TV REVIEW: What We Do in the Shadows Season 1

written by David Steffen

What We Do in the Shadows is an original TV series, a spinoff of the 2014 movie of the same title (reviewed here). Season one aired on FX between March 2019 and May 2019, and it has been renewed for a second season, airing soon.

Similar to the movie, the format of the TV series is a comedy/horror mockumentary following vampire flatmates, in this case in Staten Island in New York City, rather than Wellington, New Zealand.

Nandor the Relentless (Kayvan Novak) considers himself the leader of the group, originally a solder of the Ottoman Empire. Nadja (Natasia Demitriou) is the woman of the group, often more practical than the others (my favorite of the group). Laszlo (Matt Berry) was originally an English nobleman, turned to a vampire by Nadja. Colin Robinson (Mark Proksch) is an energy vampire that drains people’s life essences by boring or enraging them, and his abilities even work on vampires. Guillermo (Harvey Guillén) is Nandor’s human familiar, who runs daytime errands for his master in return for the promise of being turned into a vampire.

The TV series has a very similar sense of humor to the movie, while expanding the worldbuilding and premise, such as the adding the existence of energy vampires, and more about the vampire social hierarchy when a high-ranking vampire comes to visit. The cast and the writing are fabulous and I will be very happy to watch more of this show as it airs.

TV REVIEW: Wayward Pines Season 2

written by David Steffen

Wayward Pines was a weird speculative mystery/thriller show that aired as ten episodes in the summer of 2015–see my review of that season here.  At the time that it aired it was unclear whether it was going to be a standalone miniseries or whether there would be a second season–the ending wrapped up a lot of things but left a route to continue the story if it were desired.  And, (obviously, given the title of the article) it did return for a second season in the summer of 2016.

Season 1 of the show was based fairly closely on the Wayward Pines trilogy by Blake Crouch (spoilers for the books and for season 1 here).  In that segment of the story, Secret Service agent Ethan Burke travels to Wayward Pines, Idaho to investigate the disappearance of two other agents.  But the town seems to have no escape–everyone there is living under obscure rules under penalty of death and the road leading into town doesn’t lead back out again, and there are monsters at the gate.  Throughout the course of the season (or the three books) he discovers that he did not just travel to Idaho–he was abducted and put into cryogenic sleep for almost two thousand years.  David Pilcher, scientist and genius, had discovered that the human genome was becoming corrupted by pollutants and human beings were mutating into something entirely different–he had started a secret project to put a thousand people into cryogenic storage to wait through the consequences and come out on the other side.  But in the future the creatures that had been humanity were still out there in the form of mutated violent monsters he named aberrations (aka abbies).  He rebuilt Wayward Pines from the ground up as a stronghold against the abbies, waking people up from their cryogenic sleep to populate the town under the pretense that it is still the 20th century.  Eventually Ethan learns of all of this and reveals the truth to the town–Pilcher lets the abbies into town as punishment for this betrayal and the first season ends shortly after Ethan sacrifices his life to save the town from the abbies.  But history repeats itself and the First Generation raised in the town seizes control of the town and starts a new regime.

Though Season 1 was mostly based pretty closely on the books, the ending of season 1 leaves no room to stick to the same story and so, unsurprisingly, it diverges wildly.  The protagonist of this season is a new character who has just been woken from cryo for the first time–a surgeon named Theo Yedlin who was abducted without his knowledge as most of the residents of the town has been.  Shortly after he reunites with his wife, who is behaving oddly for reasons he doesn’t understand.  The Wayward Pines that he wakes to is one controlled by the First Generation who have forced a much firmer and overt control than had been visible in season 1, even with uniforms reminiscient of Nazi Germany military uniforms.  Jason Higgins is leader of this group, a young man raised in Wayward Pines, trying to enforce control in the town as best he can.

Ethan Burke’s son Ben is alive and the leader of a pocket of resistance against the First Generation leadership.  He is offered some protection form the fact that he too is considered part of the First Generation and they are all forbidden to harm one another by the rules of the town.

Adam Hassler returns from the wilderness where he has been on a years’ long mission to explore deep into abby territory.

The abbies are shower greater signs of organization, assaulting the electric fence that protects the town systematically and strategically.  Most townspeople don’t believe the evidence, but others are very nervous about where this is going.

The ground inside the town limits has gone sour, and won’t take crops anymore.  They have started growing some crops outside the town limits, and must protect them from abby attacks.

And they find an abby in town, a female who seems to be some kind of leader.  What should they do with her?

As you might be able to tell from this quite scattered synopsis, a big issue I had with this season of the show is that it is kind of all over the place.  Season two has only 10 episodes, and there are so many big ideas being explored simultaneously that it just feels unfocused and scattered.

Season 1 was pretty solid, and was based largely around the mystery of the town, and we started that season as ignorant of the current events of the fictional world so much of the show was trying to figure it out along with them.  In season 2, we start with a new character awoken from cryo who has no idea what’s going on.  But.. why?  We follow a character in season 1 ignorant of the situation so that we can discover it along with him, understand the strangeness and the danger piece by piece.  But… here we already know what Wayward Pines is.  And, while it makes sense for the character to have go through this gaining of knowledge, that part of the story felt like it was just going through the motions telling us the same story over again as if we hadn’t been paying attention the first time.  Not only that, but Theo in a lot of ways has an easier setup for understanding and affecting change in the town than Ethan had, because of Theo’s important role as surgeon.  His skills are rare and valuable in a town where medical experts are both irreplacable and in short supply, so he kind of ends up doing a lot of things that no one else in town can get away with–he tries to use it to make some good change, but still, it felt like he started with similar problems as Ethan had in season 1 but with a lot more immediate advantages.  I didn’t understand why they’d make that narrative choice when it would be more natural to escalate the challenges rather than escalate the protagonist’s advantages.

