Here’s how the story doesn’t end: TV adaptations that make it up as they go along

Something strange happened in Westeros this past season, something that’s been building for a while now: Game of Thrones reached the end.

Of the books, anyway.

Since inception, Game of Thrones took us places the books could only hint at. But as the show has caught up to the books, it began giving us scenes that had not yet been written, characters diverging from their pre-written path, characters we were sure were going to have to be around for a while longer … all changed. Done with. HBO’s Game of Thrones is now an offshoot of George R.R. Martin’s “A Song of Ice and Fire” series of books.

Part of this is out of necessity – the show came to the end of the books before Martin could write another entry – and part is that the writer/producers know where Martin is heading (he has told them). So loyalists to the books have just had to adjust their goggles and accept that this is the alternate reality version of “Game of Thrones,” and stop snickering with anticipation at how non-book readers have no idea what’s still coming. These days, even the book readers don’t necessarily know.

GameOfthronesTV’s rapacious interest in book adaptations has been expanding lately. Used to be if a book got adapted it was a movie of the week, or limited miniseries. Today, if James Clavell’s Shogun got made for TV, they’d want to turn it into a multi-season series, not a self-contained story of would-be conqueror being conquered himself. But today, novels are seen as springboards and not holy writ: As I noted in Between the Lines last year around this time, HBO’s The Leftovers went off its official reservation in Episode 1.

This is what’s been happening at CBS’ Under the Dome. Stephen King’s fat novel could have expanded to a full season, wrapping up with an explanation for the surreal phenomenon while still being an excellent character study and exploration of evil. Instead, it just began its third season – and according to showrunner Neal Baer, there never was any intention of it being a limited-run series.

“The book was always a diving board for a concept, as King made clear from the beginning,” Baer told me. “He said to his fans, ‘You know how the book ends. Don’t you want to be surprised and go for a new ride, rather than a slavish adaptation?’”

Despite what’s often said about this golden age of TV in the press, Baer does not see that TV shows have become “novelized.” “A TV series is not a novel,” he said. “It’s an ongoing evolutionary process where you see how something works, and if you like it you continue it and if you don’t you tweak it. A novel is there for eternity.”

UNDER THE DOME: Deputy Linda (Natalie Martinez, left) and her fiancé, Rusty (Josh Carter), find themselves separated by a massive transparent dome that’s suddenly fallen on the town of Chester’s Mill, on UDER THE DOME premiering Monday, June 24 (10:00-11:00 PM, ET/PT) on CBS.  UNDER THE DOME is based on Stephen King’s bestselling novel.. Photo: Best Possible Screen Grab/©2013 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved.

The idea that Baer – and his peers at Thrones and Leftovers and any other number of shows – may now think this way upends how books have traditionally been adapted. Yes, The Wizard of Oz book had silver shoes, not ruby slippers. Yes, Gone With the Wind has a different ending in the book than in the movie. But usually an adaptation that nods in any way to an original creation has at least remained loyal to the original words on the page or images from the author’s mind. If a tale enshrined between covers is merely meant to be inspiration, calling it an adaptation or a movie/TV version of it seems like bait-and-switch. In that case, it’s only being used for its name value, a quick-and-dirty reference mark to lure viewers in while at heart it’s ultimately going to tell you the alternate universe version of this story an author had in mind.

Should an author care, then, if that is the way Hollywood wants to visualize his or her story? Wave a large enough check around and truthfully, most wouldn’t mind. Yet it does subvert the entire process of novel-writing in the first place. In the future, will writers come up with their own multiverse ways of telling the same story, in the hopes one will snag a TV producer’s imagination, while going forward with a different version for his or her publisher? Is this how we end up with Grey by EL James, the same story as Fifty Shades of Grey but told from a different point of view?

A story can be told a thousand ways. And the author of the story has the right to tell that tale in as many ways as he or she can get away with. Hollywood, when optioning that story, also has the right to tell that tale however they see fit. But neither seems to be very loyal to the story, in the end. By turning a tale into just a brand name for whatever fits into an expanding bag of tricks, it’s harder to love that tale. Because it has no beginning, no ending, no depth and no heart. It’s just a storyteller, adding on chapters in the hopes of not losing your attention to the next shiny object.

A world without end.

Are you in favor of stories that play out far beyond what the original books suggested? Let us know here.

