSIs are pretty much in synch, and the humor that Russell, as played by Ted Danson, brings adds a new color to the series. In the A story, Oscar Goodman, the ex-mayor of Las Vegas playing himself, is shot, but survives because he is wearing a bullet-proof vest. Well, he was a lawyer who represented mob members. At the end of the episode he tells Russell and Brody, Russell’s boss, that he is going to represent the woman who shot him. Brody says that if he ever needs a lawyer, he wants Goodman. Russell replies, “I want his suit.” This episode also does something that I pinged on the season opening of Law & Order: S.V.U. (see US#83) for not doing. The B story starts out with what seems to be the Dominique Strauss-Kahn story: a Prince who visits Vegas often always asks for Maria, the same maid. She is found dead in his hotel room. But it turns out she was arranging to steal his jewelry with a friend of hers. Nice twist.

Harry’s Law (2011. Four episodes, all written by David E. Kelley. 60 minutes.)

Harry's Law

More reservations: In US#69 and 72 I wrote about this show in its first half season, and I expressed some reservations. I have even more now in the way Kelley has restructured the show. In the three-part season opener (“Hosana Roseanna,” “There Will Be Blood,” and “Sins of the Father”) Harry defends a rich man on charges of killing his wife. OK, but it’s like every other Kelley law show. And Harry is no longer in the former shoe store on the ground level. She and Adam, her young partner, have moved upstairs to what looks like a regular law office. Well, we’ve had regular law offices before (Kelley’s The Practice) and now (The Good Wife), so why another one? Yes, the shoe jokes got old, but if you are in a law office on the first floor, all kinds of interesting people will come charging through the front door. Jenna, whom Kelley never found a character for, now occasionally comes upstairs to announce something, but by episode four (“Queen of Snark”) she announced she was leaving, and we got a very unearned tearful goodbye scene. Meanwhile Adam has been sidelined, and Harry has brought in two more conventional attorneys, Cassie Reynolds and Ollie Richard, the later being played by Mark Valley exactly as he played Brad Chase in Boston Legal. And Tommy Jefferson, who in the first season had a big office of his own, has moved into the office space Harry is in, although they are still two different firms. Tommy is an OK character as the odd wild card from time to time, but he really does not fit into an ensemble show.

I think Kelley may be aware of the problems his changes have caused. In “Queen of Snark,” he has a long scene with Adam complaining to Harry that the office has changed too much. The speech may well have come from the actor playing Adam, Nathan Corddry complaining to Kelley. Kelley may do something about it, but for now he seems content to have turned a potentially interesting show into a copy of his previous shows.

Desperate Housewives (2011. Multiple episodes. 60 minutes.)

Desperate Housewives

No, really, they are desperate this season: At the end of last season, the cliffhanger the show left us with was that Carlos had killed Gaby’s stepfather, who threatened her. Needless to say, none of them went to the police, but buried the body in the woods, where characters on this show have been burying bodies for years. So this season they are beginning to work out the guilt they all feel, both for the killing and the hiding of the body. So we get some real desperation. Susan seemed to feel it the most, getting almost hysterical when she had to bury a dead hamster at the school where she works in “Secrets That I Never Wanted” (written by Bob Daily), the season opener. In “Making the Connection” (written by Matt Berry) Susan gets arrested for shoplifting and finds it an exciting way to deal with her guilt. She tries to get arrested again, but fails several times before succeeding. She can’t call Mike to pick her up, so she calls Carlos. They have a nice scene where it becomes clear that the two of them felt more guilt than the others. Susan and Carlos have never been friends, but this looked as though it might be in the cards. Unfortunately in the next episode, “Watch While I Revise the World” (written by John Paul Bullock III), Mike gets suspicious and Susan and Carlos explain what’s going on to him. Jeeze, guys, if it is your last season, go for broke.

Suburgatory (2011. Multiple episodes. 30 minutes.)

Suburgatory

Juno’s sister: As longtime readers of this column know, I am a Diablo Cody fan, and I particularly liked Juno (2007), so I got a little skittish when I watched the “Pilot” episode, written by the show’s creator, Emily Kapnek. We get the wise-assed voiceover from the snarky teen girl, Tessa in this case. Her father George, after finding a box of condoms in her drawer, decides to move the two them (her mom “pulled a Kramer vs. Kramer” on them) from the city out to the suburbs. As Tessa puts it, “A box of rubbers landed me in a town full of plastic.” So we are going to get Tessa’s take on the suburbs, and in the pilot the take seems even more exaggerated than it needs to be. One of their neighbor moms, Dallas Royce, is way over the top. But the writing and the acting begin to settle down in the following episodes. Like Juno, the show gives us a sympathetic parent in George, and even in the pilot, we get a lot of reaction shots of George and Tessa to each other. We get the feeling that they know they are in this together. So the show is not just fast, snarky voiceover and dialogue. In the second episode “The Barbeque,” written by Bob Kushell, Tessa finds herself attracted to a Big Man on Campus type, Ryan. Ryan happens to live across the street, and is the brother of Lisa, a nerdy type Tessa had an awkward run-in with in the pilot. Tessa and Lisa are now getting to be friends, but Tessa finds herself appalled that she is attracted to Ryan. Kushell writes some nice back-and-forth for Tessa as she tries to talk herself out of her crush. In “Don’t Call Me Shirley,” written by Patricia Breen, Ryan and Lisa’s mom’s collection of Shirley Temple dolls is stolen, leading to a fear of a crime spree in the ’burbs. This causes Dallas and her bitch daughter, Dalia, to descend on George and Tessa to spend the night. Breen has some nice stuff as Dallas tries to run George’s life her way. Again, not just dialogue, but characters and reactions. Worth a visit. Unless like some people you hated, HATED, HATED Juno.

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.