Slap Happy Larry

picturebooks, apps, eBooks, short stories

Tag: tv (page 1 of 2)

The End Of The Fxxxing World Storytelling

Listed on IMDb as a comedy drama, The End Of The Fxxxing World is a darkly comic coming-of-age tale with a major crime at the centre of the plot. It is also a twisted and cynical romance. The script is written by Charlie Covell, based on the graphic novel by Charles Forsman. Forsman is an American writer, from Pennsylvania. Covell is a British writer and longtime actress. You may have seen her in Siblings or Peep Show and most recently Marcella.

End of the Fucking World

STORYWORLD OF THE END OF THE FXXXING WORLD

How to adapt an American story for British screen, filmed in Britain?

Jonathan’s idea was always to try and do Americana, British-style. So if you look at the way Lucy Tcherniak and Jonathan both shot it, there are lots of nods to American TV shows, hopefully, and American landscapes. So we were trying to find parts of the UK that didn’t look quintessentially British – we filmed the finale on the Isle of Sheppey, and so hopefully there’s a feeling of expanse like you’d get in the Midwest. I think it was almost trying to do a Fargo-take on Britain, so they move from suburbia to an English version of the Wild West.

interview with Charlie Covell

Speaking of Americana, the audience is reminded periodically that this is ‘not a Hollywood movie’. Which is true — it’s a limited British TV series. The car isn’t going to blow up because it’s not a movie. Then it blows up. Both characters are informed by media they have consumed over the course of their lives. Alyssa’s behaviour is explained by her enthusiasm to watch the porn channel in the hotel room. She has no doubt been exposed to a lot of that. She’s seen a lot of crime shows (haven’t we all), and she calls upon her knowledge of crime fiction when deciding to clean the house after their murder. This gets around something all writers wrestle with — how to stop characters sounding like they’ve got their dialogue straight out of someone else’s crime fiction? One workaround, used here and also used in Thelma and Louise, is to acknowledge the fact that your new-to-the-life criminals probably did get their dialogue from elsewhere. Thelma repeats the souped up show-off dialogue of Brad Pitt’s character. Alyssa finds rubber gloves and bleach.

When Alyssa smashes her phone, this solves a big problem for contemporary writers, telling tales about people who would normally be fully contactable. This is fully in keeping with Alyssa’s character so it works. “I’m so glad I smashed my phone,” she says, later, reminding us that no one can easily find them. When we take technology away from our characters, the story immediately has a retro feel. This one feels almost like the 1970s or 1980s, especially with the style of Alyssa’s father’s jacket, and even the architecture of the house they break into.

 

STORY STRUCTURE

The big question introduced in the pilot: Will James really murder Alyssa? If so, how? This question sustains the entire series.

The voice over technique affords novelistic advantages as we hear the thoughts of Alyssa and James, juxtaposed against how they are acting and what they are saying. Watching The End Of The Fxxxing World is like reading a novel which alternates point of view after each chapter. A film which uses a similar technique is About A Boy, also British. Sure enough, both The End Of The Fxxxing World and About A Boy are based on books which alternate points of view.

In line with the ‘Americana’ aims, The End Of The Fxxxing World is basically a Thelma and Louise plot with young adult main characters.

  • Two characters go on a road trip, each of them hoping to have some kind of fun. One of them in particular just wants something to change — anything. She needs some kind of awakening.
  • Both Thelma and Alyssa are escaping domestic violence.
  • An initial rape scene ends with the other killing the rapist, who has raped many times before.
  • This is just the first crime in a series of others.
  • There are stops in cheap hotels, and other characters along the way, who they foil.
  • The characters they meet are stereotypes, which make our heroes seem more human.
  • One of the cops on their trail feels great empathy for them, engendering empathy from the audience, too.
  • After their last big crime, Alyssa, like Thelma, declares that she’s never felt so alive, or more like herself. She’s finally found out who she really is.
  • The pair look set to ‘drive off a cliff together’ (try to motorboat across the channel with no supplies and no fresh water), though that would’ve been too faithful to Thelma and Louise, so they change it a bit.

People who have seen Bonnie and Clyde have said this is the millennial version of Bonnie and Clyde.

See also: Comparing Bonnie and Clyde With Thelma and Louise

Road trip movies take the shape of mythic stories. These stories can feel episodic (and therefore lose narrative drive) because of all the different settings and characters encountered along the way. Modern audiences don’t have much time for episodic stories. So modern storytellers have to find ways to make their threads interweave. In Thelma and Louise, the Brad Pitt character keeps cropping up, for instance. In The End of the Fxxxing World:

  • Alyssa and James’s parents have never met, but they are eventually filmed sitting side by side on the couch. These characters come together rather than drift apart, lending cohesion.
  • There is plenty of conflict between Alyssa and James themselves. They spend part of the story each on their own. When they come back together, more cohesion.
  • It’s critical to have a definite end goal, even if they end up off track. This end goal has to be established early. (Alyssa’s father’s place.)
  • There is a parallel journey going on — in this series it is the cop duo, tracking them. Because they’re following the same mirrored journey, this gives narrative cohesion.

We therefore don’t mind that Alyssa and James briefly meet a number of temporary characters and spend every night somewhere else.

For another Road Trip story see my analysis of Little Miss Sunshine.

CHARACTERISATION

The writers of The End Of The Fxxxing World use a trick employed by Cormac McCarthy in No Country For Old Men. In this case not one but two unsympathetic characters are introduced. The girl is annoying but the boy is portrayed as psychopathic. Terrible though these people are, they suddenly seem relatively normal once they happen to break into the home of a serial murderer. Likewise, Walter White seems benign when compared to the experienced drug lord running Albuquerque.

Alyssa is not initially a likeable character, but she is is constantly fascinating. Like Lady Bird, she is far from perfect but she knows what she wants. She wants an adventure. She’s going to get her adventure even if she destroys her life in the process. (Alyssa is a more extreme version of Lady Bird of Greta Gerwig’s film.) Alyssa is a Thelma-character in some ways, but a Louise in others. By the end of the story she is a young Louise — we know she’ll be cynical and world wise now that she’s even seen through her Dad.

