Someone Else’s Writing

Celebrating “Mad Men”‘s Least-Celebrated Character

Paul Kinsey’s Very Bad, Super No-Good Life

Since this blog has become a receptacle for posts about Mad Men and other so-called “peak TV” shows plus a smattering of self-promotion posts about my own writing … let’s lean into it.

There’s often a sense that old TV shows should be buried and forgotten, as if there’s shame in discussing a show like Mad Men a certain time after it’s ended. Hell, we still discuss novels written centuries ago, so why not a TV show that’s less than a few years gone? But when we talk about Mad Men—and, remarkably, we still do, an awful lot—there’s a tendency to focus on the flashy main characters, naturally enough. But we have enough essays about Don Draper, I think. As writers, we tend to focus on Don, because he’s so obviously like us: Creative, tortured, stymied by the very instruments of his success.

Forget Don, though, and let’s contemplate a character that doesn’t get much attention in any serious way: Paul Kinsey. Because, writers, in many ways Paul Kinsey is us.

The Failed Writer

Kinsey doesn’t get a ton of screen time on the show, and what he does get is used mainly for comic relief, but as usual Weiner and company shade the character with plenty of good writing. We know, for example, that Paul is from New Jersey and attended Princeton on a scholarship, where he lost his joisoy accent and learned how to dress and talk and fondle a pipe like his richer classmates. At the beginning of the series, he’s one of a group of young men at the firm, all of whom are more or less equal despite being in different departments. He’s a copy writer, though, while his peers are in accounts.

And Paul is not talented. What he’s good at is superficial mimicry, which is why he does well enough at first when his immediate boss is the alcoholic and incompetent Freddie Rumsen. But Paul is weak and likes to think of himself as smarter than everyone else, so he dabbles. He dabbles in the Beatnik movement, the Hippie movement, the Civil Rights movement. He feigns an appreciation of the finer things, but he uses this appreciation as an excuse to let everyone know how worldly he is.

Paul is increasingly aware that something is off. Late in Season 1, a play he wrote is discovered in his desk and his co-workers stage it as a drunken, cruel prank. Paul eventually leans into it, directing the play with enthusiasm, but it’s clear the play is terrible. Meanwhile, Ken Cosgrove actually publishes short stories in real magazines, and slowly Paul sees his peers outpacing him. Pete and Ken and even despicable, harebrained Harry Crane move up the food chain, making more money and gaining status. Paul remains a Copy Writer, and not a very good one.

And then, in the middle of Season Three of the show, Paul Kinsey has an epiphany and realizes he is not a good writer. Because Peggy Olson is a good writer, and you can almost pinpoint the moment he realizes he’s not one to episode 10, The Color Blue. In that episode Peggy and Paul compete to come up with the best idea for a telegram advertisement. Peggy does the work studiously, and doesn’t come up with much of any value. Paul drinks, masturbates, and has a flash of inspiration–which he forgets to write down. We’ll never know if that idea was actually any good, because Paul shambles into the meeting later with nothing—and watches, stunned, as Peggy takes a throwaway line he used to explain his problem and runs with it, producing a decent if not world-changing concept on the spot.

At that moment, Paul knows he’s mediocre. In episode 13, when Don and the rest of the executives steal all the accounts and form a new company, Don personally recruits Peggy. No one recruits Paul. When Paul realizes this, its confirmed: He’s not good at his job.

The Downward Spiral

We don’t see Paul again until Season 5, when he appears as a member of the Hare Krishna’s, looking ridiculous and pathetic and lost with a shaved head. Like most failed writers, he hasn’t given up on his dream. Like anyone who has ever been voted off a talent competition show, he has decided that we haven’t heard the last of him, so he’s still writing.

Paul’s spec script for Star Trek is the sort of awful SFF idea that still gets written every few weeks by flailing writers, the sort of terrible idea that will always be written by flailing writers. Worst of all, Paul seems to know that he doesn’t have talent, as he has pinned his hopes on Harry’s TV connections to get the script considered. Paul has descended to a low point: No longer in the ad business, he’s not even getting paid for his second-rate creativity. He’s got nothing, and yet he’s still plodding away at terrible stories.

That could be any one of us. Even if you’ve published, and published widely, you can’t be certain it’s not just luck, that history will slowly rub your face out of the picture until no one is quite sure who you are, and no one remembers the stories you told. In just 40 episodes and probably a collective hour’s worth of screen time, the writers of Mad Men made Paul Kinsey into a well-shaded, sad individual, and he ought to be the patron saint of anyone who joined their high school literary magazine and thought they were special because they wrote stories.

