little patience for intellectual phumphering
May 28, 2014 10:44 AM   Subscribe

Javi also has a podcast, Children of Tendu, that he runs with fellow TV writer Jose Molina, all about screenwriting. I've heard good things about it, though I haven't had a chance to listen to it myself.
posted by dinty_moore at 11:11 AM on May 28, 2014 [2 favorites]

I saw Grillo-Marxuach at a sparsely-attended panel at Comic Con that was about, as I recall, minority representation in genre television and film. It was a great panel, he killed, and I'm therefore unsurprised that this was a great essay.
posted by Sokka shot first at 11:13 AM on May 28, 2014 [2 favorites]

I still miss Middleman so so much.

(By the way, in case anybody hasn't seen it, there's a well produced video of the Comic-Con table read of the unfilmed finale. The Doomsday Armageddon Apocalypse. I didn't know about it until just a few months ago!)
posted by kmz at 11:19 AM on May 28, 2014 [7 favorites]

The Middleman is one of the best underrated TV shows there ever was. Via Twitter, I learned that Matt Keeslar is no longer acting anymore and that just makes me sad.

I keep meaning to listen to the Children of Tendu podcast because I love the sort of insider-y, how TV works and how it doesn't sort of detail.

His most recent project was Helix, but Shepherd and I gave up on it after the first two episodes.
posted by Kitteh at 11:24 AM on May 28, 2014

KMZ: I just attended the live stage reading of the new middleman comic (the kickstarter thing that funded a few months ago), and it is amazing and they were filming it so it should manage to appear on the internet one day soon.

Middleman is what my happy place looks like. When I'm really sad, I just imagine a Middleman/Atomic Robo crossover.
posted by dinty_moore at 11:25 AM on May 28, 2014 [2 favorites]

My wife stubbornly refuses to watch "Middleman" for no good reason other than "it can't be that good if it got cancelled"

posted by Paladin1138 at 11:27 AM on May 28, 2014

It seems that a lot of the post-Lost shows (especially the NBC ones) get confused between the audience getting wrapped up in solving the mystery and the audience getting wrapped up in the characters solving the mystery. While some are interested in the former, most want the latter (and even then the first group can find satisfaction there).
posted by robocop is bleeding at 11:27 AM on May 28, 2014 [1 favorite]

An interesting read; I would like to make a counter-point:

"We almost focused on the mystery (in LOST) instead of the operational theme of the characters." Yes, and I get the point - mystery alone is not enough to drive a sf (or other genre) story, the characters (as always) are key and critical; however, failure to resolve some/all of the mystery will piss the audience off as well. The audience, shockingly, may want both - characters with agency and operational themes and some level of resolution to the mystery present. We may not always like that resolution (the end of Sopranos, BSG) but there needs to be some resolution, rather than handwaving - which, I'm sorry, feels like LOST was doing by the time it ended (if not throughout). Breaking Bad is an excellent counter-point - it showed us Walter's descent, and gave him a small amount of redemption in the end. But his arc and theme closed off along with the larger plot of "chemistry teacher becomes drug lord." (and I would say a big part of Walt's operational theme was "Unappreciated genius seizes final opportunity to demonstrate his brilliance, despite the costs").

You need both - one or the other is not sufficient; I want engaging characters with purpose or an "operational theme" and I also want an engaging story/mission/plot whatever you want to call it. That's the challenge and interestingly, also where I see problems with ST: TNG in it's later seasons - the characters were interesting, but the particle-of-the-week plots had become stale and boring. Which made the character driven/centered episodes fantastic, but others feeling flat.

