Thursday, December 29, 2011

LEVERAGE #404 "The Van Gogh Job" Post-Game, Part 1

... or "The Little Sidebar that Grew."

It's very easy to assume (and very satisfactory to play into the illusion) that TV staffs have these grand strategic plans for their season-long arcs.  Some do; John Wells runs an infamously efficient ship based around an ironclad development/writing cycle for each script.  The season arcs for each character are laid out on a big board, each development point pegged to specific episodes. I have never seen it, but hear it is both inspiring and terrifying.  There is a reason he is, if not the King of Television, one of the Archdukes.

Those types of shows are essentially shows about emotions.  People in conflict, or breaking down. End of day -- as Wells et al have nimbly shown -- you can drop a conflicted group of humans into any high-stakes setting and reap the entertainment crop of angst. Breaking Bad is about temptation and sin -- Walter didn't have to make Meth.  But the drug world is a great, high-conflict/high-risk crucible for an amazing staff of writers to use to show what happens, how a man breaks bad. Joss Whedon's shows are about identity, responsibility, family and failure -- it doesn't matter what setting he's in, it's just that sci-fi allows one to create extreme circumstances so to best draw out extreme choices and extreme consequences.

And then there are shows about systems.  Specifically, systems in conflict, or breaking down. Law & Order is the platonic example, although most mainstream crime procedurals live somewhere in here.  Disorder has come, sickness has come, corruption has come, and we crave the system to be set right.  We are there for the riddle, the puzzle, the "click" of the solve. "Ahh, that's the solution." "Ah, clever."

I am not saying there are only two types of television -- and even these two are very crude models.  But I would say that these two paradigms dominate. Even co-mingle.  One could call it the Squee/Clever Continuum.  All viewers and writers fall somewhere along the Continuum for what they like to watch and write.  Modern mainstream shows try to walk the middle of the continuum -- enough plot to engage, with characters charming enough to invite back into your house every week.  You're trying to flip back and forth just a little every episode. 

Its a very fine line.  You can't do emotional stories without characters and situations changing.  All "character" stories are about change. Too much change, and it's not the show you started watching.  You lose the people who want to see their favorite "type" of show.  Too little, and the show stagnates.  You lose the people who are compelled by emotional change.

This is even trickier to manage because writers and audiences rarely agree what the show is about.  Hell, define "about." 

-- sidebar within sidebar. If you want to know what the creators intended a show to be "about", you can usually go back and watch the last scene of the pilot.  In E.R., it's Noah Wylie sitting on the sidewalk, exhausted but changed.  It's going to be a show about how people survive this tumultuous, draining situation, and how it changes them.  I won't spoil the last scene of the Breaking Bad pilot, but it's stunning in its prescience right down to the final line of dialogue.  (Seriously, it makes me want to kiss Vince Gilligan on the mouth.)  The last scene of Leverage is Nate explaining the physics of Crime World, and how he and his crew are going to fuck up The Man.  This show is about those people punching rich guys in the neck.  Because they have Sinned, and Deserve It.

What's really kind of interesting is to go back and watch the Lost pilot. (Remember, the end of the pilot is the end of Ep 2*.)  It ends with Charlie asking "Guys ... where ARE we?"  That sets up the mystery of the show.  But is that really, eventually, what the show's about?  

I'd argue that's what so infuriated many people about Lost by the end of it. (Full disclosure: I really dug the show, and am show-business friends with a fair chunk of the ex-writers).  Was Lost "about" the people on the island (emotion), or "about" the mystery of the island (the system)?   I'd guess for the writers it was about unravelling those castaways' stories every week.  And sure, for a big chunk of the audience, that's what got them emotionally invested.  But mysteries demand solving, and as soon as the system of the island was set up as a mystery it became part of the contract with the audience. "Oh, there are mysteries!  Puzzles!  I'll pay attention over here, too!"  But if you don't then satisfy the puzzle-solving part of the relationship -- God help you.  Audiences are hella-smart.  Even if they're not conscious puzzle-solvers, the lizard brain knows it isn't getting what it wants.  That frustration feeds back into the character side, and before you know it fans are frustrated with both parts of the equation, because they're feeling that ... 

... ahh ... you know the best thing I ever heard, the thing I wish someone had told me when I was 20?

"Every criticism is the tragic result of an unmet need."