WestWorld May Be Too Clever for Its Own Good

Marsden is Either Bored or Constipated

Marsden is Either Bored or Constipated

So, I’ve been watching WestWorld on HBO. This enrages my brother, Yan, who more or less believes that all remakes, reboots, and reinterpretations are bullshit. The moment he learns that a remake is looming, he goes off on a rant about how no one writes new stories any more.

He’s not wrong, but he’s not right, either. HBO’s version of WestWorld is entirely different from the original film. Everyone has a lot of affection for the original, mainly because of Yul Brynner’s classic performance as the Gunslinger and because every young man who watched that film in the 1970s and 1980s immediately began thinking about Sex Robots.

There are plenty of Sex Robots in HBO’s WestWorld. There’s also a lot of video game stuff, because some clever bastard obviously thought that a place like WestWorld would basically be an IRL video game. So when a guest arrives in town it’s like being in a sandbox-style video game, where you have a main storyline, but there are endless side-quests you can get sucked into that add content and depth (and playing time) to the game. That’s all well and good. That’s interesting and quite clever for a modern reboot of the concept.

The downside? The god-damn Non-Player Characters (NPCs) and the god-damn cutscenes.

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“You’re the Worst” & Subtle Unreliability

It's Not Funny

It’s Not Funny

Used to be, things like unreliable narrators or breaking the Fourth Wall on television was a bold and uncanny thing to do. It shocked viewers who had been trained to rely on the narratives and narrators TV offered up. But as TV shows have gotten more and more novelistic in their approach, the Fourth Wall is getting demolished. And unreliable narration is almost assumed.

Novels, after all, don’t have a Fourth Wall. When you read a book the narrator’s voice is in your head, addressing you. You’re basically there, following everyone around. So when a TV show like Mr. Robot or Fleabag deletes the Fourth Wall, it edges closer to being a novel in visual form. When those narrators prove to be unreliable, it can still pack a punch, but often it’s easy to see. Who, after all, was at all surprised when Fleabag or Elliot turned out to be unreliable? No one who was paying attention. It still worked, it just wasn’t a surprise. Which is neither a good thing or a bad thing.

Another show that transcends typical TV comedy work is You’re the Worst, which could be a dumb show about trying to disgust the audience as much as possible with how truly terrible the characters are, but is just smart enough to back up off that level of depravity. The characters on You’re the Worst are in fact terrible people, but there’s just enough decency sprinkled in to keep your attention.

It’s also a show playing with unreliableness, which might come as a surprise, as it isn’t a show with a fixed POV or narrator, and always seems to be presenting these awful people more or less as they are. But the show has been revealed to be subtly unreliable because of S03EP05, “Twenty Two.”

Shitty Jimmy & Company

So, You’re the Worst, like most TV comedies, has a core cast who play specific roles. The main characters are Jimmy and Gretchen, two awful assholes living and striving in L.A. In their orbit are some friends: Shallow, monstrous Lindsey, her milquetoasty husband Paul, and Jimmy’s odd roommate Edgar. Other characters orbit at increasing distances from these. This is a pretty standard comedy setup: Main folks, second-tier characters, and a diaspora of decreasingly important characters.

What’s interesting about comedies is that there are funny folks and straight people. Straight people are often used to bring context—and in the case of You’re the Worst, the straight person is usually Edgar. Edgar has PTSD after his service in Iraq, and lives with Jimmy in exchange for acting as a cook, housekeeper, and general servant. In the past he regards Jimmy as his friend, but he is always somewhat disturbed by the callous and terrible nature of the people around him. His character serves as an important contrast, because he’s fundamentally decent, always means well, and registers his hurt when Jimmy and the others treat him awfully, which they always do. Without Edgar the show would be 100% assholes, and as anyone can tell you, a show that’s 100% assholes is Seinfeld, or Veep, and that only happens once a century or so.

So, Edgar’s usually not the funniest person on the show. He reacts, and sometimes he’s in funny situations, but he’s not actually all that funny. In fact, the show puts a button on this by having Edgar become involved with Improv Comedy, and be more or less terrible at it. He’s not funny, because he’s not the main character of the show.

Which becomes very interesting in “Twenty Two,” which is the first episode of the series from Edgar’s point of view. And it’s not really a funny episode. It barely has any jokes. Because suddenly we’re seeing it fro Edgar’s point of view, and the people around him aren’t hilariously callous—they aren’t hilarious at all. They’re just terrible people.

What If You’re Just a Character in My Sitcom?