Space, the Final Frontier for Gender Stereotypes

Space heroines are few and far between in movies and on TV. While occasionally you get your Ellen Ripleys (Alien) and Princess Leia (Star Wars) the truth is women rarely make it to fictional space in any kind of leadership capacity. It’s like they’re spackle: We need a Not Man Character so let’s put her … here. That’s how you end up with interesting, but not entirely inspirational, characters like Uhura (Star Trek reboot) and Kaylee and Zoe (Firefly). They may care for the craft or the captain, but they’re not piloting it or making executive decisions. And before you shout Star Trek Voyager, remember that the franchise sent its sole female TV captain into such deep space it would take 75 years to get home. Chew on that metaphor for a moment. Even Leia, with her royal rank, wasn’t exactly running the rebel force.

What’s behind all this? There’s an obvious “answer”: Space stories tend toward hard science fiction, and hard science fiction lends itself to male readers/viewers who – as we all “know” – would rather be infested with an alien than watch women run things. Hopefully, that’s not true. But to try and get to the bottom of at least some of this, I sat down with author Lisa Janice Cohen, whose space opera Derelict sold astonishingly well (over 8,000 copies in 2014) for a self-published book. It also happens to feature a YA heroine who ends up in charge of a crew of stowaways on a ship she never expected to be piloting. Plus, the sequel, Ithaka Rising, is due out June 27.

Turns out, space stereotyping is a two-way street.

Why feature a woman as your space heroine?

Lisa Janice Cohen: I like to play with stereotypes. It’s easy to come up with a computer hacker who’s male, and that’s default and cliché. I’m trying to take what could be stock characters and shift them, and I think it made a much more interesting, powerful choice.

And she’s not the only female character around, either, right?

Cohen: I describe what I write as space opera rather than hard sci-fi. That focuses on character, first; hard sci-fi tends to be about science concept and ideas and characters are often secondary. I was very careful with my secondary characters – there are many women in positions of power so even the commander of the space station is a woman; her second-in-command is also a woman. There are no gendered job roles in my world. What matters in this universe is your skill set, not your gender.


What’s the deal with most of the science-fiction female characters out there in movies and TV?

Cohen: Take Uhura [in the Star Trek reboot movies]. They created her as a love interest for Spock. That was her primary role in the movie. And once you define a woman’s role in relation to a man – romantic or politics – you’ve cut the legs out from under this woman. But Ripley is an amazingly strong character. She has it all going on. And the cynical part of me says that maybe the only way to get a fully-realized female character is to write them male, then cast them female. But if that’s so, there’s something wrong in that picture.

Do you think this belief that men don’t want to read or watch women, or see other men be vulnerable or emotional is accurate? Why isn’t it changing?

Cohen: I’m surrounded by men in my real life – I have two sons and my husband. Maybe it’s a biased sample but I look at them and my son’s male friends and they have a full, rich, relational life. But that life is not reflected in media for the most part. We talk about women being stereotyped, but men are as well – to the detriment of both.

So how do we fix this?

Cohen: I want characters that wrestle with their demons on all sides of the gender divide. I’m a huge Marvel fan girl; I am an embarrassment to my teenage children. But I look at Captain America and one reason he appeals to me so much as a character is he struggles with emotional attachment. He’s a much more compelling character than Iron Man. The character who can show me his vulnerability, that’s a character I want. They have to have something they can stand to lose. If you don’t have something you’re desperate to have, and don’t have something you’re afraid to lose, you’re just a cardboard cutout in a space suit.


What book should get made into a movie next, so we can see more examples of female characters done right?

Cohen: Try Lois McMaster Bujold’s Brothers in Arms, the Miles Vorkosigan adventures. It’s like Mission: Impossible in space. It’s chock-a-block with great female characters; she’s very subversive with all of these strong female characters who populate her stories.

Are we heading in the right direction, at least, for space heroines?

Cohen: In a future society we might be able to get past all of these clichés and society-imposed gender roles. What would that look like? That, to me, is one of the really interesting, overriding questions I’ve had.

You can find Lisa Janice Cohen at

Michael Jackson’s famous red leather jacket: How clothing in TV and movies is secretly telling you a story

Quick, now: What color is Jessica Rabbit’s dress in Who Killed Roger Rabbit? What color is the coat the unnamed little girl is wearing in the otherwise black-and-white Schindler’s List? What color is Michael Jackson’s leather jacket in the music video for “Thriller”?

They’re all red, naturally. The fact that they’re so immediately memorable says something about visual storytelling – and the stories costumers are telling without us even realizing it. But beware: The rest of this column is going to tell you things that cannot be unseen – even if they all seem perfectly obvious – and may affect how you watch TV and movies from here on out.

