Mental Vomit - Episode 1: A Hero Falls

WARNING - THis is kind of a rambling, thesis-less piece of mental vomit about character, story and why American TV sucks.  You are warned.

I deleted my Heroes Tivo Season Pass this week.

I realized while doing so that I actually stopped liking the show about midway through last season.  And I realized the reason.  They completely ran out of story, because their characters had peaked.

There is an old adage, that I believe comes from Plato, that story is character.  It’s not plot, it’s not actions.  It’s character.  Think about the stories that have stuck a chord with you and have become iconic.

Star Wars.  Indiana Jones.  Die Hard.  Wall Street.  Titanic.  Luke.  Leia.  Darth Vader.  Indiana Jones.  John McClane.  Gordon Gecko.  Jack & Rose.

Yes, you remember specific scenes and moments from those films.  But you wanted to be John McClane, not some dude in a building held by terrorists.  You hated Gordon Gecko, not what he did, but him.  You ran through the backyard chasing, or being chased by, your brother waving cardboard tubes at each other making lightsaber sounds.

All those characters had one thing in common.  Not that they were awesome, but that they were flawed.

Luke was a no confidence whiney punk.

John McClane was a mortal action hero, who bled and hurt.

Indy was afraid of Snakes.

And Gordon Gecko as villain, his flaw?  He was cool.  He was suave and likable.

Flaws are what make a character.  And characters are story. Ergo flaws are story.

And for the first two seasons of Heroes, their characters were full of flaws.  Peter Petrelli is idealistic to a fault.  So is Hiro Nakamoto.  Neither of their support structures, specifically Nathan Petrelli and Ando, are really there.  They are reluctantly drawn into the adventure.  This lack of faith is their flaws.  Claire just wants to be normal.  Even Sylar, who at first was painted as a single minded killing machine, turned out to have a hunger that drives him, similar to a drug addiction.

The characters were compelling and interesting.  They were given interesting things to do.  First, they had to save the cheerleader.  They had to save the world.  Done and done.  And all was right with the world.  They did some smart  things at the end of Season One too.  They killed Peter, or so I thought.  They banished Hiro to Feudal Japan, and basically take away his power.  And they sorta kinda get rid of Sylar.  And they needed to do all of these things, because they were up against the Superman problem.  That is the situation the comics and all the movies find themselves in, which is Superman, basically being un-killable, is boring.  That’s why it’s always with the Kryptonite.  Take away the powers, and it’s suddenly interesting.  It just stops being interesting after the third time.  Superman is boring, Clark Kent is interesting.  And that’s what made Smallville work.  It was about Clark, not Superman.

Peter is basically god by the end of Season One, and Syler his antithesis.  Not  necessarily the devil, because that has all sorts of other things that go along with it like temptation and the like, but basically it’s ultimate good vs. ultimate bad.  In their powerfulness, their flaws became irrelevant, and therefore a story problem.

And Hiro poses just as much of a story problem.  Time Travel is a pain in the ass for telling a good story.  Few movies have done it well.  Primer, Time Crimes, and Terminator ( 1 & 2 ) handle it well.  You can never be “too late” to do anything.  Ah, damn.  Cheerleaders dead.  Let’s go back in time 20 minutes and save her.  A good example is in Harry Potter.  Rowling is always throwing in little magically things as a throwaway to make the world seem more fantastic and whimsical.  In one book, a teacher gives Hermoine a trinket to travel through time, and she tells Harry she’s been using it to take extra classes.  At that point Harry should have punched her square in the face, taken it and traveled back in time to STOP HIS PARENTS FROM BEING MURDERED.

At the end of season one, a lot of these issues were resolved.  One guy is dead, one is lost in time, and one is unknown, but he is the bad guy, so the heroes will have a nice big challenge to overcome.  All’s good.  Season two, bring on a whole new set of heroes.  RIght?  Wrong.  No, those characters were popular, the actors who portrayed them hit it off with the audience, and in TV, you gotta not just make the audience happy, you gotta keep em coming back.  Which means NOT making them angry.

And that is the problem with serialized television.  The audience wants what it knows.  The creators want to give it to them.  And the networks just want to keep them coming back to hammer them with Nissan product placements.  But you can’t create good characters with an arc if the endpoint is unknown.  A story needs a good beginning, a meaty middle, and a satisfying ending.  Season one gave me that.  Season two, tried to recreate that same energy by focussing on some other characters like HRG and taking away Peter and Hiro’s powers, but it floundered.  If it weren’t for a single episode ( “Company Man” HRG’s origin story that I consider one of the best hours of TV in the past decade ) I would say that season two was a wash.