This is interesting because it forcibly reminds the audience that in the previous episodes of the series, they’ve been seeing everything from the main characters’ POV. From Jimmy and Gretchen and Lindsey’s POV, everything is hilarious, because they’re the center of the show. Their POV dominates everything. Yes, they can sometimes see the pain and suffering of others, but it’s marginalized, distant, and easily ignored.

The audience of course always identifies with the main characters; we can’t help it. Even the Walter Whites of the world, we want them to succeed. To survive. It’s human nature.

So “Twenty Two” shifts away and offers us Edgar’s POV, and suddenly the people we’ve been laughing at and with, the people who we unconsciously regard as the protagonists of this story, are revealed to be braying, not-particularly-funny assholes. And Poor Edgar, rather than being a supporting player in a comedy, is the lead actor in a tragedy, and we’ve been watching him for dozens of episodes without a thought, and that makes us complicit assholes as well.

It’s a sobering, exciting moment. While Fleabag‘s cheeky glances and funny asides and Mr. Robot‘s paranoid lectures might be flashier and more obvious breakings of the Fourth Wall and reliability, You’re the Worst‘s is more powerful, because even as you watch it some time goes by before you realize you’ve just seen a complete shift not just of POV but of tone, inviting you to realize that your impression of the show has been carefully managed all along, and you’re part of it.

You’re always part of it.

Writing: Watch Out for the Forgotten Character Detail

POOOOOTTTTSSS

POOOOOTTTTSSS

So, Roadies, the new show on Showtime from Cameron Crowe is proving to be a Master Class in How Not to Write in many ways. The show doesn’t lack some charm, and the world of a tour crew with a major band is kind of interesting to see, but it’s amazing how far Crowe—who once had a golden ear for dialogue—has fallen in recent years. When was the last time Cameron Crowe made something people talked about in a positive way?

Roadies is populated by likable actors, which is the only reason, really, it’s watchable. And every episode offers an object lesson in writing mistakes. The example we’ll pull comes from the pilot episode, which of course has to do a lot of work to introduce the premise, the characters, the setting, and the season-long conflicts and storylines. And Crowe makes a fundamental, if minor (but irritating) error when he introduces the Quirky Character Detail What is Forgotten Immediately and Never Mentioned Again. This is an error that a lot of writers make in their stories and novels, so it’s useful to take a gander.

I AM QUIRKY AND ADORABLE, DAMMIT

In Roadies, Imogen Poots plays Kelly Ann, who has a junior role with the roadie crew. She’s supposed to leave for school in the pilot, but of course is seduced by the love and sense of family she feels with her co-workers to eschew higher education in favor of an adventure on the road—fair enough, a believable if not particularly inspired bit of motivation. Poots is, of course, adorable, and she plays Kelly Ann with a bit of measured intelligence; her expressions of doubt and suspicion whenever someone tells her something do a lot to make her character at least seem interesting.

Now, creating and defining characters is hard. It’s very easy to reduce every character down to a trait, or an ethnicity. In fact, a lot of writers start off with little more than that, and add in the details later. And sometimes, in an effort to establish a character before you’ve done the hard work with dialog and action to define them, it’s common to attach weird little details.

Now, weird little details can be inspiring when they react with dialog and action. The way Heath Ledger licked his lips as The Joker in The Dark Knight was inspired; combined with his statements, actions, and appearance, it was a wonderful little tic that underscored his squirrely energy. But this goes wrong when it’s the only thing that differentiates a character—but it also goes wrong when you immediately forget all about that quirky trait after introducing it.

In the Roadies pilot, it is established that Kelly Ann eats off of other people’s plates, a mildly rude yet quirky (oh god quirky) little tic. It’s mentioned explicitly as a reason another character doesn’t like her, and then there is a moment when Kelly Ann does it in a very obvious and ostentatious way, to drive the point home.

It’s easy to imagine that Crowe, faced with a character he’d made blonde, beautiful, young, and smart, needed some way to make her seem, you know, interesting. So he gave her this totally innocuous trait, and made sure we noticed it. And then he completely forgets all about it and the behavior is never mentioned again in subsequent episodes. And that’s annoying. It’s a dumb detail, but if you’re going to go through the trouble of putting a flag on it and making certain we notice it as a way of making the character interesting, then you have to remember it. Otherwise it distracts.

So, when writing, keep that in mind: Giving your character a gonzo detail to give them shape and a memorable aspect is fine. Just don’t forget you did it when you start Chapter Two.

