Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Stargate: The War Between Nostalgia and Science Fiction

The Sci-Fi Channel has confirmed that it will not renew Stargate: SG-1 for an eleventh season, though it has renewed Stargate: Atlantis for a fourth. After ten seasons, Stargate: SG-1 is certainly one of the longest-running SF shows in television history, and we can state with certainty what the show represents today: Stargate stands for the old, not the new. Stargate stands for the old-fashioned. Stargate stands for repetition. Stargate stands for the comfortable. Is this what science fiction has become?

Let’s take a step back and look at what we know about science fiction. Science fiction is all about risk and danger. Science fiction is about the unknown. It is about something new.

It is not only about risk and danger in its content, but it also provides real risk and danger to the audience watching. When a good SF episode/story/movie has new technology in it, the story is rarely about the technology itself, but more about where the technology leads the characters. Good SF explores strange, new worlds to explore strange, new places in ourselves and our lives.

Almost by definition, all the best science fiction books, movies, and TV shows are something that has never been seen before. Think back to the best SF movies which most of us had probably seen: Alien, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Abyss, Back to the Future, Blade Runner, or Terminator. For better or worse, these movies don’t look like anything that had come before them.

New science fiction, good science fiction, is something completely new.

When we come to the theater to watch a new SF flick that’s rumored to be good, we probably know that we don’t know what kind of a movie we’re in for. The experience itself – the anticipation – is slightly scary. It is scary because it is risky. And it is risky, not because it will harm us physically, but because it may bring certain emotions out of us that we are not prepared to face.

Think back to old episodes of Rod Serling’s Twilight Zone, which you’d probably watched as a kid. Personally, it scared the hell out of me, and sometimes, seconds before it came on, I would change the channel, because I didn’t know what I would see.

Science fiction is just not safe. Well, at least it wasn’t until the Eighties. The change came in the form of Star Trek: the Next Generation. That’s the Star Trek with the bald, English captain, called Picard, for those of you who get the Star Treks confused. The first few episodes were actually rehashed plots from the original series. And then, slowly, it began to take its own direction.

Let us compare the old Star Trek to the Next Generation. The original Star Trek, if you look at it today, is very hammy, with overly-dramatic shots and red lighting and people sweating in extreme close-up – all to indicate the drama of the scene. Even Shatner’s famous pregnant pauses – as ridiculous as they seem – succeeded in holding the audience’s attention. It was hammy, and it worked. Most of the episodes, in fact, still work today. It was dramatic, it was funny, it was risky, it had good acting, it was well-written (in fact, some of it was written by some of the top SF writers at the time), and every episode was a new risk for the viewers.

The Next Generation was the opposite. It had soft colors. Its plots were slow. The sets themselves were round. The camera movements were round. The overall visual effect of a Next Generation episode was in making the audience calmer. Like some sort of visual drug, the show lowered your heart-rate and blood-pressure as you watched it. Everything transpired on placid waters. The plots were obvious, rehashed. In fact, if you were a fan, you began to tune in to see the same characters going through the same things. The show had become... nostalgic.

Nostalgia is the opposite of science fiction. It’s safety. It’s calmness. It’s inaction. It is lack of initiative.

Stargate quickly fell into that category. With repetitive plots, slow stories, obvious plot points, and no real surprises, this show had also become nostalgic. In fact, most of the places the Stargate team goes to are barbaric, of old times, perhaps better and more innocent times (both writers and fans forgetting that old times were actually more dangerous and barbaric time). People there speak stupidly and simply, like an idealized and somewhat simple six-year-old.

Stargate has taken over The Next Generation’s nostalgic and safety-seeking audience (as well as the audience of the other three Star Trek shows that followed). If you’re a fan of Stargate, rather than getting angry at what you’re reading, ask yourself: Why am I watching it?

You’re watching because you know what it is that you’re going to see. You tune in for a repeat of the same experience. You tune in for another variation of what was.

Not everything about Stargate is bad science fiction. In the ten years it’s been here, Stargate: SG-1, has hit two main veins that are practically gold. Here they are:

1) There’s a concept that exists mostly in science fiction, called ‘You ain’t seen nothing yet.’ The point of it is simple: You create a premise, then you take it to a whole new level. You explore it, then you take what you have now to a whole new level. And then you take that... you get the point. It’s a basic writing tool, and the reason it exists mostly in science fiction is because plots can go farther there.

This is how the Stargate people did it.