The character arc of James is imbued with comic darkness — he thinks he’s a psychopath. It turns out he’s not — his deadness inside has been a defence mechanism, which started the day he witnessed his mother drive into the pond. Through his relationship with the gregarious, assertive Alyssa, he learns that he is capable of feeling things after all. Tragically for him, he learns this lesson the moment he dies.

This series inverts a number of gender tropes.

  • When female characters break free they are very often required to sacrifice their lives the moment they achieve their aim, failing to break free at all. Thelma and Louise is a classic example of this. It’s so common it’s problematic, genderwise. Plenty of men are sacrificed in movies too, but not in this way. But this time James dies in a typically feminine way.
  • The cops are both women.
  • At the petrol station it’s a woman boss who is mistreating a male underling working in customer service, and who tries to play the hero by apprehending Alyssa.
  • Because Alyssa is so nihilistic in her own right, the show avoids turning her into some Manic Pixie Dream Girl.

In other ways, gender norms are not subverted. A disproportionate number of the male characters are perverts. James winds up sacrificing himself for a girl. Alyssa’s father is a stereotypical useless, uninvolved manchild.

The female cop duo are not in the original comic. One character has been split into two. This is interesting because in most paper to screen adaptations, characters are culled, not added. There is no romantic subplot for the cops in the comic. Their story mirrors the story of Alyssa and James, in a way. Neither is sure they really want to be with the other, but they are each drawn to the other anyhow, in a constant push and pull. The antagonistic relationship between the cops allows for dialogue about the themes: How much empathy and leniency do these kids deserve? Are they still kids?

James’s plan to kill Alyssa comes to an end after a few episodes. To be honest, this almost turned me off watching it. I don’t think I’d have continued had this plan continued longer. But when his plan is changed, he no longer has any plan at all. He’s basically a stunned mullet. It is Alyssa who comes up with all the plans from there on in. This is fairly common in a story with two main characters — one of them makes all the plans, the other goes along with them.

Alyssa’s father Leslie is a comical character — a tragic hippie trope. Portrayed as pretty dim, the joke at the end is that he’s not as dim as we thought he was — he knows enough to call the cops and get reward money. Jeff Kinney use’s Greg Heffley’s older brother in a similar way, setting him up as stupid, then rewarding the audience with the occasional ironic lightbulb moment where he seems pretty genius. Alyssa’s father is soon brought down again, because Alyssa is smarter by a long shot.

 

 

 

 

Humour and Storytelling of Kath and Kim

Kath and Kim is a satirical Australian comedy series created by Jane Turner and Gina Riley, which aired 2002, 2003, 2004 and 2007. There are a couple of movies, too.

Kath and Kim was remade in America but failed to achieve popularity. Kath and Kim is a specifically (pacifically) Australian series, though enjoyed equally in New Zealand, and not just because Kiwis like to see Aussies making fun of themselves! (It’s because New Zealanders recognise the same characters.)

What can comedy writers learn from Kath and Kim? Below I take a look at the humour of Kath and Kim taking cues from the taxonomy of humour proposed by the creator of The Onion.

IRONY

Any difference between expectation and outcome

Satire is the comedy of beliefs, especially those on which an entire society is based. Satire and irony are not the same, but they commonly go together. (For more on satire, see my post on irony. For the difference between satire, farce and parody, Quora has a good answer on that.)

Continue reading

Courage The Cowardly Dog: Doctor Le Quack

All of the Courage The Cowardly Dog episodes including Doctor Le Quack are set in a place called Nowhere. “Be quiet, Eustace,” says Muriel one morning, “you’ll wake the neighbours!”

doctor le quack amnesia specialist

 

eustace on the roof doctor le quack

This setting is perfect for western spoofs. Many of the Courage stories are horror spoofs but in Dr Le Quack we have the cartoon, child-friendly version of a wild western caper film.

GENRE OF DOCTOR LE QUACK

A caper story is a story in which the main characters pull off some kind of heist. (Also called a heist story.) A caper is a comic crime story. So, caper = crime + comedy.

The caper, also known as the heist film, is among the tightest and most focused of forms, built on a specific and high-speed desire line. That’s why caper stories are almost always very popular.

The caper is one of the most plot-heavy of all genres, right up there with detective stories and thrillers, and is designed to fool not only the opponent in the story but also the audience. The prime technique of the caper writer is trickery. Like a magician, you point the audience’s attention in one direction while the real action is happening somewhere else.

In heist stories (farce and caper), the mechanical plot is taken to such an extreme that the plots have the complexity and timing of a Swiss watch, and no character at all.

— John Truby

Breaking Bad makes use of caper elements e.g. At the beginning of season five when Walt and Jesse rig up an explosion to wipe out an incriminating laptop in police storage, and earlier in the seasons when they steal the chemicals from the factory wearing woollen hats with pompoms.

Western Symbolism In Doctor Le Quack

Western symbolism can be seen in many of the Courage stories. Here we have the story opening with the rising sun at dawn. While this is not specific to the western genre, the sun has symbolic meaning in a western. Though it has been used countless times in western movies and novels, readers never seem to tire of the age-old symbol of the sun setting on the cowboy riding or walking off into the sunset. Quite a few picturebooks end with characters walking off into the sunset, too. Here we have dawn breaking over the desolate plain. 

The sun can be a symbol of giving or taking life, depending on how it’s portrayed. The sun can break through and show brighter days, or it can be boiling hot and deadly if lost in the desert. Here, I don’t think it has any specific symbolic meaning. Along with the soundtrack and the big skies it is simply meant to convey the atmosphere of an old western film.

However, a rising sun in a story does indicate that this is going to be one eventful day, and that the events will conclude by the end of it.

dawn-nowhere

STORY STRUCTURE OF DOCTOR LE QUACK

WEAKNESS/NEED IN DOCTOR LE QUACK

Courage is cowardly. Nonetheless, he needs to save the day.

DESIRE IN DOCTOR LE QUACK

After Eustace accidentally hits Muriel on the head with a plank of wood Muriel loses her memory. Eustace takes this opportunity to get rid of the dog.

Amnesia comes easy in fiction. It is also conveniently specific. A taste of Applied Phlebotinum, a particularly shocking traumatic event, or even a simple Tap on the Head will be sufficient to make your character forget all about who or what they are.