The Most Interesting Scene in “Mr. Robot” S2E1

ursoscrewed.png

ursoscrewed.png

I remain absolutely riveted by USA’s Mr. Robot. It’s like a slow-motion horror movie—like literally if you took a horror movie about a man losing his mind and slowed it to like 1/8th speed, you would have Mr. Robot‘s episodes. Then a brilliant fan theory starts going around online that makes me appreciate what the show is doing even more. I mean, there simply isn’t another show out there operating on Mr. Robot’s visual and atmospheric level right now.

The show’s not perfect, of course, but every episode offers something, usually a sequence that is simply a brilliant mini-movie. This got me thinking about a sequence in the season two premiere that isn’t getting a lot of heat, but I think should: the hacking and takeover of Susan Jacobs’ smart house.

It’s no secret that Mr. Robot often films its episodes like a horror movie instead of a techno thriller or a story about hackers who actually kinda sorta resemble the real thing instead of the Hugh Jackman speed-typing sort you usually get. The lighting, framing, angles, and music all combine to offer up a tableau of dread that is very effective. And this scene is like a mini-horror movie without a payoff—or perhaps a delayed payoff to come.

Mild spoilers to follow if you care about spoilers.

Susan Jacobs is very rich woman, counsel to E Corp. She has a very nice townhome. It’s got a pool, a spa-like bathroom, and a “smart home” system that allows Susan to control everything via iPad. It’s kind of awesome, until she comes home and everything is misbehaving. The alarm won’t stop going off. Music blares at unbearable levels. Her shower is burning hot and the air conditioning has the place at 40 degrees. The TV won’t shut off.

She’s lost control.

The whole sequence is filmed like a horror movie and so it should, as the idea that by bringing these technologies into our homes we’re giving control of some of the most essential aspects of our lives—our shelter—into the hands of a) unseen corporate interests and their drones or b) hackers is kind of scary. By the time we get a smash cut to Jacobs, wearing a winter coat indoors and screaming into the phone that she can’t unplug anything because the wires are buried in the walls, we know she’s totally screwed. She schedules a service call, calls a car, and flees to her country house because of course she has a country house. And literally moments later, F Society shows up, turns everything off, and takes control of the house. They set everything to go crazy just to drive her away. Now they have weeks of using this awesome house for free.

Clever, but what’s really clever about it is how this sequence underscores something interesting: The hackers aren’t the heroes of this show. There are no heroes on this show. The hackers are just as menacing and destructive as the evil corporation. The hackers managed to erase the debts of millions, but this supposedly Robin Hood-like move has destabilized the world, and regular people are shown having to deal with the negative side of this Fight Club ideal: Sure, their debts have been erased … but so has all evidence that they paid those debts in the first place. As a sequence showing a woman desperately trying to convince the bank that she is up to date on her mortgage show, erasing all that data won’t cause the banks to shrug and say well, we can’t prove you owe us money so we guess you don’t! Instead, the more likely scenario is that we’d all find ourselves forced to prove the negative: That we don’t owe them money.

The theft of the smart house should be a chilling sequence for anyone who has a Nest installed and is thinking about an Internet-enabled lock or something. It should also serve as clear evidence that the show doesn’t think there’s really any difference between the hackers and the corporations. They both steal whatever they want, and the people who don’t understand the complex systems they administer—computers and the Internet Vs. money and finance—are doomed to be the victims of the people who do.

Authoring is Hard Work

Cats Ate My DeskIn 2002, a year in which otherwise almost nothing I can remember happened, the New York Times reported that “a recent survey” confirmed the worst fears of many Americans: 81% of the country thought they could write and publish a book. Eighty-one percent. Considering there are about 319 million people in the U.S.A. alone, that means about 258 million people figure that someday when they have some spare time they’ll bang out a novel. Or, more accurately, they’ll go find a writer friend they know, drunkenly explain the story idea with helpful doodles on cocktail napkins as visual aids, and then let that writer friend write and publish the book while splitting the profits 70/30.

At first blush, the 81% number seems high, especially when you consider that the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics counts just 129,100 authors and writers in the country as of 2012. Although, when combined with the explosion of self-publishing in recent years, that seems like a dubious number too, especially when you learn that the Bureau also claims the median income for authors and writers is $56,000 a year when most writers are constantly Googling “how to boil shoes for dinner” or “how long can I eat nothing but Ramen before getting scurvy”—although to be fair when you include people like James Patterson or Stephen King or E.L. James in the calculations, that median is going to shoot up quickly.

However, when you think about how many people participate in things like NaNoWriMo every year (more than 300,000 according to the website) and how many people are publishing novels—more than 750,000 traditionally and self-published books annually in the United States alone—it starts to seem like that 81% number might make sense after all.