The basic premise: there is such a thing as a star gate. If you have two of them, on different planets, you can dial one with the other, a wormhole opens up, and if you step through one gate, you go out the other. The trip is instantaneous. Physics tells you that if you took the fastest spaceship (assuming you had one) it would usually take you decades; instantaneous is better. So far, so good.

In the movie Strargate, upon which the TV series is based, there were two gates: One buried in Egypt in ancient times, and another one on a faraway planet.

First step in the series: There is a whole series of gates throughout the galaxy, you just have to know which gate address to dial.

Next step: Once, when two of our heroes dialed back to Earth and went through the gate, they ended up somewhere else. Apparently, there’s been another gate on Earth, buried somewhere in Antarctica. When something happened to the gate we knew, they ‘bounced’ to the other gate.

Next step: Gates can be used as weapons. An open gate can only be shut from the dialing side. If you open a gate to Earth near a black hole, and then refuse to shut it off, then the black hole’s pull influences Earth.

Next step: Under a particular set of circumstances, when a very specific error occurs, the gate will send you back to the same gate, but also back in time.

Next step: Apparently, there are gates in other galaxies. If you dial more digits (an ‘area code’) and you know the number, you can get to new places with new secrets.

And so on.

Each new step offers new possibilities, and each step is logical, in that it takes what we know and makes a logical leap forward. It is important to point out that everything in SF has to be logical, or the story itself collapses. Contrary to popular opinion, ‘anything is possible’ leads to bad science fiction. What good SF does is take a premise that isn’t true today as far as we know, assumes it’s true, and then proceeds from that point, ceding to logic every time.

The other thing that Stargate has going for it is the soap-opera factor. If a series lasts long enough and if it has a chance to develop slowly – excruciatingly slowly in our case – build a mythology, then after you hit a few years, every episode that actually has a bunch of these elements together, is actually a soap-opera episode that mesmerizes you. The trick in good writing, of course, would not be to fall into this accidentally after a few years, but to start with it. When you watch episodes during this season or the last one, every person, every character, nearly everyone our heroes interact with, has at least one back-story if not more. That is the way stories should always be in the first place.

Science fiction, historically, was there to rock the world and change it. It was there to make us think about new things, new directions. It was there to warn us of the future and to help us build a better one. It was there to make us realize truths about ourselves, to make us feel emotions we could feel only if we played a bit with reality. Science fiction doesn’t take one step, it jumps ahead of the pack (taking the risk that it will miss it entirely). Today, Stargate doesn’t take even one step. It’s afraid to step out of its parents’ garage.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

The Gilmore Girls and the Domino Effect

The Gilmore Girls is not what it used to be. Amy Sherman-Palladino and Daniel Palladino have left The Gilmore Girls at the end of the last season. Together, they created the show, wrote about 75 percent of it, and directed quite a few episodes.

Unfortunately for the writers left behind, the Palladinos’ dialogue has always outshined the others, being smarter, funnier, faster, and better at both comedy and drama than anyone else who had written for the show. Amy did better with the drama, and microscopically better on anything regarding mother-daughter relationships, while Daniel went for more comedy zingers. Unfortunately for them, the wheels began to fall off the wagon a year and a half before they left. This column is about what they did right and what they did wrong.

Together, they had created a show that centers on two main themes. The first and most palpable theme in The Gilmore Girls is the mother-daughter relationship, as portrayed through: controlling Emily and her daughter Lorelai (who got pregnant at 16, had a child, and ran away from home); Lorelai and her daughter Rory (the dream-relationship between mother and daughter); Emily and her own mother-in-law, who does to Emily what Emily does to Lorelai; Lane, Rory’s teenage friend, and her mother Mrs. Kim (who does her best to control every aspect of her daughter’s life); Mrs. Kim and her mother (who did her best to control her daughter’s life).

At the same time, The Gilmore Girls is also about the false virtues of quaintness. Stars Hollow, the quaint Connecticut town, seems all sweetness and light at first glance. But everything that seems sweet at first sight stops being so upon closer examination.

One town event had an original barbershop band come to sing all the way from New York. Their song, Those Lazy Hazy Crazy Days of Summer, provided a good backdrop to the event. The problem was that it was the only song they knew, and they sang it for hours. And that song sticks in your head. As Lorelai said, “I figured out how to get the Lazy Hazy Crazy Days of Summer out of our heads. You have to sing the Small World song over and over again for the next 48 hours.”

Another time, the town rebuilt the church’s bells to commemorate the passing of a beloved townsman. At first, when the bells rang, everything stopped, and everyone looked at the church in reverence. However, as quaint as they were, when bells ring every half hour, it is bound to eventually drive the town insane.

