ConStar Studies Parks and Recreation

In order to think of spec ideas, one tends to turn to recent events in the news to spur an idea. I’m not always good at that. But a show that I would love to spec (I’ve been trying and have yet to get it right) is Parks and Recreation and I think they’ve been fantastic, especially this season, at taking current events and adapting them to Pawnee.

Just from this season:

  • 5.02 “Soda Tax” pokes fun at cities (esp NY currently) that are imposing rules on the size of soft drinks in stores. Great way to adapt to Pawnee. Especially the great visual humor of the “child size” cup. 
  • 5.13 “Emergency Response” makes reference to cities’ amount of preparation for major storms and in giving Pawnee a failing grade, subtly makes commentary on the fact that most cities have been unprepared for the crazy kinds of storms we’ve been getting recently. (Quakenado!)
  • 5.16 “Bailout” took the idea of a major government bailout and scaled it down to be about an independent movie rental chain (covering two things at once, really).

These are just a few examples in which Parks is able to take a major news story or a recent trend (as with the movie chain idea) and adapt it to life in Pawnee. I really like this idea and keep searching for ways to take media stories and move them to Pawnee.

Side note: I wrote this post yesterday but scheduled it for today. I’m working my way towards blogging more! Score!


ConStar Studies The Evolution of TV Act Breaks

In my “study” of how to write television, I’ve taken out loads of books on how to write specs, for both dramas (and sitcoms, but this post focuses on hour-long dramatic structure). I’m a person who very much likes a structure/visual idea before I start something, so having something that tells me approximately where certain story beats go. Something like The Hero’s Journey (which is often used for film/epic stories, match up the steps with Star Wars or the Lion King for examples of how it works) or Dan Harmon’s Plot Embryos/Circles are really my bread and butter when understanding how stories work, more than just beg/mid/end or exposition, inciting incident, rising action, climax, falling action, dénouement. I like details.

Unlike Joseph Campbell’s monomyth (which I know as The Hero’s Journey), which stems from mythology, television is an always evolving medium. So I have to be careful when taking books out that explain how one should divide their tv scripts, important for identifying satisfying ways to build up to the act breaks. A few years ago, act structure was simpler. Four acts for a drama, two for a sitcom. Commercial breaks came in between those breaks and it was easy to figure out how to split up the plot so that each act went out on a high moment: a reveal, a funny line, a dramatic charge, etc.

A big twist came at the Act 2 break (to hold viewers over the half hour split commercial break so they didn’t want to change the channel), act three held most of the major action and act four held the conclusion. It’s easier to mold something like traditional story model (rising action, climax, etc) into just four acts. Even books from as recent as 2004/2005 suggest this act structure model as something that is typical across genre.

Nowadays, networks want to squeeze as many commercials as they can in an hour. So they split the typical four-act structure into 5 and 6 acts, PLUS teasers and tags. So that means that you have to sort of stretch your idea for 4 acts into up to 6. And you can’t just randomly place new commercials in that old structure because you need each act out to have a major moment–build the story to the act breaks” as one book said to do–to keep people coming back from each commercial break (there are so many more things to distract us from returning from that break these days). So you have to find at least 2 or 3 more compelling moments to leave the audience hanging.

It can be a brain wracking job and it’s why, I’m sure, that most stories are hammered out by the writers’ in the writers’ room, since they have such quick turn around between writing each episode. I’ve got time (well, not according to my student loans), so I’m still working on my spec writing, but the hardest thing is finding compelling things to exit on for Act 2 (which comes after the first major surprise of the episode but before the act three big half hour moment) and Act 4.

“Breaking a story” is super hard, books published more recently have gotten the notice that act structure has changed, but they’re so far few and far between for what I want them to tell me, but I’m pushing my way to figure out how to not let it break me.

ConStar Studies Television (a sort of general thought, but a bit about Community too)

I kind of suck at blogging. But I love TV so much, that I will continue to pursue blogging here even if it means what I am about to do, which is post a quote I saw today about TV and leave you with that. The quote says what I think a lot of us feel about our love of TV and speaks from experiences we have had as avid fans of television as we watch our favorite shows grow and change before our eyes.

