Chris Downey and I were marveling over the Madoff Ponzi scheme yesterday. Insanely, the biggest financial fraud of the decade is something we never would have used in the show, because it was too damn easy. A frikkin' Ponzi scheme? Our audience would figure that out in a second. The sad thing is, for every unbelievable con we pull, there's a real world parallel that we'd never have the stones to try to get past an audience.
Note that it's always "Ponzi scheme" as opposed to "Ponzi plan" or "Ponzi con.". No idea why.
Mike's recent post on "where do you get your ideas" gave me the idea -- my, that's recursive -- to do a short post on broadcast day about the genesis of that episode's crime plot. Not the overall inspirations for the show, but the eps. I won't go into anything not revealed in "next Week's Scenes" or the teasers on TNT.
To catch up briefly --
"The Nigerian Job" -- was inspired by a magazine article on Ryan Air and my own personal hatred of how every con show does The Sting con. If you look at the ending of the pilot, it specifically refutes that choice. The innocent bystanders really are innocent bystanders, and the cops really are cops. It's a con payoff that depends on everyone actually being who they claim to be. The law that Victor Dubenich is arrested for breaking is real, down to the relevant language. The Foreign Corrupt Practices Act is a bitch.
"The Homecoming Job" -- This sort of moved backwards as Dean and I broke the story. We wanted to do something a little bigger for the second episode, with some serious heavy opponents. I had the Vanity Fair article about the missing billions in my notes for a while, and the image of pallets -- pallets -- of cash somehow resonated with my teenage job in a supermarket, unloading pallets of groceries. It was a very tangible sense memory that hooked me into the idea.
The scarcity of cash came from another old aborted project, although I wound using an old 2000 estimate of $500 in cash for each American as opposed to the current estimate of a couple thousand dollars per American. Bizzarely, that research paper is by the father of David Feige, creator of TNT's Raising the Bar. It's a weird world.
Corrupt Congressmen plus contractors gave us two pretty big, unstoppable power centers to throw at our protagonists for their maiden voyage. The rise of small-amount donors in modern elections gave us a good intersection for cash + Congressmen, which brought us to our money-laundering scam. The hopper is real, too. Although I was so proud of us discovering that through research, only to have everyone I told about it answer back, "Yeah, I saw that in Legally Blonde 2."
The interesting thing was, we got to the victims last. We wanted someone who'd been in Iraq who could have seen the wrongdoing, who'd then been shot up by the contractors ... okay, wounded vet. Seeing as veterans' care is a personal priority of Dean and I, we dove in. Our representative corporal has a need, our guys are going to fill it.
But that led to a whole different set of writing hurdles. The Walter Reed scandal is the most notorious story of soldiers not getting the care they needed -- but (what most people get wrong) Walter Reed is an Army medical center. There was no way we could fiddle a big payout to that sort of infrastracture.
The next logical choice is a Veteran's Affairs Medical Center. Problem again -- the VA system is maybe the best medical system in America. They've done wonders dealing with the structural challenges of this war, despite not getting nearly enough funding. If we were going for versimiltude, a VA hospital would just be, well, wrong. If Corporal Perry is at a VAMC, he's getting the best health care in the country.
At this point we were considered jettisoning that version of the story, but I reached out to some KFM readers who are either serving or just back, and some family members. That's when the challenges of the reservists dealing with private hospitals came up. There are serious transportation issues for some reservists when it comes to getting to their nearest VAMC for long term care. Not the fault of the VA, of course, but an unexpected result of having so many National Guard people serving. The Army pays benefits to private hospitals for injured soldiers who can't get to a VAMC -- but those benefits run out after X months, depending on the case, and the difference between what it costs the hospital to do this sort of rehab, and what the VA can do it for, is substantial. Despite some great programs being place being run by truly dedicated humans -- like any system designed by man and administered by the government, some people were falling through the cracks.
Ahh. A private hospital. The sort of place that can take a large, anonymous donation. Maybe not as large as we were planning on making in the script ... but close enough, and relevant to the real-world problems of our representative victim. Done, sir.
All that to create the framework for a good old-fashioned "eff" "uh" "keh" joke. I can't even imagine the crap House writers go through.
"The Two Horse Job" -- Which leads us to tonight's episode, written by the Wonder Twins, Rieder and Glenn. Unlike a lot of the episodes this one didn't start with a villain or vic, it started with the setting. Melissa Glenn is a horse-racing enthusiast -- well just a general sports enthusiast, actually, as are Albert Kim and Chris Downey, who were both at earlier points of their careers sports writers. It gets very jock-y down that end of the long writer's table. My end is all Doctor Who and WoW, so we balance out.
While R&G went and lived at a race track and hung with a trainer for a week, the Room pulled an old scam -- which you'll hear explained tonight -- off the wall of ideas. When they brought back their research and laid out the ins and outs and the revenue streams of horse-racing and breeding, we glued the two concepts together. R&G went off and knocked it out of the park. First produced script, too.
This is one of my favorite episodes because it does the job most of my TV favorite shows do: it takes the audience into a world they probably don't know much about, explains the intricacies of that world, and then exploits its pecularities for the plot.
It's also a favorite because it's the first appearance of Mark Sheppard as Nate's old rival Sterling. Some people, after the pilot, wondered how we would challenge such a (ridiculously) talented bunch of characters. Well, we wondered too. The recurring role of Sterling, the guy even Nate worries about, was introduced for just this purpose. And hey, when you've got a character required to deliver two and a half-page speeches in a mesmerising manner, you choices in television are essentially a.) Mark Sheppard and b.) Mark Sheppard.
This episode really lays out the template for the show going forward (although it wasn't written first. But that's the story for another time ...) -- They start with Plan A. Plan A goes wrong/requires Con B. Con B doesn't quite work out, or instead is really Con C disguised as Con B. At the same time this keeps our guys on their toes, it also set up one of the primary challenges of developing the show: we need to eat two or three heists/con jobs a show. Never mind the pain in the ass the five act structure is for this type of show.
That said -- man, is this a fun job. In the Comments, any process questions about the last few episodes, or your feedback on tonight's after you see it.
(NOTE: This is damned hard to do this without spoilers. Maybe we'll move it to the Wednesdays after)
(EDIT: ooo, production blogs are up. Which makes this post somewhat redundant.)