There were a few recurring characters, and some new ones.  There is some excuse for new characters to show up, despite the relatively closed system of Wayward Pines, because we know there are a whole bunch of people still in cryo who haven’t been woken up yet–so if they want to add a new character they just need to have a new person wake from cryo.  But, they also introduced a new character, CJ, who had been responsible for waking up periodically throughout the centuries that everyone was under and checking on the progress of the world to decide when to wake everyone up.  He was, at every stage, the first person to wake up and to start waking other people up, and because he had such an important role, in season 2 he is important enough to have major input into decision-making.  So… where had he been in season 1?  The real answer is that no one had made up his character yet, but his character as established should have been visible in season 1.  That kind of thing felt lazy and cheap–they could have found characters who all fit with the story as told in season 1, but sometimes they didn’t bother.  It reminded me of season 2 of Under the Dome, which likewise operated with a very closed system and yet they kept adding new characters who couldn’t possibly have gone unnoticed in the first season, because of lazy writing.

Besides that familiar throughline of the plot about discovering what the town is about, there are quite a few plotlines that are very potentially interesting, but there are just so many and they’re so poorly threaded together that major plot focus for an episode or two suddenly trails off without ever really resolving anything, and as the end of the short 10-episode run approaches there are only more plots all tangled together.  When the end of the season comes, it’s like… wait, was that actually the end of the season?  Nothing wrapped up, there is no satisfaction at completion of story arcs.  Did the writers know when the season was ending or did the makers of the show tell them to write and then abruptly ended the season 4 episodes early?  Or did the writers just have no idea how to make a satisfying season arc?

Some of the ideas here were interesting, but it feels more like a rushed publication of a truncated rough draft than like a finished final work.


Break Into TV Writing, The Time is Now

written by Carl Slaughter

What kind of alternative universe is this where there are too many writing gigs and not enough writers?

“BROADCAST NETWORKS ARE OPEN TO PITCHES†BUT WHERE ARE THE AVAILABLE TV WRITERS? †A non-writing producer told me he has never gotten so many “not available” answers from TV lit agents when inquiring about writers.”

This quote from Deadline Hollywood is from a few years ago and the number of networks and shows has continued to explode.

Not only has the volume increased, the quality has increased.

David Fincher, director of such famous movies as The Social Network, and Fight Club, was lured by Netflix with a hundred million dollar budget and a thirteen episode commitment for House of Cards, the hit political drama starring Kevin Spacey.

Fincher’s comment on the drastically changing landscape of television drama: “AS TELEVISION BECOMES MORE AND MORE LIKE LITERATURE†” [Emphasis added.]

Mary McNamara, TV reviewer for the Los Angeles Times, describes the phenomenon even more vividly: “The film industry is having a tough time producing anything other than franchise fodder and Oscar bait, while HIGH PRODUCTION SCRIPTED TELEVISION IS BUSTING OUT ALL OVER. Actors will tell you they follow the stories, and IT’S PAST ARGUING THAT SOME OF THE BEST STORIES ARE BEING TOLD ON TELEVISION. But actors and writers and directors, like most of population, also follow the love. And right now, audiences are in love with television. Truly, madly, deeply, and in ways difficult to sustain in film or the theater. EPISODIC TELEVISION IS REGULARLY DECONSTRUCTED IN A WAY ONCE RESERVED FOR SHAKESPEARE OR THE ROMANTIC POETS. Meanwhile, the people creating the shows we’re all mad for are similarly lionized.” [Emphasis added.]

“The Berlin Wall was a thing of chicken wire and Kleenex compared with the barrier that once stood between film and television in America.” – Mary McNamara, LA Times TV reviewer.

I have counted seventy Hollywood actors, most of them A-Listers, who have switched from films to television. The studios are reducing the number of movies. Meanwhile, 48 television networks are offering scripted episodic dramas series. The only people outside the industry who can keep track of the number of shows are journalists on the TV beat.

Television is where the storytelling is and television is where the job security is. It’s only a matter of time before the likes of Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts join the party.

But it’s also only a matter of time before this situation equilibrates. The number of shows will decrease and the number of writers will increase. The time for print writers to make the transition is now.

The networks are not only desperate for writers, they are hungry for concepts. So here is an opportunity to not only make $40,000 per episode as writers, but to also create and oversee our own meaningful projects as visionary storytellers.

The TV literary departments of talent agencies have turned into a game of musical chairs. Agencies are laying off film agents and stealing one another’s TV lit agents in an effort to adapt to the television revolution. But I finally tracked down the key agents of the TV lit departments of the major agencies.

Josh Hornstock, UTA (LA); Mike Jelline, UTA (LA); Nancy Gates, UTA (NY); Ian Greenstein, Resolution; Katie Cates, Resolution; Mark Gordon, ICM; Ruthanne Secunda, ICM; Debbee Klein, Paradigm; Amy Retzinger, Verve; Roy Ashton, Gersh.

After reading the profiles of and interviews with these agents, I settled on Debbee Klein as the best agent to help print writers break into screen. Based on what I’ve read, she has the reputation and the stability and she’s client oriented.

I also recommend Ari Emanuel based on these comments in Current Biography: “Ari is relentless. There’s no more loyal a guy for his clients. He’ll beg, borrow, and steal to get his clients what he wants.” “With Ari, it’s all about the bottom line. In a business deal, he’s going to try to kill for you and it’s just going to be about putting as much money in your pocket as he can, until you tell him that there’s something else that’s important to you.”