In reality what this means is that an enormous number of people think they can write and sell a book, but less than 25% of them actually do, one way or another. That’s a big gap, even if we remove those helpful folks who are always offering up brilliant ideas for novels and seeking to split profits and restrict ourselves solely to people who would, you know, actually be willing to write a book. As an author myself, there’s only one explanation for the this discrepancy that makes sense: writing a novel is hella hard. Selling a novel is even harder. Black magic may be involved.

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Details and The Ragged Genius of “Rules of Attraction”

VAN DER I WILL MURDER YOU

VAN DER I WILL MURDER YOU

Every story is a collection of details, an accumulation of notes about expressions, actions, reactions, natural phenomenon, etc. Sometimes those details are layered on with a heavy trowel, burying the reader under a mountain of words. Sometimes they’re used more sparingly, leaving more of the heavy lifting for the reader’s imagination to fill in gaps.

Sometimes, they’re used really, really specifically.

Consider Roger Avary’s 2002 film, The Rules of Attraction. Based on the 1987 novel by Bret Easton Ellis, it’s a film that remains somewhat ignored and controversial. It is, after all, adapted from an Ellis novel, which means it is a film about Monied Trash People who screw and puke and get stoned and exist for no reason whatsoever, and wallows in their elite crapulence. It has Patrick Bateman’s little brother as a lead character. You can’t like anyone in the story, and the story itself eats its own tail and appears to be about nothing much at all.

The film’s pretty amazing.

Number one, you have James Van Der Beek, still young-looking enough to be Dawson, giving a really great performance as the creepy, dumb, pathetic Sean Bateman. Number two, there are a lot of little tricks that work in this movie, from extended sequences played backwards, complete with backwards sound, and split screens and super creepy close ups of people. The performances are solid. If you can stomach the awful Monied Trash People who are its subjects—and the fact that one of the leads is literally raped within the first two minutes of the film—it’s a fascinating movie that has emerged from 2002 more or less unscathed except for the fact that no one has a cell phone.

But the real reason you should watch this movie is one of the details: This woman.

wayman

Before he ruins it with a shitty flashback montage obviously designed for idiots who aren’t paying attention, Avary does something really great with this character, who is unnamed in both the novel and the film. It’s a clear use of planting details purposefully—not to bury the reader/viewer in minutiae, or to world build, but simply for effect. Anyone writing their own stories can learn this trick and make it their own.

A Little Exposition

First, though, for anyone who hasn’t seen the movie or read the book, a little exposition. Spoilers for a movie that came out in 2002, if you really are that weird, follow.

James Van Der Beek plays Sean Bateman, attending elite Camden College, where he has been receiving anonymous letters from a girl. His secret admirer leaves her perfumed, glitter-bomb letters in his campus PO box and never signs them. Sean is smitten with his unseen admirer, and comes to suspect she is Lauren, an elfin virgin played by Shannyn Sossamon, who he meets cute and falls in love with. On the day of a big party, his stalker leaves a letter telling Sean that “tonight is the night” that they will finally meet. But when Sean arrives at the party Lauren isn’t there, and he decides to sleep with her roommate (played by Jessica Biel as a coke-sniffing wild child).

When the author of the letters is revealed, however, halfway through the film, it appears to be a girl we’ve never seen before. A wholly new character who is devastated when Sean goes off with the plastic and awful Biel. Avary, in fact, cuts from the narrative to spend several minutes with this new face as she commits suicide in the communal dorm bathroom, keeping a tight focus on her face as she bleeds out. It’s harrowing; her face starts off blank and depression-numbed, but as she bleeds it collapses into a flurry of emotions that is truly hard to watch.

As a first-time viewer, you can’t help but wonder where in the hell she came from.

On second viewing, you see it: She’s been there all along. The character appears four times before her suicide, always stalking Sean Bateman. She’s in the foreground, the background. She’s at the party when Sean, thinking Lauren has stood him up, leaves with her roommate. She’s always been there. We just didn’t notice.

(And then, yes, Avary ruins it by including a hamfisted montage of those prior scenes just to make sure we get it, and it’s so awful it makes me angry to this day, because it ruins a truly perfect moment).

The Power of Details

Avary’s choice to have the character in scenes but keep her part of the set dressing is a powerful one, because it makes the audience complicit with Sean. We’ve both just spent the entire movie not noticing this girl. We’re both mystified when she appears on screen, her face filling the frame (or Sean would be if he ever realized his mistake, which he does not). If you didn’t notice the girl the first time around (and if you claim you did I don’t quite believe you), her suicide is shocking. It’s powerful storytelling pulled from a few details Avary scatters here and there.

