Wednesday 15 April 2015

Hack Scenes - The Betrayal Part 2

Since the last post here, there's been some discussion on Twitter about hack scenes and cliches. Simon Blackwell made the point that you can ultimately do anything by skilled writing. And I agree. The moment you issue a rule or declare an area of limits because it's 'been done to death' (or too offensive), it just makes comedy writers want to disprove that rule with skilled writing. That's the kind of pathetically contrary people we are.

But I've been wondering what's bothering me about that particular 'Betrayal' scene, and why I think it's now hack. Maybe it isn't hack, but here why it bothers me:

I hinted at this before saying that doing a 'cliched betrayal' scene in an archly comedic way undermines the reality of your show, and the rules that you've established. And that alternative reality is really important. So when you parallel it with another reality, the audience will start to become aware that they're watching a sitcom - and that this is all made up.

This in turn undermines credibility - and it's almost never worth doing that for the sake of a few jokes, or a scene that doesn't really have any cast iron consequence in the overall story of the show.

The moment your characters start slipping into a cliched movie scene, I think it causes more problems than it solves. Because this wilful suspension of credibility can creates uncertainty and confusion. How so?

1. In order to achieve your parallel/cliched scene, your characters may have to change their speech patterns - and suddenly they're acting out of character. The other characters would notice this, but they don't - because they're acting slightly out of character too. Now the whole scene sounds artificial.

2. Given that the whole scene is now artificial, it is uncertain as to whether the character realise this. Are they joking? Are they doing this on purpose? Are they referencing a particular scene? Suddenly we're in a world in which comedy characters are aware of comedy cliches and are starting to 'do jokes'. Normally sitcoms are funny because the characters lack self-awareness. Now it's starting to feel self-referential and self-indugent.

Clearly, this can be made to work if you go all in and own it. And you're the kind of show that can do that. Think of the Seinfeld JFK scene. In fact you don't need to. Here is it:

So I'm probably over thinking it. But then, I'm a sitcomgeek and blogging about the technicalities of sitcom. That's what I do.

Hack Scenes - The Betrayal

In the past, I've blogged about hack lines - or clams as they're called in our world, at the moment. That's here and here. And Dan Tetsell has mentioned a couple of hack storylines on his sporadic but lovely blog here. But the other day I was reminded of a hack scene or beat which I find very cliched and tired. It goes like this:

Bob and John both like doing a thing together. Let's say fishing. And recently they've found a particular spot, and it's really special. John agrees to go fishing with Ian. And what do you know? They end up in the spot where Bob and John go fishing. That special spot. Bob finds out and confronts Ian. And the conversation plays out as if Bob and John were lovers, and that John has just betrayed him by sleeping with Ian. And we have lines like 'That's our special thing' and 'We only did it once' and 'It didn't mean anything!' and 'I didn't know what I was doing' and 'I was thinking of you the whole time'. And it's all very arch, and overdone, deliberately.

Just like knowing film parody scenes, which I also have a problem with, these scenes can take you out of reality of the sitcom. You're undermining something that you've worked very hard to create. So you need to think very hard before you do that. But, worst of all, it's just not original. It was really funny when Monica and Rachel had this kind of conversation in Friends:

But this is Season 2 of Friends.

That's 1995. Twenty years ago.

So on the twentieth anniversary of Friends nailing this kind of scene, can we retire this one?

Please leave comments or tweet me (@sitcomgeek) about other hack scenes you liked to see retired, pensioned off or humanely destroyed.

Thursday 2 April 2015

Introducing a New Character

How do you introduce a new character into your sitcom? Quickly. That would be my advice.

Jasmine (Susan Wokoma) rocks
Maybe you have a particular reason to make a new character mysterious and undefined, but as a general rule, you want your new character to hit the ground running. If your audience already know the other characters because they're watching Episode 18, a new character might not be welcome. So you need to hit them hard with something.

You can bring in a new character with an extreme personality and a ton of attitude. We did that with the new medic on Bluestone 42, (Series 3 Ep1) called Jasmine (Susan Wokoma). She turned up in an intense situation with some gallows humour and won the audience over straight away, if Twitter is anything to go by.