— TV Tropes

He wants to get back into the house and do something for Muriel.

OPPONENT OF DOCTOR LE QUACK

Eustace is the first opponent but soon another comes along in the form of an evil French duck. As with the cajun fox last episode, this duck isn’t really French — he slaps on a French moustache which falls off later right before the main battle. I think the producers might do this because the same voice actor mimics a variety of different accents in parodic rather than realistic fashion.

First we see Le Duck’s lair. This is a Scrooge McDuck character, which of course comes from Dickens. His riches do not make him happy. He is collecting riches simply for the game of it, leaving bags of money just sitting around. He hasn’t even replaced his office chair, which looks as if it’s got a big bite out of it. This is a purely evil character motivated by power.

le-quacks-office

Then we see who is sitting on the other end of the computer.

le-quack-in-office

PLAN IN DOCTOR LE QUACK

Courage has already gotten back into the house by first trying to swing in Tarzan style from a tree, then with a pole vault.

courage-tries-to-pole-vault-inside

Eventually he gets in and via the Internet enlists the help of a doctor. Even the computer is anthropomorphised and has an evil personality of its own. These were the days when viewers were using the Internet for the first time and there was more mistrust than there is today.

internet-help

Plans change when it becomes apparent that the visiting doctor meant to help Muriel is actually a quack who wants to raid the silverware drawer.

The duck’s plan is to

  1. Knock Eustace on the head so he’s out for a while
  2. Torture Muriel until she reveals where her piggybank is. He can’t find any treasure in the house.

This is where the heist spoof comes in. The duck sets up a toy train track and binds Muriel up in rope reminiscent of a scene in which a beautiful young woman is tied to the train tracks. Instead of using this quite sexualised trope, the writers of this children’s story modify it quite a bit — Muriel sits on a chair nearby and the toy train throws pies in her face.

muriel-bound

le-quack-train-track

This familiar scenario [chained to a railway] first appeared in the 1867 short story “Captain Tom’s Fright, although a more rudimentary form of it was seen on stage in 1863 in the play The Engineer. However, it really entered the meme pool as a result of its inclusion in the 1867 play Under the Gaslight, by Augustin Daly. […] As bizarre (and horrible) as it may seem, this trope is Truth in Television. At least six people in the United States were killed between 1874 and 1910 as a result of being tied to railroad tracks.

— TV Tropes

The same trope is also used in games such as Red Dead Redemption.

red-dead-screenshot

Courage blows him up. When opponents are destroyed by Courage in this series it’s common for the opponent to say something understated like, “How annoying.” That’s what happens here. This feels a little meta. Why would the duck panic about being blown up? He’s a cartoon character who will bounce back to life before the next scene.

courage-blows-up-duck

When this doesn’t work the duck disgusts her by holding a plate of smelly cheese right under her nose.

stinky-cheese

Next we see a huge, muscled rat with tats appear in the doorway. It first seems that he has been attracted by the cheese, but when Courage pays him off we see that this has been Courage’s plan all along. The common sequencing in this story is that something happens, we worry about Courage, then we see he planned it.

rat-cheese

BATTLE IN DOCTOR LE QUACK

The final battle involves a vacuum cleaner. The duck tries to suck Courage up. But instead he sucks up all the planks nailed across the doorway and the whole thing blows up in a huge explosion, reminiscent of the explosions often used in train heist stories to wreck parts of a railway line.

exploding-vacuum-cleaner

The policemen Courage has tried to summon turn up at this point and stomp all over Courage to get to the duck.

SELF-REVELATION IN DOCTOR LE QUACK

We learn that this duck is a wanted criminal.

img_5895

NEW EQUILIBRIUM IN DOCTOR LE QUACK

We think the duck is going to prison. “We’ve been looking for you!” say the policemen.

le-quack-in-back-of-prison-van

But the duck breaks free — we get a flash scene reminiscent of something out of No Country For Old Men — and says to the camera that we haven’t seen the last of him yet.

le-quack-breaks-free

The Shadow Of Courage, Courage The Cowardly Dog

At first I wondered if the title “The Shadow Of Courage” were a riff on The Red Badge Of Courage but no — apart from the grammatical structure and perhaps some of the themes (of bravery vs cowardice) this plot line borrows little from the classic American novel.

THE SHADOW OF COURAGE TITLE

Shadows who disentangle themselves from their bodies are a staple of horror, and especially, perhaps, of camp horror comedy.

STORYWORLD OF “SHADOW OF COURAGE”

The Moon

Continue reading

Freaks and Geeks Storytelling Tips

Freaks and Geeks is a coming-of-age drama made in the late 1990s, set in 1980. Though it was cancelled after one season, that’s not because it wasn’t good. Perhaps the audience assumed  this was yet another high school drama done badly. This show did a lot of stuff you’ll have seen before, but did it extraordinarily well.

Genre Blend Of Freaks And Geeks

Freaks and Geeks is a:

  • coming-of-age
  • comedy
  • drama

This category of story is about the eternal adolescent quest to find out which version of yourself is the “true” one.

How This Show Is Different From Other High School Dramas

It doesn’t fall into the category of ‘cringe comedy’ even though teenagehood inevitably includes embarrassing scenes.

Lindsay's sceptical look

Lindsay’s teenage sceptical look

The creators were determined not to end each show with a typical “happy ending”. One notable exception is the pilot episode, which the creators purposely wrote as a self-contained story, in case the show was never picked up for production. This is also why you see a fully fleshed story in the pilot episode and why I’ve chosen to break it down as a story unto itself.

There is plenty of crossover between quite vastly different social arenas, with a main character weaving between all of them. (Though all the families are white.) Most high school dramas have set-in-stone cliques before the audience meets the characters, and the main character is usually an underdog, or a newcomer trying to work out which group to fit into (e.g. Mean Girls). Lindsay is more interesting than that, because although she’s not new to the school but she’s trying to actively switch groups.