“To love a TV show is to know one of two things: Either it will eventually leave you, or you will eventually leave it. There’s no middle ground for the committed. Once you’re in, you’re in, and you’re going to be in until the thing is canceled or until you lose interest because you’ve either figured out all of the show’s tricks or it’s just not the same anymore. That show you loved more than anything? It will eventually feel sort of old and pointless to you after a while, and you’ll have moved on to some new thing that feels fresher but will inevitably disappoint you somewhere down the line. And so it goes. You’ll someday remember that show you loved with such intensity—it will probably be off the air by this point—and you’ll wonder idly why they don’t make ’em like that anymore. The answer is because you’re not who you were anymore, and you can’t fall for a show like that because you’re no longer the same person.”

Todd VanDerWerff (The A.V. Club)

The quote is from the AV Club article (which you can find by clicking on the source name), regarding the return of Community. I think a lot of what is said in the article is true about Community’s return, minus creator Dan Harmon, though I might have given the episode a higher “grade” for the effort–it wasn’t terrible and it wasn’t absurdly different from the show we’ve grown to love. Read the quote above and if you feel up to it, respond with your Community thoughts in the comments (which will make me reply to them which is already being a better blogger, yay!)

Though I will say that it was pointed out to me that some shows you feel like you can watch forever and never be tired of them. This can be true. For me, most of my favorite shows that I can watch the whole thing of have that one arc I never cared much for or those dumb filler episodes you always skip or the weaker episodes in the beginning (Doctor Who‘s Fear Her. Most of Angel season 4. Parks pre-Ben’s arrival Parks). But then they hit their stride (or find it again) and it’s something you’ll never stop watching.

Man, I just really love TV.

ConStar Studies Scandal (And Season Pacing)

Tonight’s Scandal was a little lot crazy. And reading TV Line’s post episode Q&A (don’t even look at the URL if you haven’t seen the episode. Seriously.) with creator Shonda Rhimes got me thinking about season pace.

So tonight’s episode of Scandal was episode 13, which tends to be a biggie since a lot of shows initially get a 13 episode order for the season (and if it goes well, the ‘back 9’ are added on), so it’s often big; often acts like a possible season finale, and usually crops up right in time for February Sweeps. Perfect ratings combination.

Without spoiling too much of the episode (either you don’t care or I hate spoiling things for people), know that a major story arc is, well, not concluded, but is partially resolved. But only in the sense that there is more crap to come later on. LOL. Reading the TV Line article, Shonda Rhimes says the next episode comes with a time jump (harking back to episode 13 as a season finale, 14 is maybe Season 2 part 2). In the TV Line article, she says:

When we got the 22-episode order [for Season 2], I was like, “We’re not going to slow the show down,” because that would change what the show is.

A lot of praise goes to British television shows because of how well they construct stories and spread them out over the season (and other reasons, destroying the hearts of their fans is another thing) but usually they only get 13 episodes per season (British Brevity). So the stories are more compact. American TV, on the other hand, spreads things out over 22 episodes. Which is great for having more story and more time with your favorite characters, but sometimes slows down the momentum of a story arc and we’re stuck complaining about filler episodes.

So it’s a little refreshing to see a showrunner decide not to have those filler episodes (though the next few are naturally filler-esque after the heavily serialized episodes we’ve been treated to on Scandal) and to jump straight into the next story arc. More shows could learn from not spreading their intended story out, but instead compressing it into a few episodes and moving on. What you move on to could be unrelated, but that might feel jarring, or you can just complicate the first arc and have the new one feed off of that one. (Something I think the show Angel always did very well.)

Obviously, I have to watch the next few episodes of Scandal to see how the time jump and the switch to a new story arc are handled and how they feel coming from the same season, but I just couldn’t help but think about the way a season progresses after reading that TV Line article.

Random Series Finale Thought

In the 30 Rock finale, they mention all knowing each other for 7 years because that’s the length of time the show lasted, but didn’t The Girlie Show already exist for at least one season before that? (I feel like it was 3?) This is nitpicky and I don’t really care but I just notice how season finales go with the number season you’re watching and not nec how long the characters have known each other. I’m not complaining or anything, I get why it happens, but it also happened on the West Wing, where the characters say 7 years because it was the 7th season but it was really 8 because two terms in office, and then another 2ish for the campaign… Those are the two series finales I watched most recently but it makes me think of other finales where they kind of skip over the fact that they knew each other before the show started. Just a funny observation.