If you are doing serialized TV, you need an exit strategy from day one.  When Babylon 5 came on, J. Michael Straczynski planned it for five years of TV.  Not four, not six.  Five.  And up until 3/4th of the way through season 4, it works well.  But then, because the series was going to be cancelled, a whole bunch of story was crammed in to those last few episodes.  And they were good.  Dense, and felt a bit rushed, but good.  THen the series got picked up for a 5th season, and it’s stories had been told.  That’s why the fifth season kind of, well, sucks.

If more TV set out like this, which is more like how the British do it, serialized TV would be better.  So this is a plea to show runners making serialized TV.  Make a plan.  Stick to it.  Don’t just come up with a good idea for a pilot.  Come up with a good Season One.  And know what, if that goes well, goes on in season two.

And if that’s all you got, walk away and make something new.



VFX Screenwriting

I recently appeared on the On The Page podcast.  Give it a listen, because I'm bloody brilliant.  Here are the script pages I mentioned on the show.




My Favorite 10 Films of 2009 ( So Far )

10. Anvil! The Story Of Anvil

This is a great story of doing what you do for the sheer enjoyment of doing it.  Yes, Anvil had a lot of influence on tons of metal bands of the eighties while never finding success themselves.  And to a lot of people, they view this movie as something of a tragedy.  I view it as telling people you just need to be content with being, not with being successful.


9. The Cove

If you are in anyway human this movie will leave you sad, angry and disappointed in your fellow man.  This is an incredibly important film to see.  What I find most interesting is how the story is ignored by Japanese media and the local law enforcement cloisters off the town.  In otherwords, they know what they are doing is wrong, yet still do it.


8. The Hangover

I didn't know what to expect going going into this.  I heard from people it was funny, but I am not really a fan of what passes for cinematic comedy these days, so I was surprised at how laugh-out-loud this movie was for me.  This is a classic comedy that will be watched and rewatched for years to come.


7. Star Trek

How do you take a beloved franchise that has 42 years of history, satisfy it's rabid fan base, and make a movie that is approachable to people who don't know or actively dislike it?  Easy.  You throw it all out and start over.  JJ Abrams wonderful little flick was a great start to the summer.  It had great action sequences, a great story, and great, classic characters re-invented by a talented cast.  What's not to love?


6. Food, Inc.

Put the burger down and go see this movie.  Then realize how hard it is to get actual food anymore.


5. Moon

Quiet, introspective and driven by an amazing performance by Sam Rockwell, Moon is great science fiction.  It asks some serious questions about business, the nature of reality, and the true, high cost of energy.  A brilliant film.


4. Inglourious Basterds

Quentin Tarantino's best since Pulp Fiction.  Tarantino is a master craftsman.  His long, dialog driven scenes give this writer an unctuous treat to wrap my brain around.  What is truly amazing is how he managed to keep his style of dialog without modern pop references or even the english language.


3. In The Loop

I didn't think any movie this year would leave me laughing more than "The Hangover", but this did.  Classic British wit, wrapped up in politics.  The biggest problem with this film is you are laughing so hard you miss the next joke.


2. Up

Usually a film lets you get situated and settled in before they hit you with an emotional suckerpunch.  Not Up.  No, Pete Doctor hits you square in the gut with a montage that shows a mastery of storytelling I envy.  And it only gets better from there.  Plus, it has a zeppelin.  That makes it extra awesome.


1. The Hurt Locker

An unbelievably tense film driven by perfectly rendered, real characters wonderfully acted.  A brilliantly directed, tense film.  Go see it.  Then go see it again.  This is amazing movie making on every level and should be supported.  I don't see this losing it's top spot.


So there it is, my top 10 films of 2009 so far.  Here are the ones I am looking forward to for the rest of the year, and some look to be contenders for the list.  Some, like 2012, just look like FX fests...


The Informant!

Capitalism: a Love Story

The Surrogates


The Road


The Fourth Kind


Ninja Assassin

Up in the Air

The Lovely Bones


Sherlock Holmes



* Avatar obviously is disqualified from any of my "Best of... " Lists.






Thinking about moving my site over to Sqarespace.  Seems pretty cool.


Losing the Shirt Off Your Back

Let’s talk about show business for a second. Show. Business. It’s about entertainment. It’s about commerce. Both can and do co-exist.

I want to talk about business for a sec. There are many, many levels of commerce. Let’s take a simple item - tshirts, and examine them for a moment.