Storyworld of Freaks and Geeks

Detroit

  • Fictional William McKinley High School during the 1980–1981 school year in the town of Chippewa, Michigan, a fictional suburb of Detroit
  • A middle-class suburban home near the school
  • The surrounding neighbourhood, including some rougher parts of town
  • The bleachers are a good place to hide under, to do things teachers can’t see.
  • The corridors can be either a walk of shame or a place to parade down. Lockers lining corridors also provide opportunity for characters who hate each other to get together, since lockers are assigned from above.
  • The guidance counsellor’s room is a place for moral questions to be posed and discussed.
  • Upper middle class (Neal) middle class (Lindsay and Sam) meets working class (Bill) meets military class (Nick) meets houseos (Kim).
  • The high school is a miniature battle field, where the mottos are about conquer or lose and men must be men. The school cafeteria is a good venue for enemies to be thrown together by force, as everyone has to eat lunch. Classrooms are good venues for characters to be bullied and victimised in front of a small audience.
  • The suburbs are cosy at first glance, with their manicured lawns and a 1980s apparent utopia, but dangers lurk around the corner, where you could meet your high school adversary at any time.
dining room table

This cosy scene feels stifling to Lindsay.

Freaks and geeks sam cafeteria

Cafeterias and corridors are particularly hazardous.

a walk down the school corridor is like running the gauntlet

a walk down the school corridor is like running the gauntlet

Lindsay is being asked to make big decisions about her life and has no clue. In 1980 there was a strong professional/working class divide.

Lindsay is being asked to make big decisions about her life and has no clue. In 1980 there was a strong professional/working class divide.

Continue reading

Are Crime Shows Becoming Less Sexist?

 

 

Related: Why Do We Love Grimdark TV? from Bitch Magazine

Since so much horribleness goes on in the real world, I’ve reached the age where I have no time for stories about men whose motivations are spurred by the torture and murder of women. I can enjoy a good crime series, but if the crime is going to be against women, I want to see a certain amount of female agency. Sometimes this agency comes from the victim/survivor herself; at other times the focus is on the women who work to solve the crimes.

In my middle age I am sick to death of stories such as True Detective, hailed as ‘dark masterpieces’ which are about the way men deal with the rapes and gruesome murders of women in their jobs, and with the nagging, unreasonable, one-dimensional wives and girlfriends in their real lives. Even a great show such as Breaking Bad unwittingly, I believe, turns female characters into annoying, nagging sidekicks. (Vince Gilligan blamed the audience for hating Skyler; after watching that series three times I’m now sure there are things he could have done, or rather plot points he could have avoided, to make the female characters more empathetic, if that’s what he’d been going for.)

Crime writers who base their plots around the murder, rape and mutilation of female bodies need to be especially careful to go out of their way to present live women as rounded individuals. FFS, it should be part of the damn contract.

The following shows are not about the murder and rape of middle aged men. Far from it. There’s still that uncomfortable link between sex and violence in here, and crime drama isn’t for everyone.

If, like me, you would like to enjoy the suspense of a good crime show but you’d only sit through slightly more female-friendly crime, here are three series for your consideration.

THE FALL (Belfast)

the-fall-gillian-anderson

A lot has been said about The Fall, which is what made me watch it in the first place.

See: You Should Be Watching The Fall, a Serial-Killer Show Like No Other from Wired

The Fall: The Most Feminist Show on Television from The Atlantic

This is a story comprising two short series, both available now on American Netflix. Gillian Anderson plays the SIO (Senior Investigation Officer) looking for a serial killer of women. From the start, the audience knows who the serial killer is. He is not the serial killer of the popular imagination. Gillian Anderson’s character has some great lines, which show she isn’t wearing the rose-tinted glasses; she knows sexism when she sees it and she calls it out. This is immensely satisfying. Needless to say, I really enjoyed it. Continue reading

Character Empathy In The Breaking Bad Pilot

Vince Gilligan, creator of Breaking Bad, said in defence of Skyler that if his audience sides with Walt, that’s on them. Not so fast. A large proportion of any audience is always misogynistic and that will affect their judgement of fictional characters. I was even sharing a doctor’s waiting room with a middle-aged white man who said with venom that Walt should have killed her.

But with Breaking Bad, hatred for Skyler White is also in the writing.

Skylar on the phone breaking bad

When a character in fiction  is required to do something very bad – something which any reasonable person would find morally reprehensible – and if the audience is required to empathise with that character (due to spending an entire series with them, say), then it’s necessary in the set-up for the audience to understand the reasons for the character’s actions. The audience must empathise, or else everything feels pointless.

Walter White is one such protagonist. An ordinary guy starts cooking up meth for money. Yet we side with him.

For starters, he looks like the actual human incarnation of Ned Flanders. ie Mr Harmless-And-Well-Meaning. (Walt has none of the annoying personality traits of Ned Flanders, which would turn him into an unsympathetic caricature.) Even Mr White’s name is allegorical: bland and ordinary and reasonably common. Even the W-alliteration of ‘Walt White’ is ever so slightly comical and emasculating.

What makes us take Walt’s side?

The Whites have a disabled but smart-mouthed teenage son and a new baby on the way. In other words, Walt has more than himself to worry about. It’s easier to identify with unselfish characters than selfish ones.

Walter’s brother-in-law is a good contrast because, unlike Walt, who would be happy with the simple things in life, the brother-in-law is a police officer who craves action and excitement. He is not compassionate. He takes Walter along to a drug raid to ‘get some excitement in his life’ but unlike Walter, who sits in the back seat with an emasculating white bullet-proof vest over top of his jersey and a worried look on his face, the brother-in-law is hopped up on adrenaline at the thought of catching crooks. The brother-in-law and his police partner even make bets on the nationality of the criminals. For them, drug busts are a game. They don’t seem to look any further than that. In contrast, Walt thinks things through intelligently, and the audience is guided through his thought processes.

On the morning of Walt’s fiftieth birthday, his wife dishes up vege bacon. Walt’s fiftieth is not cause for celebration so much as reason to watch his health. Walt doesn’t complain about the bacon. He understands that he is being looked after.

The son, in contrast, is vocal about it, complaining that it ‘smells like band-aids’. He then makes a wisecrack about his father’s age. The audience empathises with Walt because all of us worry about getting older (if we’re lucky enough to ever get old) and all of us feel we should be looking after our cholesterol (or something – there’s always something).