I think it's important when working in television to understand we are in the emotional need business.  The audience has needs, wide ranging and diverse, and ultimately impossible to satisfy universally and long-term.  So, in the end, all writers can do is write the show they need to write.  Most of our conflict with executives comes from the fact that their job is to get us to write the show the audience needs (which is, as we just discussed, unknowable).  Sometimes you get lucky and hit a primal need, and sometimes you get very clever indeed by realizing that there's an entire chunk of the audience out here that needs simple. (That's not an insult.  Simple is also elegant.  Just go read The Glass Teat and assume the "Agnew-ization of televison" is the preferred form of entertainment for a lot of older viewers in a morally unsettling world.)  Like politics and religion, both extreme ends of the Ahh/Clever spectrum are fertile places to recruit, with eternally unchanging disciples.

Even more muddling is that the writers themselves often don't agree what the show's about.  Leave aside the individual variations of the staff writers who've come and gone.  Downey doesn't see the same show as I do, as Dean does.  I would say Leverage is about authority, how susceptible we are too it, and how it needs to be checked no matter what.  I'd say Leverage is a show about CrimeWorld that happens to have broken people forming a family in the middle of it.  Dean -- and we've been friends long enough, I don't think he'd disagree with this -- Dean always pitches from the gut and would say that Leverage is a show about broken people forming a family that happens to be in Crime World.  

Downey and I have the closest alignment on what Leverage is "about".  Yet we manage to have one top of the lungs barn-burner every year on just that subject.  There's a running joke that his least-favorite episode from S3 is one of my favorites, and my least favorite is on the top of his list for that Season. And we're the showrunners

The kicker is the show benefits by all that tension.    

All this to say: the most emotionally charged, romantic episode of Leverage S4 -- which Wells or Whedon or Shonda Rimes would have spent ages building to -- was a total goddam accident.

Which we will get to in the next post.






*  FWIW, the end of the first broadcast episode of Lost is also a Charlie question.  We're looking at the airline pilot, snatched away by an unseen monster, now a bloody mess in an impossibly high tree branch.  Charlie asks "How does something like that happen?"  Another mystery question.

54 comments:

Anonymous said...

wow!

Innis said...

I hate to take sides in this debate, but I've been loving Season 4 so much because it seems to be hitting more beats about system. Nate's loft may be a more familial and familiar place for the team to discuss their plan, but the cold, dark, and beautifully blue Leverage Consulting and Associates offices where it always seemed to be night drew me into this story. I still get chills upon hearing "You don't need rehab, Nate. You need revenge." It's a character moment, yes, but one fundamentally about a character's relationship to the broken system he trusted.

Rogers said...

@Innis - there are no sides. There are only perceptions of what is right. In this case, of course, my perceptions are right, because it's my blog. :P

Geoff Thorne said...

Wait. The show's not about stealin' stuff?

Meagan said...

I don't know if I can fully express how much I love this post! I love hearing behind the scenes workings with tv shows and picking a writers mind is always fun.

Particularly, you hit the nail on the frickin head about writers and audiences disagreeing about what a show is about. Heck, it's a topic that always comes back around on TWOP.

Great post and can not WAIT to read about "The Van Gogh Job".

Sarah W said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
SueN. said...

Just out of curiosity, I'd love to know what your and Downey's most/least favorite S3 episodes are and why. Because, you know, I have this seriously unhealthy love affair going on with your brain.

Sarah W said...

I love these posts even more than the Q&As about the characters.

Everything you said works for all kinds of storytelling, I think.

(and every single one just confirms that I want to write for television---what the heck is wrong with me?)

Keith said...

The thing that makes Leverage work, is despite the differing views as to what the show is "about" you and Downey and Dean have enough of a common ground in agreement. That common ground becomes the sandbox of the Leverage verse, in which there's enough elbow room for you each to explore your own version of he show and have it still be Leverage. This is because you each agree on what the show is not as much as you agree on what it is.

I don't think that was true for Lost. I think at some fundamental level, no two people running that show were able to create a common ground. The sandbox of that world had no boundaries and so the story got muddled because it could be whatever who was writing this week's episode wanted it to be. So we got labyrinthine mysteries without satisfying answers, layer upon layer of character moments that ended up going nowhere and because no one had ever said Lost is A, B and C but not X, Y and Z, the overall story wallowed in its own potential to be anything and so was nothing. (on the up side, there's enough material in the seasons of Lost that, with some judicious editing, you could probably turn it into a dense, weird, little miniseries that could be satisfying. All it would take is someone deciding what the island is and is not).