Maybe he's trying to reinforce the point of the fact that you need one more than the other, and I'm not getting it because I think using LOST as your great example fails in several ways beyond just a unsatisfying level of resolution of the mysteries present - it fails because some of the characters were also not interesting or annoying as fuck - Jack, Sawyer, Kate all needed a heck of a lot more development in their operational themes because they became very one note, IMHO.
posted by nubs at 11:29 AM on May 28, 2014 [4 favorites]

This is exactly the kick in the ass I needed to get off Metafilter and go work on my pilot script...
posted by Sara C. at 11:31 AM on May 28, 2014 [3 favorites]

Please don't find another Lost. Improv may work for music and comedy but not multi-season story and character arcs.
posted by basicchannel at 11:53 AM on May 28, 2014 [6 favorites]

Nthing all the Middleman love (and thanks for the tip on the table read, kmz!).

I so wish it could've gotten another season. Much as I loved Dub Dub, Keeslar's character was the heart of that show, and I wanted to see where they went (besides more of the most inside-baseball comics jokes ever).
posted by the sobsister at 11:54 AM on May 28, 2014 [1 favorite]

Ironically, sci–fi, the genre that most often suffers from underdeveloped characters on TV probably demands more character from its characters than any other genre. Why? Because it is, at the core, a metaphorical exercise. Sci–fi poses a question that extends beyond the easily understandable stakes of the cop, doctor, or lawyer. How are the aliens, robots, mysterious islands, viral outbreaks, and vampires an external manifestation of your main character’s self–concept?

Treating Sci-Fi as a metaphorical exercise that externalizes the character's inner thought process might explain why Lost was ultimately such a failure. It always felt like someone trying to construct a gigantic allegorical construct without actually knowing what that allegory was. In retrospect it never really felt like people engaging with events beyond their control as their character naturally would. Instead the whole world felt designed to give these characters meaning. Obviously any fictive world is constructed, but the amount of fruitless navel gazing that ended up happening on Lost is one of the things that's made me hate it in retrospect.

To offer up my definition of successful speculative fiction: it's a chance too explore that way that someone acts in an extreme and fantastic situation. Building the fantastic situation because it's a convenient metaphor for whatever seems like a good way to get a bunch of fiction workshop level stuff.

I would argue that many watched Lost while hating the characters (towards the end I was really hoping that half of them would just fucking die already) because the fantastical mythology teased at larger meaning which was never there. Apparently the whole time it was just a way to noodle around with a bunch of paper-thin whiners. Good to know. That explains a lot.

It's also funny that he holds up all characters as having the same "operational theme" as being some sort of strength, because I remember being insanely tired of 'man/woman with daddy issues' even when I was still in my Lost honeymoon period.
posted by codacorolla at 11:54 AM on May 28, 2014 [2 favorites]

Well, using Lost as your ideal maybe makes sense, depending on what you idealize. Lost got ratings, and Lost made money. I think it ultimately failed in a critical sense, but as a money-making product, it's hard to fault it. I mean, Breaking Bad may have been a better quality show, but I bet Lost made more cash.
posted by tyllwin at 12:01 PM on May 28, 2014 [1 favorite]

Via Twitter, I learned that Matt Keeslar is no longer acting anymore and that just makes me sad.

It's not so bad:

"Matt Keeslar retired from acting in 2010 to pursue a career in science. He graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Reed College with a biology degree in May 2014. His biology thesis explored the effects of antimalarials on the brains of frogs. While at Reed he played the 'Father' role in Sarah Ruhl's 'Eurydice.'" (via)
posted by The Tensor at 12:09 PM on May 28, 2014 [3 favorites]

"Matt Keeslar retired from acting in 2010 to pursue a career in science. He graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Reed College with a biology degree in May 2014. His biology thesis explored the effects of antimalarials on the brains of frogs. While at Reed he played the 'Father' role in Sarah Ruhl's 'Eurydice.'

DAMMIT. And here's me already happily married.
posted by Kitteh at 12:10 PM on May 28, 2014

Please don't find another Lost. Improv may work for music and comedy but not multi-season story and character arcs.

I recall one series that debuted the fall after LOST ended being described by one critic as "our punishment for watching LOST." I have a distaste for LOST because it did feel an awful lot like improv; that being said there were some great things that it did: I am still in awe of a show that felt strong enough to have two of the main characters not speak English on the show for multiple episodes (if not the full first season; I can't remember when we get the reveal that Sun knows English); it attempted diversity in ethnicity (Korean, Middle Eastern) and didn't shy away from different body types (Hurley) although it was still clearly in love with the young, fit ideal.