Walt is a high school chemistry teacher, demeaning because of the poor pay – and although he knows his subject matter very well, he is jaded after many years of uninterested, disrespectful students. The shot of the bunsen burner flame licking Walt’s face as Walt drones on to the class is symbolic of his later demise. The audience watches this scene rather than listening to what Walt says about the importance of chemistry; the fact is, Walt is not an engaging teacher. He has somehow ended up in the wrong profession. Walt does care about his students. This redeems him. In fiction, teacher characters can be in the wrong job and yet retain empathy with their audience, but they must basically care. (Mr Holland’s Opus springs to mind.) Many empathetic characters are in the wrong job. (Peter Gibbons from Office Space, Elaine from Seinfeld – constantly – not to mention many people in real life who wonder what it would be like to have chosen a different job.)

Poor teacher remuneration, and a wife who spends too much time on eBay, mean that Walt  must wash cars to supplement the family income. He suffers humiliation after two of his disrespectful senior students witness him polishing the tyres of another student’s expensive car. When the girl takes a picture of him on her phone, we suspect she’ll send it round the entire school, or upload it to the internet. We know Walt’s humiliation won’t stop there. (Not like the good old days.) Humiliation elicits strong reactions in both the sufferer and onlookers, so even when a fictional character suffers a humiliation, the audience cringes in empathy.

See also: Teachers in the U.S. Seem to Be Getting a Raw Deal Compared to Teachers in the Rest of the Developed World from Jezebel

Walt’s ordinary life and ordinary expectations are apparent when his idea of a pleasant birthday weekend is to take a drive to see an exhibition of photos from Mars. We also understand from this scene that Walt has a genuine interest in science. We suspect (and later find out) that he is very good at his (science) work. The audience can easily respect someone who is intelligent.

Walt’s wife is inclined to puts the screws on. I suspect many men would empathise. Skyler White displays many unreasonable expectations – common to wives in fiction – that enable audience empathy with the husband.

For example, Skyler chides Walt for being late home, even though he wasn’t expecting the surprise party. (How many times have you seen a fictional wife scrape a perfectly good – microwaveable – meal scraped into a rubbish bin?)

Unlike Skyler, the audience was there with Walt when the boss wheedled him into staying on at work after five. Next, Skyler gently but surely puts the screws on about painting the baby’s bedroom. (Room-painting seems to be a common source of antenatal angst in fiction – I’m thinking Juno now.) She’d do it herself except he ‘doesn’t want her standing on ladders’. This low level guilt-trip takes place in bed, and then she wonders why he’s not aroused. Skyler makes a thing of this. Another common trope: Lack of sexual arousal* is linked with general hopelessness, marital difficulties and loss of masculine purpose in life. (This situation is reversed in the final scene of the pilot episode to symbolise a reincarnation of sorts.)

*Is it just me, or is this trope used far more frequently with male characters than with female characters? Even in modern stories, lack of sexual motivation is not commonly utilised as a symbol for hopelessness and malaise in women.

But Walt does not feel sorry for himself even when things are bad. He collapses at work and taken away by ambulance, but still wants the medic to let him out on the corner. He doesn’t have good health insurance. Many could relate to this feeling, I’m sure. For those without good insurance, the prospect of getting an ambulance bill is almost as scary as the illness itself.

Then the kicker: Walt White is diagnosed with lung cancer, even though he’s never smoked in his life. We all know people who smoke like chimneys and live til a ripe old age. But Walt has just two years to live. This now seems the ultimate unfairness, and marks the turning point. Whatever Walt is about to do, the audience can now accept. We’re with Walt all the way as the straight guy ‘breaks bad’.

Will he tell his wife?

So many storylines would be stymied, if people only talked to their spouses. But no. The audience knows that Walt can’t tell his pregnant wife. In fiction as in real life, there is never a good time to break bad news. When Walt gets home, Skyler is on the phone with a credit company. They are in financial difficulty, as usual:

Skyler to Walt: Did you use the mastercard last month? Ah, fifteen eighty-eight at Staples?

Walt: Um, oh we needed printer paper. (It’s not like Walt is careless and extravagant with his money – this is a guy doing his genuine best, yet still, ends don’t meet.)

Skyler: Well the mastercard’s the one we don’t use. (Slightly patronising tone.) So, how was your day?

Walt: Oh. Fine. (The words themselves don’t do justice to this perfectly judged bit of acting from Bryan Cranston.)

Although Skyler’s eBay habit and her constant wheedling expose weak character flaws, it is also important that the audience empathises with her. And I do. How was this bit of storytelling engineering achieved?

Enter the sister.

Evil sisters are oft-used in fiction to highlight the good points in another woman. Skyler’s sister, Marie, is unpleasant in a low-grade but constant way. She is in competition with Skyler. Marie does not take pleasure in any of Skyler’s happiness (the baby) or success (the writing hobby). When Skyler says she’s writing a collection of short stories, Marie asks why she isn’t writing a novel. (Short story collections ‘don’t sell’ – another unwelcome reminder that the Whites are short on money.) Yet Skyler accepts her sister’s bitchiness, refusing to take the bait. This trait in a character almost always engenders empathy. Thus, as Walt highlights Skyler’s less attractive traits, the sister highlights her best points. Now we have a deftly portrayed, rounded female character in Skyler. We want the best for her.

And Walt’s multi-layered reasons for breaking bad have now been set up. So he gets on with the job of cooking up some meth. But even when Walt engages in something morally reprehensible, he demonstrates good basic principles when negotiating with his partner in crime, ex-student Jesse Pinkman:

“You and I will not make garbage. We will produce a chemically pure and stable product that performs as advertised.”

Endearingly, and ironically – given the actual danger – Walt will also set up an emergency eye-wash station, and wants them each to wear protective coats. He knows nothing about the criminal world, and thinks they just can rent one of those self-storage sheds. (The police are onto that, apparently, so they buy a Winnebago.) So Walter is a hapless criminal, which endears him to a largely non-criminal audience. How many of us would know where to start, if we suddenly decided to take to the underworld?

Walt’s incompetence is demonstrated later in the episode as we watch him trying to douse a rapidly spreading grass fire with a single lab apron, and later again when he can’t even manage to shoot himself with the gun. (I’m reminded of Llewelyn Moss of No Country For Old Men. Moss is another small time crook who engenders empathy by getting in trouble with criminals far harder than himself.)