Tangentially, I just watched The Man With the Golden Gun the other night, which is one of my favorite Bond movies. And it occurred to me that TMWTGG is one deeply weird movie, in a lot of ways that no other Bond movie is. But however silly and strange it got, it never became a parody of a Bond film, in the way that Casino Royal (1967) was. It stayed within the sandbox of Bond Films, it just unearthed a strange corner on the fringe full of psychadelic tropes and weirdness that most other Bond films ignore.

Kate said...

Interesting that you would reference John Wells, though - West Wing seems to meet your definition of a "system" show just as much as it does your definition of an "emotion" show. I think the people in the West Wing universe were important, but partially (mostly?) because at that point in time, it was really important to a lot of people to believe that those sorts of people were involved in politics on the national level. At the end of the day, as the finale of WW showed, new people replace old people but the system keeps running. Although maybe a show has to be a procedural for the system tag to be apt, in which case, WW definitely didn't qualify. And now I've talked myself back around to the idea that WW was an "emotions" show after all. Sigh.

Denny S. Bryce said...

Wow! I just spent a small fortune on a writer's workshop in Maui (okay, wouldn't skip that part:), but u summarized story vs structure perfectly with great examples that hit home - and I write paranormal romance - novels - not Tv or screenplays. If u ever get bored with Tv please join us at the RWA national conference, or I'll just have to boost my efforts to have more romance writers visit your blog. But yeah, I enjoy the emotion train usually, but so far Leverage has given me the perfect balance of system and emotion. Frankly, I think u compare quite favorably to WW - which had me on both sides of that fence. Can't wait for part II of this post.

xjill said...

wow, this post is marvelous!

Anonymous said...

I got to the end of this post and said out loud, in my empty living room, "What the f***?!" It was amazing and I was literally clutching my chest while reading; I hate that you ended it where you did, but I'm so excited about the follow up that I'm willing to forgive it.
I love a good story, regardless of the form, and so far Leverage has delivered episodically, seasonally, and serially. I appreciate the opportunity to get s sense of your perspective as creator. These blog posts are like getting an extra stories from episodes that I've already enjoyed.
I'm off to re-watch the last scenes of the pilots of all my favorite shows! Hopefully, by the time I'm done Part 2 will be up!

antisocialbutterflie said...

And now I want to rewatch The Van Gogh Job. It's a good thing that I keep the episodes on my DVR until the DVDs come out.

It is remarkable how well you've captured the dynamic of television in the Squee/Clever continuum. I am picturing something like a heat map rather than falling along a linear vector. As an audience member I know where I fall in the spectrum, preferring a decent balance between intelligence and character beats without becoming overly enamored by their own concept. Admittedly my tolerance for angst falls well below the average person's but it boggles the mind how some shows can't decouple clever from overly complicated character beats. It seems as though they assume that an intellectual audience member must inherently enjoy emotional turmoil.

It's this show's ability to fuse fun with intelligence that captures me so thoroughly. In that context I can embrace both your and Dean's visions as correct because that battle ensures a balance that fulfills all the facets of my needs as an audience member. As stressful as it might be I appreciate the checks and balances you have built into the production team.

Rogers said...

@Kate - tell you what, I think it's important to classify WEST WING as an Aaron Sorkin Show, not a Wells show stylistically. THat helps because -- and I can't believe I never really thought of this before -- Sorkin writes shows about how people and systems interact.

Calla said...

"Sorkin writes shows about how people and systems interact." - isn't that what every Leverage episode is about? The victims getting screwed by the system; the bad guys using the system to gain more power/money; and our crew subverting the system (previously for personal gain, now for getting justice for their clients).

Fascinating post!

In your copious amounts of free time, I think you should write a book about this stuff. (You could call it "Roger's Side-Bars" and all the chapter titles could be puns about alcohol and actual bars.)

jill said...

Between this type of post and the Nerdist Writers' Panel, I'm wondering why anyone would ever go to a writer's seminar (well, there is the Hawaii angle mentioned above...).