“Audiences are smart, and are affected by costuming, especially when they don’t notice the costuming,” says former president of the Costume Designers Guild Deborah Nadoolman Landis (who designed the costumes for “Thriller,” incidentally – more on that in a minute). “The frame is always designed. Color is an integral part of that frame, and it’s not an accident. We’re constantly painting a frame like a painter and looking at color, texture, silhouette.”

Story, we imagine, is about words. That’s true, but in TV and movies that definition expands – story is place and dialogue and character and a hundred other things, because the envisioned world is no longer in our heads, it’s in our line of sight. And the one color that will pop out better than any other on screen is, simply, red. For that reason, costumers are very particular about when they decide to deploy the red outfit (of course, they have to do it in concert with directors and production designers).

RogerRabbit“Color works to draw your eye into the frame, and is a very strong use of point perspective,” says Landis. “If it’s important for the director – for whatever reason – to get the audience to focus on a character you’re going to want to dress that character in a bright color.”

It seems so literal to declare, but it’s one of those details most of us probably haven’t considered before. But if a character is done up in red – or, say, wears a red scarf – you may notice now that everyone around them will seem a little more muted and dialed back. It is a signal, a red flag if you will, telegraphing that this person is important, that this scene is critical.

Similarly, other colors and other color combinations matter. Look at the characters in a scene: Which character’s dress or suit clashes with the other outfits or the room itself? A garish lime green in a room of muted oranges and autumnal warmth is someone who is out of sync, presenting conflict. No surprise then when that character behaves or speaks in such a way as to actually cause trouble. More subtly, characters who are friendly or cooperative will often dress in complementing colors, as if to say on a sub rosa level that “we are together.”

In the case of Michael Jackson, Landis (whose husband directed “Thriller”), it wasn’t just about getting Jackson to pop. Landis had to take in a number of considerations: “I had Michael Jackson in the dark; I know I’m going to design all of these zombies coming out of the grave and they’ll be dusty, shades of the earth. We wouldn’t put Michael in a black jacket in an alley at night; in white he’d have been in a dancing suit. Green was not appropriate, and yellow – he would have looked like caution tape. But red – that’s the color of blood, associated with the devil. It’s a reductive process, like a jigsaw puzzle. Pull away everything that doesn’t match and use what does well.”

A scene from Michael Jackson's "Thriller" video.

A scene from Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” video.

That said, costume designers are usually concerned with telling story that’s a little too “on the nose.” Yes, it is possible to put every temptress or bad boy into a red-hued outfit, but it’s also possible to overplay your hand. And once you’ve done that, says Landis, you’ve lost your ability to tell your story effectively.

“Anything that takes you out of the moment is bad for filmmaking,” she says. “It’s like when a movie has the most annoying music. As filmmakers, we depend on a suspension of disbelief. It’s just another storytelling tool.”

Landis spoke with me in 2012 for the Los Angeles Times’ Envelope; to read that article (also about the use of red in film storytelling, go here.

Contact Between the Lines here.

Sad Songs Say So Much: the Enduring Appeal of Songs that Hurt Your Heart

You don’t have to look far to find songs about sadness. Popular music of all genres has trafficked forever in lyrics that tell terrible tales, suggest dark motives and essentially insist that this we all live in a vale of tears.

The nice thing is, there’s usually a catchy chorus and, if you listen to psychologists, this is all good for us. Earlier this year, an article in Psychology Today noted that sad songs let us understand shared difficult experiences of “rejection, loss, unrequited love, misfortune or other themes,” and which gives us a perspective on others’ problems. We might have had similar experiences, which give sad lyrics a new resonance, but regardless that empathetic understanding is what helps us grasp our common humanity and, down the road, perhaps overcome our own troubles.

Not that we’re thinking about this when listening to songs like Pink Floyd’s “Comfortably Numb” or Metallica’s “Unforgiven.” But music paired with thoughtful lyrics has a way of worming into our conscious in a way little else can: We play our favorite tunes over and over, and even talk sometimes about how some snippets become earworms we can’t eradicate so easily.

While I’m a fan of a good, sweet pop tune like Pharrell’s “Happy” – I think anyone who isn’t must be a little dead inside – I get much more long-term traction from a tune that takes a seriously dark turn. Maybe it’s the aural equivalent of picking at a scab – it’s questionably good for you, but the itch you reach by listening again and again is deeply, instinctually, satisfying.