Comic Relief

When an ordinary guy turns bad, it is appropriate that heavy/dangerous/violent scenes are interspersed with lighter ones. In Breaking Bad the musical score lightens up and the audience is encouraged to take some scenes less seriously than others. This is a little heavy handed for my taste.

The ultimate in relief comes at the end of the pilot episode, just as we realise (along with Walt) that it’s not the cops who are after him – it’s simply a cavalcade of fire engines, and they’re screaming right past him as he stands on the side of the road in nothing but underpants and shirt. The engines are off to put out that fire he made.

This comical scene happens right after a scene of heightened tension, when Walt tries to kill himself (and fails). When we realise there is no imminent danger, we are almost as relieved as Walter himself.

Yet when we first met Walter, we saw a crazy man in a gas mask driving a Winnebago with dead bodies in the back. He could have been a psychopathic mass murderer, and all those movies about psychopathic mass murderers have primed us to think he might be. But the pilot episode of Breaking Bad makes use of the bookends structural technique, and now we’re back to the opening scene. This time, though, we’re on the side of the drug cook.

For me, the writers/actors/directors of Breaking Bad achieved character empathy in Walter White. And what a stunning example it is too. I never thought I’d be rooting for a meth cook.

Also Interesting

TV Study: Stranger Things (2016)

stranger-things-banner

**CONTAINS ALL THE SPOILERS**

Stranger Things is a Netflix series created by the brilliantly named ‘Duffer Brothers’, out this year but set in 1983. Though I suspect strong ‘recency bias’, season one scores a very high 9.2 on IMDb.

The show feels like a mixture of Twin Peaks (with the missing kids and small community), Freaks and Geeks (with the three nerdy boys playing Dungeons and Dragons and the older sister trying to find her place in the cool group), something done by Stephen King, and Minority Report (with its sensory deprivation bath and freaky magic-genius girl).

Minority Report Stranger Things

The show also feels a bit like the computer games Don’t Starve and Minecraft, with its own version of the Nether (“The Upside Down”).

Don't Starve

Continue reading

Dollhouse Symbolism In Storytelling

Dollhouses in fiction serve various main functions:

  • Miniature representations of big, aristocratic houses full of furniture but devoid of real love
  • A mismatch between domesticity as we wish to set it up versus how it actually plays out
  • Fakery
  • Girlhood and naivety

The Tale of Two Bad Mice by Beatrix Potter

If humans could inhabit their own doll’s houses they would be small enough to observe, and even join — what? Few have handled this theme with any kind of realism. The Borrowers and the Lilliputians are not part of the human race; their traditions and customs are their own. S.H. Skaife’s The Strange Old Man (1930) makes the human characters small enough — by a reducing drug — to live in a doll’s house at the bottom of the garden and see nature as it really is. The insects, birds and small animals they meet are not at all cosy, and life is full of peril and excitement. It is impossible to pretend, when presenting a disguised history lesson, that the world is anything but strange, ruthless, wonderful, sometimes ugly and dangerous.

However, these animal societies that are happening somewhere in the grass or at the back of the cupboard or in a doll’s house are spoiled by human intervention. They really don’t need it. The most specialised branch of this kind of story, the Mouse Tale, nearly always includes heroic endeavour against giants — the humans — who have to be natural, real and large.

— Margaret Blount, Animal Land

See also: Tom Thumb, Thumbelina and Other Miniature Tales

Tale Of Two Bad Mice Doll House

The immortal line about the lobsters, the ham, the fish, the pudding and the fruit, ‘They would not come off the plates but they were extremely beautiful’, is a definitive summary of what all doll’s houses are like — appealing to the eye but firmly defeating all four of the other senses, as the two bad mice discover.

— Margaret Blount, Animal Land

The Dollhouse In Gilmore girls

Emily and Richard’s house is large but it is stifling. Presided over by a matriarch who can’t be civil to any of the maids, dinner must arrive on-time, everything has a place and it is even an historic home, opened to visitors at a certain time of the year. Lorelei’s childhood room has a creepy dollhouse and is full of frou-frou. This house stands in stark opposition to the house Lorelei has made for herself, with its mismatching lamps her mother disapproves of and her refusal to stock anything in the kitchen. The dollhouse in Lorelei’s childhood room is empty and unplayed with just as the bedroom itself and the large house is mostly empty due to the only Gilmore daughter refusing, for years, to bring the grand-daughter to the house.

Lorelai had a dollhouse while growing up in the Gilmore Mansion, which is kept in her old bedroom. It is one of the few things that she actually likes from her childhood. Emily later threatens to give it away to charity if Lorelai doesn’t take it from her immediately, but Richard delivers it to her house so he can talk to her about Rory. While Jackson is staying at her house to avoid catching the chicken pox, he accidentally breaks it.

— Gilmore girls wiki

Jackson’s buffoonery is ironically, darkly funny because the dollhouse is so precious, and the only item that connects Lorelai to her parents’ house. But Jackson probably did her a favour. Over the course of 7 seasons, Lorelai does learn (mostly) to untangle herself emotionally from her parents, and the American Revolution Aristocracy that her parents — and the big fancy dollhouse — represent.

Monica’s Dollhouse In Friends

Monica's doll house

The character of Monica Geller has quite a bit in common with Lorelai Gilmore, save their separate fates at the end of the series.

Monica marries Chandler Bing, of course and, unable to conceive, the couple eventually adopts twins and moves out of their apartment into a larger house in the suburbs to raise their growing family. The dollhouse (inadvertently?) foreshadows all that is to come for Monica. This is what she was brought up to do: to build a family in a standalone house. Monica comes from an upper-class American family and the ownership of a gigantic dollhouse is a symbol of that.

 

Pam’s Dollhouse In Big Love, HBO TV Series

Remember Pam, the nosy neighbour from across the street? Pam is naive enough to believe Margine’s story at first, that her husband died in the Iraq War (which makes her a good fit as a friend for Marge, who is obviously equally naive). Pam can’t have children, but her interest in building a family — a typically Mormon aspiration — is symbolised by her hobby, which is working on a beautiful and elaborate doll’s house. She’s spending hours and hours on this to fill the void of having no family to tend to.