First, we will look at the world’s largest retailer - Walmart. They are evil, true. But apparently you can get a 5 pack of Hane’s t-shirts for $9.97, roughly $2 a shirt. Likely made by prison labor in a developing country, but you can’t beat the price.

Next, we’ll take a look at my t-shirt of choice, American Apparel. I appreciate the fact their shirts are made here in the US and their workers are paid a fair wage. And it is reflected in their price - $91 for 7, roughly $13 a shirt. More expensive, but their fit, quality and social justice stance makes it worth it. And anyone who has seen their ads, realizes they need money to start buying their models a sammich or two.

Then, of course you have the high-end, designer t-shirts. For instance, Armani offers a simple t-shirt for $64. That is for one shirt. Maybe the offer a three pack, but the loan application was too much of a hassle.

The price differences are interesting, because all three items are essentially the same thing - cotton shirts. What separates them are the quality of materials, the cost of labor and economies of scale.

A Hane’s t-shirt from Walmart is not the best quality cotton, the material is thinner, the styling is such that construction is faster and easier, and they sell millions, allowing them to sell for a very low price. The American Apparel shirts are made from a soft jersey, have a unique fit, and sell in the hundreds of thousands. The Armani shirt is interwoven with the dreams of orphans and sewn together with a needle carved from the horn of the last unicorn. At least that is my assumption, based on it’s cost.

What does any of this have to do with media? Simple. Network television is Hane’s. They make a lot of media, they have perfected how to do so cheaply and efficiently. And by and large, it is perfectly suitable. Anyone with an antenna can get this stuff, if they want it.

But sometimes, people want something that fits them better. Maybe made a little better. And they are willing to pay more for it. In the world of media, this would be your cable, especially premium channels, like HBO or Showtime.

And that Armani tshirt? That is your big feature films. For most people, going out to the movies is a special thing. They choose carefully where they spend their money. For a lot of films, they will wait till they hit DVD, or HBO, or even broadcast TV.

At each level, there is a cost involved, and that cost has to be paid, and hopefully enough profit to fund more.

Now then, we come to so called “new media”, aka internet distributed media. Right now, it can be segmented into three categories: repurposed “old” media, original produced content, and skateboarding dogs.

Repurposed media is like that found on Hulu and in the iTunes store. Stuff that was made for TV or the theater and sold online. This is much like the outlet stores. They have already made their money, now they just try to unload their inventory and make as much as they can before no one cares anymore.

Skateboarding dogs is that category which provides YouTube with 99% of it’s content. Skateboarding dogs, singing into web cams, and the ever popular people getting hit in the nuts are all, lets face it, just an episode of America’s Home Video’s without someone editing out the worthless stuff. There is no intent to make money, merely a hope that someone will notice them or will find their friend getting hit in the nuts as funny as they did ( we do ).

Which brings us to original produced content. This is a very select group. It is made up of that content which is produced exclusively for the net, and made intentionally for that purpose. Many podcasts fit this category, though some are repurposed content such as “This American Life”. We also have original webisodes, like those for Heroes and 24, and original content like Two Guys Drinking in a Bar or The Dog Files. Those second two are interesting, because they have an analogy in clothing as well.

I met my friend Lisa while working in the video game industry. She worked for a different company as a texture artist, and was quite good at it. We would hang out on Friday nights playing cards, but the whole time, she would be knitting. It’s how she relaxed. One week, she brought me a scarf she made. It was easily the nicest scarf I had ever had. Soft, silky and warm. It was also obviously crafted with care and craft. When it got to the holidays, I went home, and my mom really liked my scarf, asked where I got it. When i got back to San Fran, I asked Lisa to make my mom a scarf. Without even thinking, I said “I’d pay you for it!” Lisa made the scarf, and took my money. It wasn’t the first time someone had asked her, and it was worth the $40 when my mom got the scarf and called me up all cry-ey. Now, Lisa makes a living only making scarves, baby booties and the like. She’s doing what she loves, and her business grew out of a hobby. But if one day, she had quit her job to say “I’m going to make a living knitting!” We would have thought she were nuts and she likely would have not been able to grow her business fast enough to be sustainable.

This is the same as independent new media production. If you do it because you love it, great. But don’t do it to make money. Because you may never. Do it as a labor of love, but don’t quit your day job.

On the flip side, it’s not all about making money. If you are producing content, and enjoy the actual creation, that is fine too. My friend Craig loves flying. He bought a custom acrobatic plane, buys aviation fuel, paid for pilot lessons a while back. He will never make money flying and, in fact, spends quite a bit doing it. But it’s not LOST money. He is simply paying the cost of doing what he loves. So if you aren’t making money making content, but you love it, are you really losing money?