And he’s not done. Because in the sequence when Sean is having sex with Lauren’s roommate in their dorm room, he glances up from Biel’s contorted face at the wall where a collage of photos has been pasted up. And one of those photos is of Lauren and the unnamed stalker girl, who is killing herself in the bathroom a few doors away at that precise moment.

The implications are strong. And never explained. Obviously, Lauren and this girl know each other, and thus she must be part of their shared world on campus. And yet Sean Bateman has no idea she exists. He meets Lauren and decides he is in love with her within a short time, but he never even sees this girl who is literally following him everywhere and is friends with Lauren herself.

Avary’s decision to leave the girl’s character as a string of details is brilliant, even if it is ruined by that later montage. The viewer has to extrapolate the whole story from a few grains, and it elevates the film. In a world where a lot of writers seem to think that the more dense your details the more real your world will feel, there’s a lessen, and it’s pretty clear: Less is more. But only if you know what you’re doing.

The Dangers of Not Enough Alternative in Your History

I LOVE COCAINE SO MUCH

I LOVE COCAINE SO MUCH

Like a man paralyzed with fear as he watches a horrible auto accident, I continue to tune into HBOs Vinyl now and then. The wonders of the digital age on my cable company’s circa-2005 technology allows me to time shift to my heart’s desire, which means a show like Vinyl that would get skipped hard if I had to choose between it and several other, much better shows actually gets watched in the wee small hours when I’m bored and tired. While being bored and tired when watching a show might not be the ideal headspace for appreciating art, it is the ideal headspace for undercooked prestige dramas.

Vinyl has its pleasures, but it remains an unsatisfying slog of a show filled with a clichéd antihero lead character and plenty of overblown self-importance. Overall, I’d give the show so far a hard C+, but something’s been bothering me about it from the get go, something that has nothing to do with the characters or the dialog or even the fact that the lead character is so awful (seriously, if you haven’t watched the show and want to know what the character of Richie Finestra [Bobby Cannavale] is like, imagine Don Draper on a bloaty, self-hating binge but then remove all his charisma and magnetism and any sort of redeeming artistic sense of beauty). I finally figured it out: It’s the half-measure alternative history of the show.

This is why watching or reading not-great works can still be profitable for a writer, because the failures can crystallize concepts for you. Put simply, Vinyl demonstrates that if you’re going to tell an alternative history story, you must be prepared to actually change history.

Vinyl As a Work of Sci Fi

Is Vinyl, the story of a record executive in the early 1970s, science fiction? No, of course not—except it kind of is, because Vinyl exists in that mainstay of SF stories, the alternate history. Richie Finestra isn’t just a fictional character at a fictional record company, he’s supposedly a heavy-hitter who’s the principle shareholder of a major record company. A company that has a reasonable chance of signing, say, Alice Cooper or Elvis to its roster.

And the show has fun with that, having actors portray some of the biggest stars of the time, and imagining they’re actually on the American Century label or being pursued by the team of A&R people working there. David Bowie shows up. Robert Goulet (!) shows up. A host of lesser-known stars of the era show up. The impersonations vary in quality and effectiveness, but the key here is that a plot point in several episodes has been American Century, a label in serious financial trouble, keeps trying to woo big stars onto their label. And it keeps failing, for the simple reason that those stars never signed with American Century, because American Century didn’t actually exist.

In other words, things like this keep happening: A hapless A&R guy, his job on the line if he can’t sign a new act, has a random run-in with Alice Cooper, who in 1973 was a huge rock star. So the hapless A&R guy spends a boozy, exhausting weekend wooing Cooper and trying to convince him to leave his band and go solo on American Century. That’s all fine, because it’s 100% possible that Alice Cooper was in fact wooed by a wide variety of A&R guys from a wide range of labels and no one was there to snap photos and write breathless accounts of it. But of course we all know that Cooper didn’t go solo until 1975, and when Cooper humiliates our hapless A&R guy because he hates Finestra and American Century, there’s no surprise. So far Vinyl has proved unwilling to actually re-write history too much, so we know it won’t take Alice Cooper from fictional version of a real person into the realm of 100% fictional character. That makes all the cameos by 1970s rock stars pointless. We know what will or won’t happen.

And so, Vinyl turns to fictional rock stars for the actual kinetic storytelling, inventing someone like Hannibal, an R&B superstar, so American Century can actually have a contract in play that won’t break history. That’s fine, but mixing the fake and the real just underscores the problem: Vinyl‘s unwilling to change history in service of its alternate version of history, and if an alternate history is kind of exactly the same as actual history, what’s the point?