Big Love Pam who loves dollhouses

But Pam’s dollhouse does more than simply depict the childlike nature of Pam, and the void in her life. The episodes of Big Love open with a high-angle establishing shot of the street, in a new development somewhere in Sandy, Utah. This makes the houses themselves look like doll’s houses. These adult humans are ‘playing’ happy families, when behind closed doors they are anything but. The doll’s house is therefore a symbol of ‘play’, contrasting with ‘harsh reality’. The setting of Big Love is an excellent example of an apparent utopia.

A dollhouse is meant to be looked at — at least, the kind of doll’s house Pam makes are decorative — and they are storybook in their nature; staircases don’t need to go anywhere; furniture is arranged to be accessed from only one side of the house.

Doll’s houses are therefore like a stage.

The furniture you find in doll’s houses is from another era. You don’t find computers, phone chargers and flat-screen TVs inside doll’s houses.

Doll’s houses are therefore symbols of a former time.

All of these aspects of the doll’s house make it an excellent symbolic object for use in Big Love, where image does not match reality, where the family lives in modern society with anachronistic values and where the ‘staircase’ (to Heaven) probably doesn’t lead where Bill Henrickson thinks it will.

My Summer Of Love, 2004 Film

My Summer Of Love is about a 15-year-old girl who falls into infatuation with a rich girl home for the summer. They sort of fall in love, though it turns out the rich girl has been immersed in an elaborate fantasy life. There is a dollhouse in the older sister’s room. The girls play around with it, not as children, but to find a packet of magic mushrooms. This is where adult decisions rub up against childhood fantasies.

Only when we look back on this scene do we realise that the dollhouse is also highly symbolic of fakery. Even the name of Tamsin Fakenham is symbolic.

The Doll’s House, Short Story by Katherine Mansfield

This story appeared in Mansfield’s collection The Dove’s Nest and is considered one of her more important works.

“The Doll’s House” is concerned with the difficulties of the child in coming to terms with the brutal realities of class consciousness and social ostracism.

The social attitudes of the parents are an important feature of the story. e.g. Emmie Cole “nodded to Isabel as she’d seen her mother do on those occasions”. Lil, when ordered away by Aunt Beryl is seen “huddling along like her mother.”

“Your ma told our ma you wasn’t to speak to us” says Lil. The Kelvey children accept the social division as much as the other children do.

Note the significance of the lamp – this is symbol of light, of awakening.

“The father and mother dolls, who sprawled very stiff as though they had fainted in the drawing room, and their two little children asleep upstairs were really too big for the doll’s house. They didn’t look as though they belonged. But the lamp was perfect. It seemed to smile at Kezia, to say “I live here”. The lamp was real.

The lamp symbolizes light – truth. It is a contrast to the material splendours of the doll’s house, and to the materialistic values of the stiffly sprawling parents. It is significant that it is Kezia’s favourite as she is the only one in the story who has the courage and kindness to reach out across social barriers. Note that Else’s words at the end of the story suggest that she and Kezia share the same values.

Tom’s Midnight Garden

This story is not about a dollhouse but I am reminded of the experience of playing with a dollhouse as Tom explores the magical realm:

[T}his was a great disappointment to him–he found that he could not, by the ordinary grasping and pushing of his hand, open any of the doors in the garden, to go through them. He could nto push open the door of the greenhouse or of the little heating-house behind it, or the door in the south wall by the sundial.

Broadchurch Pilot Episode TV Writing

broadchurch-poster

Broadchurch is a TV murder mystery in which a village is a miniature for society. As one reviewer points out, “the death which happens at the beginning incites all sorts of unexpected human behaviour, with repercussions all around the town. Initially the show seems to be making the banal point that the residents of this bucolic town are not what they appear at first glance. But they are not what they appear at second glance either.”

Genre: Broadchurch takes the classic buddy detective template (she’s by the book, he plays by his own rules) and gives the procedural depth by showing the emotional aftermath of an unspeakable crime (drama).

22 (actually fewer) Steps In The First Episode (using John Truby’s movie steps from Anatomy of Story)

Self-revelation: This comes later in the series, no doubt. For now we see the set up. Ellie has compared herself to the more experienced Met guy and realised she may not have what it takes after all for the job she so wanted. She has probably overestimated her own abilities as a detective because she hasn’t been significantly challenged.

Ghost — Alec Hardy has a ghost which may or may not ever be revealed to us (it never was in Casablanca, in which we never really learn why the hero left America). But it’s only hinted at. (Later we’ll learn he’s hiding a serious health condition.) But Ellie on the other hand, has been living in a kind of paradise world, symbolised by her returning straight from holiday. In a paradise world, a ghost is not possible.

Ellie’s inciting incident: A friend of her son has been murdered. The inciting incident connects Ellie’s need with her desire: She needs recognition and she desires to help her friends to achieve justice by finding out the truth. This is a good place to put the inciting incident, because Ellie just thinks she’s had the worst day ever, not getting the job she wanted, but then that pales into insignificance when the murdered boy is found. This plunges her into the most harrowing career challenge of her life. (Another character asks if she’s ever done a murder case before — she says no.)

Storyworld

broadchurch looking out to sea

The town of Broadchurch in Wessex, England, is bracing itself for an annual influx of holiday tourists. This is a quaint village right next to the sea. The sort of place where even police officers can enjoy ice creams while in uniform.

broachurch icecreams pier

The story world is an outworking of your hero. Detective stories, crime stories, and thrillers often set up a close connection between the hero’s weakness—when it exists—and the “mean streets,” or world of slavery in which the hero operates.

— John Truby

The Sea

A walk along a clifftop leads to a steep drop onto the beach, which is the scene of the crime, and sets up this town’s relationship to the sea: 

The sea has both a surface and a depth, and just like the ocean, this little town has that dichotomy; there’s the 2-dimensional happy, safe, low-crime surface contrasted against the murky depths below — the ultimate 3D landscape where all creatures are weightless and live at every level. In this story, the ocean deep is not a utopia but a terrifying graveyard.