I wrote about Guest Characters in a previous blog, here. Jasmine is undoubtedly the Unreasonable Sociopath. However, when we were writing her, we liked her so much, we snuck her into Episodes 2 and 3. Having seen how brilliantly Susan played her, I wish we'd found a way of working her into Episodes 4, 5 and 6.

The other way of introducing a new character takes into account that the audience might possibly be resenting a change of personnel. But you can use the existing much-loved characters to your advantage by showing how this new character is going to impact on the regulars. That's the way we went with Captain Ellen Best (Laura Aikman) on Bluestone 42 who turns up to (WARNING: SPOILERS) take over from Nick.

Ellen is the complete opposite of Nick, whom the team respected and loved, not least because he led by personality, sarcasm and example, rather than discipline or any other way. This will be a problem for Bird, Towerblock, Mac and Rocket. Simon, as it turns out, has been wanting this kind of Ellen-style regime all along.

In her first full episode, Ellen has to try and win over her team (and hopefully the audience). She goes about it the wrong way, trying to draw a line under the way Nick did things and trying to get them to push themselves to be the best. But through the Colonel - and a fridge - she learns that Nick's way could be effective. What's the first rule? Do what works. Ellen learns a lesson, and the team give her the benefit of the doubt when she delivers the fridge, and also proves she's the fittest. (Jasmine's not impressed obviously).

So how did we go about kicking all this off? Well obviously you can see for yourself on iPlayer here.

The script says something like this:

EXT. HILLSIDE - DAY 1, 0900 
It’s a hot day. There is a hill. And not much else. 
ELLEN yomps over the brow of the hill, holding a map in a plastic cover. She stops, looks at the map, then looks around. She see something: 
A patrol of British SOLDIERS sheltering under a tree, brewing up tea. SERGEANT MORRISON is standing up. 
ELLEN (Approaching:)
Brilliant! Found you! Sergeant Morrison, is it? 
Yes, ma’am. 
Captain Ellen Best. I’m the new ATO with Bluestone 42 who are... (Looking behind her:)
No sign of BLUESTONE 42. Then over comes ROCKET, then SIMON, trying to hide his exhaustion, followed by BIRD, red-faced and gasping. Then MAC. TOWERBLOCK is last, looking a bit better than the others. He prods MAC forward. 
Come on, Mac! 
We tabbed it over. Which was... informative. 
Under the following BLUESTONE 42 arrive at the tree, sink to their knees, get out waterbottles and start to drink.  
They’re a work in progress, but excellence takes time. As does fitness. Trust. ...And everything else. So, you found a stash of home made explosive...? 
Just down here... 
ELLEN and MORRISON move away as they talk.
In the script, that's about a page. In screen time, it's about a minute and a half.

What we were trying to  convey to the audience was that Ellen would bring in a new regime that was totally unlike the kind of operation run by her predecessor, Nick. We'd dig into her feelings about Nick later, but hopefully, this one page shows us (rather than 'tells us') a number of things about Ellen, including the following:

Capt Ellen Best (Laura Aikman)
Ellen leads from the front. She's out on her own, leading her team up a mountain to get the job done.

Ellen is physically fit, as she turns up not looking tired at all.

Ellen is positive. Her first words are 'Brilliant! Found you!' And she doesn't mean those words sarcastically, unlike Nick.

Ellen is a Captain, just like Nick was, so she's operating on the same level as he was.

Ellen is optimistic. She assumes that her team are right behind her. She looks round, and they're not there. Oh.

Ellen realises that she will have to knock this team into shape - and you get the sense that she kind of suspected that already.

Ellen realises that she needs to win their trust.

The other point to make is obvious. Ellen is a woman. And Sergeant Morrison isn't surprised to see a female ATO. For us on this show, as in real life, it's no big deal.

Writing a pilot is especially hard because you're introducing multiple characters simultaneously. But whenever bringing in a new character you have to make use of every moment, every line, every prop - and everything that isn't said, as well as what is - in order to tell your audience who this character is and how they're going to affect the existing characters they already love. And hopefully, they'll love them as much as the audience seem to have taken to Captain Ellen Best.