The parties, the banners, the balloons, the bands, the events, the costumes – everything grows old and perhaps wasn’t that nice to begin with. And The Gilmore Girls was all about that, too.

This perfect, old-fashioned little town has as many oddballs as there are people living in it. A quick recap of the unforgettable characters the Palladinos have left behind:

First and foremost, the ultra-bizarre Kirk (once, after asking Lorelai out, he left, saying, “By the way, I think you’re the prettiest girl I’ve ever seen... Outside of a, you know, really filthy magazine.”);

Then there’s the intransigent Korean Mrs. Kim (when showing a door knocker in her antique store: “Good price, seeing as how it may have belonged to James Madison. It was commonly known that James Madison liked big knockers.”);

The insufferable snob, Michel (to whom one day Lorelai actually had to say, “Stop comparing your dogs to my kid”);

The highly libidinous Miss Patty (observe how she hit on Rory’s father the first time she saw him: “You know, Christopher, we’re all like Rory’s parents around here, and I’m one of her mothers. And since you’re her father, that would make us... a couple.”);

The anal-retentive, bureaucracy-loving Taylor (“Wait till you see the banner I ordered. It’s going to make every other banner we’ve ever had look downright embarrassing.”);

Babette the busy-body (Sally Struthers does a magnificent Archie Bunker as Babette. Once she tried to decide who she likes more, Kirk or cats: “I love cats, but I love Kirk, too. It’s pretty much fifty-fifty, and that’s a high compliment, my friend.”);

The tough old broad, Lorelai the First, Richard’s mother (“Gilmores don’t have headaches. Our heads are perfect.”);

Sookie and Jackson who are able to fight about vegetables like nobody’s business;

And last and best: Paris Geller, whose personality, like Kirk’s, is a bottomless well of appalling, comic surprises (suffice it to say that she is capable of shouting at strangers: “You have no right to be repulsed by my sex life!” and talks politics in her sleep, as she tosses and turns: “Woodward... Bernstein... I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinski”).

Although the humor was great, the thing that made their writing good was actually the drama. A few key moments come to mind:

Lorelai and her mother waiting for sixteen-year-old Rory who went out with Dean and didn’t get home all night. Lorelai defends Rory, practically in tears, while Emily says Rory is doing to Lorelai what Lorelai did to Emily. But once Emily is gone and Rory returns, Lorelai lashes out at Rory the way Emily does.

Another time, Lorelai spends the night with Chris, Rory’s father. The two are deathly attracted to each other, but the timing has never been right. Years ago, Chris was ready to marry Lorelai, his pregnant teenage girlfriend, but Lorelai wasn’t; then Lorelai had settled down, and Chris continued to be a bad, irresponsible boy. Now the timing seems right and they are starting to imagine a future together. But after a phone call, Chris has to tell Lorelai that the girlfriend that had left him is now pregnant. He has to go back to her and raise the child the way he didn’t raise Rory. (Later on, Luke will comment on this, “It’s tough when the universe is against you. It’s like taking on the Manhattan garbage union.”)

In another episode, months later, Chris storms in, demanding that Lorelai, who had shut him out of her life, talk to him. She just can’t deal with him, and since he doesn’t go away, she just stands there and takes it, trying to make him understand.

With Rory off to college and Lorelai busy with the building of her new inn, the two haven’t been able to even speak for each other for a week. Both their worlds collapse and both women melt down. Rory finds comfort in Dean, her married ex-boyfriend, and Lorelai melts down on Luke’s big chest.

And then there was the time Rory lost her virginity to Dean, her still-married ex-boyfriend. He was always in love with her, and she knew it. Wanting to get him back, forgetting herself in the moment, she sleeps with him. But when Lorelai finds the two together, Rory’s ‘perfect moment’ is ruined, as Lorelai points out that Dean is still married, that he hasn’t left his wife, and that Dean is not “her Dean” at all.

In their last year and a half, though, the Palladinos have pushed the overall plot of the series to a place that may sound good in planning, but makes absolutely no sense.

The first illogical plot: To fit a cliffhanger and a plot-point Rory suddenly abandoned her mother, left the college she’d dreamt of, and went to live with her grandparents. It was fast, illogical, out-of-character, and led to half a season of good writers trying to justify situations that made no sense for the characters. And once Rory came back, it was as if it had never been.