KellyClarkson-BCOYAnd a good dark lyric can even overcome some of my lack of interest in the music or artist herself. Take Kelly Clarkson’s “Because of You.” She’s just about as mainstream as you can get, from her “American Idol” success to her chart-topping hits, Clarkson doesn’t seem like the sort of musician who would write a song about being abused – and being forever changed by that abuse. But in “Because of You,” we get:

Because of you
I find it hard to trust not only me, but everyone around me
Because of you
I am afraid

Damn, girl.

Dark lyrics are often best approached when we’re in our darkest, loneliest times – when we’re teenagers. We may have friends we can talk to, but when the right song sinks its teeth into your spine, it’s hard to ever lose the feeling entirely. I’ll always know exactly how I felt when The Smiths’ “Last Night I Dreamt That Somebody Loved Me” hit home the first time:

Last night I dreamt
That somebody loved me
No hope – but no harm
Just another false alarm
Last night I felt
Real arms around me
No hope – no harm
Just another false alarm
So, tell me how long
Before the last one?
And tell me how long
Before the right one?
This story is old – I KNOW
But it goes on
This story is old – I KNOW
But it goes on

In that short space the band acknowledges that we’ve all had that dream – waking or asleep – in which we felt totally secure and loved, only to wake and find it was nothing but smoke. Then, at the end, the terrifically brilliant bit: the self-awareness that it’s an old story and maybe boring, but it never truly ends.

Noted Psychology Today, hearing those sad songs and thinking them through is like an exercise: We can imagine terrible real-life occurrences without having to literally experience them, and “such mental exercises can promote an attitude of problem solving and a safe venue for hypothetical testing of possible choices,” said the article.

julianahatfieldThis “music-evoked imagination,” at least in my case, sometimes went further than the artist may have intended. When I interviewed Juliana Hatfield about her 1993 single “My Sister,” she insisted it wasn’t actually about killing a wicked sibling. But I have my doubts; the song begins:

I hate my sister, she’s such a bitch.
She acts as if she doesn’t even know that I exist

She spends the rest of the song talking about how awesome her sister is … but then sister vanishes.

I miss my sister – why’d she go?

Because you took her out and wiped your memory of the incident! Or maybe that’s just my imagination going wild.

Whatever the reasoning, I’ve always been attracted to lyrics that twist and bend, or take us in different directions than just acknowledging how damn happy we are. Whether the surreal (Robyn Hitchcock’s “My Wife and My Dead Wife”) or epic (Gordon Lightfoot’s “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald”) or surprisingly frightening (The Beatles’ “Run for Your Life”) or literary (The Beautiful South’s “Woman in the Wall”), those tunes stir the darkness within year after year.

And, perhaps, make the real world a bit more understandable. As PT notes, “Music-evoked imagination can encourage us to reach beyond our troubles to help others. Compassion for others can comfort us and help us find our own healing.”

Or just a kick-ass playlist.

What’s the darkest song you love? Let us know here.

Remake, remodel: Mad Max: Fury Road and the delicious taste of a reboot done right

When I go to the grocery story for ice cream, I know exactly what flavor I want. Maybe I’m flexible on who’s making the flavor but in general, give me what I know I already like.

Ice cream makers aren’t the only ones in on this truism; advertisers are well aware that once consumers find something to our liking, we keep going back to it. Then movie executives got on the bandwagon a few decades back and boom – we’re awash in remakes, reboots and sequels.

Of course, when you’re pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into a two-hour entertainment venture in an industry that’s slowly leaking customers, original vision and story is not high on priority list.

Last week, the latest edition in how this tale plays out hit the press. On Thursday, Sony Pictures announced it would remake the 1996 supernatural cult favorite The Craft to much wailing and moaning among people who feel it’s a touchstone. (Confession: I have not seen, and I have no opinion on the remake.) Then on Friday, Mad Max: Fury Road premiered after a three-decade hibernation of the franchise.

Remakes and reboots and sequels, oh my! It’s easy to see why they get the studio executives excited; they’re a proven favorite flavor. It’s also easy to see the dismay in potential consumers, who’re left bewailing “why?” And while it’s less easy to see, I imagine there’s a significant disappointment in the creative screenwriters whose fresh stories are buried once again under the same stuff we’ve already seen. Hiring writers for remakes and reboots must appeal to those who like the strictures of fan fiction: Here are your borders, your canon, and a beloved lead character. Go!

The moaned “why” is not important here. Why is easy, why was decided by the accountants who saw that Craft made $55.6 million in worldwide box office with a budget of $15 million, and that the last entry in the Mad Max franchise, “Beyond Thunderdome” (1985) earned $36.2 million with a budget of $10 million. (And that one had Tina Turner in a skimpy mesh dress!)

