Monday, November 24, 2008

JOSH takes off his laminated ID tag on a chain that hangs around his neck and hands it to DONNA.

(into phone)
Uh, yes...yes...yes.

DONNA holds the tag in her hand, trying not to show that it's the first piece of jewelry anyone's ever given her.
I'm reading television scripts again, but with the West Wing scripts instead. When I reached this quote from the second part of "In The Shadow of Two Gunmen," the season two premiere, I had to put the book down and sigh happily. This is what I meant in my last post about stage directions providing insight into characters. It's a small moment on screen, and a sweet one, that says quite a bit about Josh and Donna's relationship. This is from a flashback scene where they meet for the first time, and the rapport that made them such a popular part of the series exists already.

Here's a quote from the season two finale, "Two Cathedrals," that encompasses a much bigger moment on the show, the funeral of Dolores Landingham:

And during this we see that all of our friends are here. LEO, SAM, TOBY, C.J., DONNA, JOSH, BONNIE, GINGER, MARGARET, CAROL...with everything that's been going on, this is going to serve as a sacred 90 minutes. They obviously never had the relationship with her that Bartlet or even Leo did, but she was a friend of theirs and they worked in a foxhole and this is probably the only time they're given to come to terms that she's in that box.
One paragraph, and particularly the last sentence of it, perfectly encapsulates Mrs. Landingham's funeral. It's an admirable economy of words for a man with a reputation for being so prolific.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

TV + Books = Love

For my sister the fashionista, online shopping is about clothes. For me it’s about My wishlist (7 pages and growing) is a constant work in progress, and the (sometimes ridiculously) cheap books in the Amazon Marketplace make my life a better place.

My more recent Marketplace purchases have been script books, Buffy script books, specifically, though I did just place an order for one of the two books available for the West Wing.

For a few years I thought that I wanted to pursue a TV writing career after graduating. Now, most of the way through a playwriting class, it’s becoming very clear to me that dialogue has never been my strong suit and that I’m probably more suited for writing about television (hence the blog). But my interest in the process has not declined, which is part of the reason I wanted to read these shooting scripts.

I’ve always thought of stage directions in a very Shakespearean, straightforward way (all “they kiss” and “exit, pursued by a bear”), but that’s not at all what you get from these scripts. Character development, in-jokes and the love that a writer has for his or her characters…that’s what you get in the Buffy stage directions. And that’s what is valuable here, the way the writers see and talk about the characters outside of their dialogue.

This is not the first time that I’ve read a shooting script by Joss Whedon; there’s one for Serenity, in the official companion. I read it a few years ago, and while I’m a bit fuzzy on the details, I do remember laughing a lot, and not just at the lines that I’d heard so many times before (I saw the movie 3 times in theatres, the number limited only by the lack of opportunity in the small town where I go to school and my lack of a car at the time). Joss’s dialogue has always played with the English language in new and unique ways, and I’ve spent hours on youtube watching interviews with and speeches by him just to see what interesting sentence will emerge from his mouth next, so it shouldn’t have come as such a surprise that his stage directions were as playful and word-tastic as everything else. But they were.

I’m a bit of a traditionalist when it comes to the things I enjoy reading: novels, short stories, the occasional play, but there’s a certain charm to the way TV scripts are written, at least these TV scripts, that you don’t get with other mediums. Take this, from the season 2 premiere, “When She Was Bad”:

CORDELIA walks along with a couple of Cordettes. As usual, all the talking is done by

It was a nightmare. A nightmare. They promised me we were going to St. Croix and then at the last minute, they just decide we’re gonna visit Tuscany instead. Art. Buildings. Totally beachless for a month and a half. No one has suffered as I have suffered…

It’s that blend between stage direction and dialogue, where we jump right from what Cordy’s doing to what Cordy’s saying, that I find so appealing. While it probably could be and has been done in a narrative format, I doubt that it would work in the same way.

Though general opinion has it that scripts are meant to be watched and not read, you’d never know that reading one. When Buffy’s seldom-seen father utters a half-hearted "great" in the same episode, the word “half-hearted” would probably have sufficed, but instead Joss writes, “There isn’t much GREAT! in his ‘great.’” Later, when Cordelia refers to the core Scoobies as the Three Musketeers, “brief confusion crosses the faces of our heros [sic].” While the obvious audience of any script is the viewer, these jokes, subtle and otherwise, are not here for them.

But what is maybe my favorite thing in the entire “When She Was Bad” script comes toward the end, while Buffy is doing what she does best, slaying: “Then Absalom SCREAMS, and inhuman shriek that galvanizes the vampires (BOB, JANE and NED) into action. They effectively flank our girl, and Jane and Ned rush her simultaneously.”

“Our girl.” It doesn’t seem like much, but those two words say it all when it comes to the relationship between creator and character, between actor and character, and between viewer and character. Buffy is our girl, our hero, at the center of this, our show, and referring to her as such backs it all up, connects the script’s audience (not the episode’s audience) with her that much more.

(And giving the vampires, whose names are never mentioned in dialogue, who do not even have lines, names like Bob, Jane and Ned in a show where vamps tend to get names like Absalom, Drusilla and Kakistos…well that’s just a bonus.)

If, like me, you’re interested in the TV writing process, I highly recommend Jane Espenson’s blog. She’s written for everything from Buffy to Battlestar Galactica to The O.C., and she’s kinda awesome.