I think the biggest thing to say about it, though, is this: I can imagine that one day I will sit down and rewatch the Sopranos, or Mad Men, or Breaking Bad, or a bunch of other series from whatever we want to call this age of TV. I do not think I will ever sit down to re-watch LOST.
posted by nubs at 12:18 PM on May 28, 2014 [2 favorites]

I think it's also that networks have been demonstrably trying to make another Lost in a way that I don't think they've been trying to make another Breaking Bad (or maybe they have? In which case, correct me). They've also been failing miserably.

I mean, operational themes can be as tired and worn out as any sort of characterization - I am done with men grieving over being unable to protect their loved ones, no matter what the medium. But that doesn't mean that they can't be compelling if they're done well - the issues of identity, agency, and women's bodies in Orphan Black, for example. It's done well, it feels fresh, it's well characterized, but it still has an operational theme: Sarah Manning wants to escape with her daughter.

Anyway, the upcoming Middleman Comic I was talking about is called the 'Pan-Universal Parental Reconcillation', it looks like the live reading should be on the internet by July 31st, and it looks like there will be a print-on-demand webstore offering of the comic in August and September. The best place I could find for info was the indiegogo updates page, though there might be something else I'm overlooking.
posted by dinty_moore at 12:20 PM on May 28, 2014 [2 favorites]

You could argue that Once Upon A Time is a cynical marketing-driven Operational Theme whose writing has managed to transcend its premise.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 12:31 PM on May 28, 2014 [1 favorite]

"We could then write a coffee–and–Red–Bull–fueled paper, using choice quotes from the partially–skimmed bit of required reading, and have a pretty good shot at not winding up ashamed to show the report card to our parents in the morning."

Who is this guy and how the hell did he get access to my old backed up documents folder?
posted by thewumpusisdead at 12:34 PM on May 28, 2014 [1 favorite]

Javi Grillo-Marxuach founded the student-run theater at my high school, and though he had already graduated, was a big influence on me in terms of writing (terrible) plays and sort of developing a DIY confidence that I've found really helpful. It's been fun watching his career (sometimes more fun than watching his TV episodes).
posted by klangklangston at 12:55 PM on May 28, 2014 [2 favorites]

The next LOST? You mean a complete disappoint and waste of time? A show that you spend years watching that promises to explain everything but pulls a Newhart at the end? No thank you.
posted by blue_beetle at 2:53 PM on May 28, 2014

The article lost me when it posited that Breaking Bad creates situations that *force* Walter to become something he hates. (The secret force that pushes Walt to become a horrible person is not mysterious: it rhymes with "Balter Bite.")

Though if you can misread Breaking Bad that completely, I guess it's also reasonable that you'd think LOST had a satisfying narrative arc.
posted by Scattercat at 3:07 PM on May 28, 2014 [3 favorites]

Re the "improv" factor with Lost, I think that has more to do with the fact that it was a network show being made at a very specific critical moment within television. At the time Lost premiered (and really for the bulk of the show's run), the vast majority of network dramas were procedurals and very distinctly non-serial, with a reset button that clicked into place at the end of each episode's story. And, at the time, even when there were serial shows, they typically weren't conceived of as a complete series arc. Shows were pitched to run indefinitely, and there was not really a solid blueprint for how to do a show with a plot arc like Lost. At this point, there have been a lot of serial dramas with one overarching mystery or question, and it's more of a known quantity.

But, yeah, that is really the risk you take with a serial show build around a central mystery, but which also needs to potentially run forever if it gets successful enough. It's like the reverse of the How I Met Your Mother problem.
posted by Sara C. at 3:11 PM on May 28, 2014 [1 favorite]

Good article, it stresses the importance of character motivation.

