Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Smash

Community and the narrative home base

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Over the past few weeks, my wife and I finally caught up on DVD with the first season of Community, a show that absolutely lives up to its reputation—it’s the fastest, smartest, funniest television comedy I’ve seen since Arrested Development. There’s a lot to talk about here, and I hope to dig in more deeply as soon as we’ve finished the rest of the series, but today, I’d like to focus on just one element: the genius decision to confine the action, at least in the first season, to the campus of Greendale Community College. The vast majority of scenes take place in one of a handful of sets—the study room, the cafeteria, Señor Chang’s classroom—and far from limiting the stories the show can tell, it makes the world in which it takes place seem all the more real. After only a handful of episodes, Greendale becomes one of those places on television that you believe in, and want to visit yourself, like the bar on Cheers, the offices of Sterling Draper, or even Downton Abbey.

It’s a brilliant illustration of a powerful tool that I’ve wanted to talk about for a long time, which is the idea of a narrative home base. I can’t find the reference now, but I believe it was Terry Rossio who talks about how, in a screenplay, it’s nice to have a single set or location to which you return repeatedly over the course of the story: for one reason for another, the audience likes to find itself in a familiar place. This is obviously true in television, which often depends on a handful of standing sets, but it’s also true of works of art that aren’t necessarily limited by such constraints. Looking at my own favorite movies, it’s startling to realize how many are built around the repeated use of the same location, with dramatic variations: Rick’s Café Américain, Hannibal Lecter’s cell, the apartments in Chungking Express and Blue Velvet. Returning to the same place gives the action a fixed backdrop to play against over time, allowing the audience to get its bearings and ground itself in the story.

The same thing applies to literary works. The most famous address in all of literature is, of course, 221B Baker Street, but it’s instructive to stop and ask ourselves why. With a few exceptions, notably “The Adventure of the Empty House,” it’s rarely the setting for any dramatic incidents; it’s simply where Holmes and Watson hang out. Yet it’s impossible to imagine the stories without that drawing room, with its cigars in the coal scuttle and Persian slipper full of tobacco, and fans have imagined its location and furnishings with astonishing degrees of obsessiveness. Eventually, it comes to feel like home. And it took me far too long to understand how useful a home base can be for immersing the reader in the plot. The Icon Thief jumps from place to place, and I think it works, but I prefer the approach in City of Exiles, with its repeated use of several key locations. And it’s no accident that I learned this from Mad Men.

This may, in fact, be one of the two great lessons—along with the power of ensembles—that television has to teach us. Setting most of your action in a fixed number of places is a constraint, yes, but it also allows you to focus on what really matters, a form of writerly discipline that will hopefully pay off in the narrative itself. Imagine how much more interesting Smash would be, for instance, if it took place, like Community, entirely in a few locations—the theater, the dance studio, the writers’ office—with details about the characters’ offstage lives sketched in on the fly. That way, we’d pick up information in passing, instead of cutting away to tiresome subplots, and the focus of the series would stay where it belongs. Because focus is what the narrative home base is all about: storytelling is really about creating places to explore, so it’s all the more important, when possible, to stick to the places that count.

Written by nevalalee

February 21, 2012 at 10:01 am

Smash through a writer’s eyes

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It’s safe to say that of the millions of viewers who tuned in last night for the premiere of NBC’s Smash, few were hoping to see a show about a couple of writers. The deluge of ads that aired during the Super Bowl promise an old-fashioned backstage melodrama, and on that count, the series delivers. (Perhaps a little too well—even given the disorderly nature of most network pilots, it has at least one personal subplot too many.) But I decided to check out the show for somewhat different reasons, which means that I’m going to ignore most of its other attractions, including the very fetching Katharine McPhee, to talk about a version of Smash that doesn’t exist yet, and probably never will. Because as farfetched as it might seem, this show represents the best chance we’ve had in a long time for a series about what I modestly think is the most interesting subject in the world, which is the creative process at work.

For obvious reasons, most movies or TV shows about writers aren’t very good. This is partially because a writer’s life doesn’t lend itself to visual storytelling, unless you’re going to indulge in frequent fantasy sequences—as Smash is clearly quite willing to do. It’s solitary work, without a lot of dramatic moments, and it doesn’t lend itself to neat character arcs. The movies like to pretend that there’s an intimate relationship between an artist’s life and work, but in fact, there’s often no correlation between the two. Writers can produce their best work on lousy personal days, and vice versa; most attempts to write biographies of Shakespeare (or, even less forgivably, the Earl of Oxford) based on clues from the plays founder on the fact that he didn’t necessarily write tragedies when he was miserable, or comedies when he was happy. A writer’s life, perhaps ironically, is doomed to frustrate most of our expectations about good storytelling.

When you have two writers in the room, however, that’s something else entirely. It’s no accident that the best works of art about the creative process often center on a collaborative relationship, which generally means some form of theater. I’m thinking of The Red Shoes, of course, which is my favorite movie of all time, but also of works as different as Topsy-Turvy and The Dick Van Dyke Showthe latter of which made writing for television seem like the coolest job around. And while it’s far too early to include Smash in that select company, there are some positive signs. We have a very appealing pair of writers in Debra Messing and Christian Borle, who, to my eyes, are the real stars of this show. If nothing else, Messing and Borle have real chemistry—which is more than I can say for McPhee and her ambiguously gay boyfriend—and in their scenes together in the pilot, I saw a glimpse of a show that I could learn to love.

Of course, this isn’t necessarily the show that creator Theresa Rebeck has in mind—although her recent interview with the A.V. Club was very promising. And we’re probably going to see many more fantasy musical numbers and karaoke scenes before we plunge any deeper into a writer’s inner life. But the producers of any television show are writers, first and foremost, and there are moments in the Smash pilot that feel like closely observed moments of what it means to write for Broadway. Messing is initially skeptical of the idea of a musical based on the life of Marilyn Monroe, for instance, until she realizes that it will give her a chance to write a baseball number—and I suspect that all writers have been drawn to projects for equally random reasons. This leads to the truest moment in the pilot, when Messing confesses her real reason for wanting to write Marilyn: “I don’t want anyone else to do her.”  That’s a sentiment that any writer can recognize. And if Smash can follow up on these hints, it could become something really special.

Written by nevalalee

February 7, 2012 at 10:57 am

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