This whole way of thinking about writing is just about entirely new to me - as a former actor, I think in terms of character relationships a lot, and that is one of the things that has always impressed me so much about both the writing and acting on Leverage: every relationship is unique and specific. There is no one way people react to a specific character. For instance, nobody just treats Parker as generically nuts - Eliot came closest at the beginning, but it was SO not generic. He clearly reacted out of a space of "hitter identifying loose cannon which might create unnecessary danger." And then the series went on and 2 things happened: 1.) Christian Kane made incrementally different choices as Eliot got to know Parker better, and 2.) the writing facilitated that (I'm having a chicken-egg problem with those 2 items, I know it's probably not that clean, but bear with me). And the specific choices and defined relationships that each character has with each other character bears up throughout.

Which is a long way of saying "Good on ya, everyone. Good work."

And in case you didn't see it on Twitter, thanks again for the incidental shout-out about libraries in the NWP. This ex-actor and current librarian salutes you, sir.

puu said...

really wonderful post. reading your thoughts on writing has changed my approach to every television show i watch, and for the better-and i already thought myself a fairly critically-minded viewer.

happy new year!

Aloha Girl said...

Another WOW! here. I think this is part of what makes Leverage the most enjoyable television show I've ever seen. Fun, exhilarating premise; awesome cast; interesting, intriguing writing; and the chance to really step into another world via the communication from the creative side.

Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts and inside information about the process and the results. This is very inspiring.

Liz said...

Thank you for saying something I've never been able to articulate too well: the reason why I found the finale of Lost (and Battlestar Galactica, come to think of it) so satisfying. And why many people did not. For me, there was an emotionally satisfying resolution for the characters I'd come to care about. When I get that, I'm willing to forgive a fair amount of loose ends in the mythology and mystery.

Along those same lines, I LOVE Chuck, even though there are sometimes plot holes big enough to drive a truck through. And while I sometimes watch NCIS:LA and shows like it, there is rarely enough character story and development to keep me invested. I end up frustrated.

And then sometimes, I get lucky enough to have both character development AND smart plotting. Like in Leverage. Justified. Some seasons of Burn Notice.

Shelley said...

Great post! I love reading these sorts of "how it works" kind of things. Guess that makes me a "system" type. Sherlock Holmes, Leverage, Bones all great adventure/case story kind of things that happen to have amazing characters, too.

I've never been the 'shipper type. The characters and their stories are certainly important, and I want those emotional beats, certainly, but I don't need a whole story on Nate and Sophie, or Hardison and Parker. The fact their stories are wrapped around the larger con works wonders.

For me at least you have the balance of Squee to Clever just about perfect.

Kylee said...

Kind of flailing over this right now. Only because I was just explaining to my friend that there are shows with brains and shows with hearts and that the writer has to find the right balance between the two to get her ideas across and appeal enough to her audience.

I love character stories, but lately I've felt like a lot of what I've been watching was almost too relationship-driven. I suppose what I'm building up to here is a compliment because I quite admire the way that the relationships in Leverage manifest themselves a great deal out of the situation (or system, I suppose, because that is the catalyst for everything, yes?). It feels much more natural.

Anyway, I'm printing your post out. It's quite inspirational. :D Happy New Year! I can't wait for the second part of this post (I just rewatched the whole thing and squeed).

Kate said...

I think that's exactly what Sorkin's doing - and not just on tv, either (although the same holds true for Sports Night, for example). If you think about the stories he's telling (and the way he's telling them) in Few Good Men and even Social Network and Moneyball, it's always the interactions between people and systems, and more specifically the way each changes the other. I don't think that's necessarily what makes his stuff so compelling - the guy's just a fucking brilliant writer - but I think it might be part of what makes his stuff seem so different from most of the other shows out there.

PurpleOps said...

I went looking for the link for #116, and I found this post-game. Still want the link, but this post was fantastic and informative. Thanks so much!

The benchmarks I used to use for TV show evaluation were La Femme Nikita (original TV, not movie or the new sequel, of course) and Mission: Impossible (again, TV). LFN's creator used to say that if we cared about the mission, the writers didn't do their job; the point was to advance character development and the mission was the vehicle to do that. Whereas M:I was ALL about the mission (duh), and the characters were intentionally ciphers, except in later seasons where the later producers and writers were desperate to inject new life into the format. Now, Leverage was initially heavily about the mission, but more recently, it has shifted to being more about the characters, although the character subtext has never been too far behind.

Looking forward to Part 2 - and the link to #116.

Vir Modestus said...