ConStar Tries to Study 30 Rock but Can’t Because There Are Too Many Emotions Involved

I just have no words. 30 Rock is over. What will I do without Liz and Kenneth and Jack and Tracy and Jenna and everyone? Most people who love TV like I do love Tina Fey and all that she has done for funny since forever ago. And now Queen Tina of TV (as I’ve been calling her all day) is (currently) no longer filling our Thursday nights with the wise words of her daughter Alice. (I want to go to there.)

It’s pilot season and we know Tina has a deal with Robert Carlock (her fellow 30 Rock co-producer) and NBC so hopefully whatever is already in the works hits our screens by this fall. But for now, we mourn the loss of so many wonderful turns of phrase, outrageously hilarious moments, and fantastic meta moments (like the Lorne Michaels title plate coming up in the middle of the hour-long episode right when the first 1/2 hr was over–one of my favorite jokes of the night). 30 Rock was brilliant and while Nielsen America may want The Big Bang Theory, there are plenty of people who want the 30 Rocks and the Communitys and the Parks and Recreations–shows that actually make the watcher think and laugh at the same time. Shows that understand how we love television and how invested we get.  Shows done by people who clearly love what they do and don’t do it just for the paycheck. I hope that more shows like 30 Rock come to our TVs, because they are done by people who love TV for people who love TV.

Goodbye 30 Rock. I’ll miss you. I miss you already.

Lemon out.

ConStar Studies Joss Whedon

I love Joss Whedon. I don’t think he’s a perfect showrunner–none of them are, but he is my favorite overall so far. Let me start with: I could never get into Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I’ve seen several episodes and know the plot for most of the series, but I could never sit down and watch every episode. I really don’t know why. It’s my biggest failing as a Joss fan, but perhaps someday I will correct this (and blog here about it). Other than that big fail on my part, I love all his other shows: Angel, Firefly, Dollhouse* (special shout out to Dr. Horrible’s Sing-a-long Blog and his movies Serenity, The Avengers, and Cabin the Woods). I can’t wait for his upcoming show SHIELD to come out (though I believe that’s more Jed, Zack, and Maurissa). So here I will try to explain why I love Joss so much.

*Maybe I only like Joss’ one word shows…

I love the worlds he writes in. I’m a nerd who likes the fantasy/sci-fi genre. Fairy tales and monsters and mythology are my jam. So sure I got hooked on Angel (back on TNT when reruns came on before Charmed, another fave show of mine) and followed Joss to Firefly and Dollhouse–all in the same genre. But I don’t get hooked on all sci-fi/fantasy (I’ve never watched Fringe or Supernatural for instance). So what is it about Joss?

I can’t say I can place it, but one place to start are his characters. He really makes you care about them, even when they can turn evil in a second. There is always something about his characters that make you love them. They often are searching for redemption, they usually have a bit of gray & grey morality to them. They are often misfits banding together to fight evil or save the world. And I love how his characters love each other. How they try to save each other and are friends. Watching them learn and grow from each other is really great.

Also Joss can be very good at plotting stories through a season almost seamlessly. On Angel, we weave from Darla’s arrival at the end of season 1, to her involvement with Wolfram and Hart and her brief humanity, to her mission to try to make Angel evil in season 2, to it not woking despite the sex, to her pregnant return in season 3, to her death and Connor’s birth, his kidnapping arc and subsequent return in later season 3, to the Jasmine arc of season 4 (which has a lot of rough patches–more on that some other time) to saving the world and Wolfram and Hart offering them the company in season 5. Each of those major arcs stem from those five minutes at the end of “To Shanshu in LA” where we find Darla in that box. I love that. I love how even though each season has a different feel and new characters and villains who are more and more morally ambiguous, the major arcs of each season are connected to the last.

Joss also has really good plot twists. The final episodes of Angel are among my favorite for how glued to the TV you are.

There will assuredly be more on Joss later, but I wanted to start out with my fave showrunner and blather for a bit.