The Canadian TV show, “Slings & Arrows” is so good I almost can’t stand it. Three seasons, six episodes per season, and it is a gem. The writing, the acting, everything. There are many things worth talking about with the show, but my main focus, of course, is on the writing. I may return to this show in the future as I consider more of the techniques they use, but for this post, I’m just going to look at one particular thing Jen and I were discussing today. Very much spoilers, in case you didn’t notice the title of the post.
There is a delicious moment in the third season where Geoffrey, finally willing to see a therapist, sits down with Oscar’s ghost and has a conversation with him. The therapist wants him to pretend that Oscar is really there (obviously, he is) and they have that talk they’ve needed to have all along. It is heart-rending and hysterically funny, with the therapist making comments like, “You’re really good at this.” In a sense, it is the payoff we didn’t know we were waiting for since the Geoffrey-Oscar issues were introduced in season 1.
Note that: the payoff we didn’t know we were waiting for.
But then, in the last episode, something happens that makes me want to bow down before the writers as nothing on TV has since “Rome” pulled off the, “You too, mother?” thing. The payoff referred to above, which is complete, and elegant, and fulfilling by itself–turns out to be a set-up for the epilogue. Suppose I told you, “Then, at the end, one of the characters sits there talking to an empty chair and fills the viewer in on all of the ‘here’s what happens to the characters after the show’ stuff. Lame. Stupid. Artificial. Forced. Except, because of the set-up with the previous conversation, it is closure in several ways at once; it is breathtaking.
In other words, the writers manage to use a payoff as a set-up for the next payoff, which turns a cheap trick into an elegant device, all without the viewer realizing what is happening. It is a tour de force. I don’t know what I can learn from this beyond, “Some writers are really, really good,” but I know I’m going to be keeping an eye out for a way to pull that one off.
7 thoughts on “Slings & Arrows: SPOILERS!”
I’m sure you’ll have figured out a good way to use it in Incrementalists #3.
Vlad & Lady Teldra from the Darren Nichols staging of Hawk: the Musical – http://media.tumblr.com/e50b94283f8ad4650867fa097c20cbee/tumblr_inline_mkenzkbN6R1qz4rgp.png
I’ve not seen this show, but speaking in general, can you really learn any writing techniques from a dramatic production? Plot ideas, yes, but it’s always seemed to me that the actors make such a difference that you can’t really tell when to credit good writing rather than a good delivery. A stupid, artifical, forced scene with one group of people could sparkle with the right players. Here I’m thinking of shows I’ve seen live more than once, or stage shows I’ve also seen as movies.
So the short form is, how do you separate good writing from good acting?
That is an interesting and astute question. I think what we have are couple of pieces–a device (or trick, or story-telling technique, or what-have-you), and the means used to carry out the device. The means, in the case of writing, involves only words. In the case of theater, it involves words and acting. There are times when brilliant acting can make up for lame writing (some of Val Kilmer’s work in “Tombstone” is a good example). And we can all find cases where lousy acting ruined good writing. Most of the time, you need both the words and the acting skill to make a scene work. In the case of writing, you can’t rely on the acting to make up for weak prose, but you also don’t have to worry about those damned actors screwing up your work.
Certainly “payoff” and “delayed payoff” and “call-backs” &c &c exist in both forms.
So, short version: In my opinion, it’s different in execution, but some of the same devices can be used,
This got me to spend the past two days talking TV with my journalist friend who wants to write stories, and while he can’t outline three fiction books he’s read in the past year, his enthusiasm for various TV shows & movies is notable. If this gets him to start analyzing shows’ storytelling technique, it’s possible you’ll be responsible for creating a new script writer.
That could be good or bad, depending on the show. If I end up in purgatory first, I’ll save you a seat.
Truly great TV. Have you seen Due South? Truly NOT great TV but lots of fun.