But yeah, tidy up the plots.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 3:15 PM on May 28, 2014

Post-Lost, I think there's been a huge upswing in "let's throw really crazy shit in here and completely fuck with the audience!" as a narrative device, which I do not appreciate.

I also miss The Middleman. *sigh* I want Middlestreaming!
posted by rmd1023 at 3:54 PM on May 28, 2014 [1 favorite]

The latter part of that sentence is incorrect, as Javi actually states Mad Men's operational theme brilliantly in TFA.

Also, the reality is that all shows have operational themes. It's basically "What is the underlying character-based reason why this person/group is doing the thing they keep doing every week?" Why don't the mounting stakes get to them? Why do they always keep fighting? Why don't they give up and go home when it gets too hard?

On cop/lawyer/doctor shows, that's easy -- it's their job/calling. For The Sopranos it's also pretty easy, since there's no getting out of the Mafia. Ditto The Wire: early on one drug dealing character asks another drug dealing character what's going to happen if they stiff the lower level dealers. The answer? What are they gonna do, quit the game and go to college?

For a show about plane crash survivors or ad men, that motivation is harder to pin down, and if you don't think about that "operational theme", you're dead in the water.

I 100% promise you that Matt Weiner et al have to answer the question of why Don doesn't just quit the whole thing on a weekly basis. There are many, many scenes over the years where external forces remind Don why he can't just run away from everything. If anything, Mad Men revisits its operational theme more than the majority of other shows.

I also disagree with the idea that they rejected the trend toward central mysteries, since all of last season was a return to the Who Is Dick Whitman, Really? central mystery of the show that was largely left behind after the first few seasons.

At this point if Matt Weiner told me the sky was blue, I'd think I must be having vision problems.
posted by Sara C. at 6:14 PM on May 28, 2014 [2 favorites]

One reason Voyager should have been a great show is that the concept comes with a brilliant operational theme: "get home" is as unavoidable a motivation as things like the mafia and drug culture.

Which I guess proves that you can still have a brilliant operational theme and still fail as a show.
posted by Sara C. at 6:26 PM on May 28, 2014

Screenwriting 101 Principle #N: Listen carefully to people's responses to your work, whether or not they themselves write, but disregard nonwriters' suggestions for improving the work, as well as their explanations for their feelings. This means you'll miss the occasional bit of good (or lucky) advice, but more importantly you won't follow the raging cataract of terrible advice nonwriters (e.g. TV fans) give to writers.

Screenwriting 101 Principle #N+1: Have something to say. Say it.

Let's talk about Lost...

I remember reading Javi's comments about Lost early in its run -- e.g. his response to outgoing writer David Fury's characteristically blunt comment that the showrunners had no idea what the hell they were doing -- and noting his obvious pride/defensiveness. He helped make a very successful commercial product. He can be proud of that work. But the show wasn't shitty because it didn't answer its 'mythology' questions; you may recall that Season Six of the show actually did answer a bunch of big-in-plot-terms questions (what is the smoke monster? where does this handwavey island magic come from? why did 815 crash on this island?). Folks didn't feel betrayed (or disgusted and embarrassed for the writers and actors as I did) by the finale for reasons of plotwise integrity. The show was a shambolic mess from the second season on, the fans obviously didn't care about that (and moaning about a show doesn't make you a critic).

Javi is right that Lost pedantically stuck to its 'operational theme'; unfortunately he's left out that the show did so simplistically, reductively, hamfistedly -- its characterization was old fashioned, which isn't the end of the world, but it was also witless. In other words: Lost was a superb prime-time TV product, incredibly lucky to hit the airwaves when it it...and it was a terrible piece of drama. Following this formula ('have a dramatic engine rooted in character conflict'/'set the series such that the plot can never wander too far from its engine' -- c'mon, how is this news, folks?) doesn't mean you'll fulfill Principle N+1 above. Lost didn't. It took six years to say nothing at all.