Meet The Drapers

Mad Men danced the same dance: Set in the advertising world of the 1960s, it had a fake ad man in Draper, working at a fake advertising firm, but working with real-life products. And it works, for two reasons. One, people (or at least: me) are much less familiar with the shadowy world of advertising. In other words, as far as most people are concerned, Don Draper might as well have come up with the “I’d Like to Buy the World a Coke” campaign, because most normal people have no fucking idea who actually did it.

Two, Mad Men did in fact change history many times on the show, in the sense that it often had real products and real companies hire Don and company to work on campaigns for them. Heck, the Coke Ad in the finale is an actual campaign, a famous campaign, and Matt Weiner just decided that in the Mad Men version of the universe it was invented by Don Draper, and screw reality.

Mad Men is also assisted by the fact that large corporations often did and do have several advertising firms on the payroll, so it doesn’t break any rules to imagine the boutique-style firms Draper worked at might not have picked up an account here and there.

Vinyl has no such luxury, since rock stars are only signed to one label at a time. Teasing us that Richie might sign Led Zeppelin in 1973 instead of watching them get their own Swan Song label is only exciting if we think it might actually happen in the alternate universe of the show. Once we figure out that stuff like that is never going to happen, we get bored. When Richie sits down with a bloated Elvis in Vegas and tries to get him to dump his residency and start over with a new label, the audience twiddles its thumbs because the show has established that a major departure from reality like that is never going to happen.

If the show did take those chances, it would instantly be orders of magnitude more interesting. A show where Elvis cleans up, hits the gym, and signs with a demented cokehead record executive desperately trying to make music meaningful in his own life again? That would be interesting for no other reason than it would be 100% unpredictable. As it is, the impersonations of celebrities on Vinyl are only as interesting as the performers’ mimicry skills.

“10 Cloverfield Lane” & The Oldest Trick in the Book

I AM UNRELIABLE

I AM UNRELIABLE

So, there will be spoilers in this essay. Like, seriously. Like, this essay will be about 88% spoilers. So if you plan to see 10 Cloverfield Lane at any point in your life and you want to do so unspoiled, this essay is not for you.

So: 10 Cloverfield Lane. Good movie! Not like revelatory or anything, but solidly constructed, inventively plotted, well-acted, and frequently surprising. The premise is tight: A young woman named Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), fleeing a bad relationship, gets into a bad car accident and wakes up chained up inside a bunker-cum-bomb shelter owned by a man named Howard, played by John Goodman. She’s terrified, but he assuages those fears: He’s not a crazy pervert, he tells her he’s saved her life because the Earth has recently been attacked by aliens using some sort of gas weapon, and everyone outside the bunker is dead.

And off we go. 10 Cloverfield Lane has a lot of fun with expectations, zigging and zagging several times as it fools the audience, and it does so using the oldest trick in the book: The film literally tells you exactly what’s happening in the first twenty minutes or so, but the audience dismisses the information because of the batshit, unreliable character who delivers it. Namely, Howard, who Goodman portrays as violently deranged even when he’s being quiet and plaintive. Because Howard is so obviously nuts, when he tells us aliens have attacked, we dismiss it. Guess what? That’s exactly what’s happened and Howard is 100% correct!

That was unexpected for me, because I fell for the oldest trick. I tried to be smart, because I like leaning over to my wife and telling what’s going to happen in movies five minutes before it does happen, but I got fooled this time, because Howard couldn’t possibly be right. I figured something weird was going on, of course, but I also figured it couldn’t be an alien gas attack, because that’s what Howard said it was.

Of course, Howard also turns out to be a deranged pervert just as Michelle feared he was, which is more complicated because Howard also specifically denies that. And yet his unreliability didn’t fool me there–nor was it intended to–because, again, Goodman plays him as the Creepiest Survivalist Ever from his first appearance on screen. His behavior negates his denial over his motives for rescuing/abducting Michelle, and thus we’re not fooled, whereas his behavior makes his statements about alien invasions seem crazy. The great part is, he’s lying about one thing and telling the truth about the other and we’re completely wrong about which is which.

The reason his secret motivation for saving Michelle remains a bit of a twist though is because it turns out to be aliens. When Michelle makes a desperate grab for his keys and gets thisclose to escaping the bunker, she’s stopped by the revelation that everyone outside is, in fact, dead of some horrible chemical attack, and that she is, in fact, safe in Howard’s bunker. And so the audience forgets all that stuff about Howard being a weirdo perv, because suddenly he’s a hero who’s been telling the truth this whole time.