The second illogical plot came after Lorelai’s huge blow-out with Emily. Emily had gone one step too far, breaking up Luke and Lorelai, causing Lorelai to finally be free of the manipulation of her mother. This was the logical peak of everything that had come before in the series. However, the writers brought the two of them back, and now they were stuck with a relationship that can go nowhere, because it had already peaked and ended with a dud.

There was a way to bring back Emily and Lorelai. But it was the real way, the way it would have happened in real life, which meant that Lorelai would continue to be free of Emily and that their relationship would develop on honesty and not control. They chose not to do that.

Once you take your characters to a place they can’t actually go, once you work hard at trying to justify scenes that will take you to Impossible-Land, other things that don’t make sense start cropping up as well and the wheels fall off the wagon. It’s like a domino train, because it is impossible to keep the lack of logic to one place. The writers lose control and don’t know why. In The Gilmore Girls plot-lines suddenly appeared that were all about delayed confrontations and had characters keeping secrets for many episodes. That was new to The Gilmore Girls.

That is the reason talented writers and directors in Hollywood look so bad so often, while not being able to put the finger on the cause. A talented writer writes a professional plot and professional dialogue in a professional way. He looks back, and does not understand why it doesn’t work. The mistake was made in agreeing to write a plot that was under certain constraint of illogic. Everything the writer writes after that is part of the domino chain. In the same way, everything a good director directs after that is also part of the domino chain. The Palladinos made two big mistakes, two bad choices, and the wheels came off the wagon.

Let us hope they take a year or so off and then come back with a new series, unbound by old constraints.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Why Listening to Denny Crane Makes Us Smarter

People are inherently biased and there’s nothing you can do about that. But if your name is David E. Kelley, writer/producer of L.A. Law, Picket Fences, Chicago Hope, Ally McBeal, Boston Public, The Practice, and Boston Legal (not to mention a few TV movies and shows that didn’t last as long as the rest), you know how biased people are and you use it to get your point across.

We have to look no further than Denny Crane’s character in Boston Legal. At first sight, he seems ridiculous, out of touch, and senile. The trick is to create a stereotype almost on sight, so that the audience immediately has an opinion on the character. Kelley then reinforces the stereotype, getting a few jokes in, only to reach a certain point in which the audience realizes it's looking at a human being with feelings, emotions, pain, and depths you hadn’t seen yet. Denny Crane, during the first season of Boston Legal, was not only a ridiculous parody of a person. He was a tragic has-been that knew his once-grand stature and abilities were collapsing and that there was nothing he could do to stop it. He was being ridiculous to hide his fears. In the first season, Kelley turned Crane into a three-dimensional human being.

Almost every person in a Kelley series begins as a stereotype, and ends up, if he or she is given enough screen time, as a surprisingly three-dimensional person.

Douglas Wambaugh’s first image on the screen, in Picket Fences, was of a very Jewish-looking shyster (played by Fyvush Finkel). He cracked jokes and was the epitome stereotype of the Jewish lawyer. And he fit that bill perfectly. “Reasonable doubt for a reasonable fee” was his motto, and he would represent anyone for a fee. But the truth was that he would also represent people for no fee. When Frank the Potato Man (yet another stereotype of Frank, Rome, Winsconsin’s homeless man) was about to be lynched by the people of Rome, Wambaugh was the only one who fought for him. He did it for free, he stood up against the entire town, and he never gave up. Because Wambaugh, it turned out, had a big heart and a deep-seated sense of justice.

We saw that heart best when Wambaugh was banned from his synagogue. Wambaugh ‘sued’ the synagogue and got a hearing at a ‘Beit Din’, which is a sort of Jewish court that settles religious issues. He made his case, and the other side made its case. But when Wambaugh saw how many people from the synagogue signed a petition to have him banned, we saw Wambaugh’s world collapse. And he was never more human.

The town of Rome, Wisconsin was full of stereotypes and erroneous first impressions. From the ridiculous Frog Man (who dressed like a frog and sang songs), to Carter Pike (the nervous coroner who sounded like a chipmunk in court and about whom there were always rumors he touched the bodies inappropriately), to Ginny Weedon (who was very short and thought she got intuitions from the other side), and a bagful of others. Ally McBeal’s world was chock-full with just as many stereotypes, which were actually more stereotypical, because Ally McBeal was more of a comedy than Picket Fences. Remember the Biscuit with all his quirks? Richard Fish? Lane? Practically every second client and every second character filled some sort of stereotype. But they all had a justification for the way they were, and when they were outcast, they took it badly.