As a couple of commenters have pointed out here, every single character on the island seemed to boil down to My Overdetermined Trauma (i.e. 'comic-book origin story'); only the show's handful of very fine (often supporting) actors managed to elevate that material to present something resembling adult psychology. The show's best episode, 'The Constant,' is excellent schlock, and Henry Ian Cusick (Desmond) and Michael Giacchino's score are 90% of what works in that episode.

Compare to grownup work like, say, Deadwood or The Sopranos or Slings & Arrows or The Office or Mad Men (a show Javi and Sara (above) mischaracterize as habitually regressing to its character engines when that's mostly true only for its iconic main character, a traumatized, endlessly disappointing Tony Soprano, whose deflating compulsive recidivism was half the point of that show, which makes sense if you see it as a sitcom...). What's missing on Lost is a sense that there's anything to the characters but what you're being shown -- not just secrets, or carrying the idiot ball once in a while, but depth.

Lost's writers (mainly Cuse and Lindelof) get dinged for failing to fulfill the contract that their own work established with its audience in the early seasons, and rightly so -- but they wouldn't catch half as much flak if they hadn't given an endless stream of interviews in which they talked up their own work well beyond its ability to deliver. It's a shallow story, it always was, and the finale confirmed its shallowness with Christian's ridiculous 'the important thing isn't what was on the show, it's the fact that you watched the show' speech. Whether or not did its job (to sell ads and DVDs), we shouldn't let ourselves talk about its worth as art, its worth to its viewers, in financial terms.

Take it away, my friend Adam Roberts:
The scriptwriters enjoyed the metaphorical narrative sugar-rush of killing off major characters (or in one variant of this: of introducing a new character in such a way as to make it plain s/he will be a new major player, only to kill him/her before they even get going). In small doses this can be joltingly effective, textually speaking; but it became so totally a feature of the Lost universe that it ended up creating a weirdly parodic version of humanity. Everybody on the island, it seemed—no matter what other traits their characters displayed—everybody was only ever a moment away from punching somebody, torturing somebody for information, or shooting somebody else dead. I think only Hurley and Charlie, amongst the major characters, abstained from the social performance of murderous violence. For everybody else it was a mundane business; the pistol whipping, the rifle shot to the chest, the thrown knife into somebody's back. Cumulatively this created the vibe that pretty much all the people on the island were terrible terrible people. Picture a world as a tropical island paradise wholly populated by conscience-free, violently disposed supermodels. Et—violà.
Adam thinks better of the show than I do, despite his 'With only two exceptions, the acting was awful throughout' observation. But he says this about the finale: 'The initial objection to this denouement is that it's shit. A more nuanced response is that it is anticlimactic, underpowered, and doesn't make sense.' And I can't forgive that. That's really it, for me: the show's writers kept coming back to one well (daddy issues, basically -- or bereavement over the loss of the father, as Adam puts it, without specifically referencing Damon Lindelof's dead dad, the show's invisible main character) but never did anything with what they drew. The only thing its traumas could be was traumatic. Its characters' responses to these traumas were incoherent.

The writers' extensions of their premises were incoherent.

'You had one job...' you kinda wanna say.

Javi's advice to pilot writers is of course spot on and everyone should follow it. Pilot episodes are business plans. But as far as storytelling goes, we should aim higher than Lost.

(Please forgive my meandering; I'm writing this for free...)
posted by waxbanks at 9:57 AM on May 29, 2014 [1 favorite]

that's mostly true only for its iconic main character, a traumatized, endlessly disappointing recidivist

Yeah, usually a show with one solid protagonist is going to derive a lot of its storytelling from the character of said protagonist. There are lots and lots of other characters on Mad Men for whom the "operational theme" is irrelevant. Those characters aren't the protagonist of the show.

That said, I'm pretty sure Peggy has the same operational theme as Don (the use of career to define identity on one's own terms), but part of what makes her a more interesting character is that the show doesn't constantly need to revisit why the fuck she continues to bother. We know why Peggy bothers -- because she has to bother. She's not a partner in a successful ad agency who could retire basically whenever and still have everything. If Peggy stops showing up, Peggy doesn't get to determine her own identity anymore.