It’s a nice pair of tricks, and they elevate the movie significantly. And they remind us that sometimes the best way to fool your audience is also the simplest.

The Unbearable Whiteness of “The Intern”

Shiny Happy People

Shiny Happy People

Because I have committed terrible crimes in a past life, The Duchess made me watch The Intern the other day. Someday I will get myself hypnotized to discover what sort of child-killing Venetian nobleman I was in the past to deserve stuff like this, but for the moment I just accept my punishments as what I deserve.

A pretty not-good comedy starring Robert De Niro as a 70-year old widower who participates in a “senior” internship program at Anne Hathaway’s ultra-hip startup based in Brooklyn, the film sparked an observation I make from time to time that drives The Duchess crazy: A Whiteness Analysis. And holy cow, this is the whitest movie I’ve seen in a long time.

Now, I don’t think every single cast has to be colorblind or forcibly integrated, and yes, there are also films with entirely black (or other) casts. But it’s easy to argue that an all-black film is a necessary correction against the overwhleming diversity problem in mainstream Hollywood, and many of those films also include at least a few white folks, because they’re set in something resembling the real world. Films like The Intern are set in a weird fantasy land where Brooklyn, New York is more or less a White Enclave. Literally no one with any sort of face time in the film is non-White (there might have been a few background characters who were black or another ethnicity). In other words, a film set in a borough of New York City that has

  • a population of 2.5 million people and which is
  • about 36% non-White (or, you know, nearly one million people)

doesn’t have any non-white characters.

As Gwen Stefani might say while she was appropriating even more Japanese culture to sell us her wretched things, that’s bananas.

The Opposite of Good

Now, I’m no paragon of racial virtue. I’m an asshole, and I walk about draped in my white privilege like some sort of King. But I grew up in Jersey City where my friends and schoolmates were of a wide variety of cultural and ethnic backgrounds, so my eye is trained to think that a lot of skin tones and accents and strange cooking smells that hit you in the face when you come over for dinner is normal. Bland Whiteness, on the other hand, freaks me out, even though I am quite bland and quite white.

None of that means a movie is good or bad. A movie can have a painfully white cast and still be amazing — and vice versa. It’s just that once I notice the absolute lack of black characters of any kind, it grates on me a little. Sometimes it’s justified due to the focus of the story or the setting, true enough. But not The Intern, as noted above, because it’s set in one of the most racially diverse places in America.

And let’s be frank, The Intern isn’t a good movie (er, spoilers here if you care, though I can’t imagine why you would). It’s not awful, but it’s that mythical story that lacks any sort of conflict. De Niro’s character is friendly, supportive, intelligent, and only mildly stymied by modern technology and slang. His fellow interns and the employees at the company find him charming and a font of wisdom. Anne Hathaway’s major problem is that the investors at her wildly successful company want her to hire a CEO. And yes, her husband is cheating on her — but, as it turns out, only because she has emotionally abandoned him, he totally still loves her he’s just a modern man struggling to find manliness while being a house husband. Or something.

In other words, there’s no villain, no conflict. Everyone is jolly. Lessons are learned. The movie feints at making Hathaway’s character a bitchy ageist who dislikes De Niro simply because he’s observant while being old, and resolves this ghostly image of conflict literally one minute after it surfaces. This is a movie where everyone apologizes immediately for every single mistake so that no drama can possibly sprout from the seed. In that regard its very much like Downton Abbey, another show where conflict goes to die in a field of muttered apologies and hugs. And also a very, very white show, but they have at least established that black people and Indian people, at the very least, exist in the Downton universe. Plus, as mentioned above, the focus and setting on that show justify the monochromism to some extent, even if there is absolutely no justification for the total lack of stakes or conflict.

Authorial Struggle

Are there areas of this country where literally everyone around you is white? Sure, of course. And maybe those audience segments get unsettled when they see a diverse cast, so maybe there’s a marketing aspect to this sort of casting. I know in my own writing I sometimes have to take a step back and ask myself if my characters are all essentially just me and people I know and am comfortable with, and sometimes I purposefully model a character on someone outside of my tiny circle of friends in order to break out a little. So I can see that if you’re a writer who has pretty much all-white friends and family (which is just a circumstance and does not mean they’re a virulent racist) they can unconsciously write characters who are all more or less familiar to them without thinking about how it all looks.

That can happen. You write what you know, and if you don’t have anyone outside of your own ethnic and cultural experience around you, that’s a thing that can happen. It’s still jarring to see it, whatever the ultimate explanation.

Of course, if I started writing characters based on only the things I interact with on a daily basis, all of my books would feature cats, and would basically be 300 pages about napping.