Kelley uses the fact that we are inherently biased to prove to us again and again not that the bias is wrong and not that everyone is the same, but that there is a person in everyone.

But the truth is that Kelley’s humor does even more than that. Kelley’s humor forces the audience to think. I’ll repeat that: Kelley’s humor forces people to think.

It does that in two ways.

First of all, most jokes are put in such a way that forces the audience to immediately develop a contrary opinion. Think back to most of Richard Fish’s speeches. There wasn’t one sentence there that was right, but with every sentence Kelly put in his mouth, he forced you to form an opinion of what is right. That process wasn’t even a conscious effort on your part, because you didn’t take time to think. Fish gave you a line, and you laughed because a contrary thought had immediately appeared in your brain without effort. In fact, think back to most of Denny Crane’s monologues, or even to most of Alan Shore’s personal statements in the office.

Kelley uses his humor to force you to think. It doesn’t matter what you think, so much as that you think for yourself and form an opinion that belongs solely to you.

Here’s the other way he does it. About half his jokes force you to have more than one point of view at a single time.

Here are a few examples:

When Mayor Pugen spontaneously combusts (and let’s not get started on that one), Wambaugh, who was also his political opponent, gets up to speak: “I’ve known Bill Pugen for 18 years. I’ve never liked him. When he burst into flame, part of me wanted to bring marshmallows.” You immediately put yourself in Wambaugh’s mind, thinking about why he said it. But you are also thinking about those gathered around, and what they must be thinking. Kelley forces you to be in more than one head at a time.

When Zach, the sheriff’s little kid, states innocently: “It’s politically correct to hate Christians,” you immediately think about what he must have heard and what kids are exposed to these days to make him understand the world and political correctness in this way. You see the kid’s perspective (it’s what he heard and what he knows), while retaining your own.

Once, in court, Wambaugh faces off with the FBI. As the proceedings begin, the FBI lawyer says, “Your honor, this is blatant interference, which is jeopardizing the investigation.”

Which is Wambaugh’s cue to rise, “Your honor! Thirty-two hands have been hacked off during their investigation. A little interference would be in order!” The audience in the court laughs.

“That is not funny, Mr. Wambaugh,” the judge chides him.

“Of course not, your honor,” says Wambaugh, and adds belligerently: “And I ask you to sanction everyone back there who laughed!”

In this way, Wambaugh took a situation that’s completely black-and-white and turned the tables on it, making us look at it with the opposite perspective.

And here is Kelley’s smartest joke, in my opinion. Not the best, simply the smartest. Jimmy Brock, sheriff of small-town Rome, Winsconsin, finds the body of a dead masseur. Jimmy discovers a little black book which contains a list of all the man’s clients. The book contains a few squiggles next to many names, representing a special ‘thing’ he used to perform to his favorite clients, the nature of which was unclear but receives many, many euphemisms during the episode. But, generally, it was called the Squiggly.

Now here’s the thing: Jill, Jimmy’s wife, was on the list, although there was no squiggle next to her name. Jimmy gets intensely jealous and demands to know what happened and why he didn’t know about it. Jill insists that there was nothing sexual about the massage, and that she was there simply for her sciatic nerve.

Over a tense family dinner, the Brocks discover that one of the Brocks written in the book was not Jill, but Kimberly, Jimmy’s teenage daughter, also seated at the table. They stare at her in shock. “What?” She says innocently. “It was just a massage.” “Yeah, right,” says Jill.

And there you go.

In one instant, with two words, Jill reverses everything she had claimed until then (although, of course, the ambiguity remains). The instant it happens, we immediately understand why she did it, why it’s bad, what the implications are if she’s lying, what the implications are if she’s not, Jimmy’s points of view as both father and husband, and Jill’s points of view as both mother and wife. All in one split-second.

The ability to see more than one point of view at the same time is part of what makes people intelligent. We’re usually stupid – or at least we act stupidly – when we can’t see beyond our own nose. Intelligence is the ability to react to changing circumstances. We are usually resistant and bull-headed when we’re zeroed in on our own point of view and the rest of the world can kiss our asses.

Of course, this has farther-reaching consequences than feuds with the neighbor, the spouse, the siblings, etc. Almost every war that is not based entirely on self-defense, especially long-lasting wars, depend on the people not seeing the others’ point of view as legitimate and/or that the other side is just as human and grieves just as badly.

I’m not saying listening to Richard Fish or Denny Crane makes us pacifists. I’m saying listening to them makes us marginally smarter for short periods of time.