Also hahahalol as "The Office" as Grownup Work. It's basically WKRP Cincinnati set in a boring widget company, with all the same middlebrow network limitations that Lost had. (Assuming we're talking about the American version? The British version is great but not really relevant here as British TV has different conventions from American network TV.)
posted by Sara C. at 10:12 AM on May 29, 2014

Hi @Sara C. --
(Assuming we're talking about the American version? The British version is great but not really relevant here as British TV has different conventions from American network TV.)
Sorry for confusion -- I meant the British version. The American version was very good for, I think, three years, at which point they couldn't evade the 'why do they keep coming back to this hell?' question any longer and the show quickly became too horrifying (and weirdly unfunny) to watch.

It seems relevant to me: Gervais/Merchant's show contained actual human beings making and living with complex decisions. Lost did not. There are loads of shitty BBC shows, The Office wasn't one.
Those characters aren't the protagonist of the show.
I think I should make my point more clearly: Mad Men repeats itself, recurring to its premise/formula, to the extent that Don is unable to escape his own specific up-fuckedness. But the show's other characters, some with equally rich (arguably less detailed, certainly less didactically presented) inner lives don't end up replaying the same stories over and over. And the show doesn't actually retell the same story from year to year -- the second 'Don marries a smart beautiful younger woman and stifles her development' arc happens in a completely different context from the first, and plays out in different ways. The Nth 'Is Jack Shepard a man of science? a man of faith?!' pseudoconflict arises because there's nothing else to Jack but that specific horseshit. It's why they made an episode about his tattoos, which Lindelof (to his credit) is embarrassed by.

I don't think Mad Men reiterates its premises over and over; I'd say its core character relationships (and crucially its historical setting) are built/chosen to allow growth and transformation. It places enough faith (and imaginative energy) in the characters and their world that authentically new stories can be told within the same basic storyworld even when the characters outgrow their premises, which the characters on Lost did not do.

Whether ABC would ever have allowed that kind of growth on Lost seems to be a separate question.

But all I'm saying might be orthogonal to the point of JG-M's article, which seems to be more about primetime TV as a going business concern than about Art What Touches the Soul or whatever.
posted by waxbanks at 11:53 AM on May 29, 2014

Shorter version of previous comment: there's a world of difference between, say, David Milch's idea of an 'operating theme' and whatever powered Lost; and no one can accuse Milch of not understanding how to launch a genre show.

(BTW Sara C. have you heard Milch's 'Idea of the Writer' podcasts? They're amazing. Also kudos/congrats re: Fake Geek Girls!)
posted by waxbanks at 11:56 AM on May 29, 2014

Y'know, I've been mouthing off here about TV, and this isn't an argument I need to win, or maybe even an argument at all, and it seems like a bit of a waste. Sorry for carrying on at such length, and for not leading with questions.
posted by waxbanks at 12:35 PM on May 29, 2014

Nah, you're good. Thought provoking stuff!

I definitely think that Lost is a complicated case study in terms of successful television, and that this is a complicated article with regard to that.

For one thing, I think he's right about what Lost had that copycat shows don't: compelling characters that people want to come back to week after week. Not an interesting mystery, or a fantastical situation/setting, or really big over-arching themes. Viewers largely don't care about that stuff, and it's not enough to sustain a show for the long haul. You need great characters the audience will love.

I think, however, that, as someone who was a writer for Lost, he has the problem of basically standing around acting like his show was the bestest show ever and is a great template for all other television. Which is... stretching it.
posted by Sara C. at 12:44 PM on May 29, 2014

I think that's what Lost wanted to be, and what early fans wanted it to be, and which it never lived up to. I think the first two seasons (approximately) even lived up to that most (or at least some) of the time, and then it just went further and further into the weeds as it kept trying to go deeper and deeper down the rabbit hole while beating the same notes on the character drum and using the "throw crazy shit at the screen and confuse the audience!!!" tactic way past the point of intriguing disruption.
posted by rmd1023 at 10:42 AM on May 31, 2014

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