— see John Truby

The oceanic nature of the story world is echoed in the camera movement as the pilot episode opens. The very first shot is of a choppy ocean. Next we have a camera ‘swimming’ around the neighbourhood, zooming in on various houses, panning across rooms, as if all of this town is underground and we’re seeing it as a fish. The oceanic colour scheme is even used in Danny’s mother’s room, which is painted out in an oceanic theme. This colour blue is seen again in the grandmother’s shirt, in Danny’s lunchbox (which he is not there to collect.)

The fish movement camera is used again as Danny’s father walks along the main street. He’s talking about mundane things with friends and acquaintances, but the music tells us something terrible has happened. Who is following him? (Us.) Much use is made of juxtaposition, as his exchanges are cheerful and they’re talking about everyday things. We see a poster for the Broadchurch Fair, presumably a weekly, light, fun-filled event.

Broadchurch is an ‘apparent utopia’. This village appears to be perfect, but the perfection is only skin deep. Below the surface, the world is actually corrupt, rotten, and enslaving. Everyone is desperate to put on a good face to hide a psychological or moral disaster.

Character desire is clearly established in the first episode.

Ellie Miller comes back from holiday giving out souvenirs when she is called into her boss’s office and told she hasn’t got ‘the job’. She wants a promotion from detective sergeant to detective inspector. The job has gone to a man. Ellie wants recognition and respect and career advancement. We know this from the very first scene. Compared to solving your first murder mystery, this is a fairly low-level goal, as initial desires should be. Psychological weakness: We get the sense that while Ellie may be ready for promotion in her small town, she is not sufficiently in control of her own emotions to do a good job. She needs to be paired with her opposite in order to learn. Ellie wishes to be called Ellie rather than Miller — a symbolic difference in how each detective approaches the job. Ellie can’t work without putting her personality into it. Ellie is a motherly figure, asking for ‘all the gossip’, giving out presents like stuffed toys and lipgloss.

Alec Hardy — Hardy’s reasons for relocation are kept from us for now, but we know that he has been shifted from the Met to avoid the consequences of some kind of scandal to do with a previous, high-profile murder case. Moral weakness: Hardy has no people skills whatsoever, bossing people around to get the job done. But the audience will forgive him for this, as he is very good at his job and cares deeply about finding the truth. No doubt Hardy and Miller will each learn from the other. Alec Hardy will be a fake-opponent, and we can see that from the beginning because his skills and weaknesses line up so nicely with those of Ellie.

Alec and Ellie are almost like the mirror image of each other. Normally in a set up the audience gets a very clear picture of the main character’s psychological weakness as well as their moral weakness, but here Ellie’s psychological weakness is highlighted whereas with Alec we get his moral weakness.

Beth Latimer — the murdered boy’s mother. We see her in her natural environment, getting her family off to school for the day — she wants her daughter to attend a school event even though the daughter is trying to pull a sickie. Then her desire changes suddenly when she is told her son hasn’t turned up at school (he was supposed to be spending the night somewhere else) and she is hellbent on finding out where he is. Then she is hellbent on finding out whose is the dead body on the beach. In follow-up episodes we can predict that she will be equally hell bent on finding out the truth. Beth is a bit of a ‘rule breaker’, jumping over the boundary police line in a panic over her son. (If a character can’t do that then, when?) The audience wants to see her do just that.

Olly Stevens is introduced in his work office — he is a young journalist who has just been turned down from the last of the big newspapers and now he’s stuck here in this tiny town working on non-event stories. Olly wants excitement, and he needs to prove himself somehow to get his foot in the door of a major paper. Moral weakness: He needs to start respecting other people’s privacy. He leaks the name of the murdered boy to the press even though his police officer aunt has told him not to.

Trendy young vicar — Moral weakness: using the death of a boy to spread the word of God.

Ally/Allies — Ellie’s main ally is a fake opponent, the new guy from the Met. Her husband is her emotional support. She is friends with people on the staff, though her boss has things she is not telling her, as evidenced by a secret conversation with Hardy while they eat ice cream on the pier.

Opponent — We don’t yet know who the main opponent is, but it looks like it’s going to be a web of people, including her own son, who deletes files from his C-drive as soon as his mother tells him his friend has been found dead. In the village we’ve also briefly met a creepy newsagent and a middle-aged misanthrope who is always lurking off to the side.

Mystery — Ellie must first uncover her opponents THEN defeat them. As far as she’s concerned, the whole town is on her side. In the detective genre there must be a mystery to compensate for the missing opponent because these stories deliberately withhold the opponent until the end. So we need something to replace it: the mystery of who murdered the boy. In a different genre, this would be when the opponent is introduced.

Fake-ally opponent — We have the strong sense that Ellie is not yet aware of the extent of hidden allegiances and deceptions going on in this town (helped with the symbolism of the sea). Her son may fit into this category, even if he’s too young and naive to be deliberately oppositional. Ellie’s boss may be a fake ally — in this genre the boss often ends up making things difficult for the spunky underling. Since fake-ally opponents are usually revealed after the main opponent (or mystery) has been revealed, we’re likely to find out what the allegiances and alliances really are in the next few episodes.

Reveals — Reveals are things the hero learns as the story progresses, and each reveal is supposed to be more significant than the last. Since this is a TV series there will be significant reveals much later on, but there will be minor reveals right the way through. Ellie’s first reveal: She hasn’t got the job of DI. But the guy from the Met who botched that other murder did get it, and she’s going to have to work with him. This is great, because the best reveals are about the main character’s opponent. Ellie’s second reveal: That the death of the boy is suspicious. Ellie’s decision: Her decision to solve the murder with her new boss will help her to gain the respect she craves, which means her new desire is a ‘bend’ of the original desire rather than a completely new one, which is perfect. (A river changing course.)

Plan — The new DI speaks clearly to the family and to the camera — he promises to find the killer. Ellie is along for the ride with him. There are bound to be problems along the way, with the audience wondering how these two can possibly solve such a difficult mystery. They’ll have to change strategy several times along the way.

Opponent’s plan — we already see the son hiding information that may be helpful to Ellie. But we don’t yet know what else is going on behind the scenes.

Drive — this will come in subsequent episodes. For now, Ellie is in reactive mode, looking stunned.

Older posts

© 2018 Slap Happy Larry

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