"Sorkin writes shows about how people and systems interact."

Which is why, once Sorkin was off of West Wing and it was left in John Wells' unsubtle hands, the underlying concept of what the show was about changed to the point where they were no longer recognizable. Sorkin's characters could evolve because of their interaction with the system. Wells' characters got pummeled by all the crap blowing up until they're no longer recognizable as the characters they once were.

Sara said...

I'm with Meagan on not being sure if I can fully express how much I love this post.

Honestly, one of my abso-fuckin-lutely favorite things about reading your post-games and things like this is the undercurrent theme of different interpretations are allowed. I get so very irritated by creators who insist that just because they happened to create a thing, that means they are always right about that thing, like their interpretation is the only one that could possibly be valid. Which is just ludicrous to me. If you put something out for people to enjoy, you have to accept that people are going to interpret it in ways you never imagined, and you also have to accept that they're not necessarily wrong! Just because you didn't intend something doesn't mean it's not there.

I write (mostly short stories, nothing professional), and I was writing something the other day that utterly surprised me. The characters went in directions I had no idea they were going to go beforehand. And I think if you create something and have that kind of experience, there is just no way you can say just because you created it, you know all. Ten minutes before I wrote that story, 80% of what I would have said about it would have been entirely wrong, and I'm the one who wrote it.

Just. Thank you for this. It really made my night.

Anonymous said...

I want to add to what Sara was saying about other people beside the creator being correct. It is one thing for someone who writes a book to say "that's how I intended it and that's what it means" but when you create a tv show there are so many people who put there interpretations into it that the writer can actually end up interpreting what happened wrong. If the director and actors read the script differently than the writer meant when he wrote it, it can come out very differently, and be seen by the audience as something else.

pkate3 said...

Thank you so much for the insight!!

Anonymous said...

This article is mostly comments. Who cares what you inebriates have to say about anything?

mediatedlife said...

I love reading your meta stuff!

I'm a baby novelist, and I find myself paying closest attention not to the Writing! advice and pontification of other novelists, but of TV and movie people. Why? Because of posts like this.

IME, too often, people who write books get ridiculously pretentious about the whole thing, and don't actually talk much about telling the damned story/developing the damned characters. TV and movie writers, OTOH, have so much more pressure (not to mention a need to collaborate with other creative folks) that they've thought through the mechanics much more intently.

I spose the MFA snobs in the publishing world would find it horrifying that I give so much credence to people writing stuff for the boob tube, but screw 'em. Some of the best stories out there are being told visually, and I think any storyteller, of any kind, has something to learn from screenwriters.

Rvankempen said...

Just like the way you people can't prenounce van Gogh!

allison said...

I am a bad person for laughing for about 10 minutes when I noticed that the first two episodes of Lost were called "The Pilot Part 1" and "The Pilot Part 2," given that part 1 ended with, well . . . Charlie looking at a LOT of parts of the pilot. Bad, purposeful, punny joke? maybe we'll never know. :)

Anyway - fascinating thoughts from one of the minds behind a fantastically well-written show. can't wait to see the next part!

Kris said...

So Leverage is not actually about finding out EXACTLY what range of stunts Christian can do before the insurance people have an honest-to-god mental breakdown?

Who knew? ;)

Anonymous said...

Didn't know if y'all knew about this or not but this episode made #20 on the Buddy TV's Top 50 episodes of 2011.

http://www.buddytv.com/slideshows/supernatural/the-50-best-tv-episodes-of-2011-5525.aspx

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California Labor Laws said...

You lose the people who are compelled by emotional change.

Elsi said...

Dear Rogers,

This week in Latin America will be the showing of "The Van Gogh Job", but my heart broke when I read that Danny Glover is going to be on this episode. I was like how come a show about taking down bad guys is having someone who is supporter of Chavez that by the way make the lives of many I know miserable including mine. Here it is an article that you can read (http://www.foxnews.com/story/0,2933,274564,00.html). So I'm sorry I'm not watching this episode at all.

rights of common law wives said...

You can't do emotional stories without characters and situations changing.

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Those types of shows are essentially shows about emotions.

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Trista said...

Hey!

Leverage season 4 is finally out on NetFlix, and I've really loved Disc 1. Any chance you'll get to round out the post-games for this season anytime soon? :)

(Also, your episode of Tabletop was SO MUCH FUN to watch. Thanks :)

--Trista

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