MMFR-2The “why” that comes next, however, does interest me. Clever writers who avoid aping the same movie again can make or break the good do-over film. And while I can’t speak for Craft (though there’s hope in the indie horror director Leigh Janiak and screenwriter Phil Graziadel, who worked together on her film “Honeymoon”), I can address why Fury Road is the best kind of do-over film possible.

There are a number of reasons to ignore Fury Road, including:

  1. No Mel Gibson, perfect as the haunted title survivor. (Pretend the last decade of his behavior never happened.)
  2. The “Fast and Furious” franchise already has a lock on two hours of racing cars.
  3. Dystopic sci-fi largely has gone beyond shoot-em-ups.
  4. Ain’t nothin’ wrong with the first three Max films (aside from the absurd replacing of Australian voices with American ones in the 1979 original).

But having seen Fury Road, there are even more reasons to go see it. Fury Road is exactly what you want from a big, loud (very loud), dumb (not entirely dumb) summer action picture. The movement is nonstop, the dialogue is minimal but effective, and the visuals are jaw-dropping and original. It succeeds because:

  1. Original director and screenwriter George Miller has remained fully in the driver’s seat.
  2. He’s not cashing in on his creation; he’s re-crafting it for a new age.
  3. He understands that women watch action films – and has weighted not just his cast but his story in their direction

Was there a screenplay for Fury Road? Ostensibly yes; writers (including Miller) were deployed at some point to craft at least a skeleton of a story. But what they did best was not in the line-by-line readings, it was in the world-building of a post-apocalyptic landscape of little water, acres of sand, plenty of grinding metallic engines, and an abundance of shell-shocked, possibly insane survivors. The film is predicated on a brilliantly realized, layered world of intertwining backstories – white-faced creatures exist to serve with religious fervor underground; women are sequestered as breeders for the leader (or used as milk-producing cows); there’s a determined, take-no-shit female leader (Charlize Theron) who makes a bold break for freedom that propels the plot; and there are multiple factions of differently-motorized tribes scattered around the blasted landscape. Each calls out for its own film, or at the very least more explanations and explorations, but none of those are forthcoming. You are in this story, and the story owns the viewer from the first startling moments.

MMFR-3And the payoff works, for the most part. Angst, loss, determination, conversion, reunion, loss, survival. Max (played ably if not electrically by Tom Hardy) is almost beside the point. Instead, for this go-around Miller has used his Mad Max creation as a Trojan horse to tell a story today’s audiences will lap up like ice cream – a brilliant packaging switch that more than justifies the need for whatever this film is: reboot or sequel.

“We don’t need another hero,” Tina Turner sang in the theme song to “Beyond Thunderdome.” And she has a point – most remakes feel like a chance to capitalize off of an established franchise and ring that cash register again. Fury pulls off a magic trick with this new edition, expanding its universe and providing several new, unexpected heroes. That it will more than make its budget back should comfort the accountants, but it’s unimportant to those who care about story. Fury Road gives us the heroes we didn’t know we needed.

Contain yourself! Four shows whose “bottle” episodes are short bursts of perfection

Into the life of every TV series, a breather must fall. Here you have a successful plot engine chugging along, peopled by a beloved ensemble cast, all of whom who up every week to continue an ongoing story. But that can get tiring. Everyone needs a palate-cleanser.

Which is what happens when a showrunner and his or her set of writers step back and create what’s known as a “bottle episode.” The term refers to a self-contained episode within a series; technically, they’re supposed to be a money-saver since they rarely venture off of the main set (or even one room on the main set). But this is a lie – bottle episodes run over budget all the time.

What they really are is a chance for writers to crack their collective knuckles and go deep rather than broad with storytelling. The best bottle episodes are like one-act plays, taking place in an enclosed environment with a limited number of characters who may not do very much, but who undergo emotional or psychological changes. They are my favorite types of TV episodes.

Here are four that were done exceptionally well:


Star Trek: The Next Generation, “Data’s Day” (1991)

Written by: Harold Apter and Ronald D. Moore

Any discussion of the bottle episode would be remiss not to include something from Star Trek, the series that reportedly originated the concept (the “bottle” refers to a “ship in a bottle”; in this case, the Enterprise). In this episode, the artificial intelligence character named Data goes through a typical day in his life on the ship, narrated by his portrayer Brent Spiner. He experiences dramas small and large, but the script tells several small stories rather than a single overarching one that imperils a crew member/the ship/the universe. While no one would want to watch the heightened mundanity of a day in the life of a character each week, thanks to skillful writing and storytelling, plus the ultimate “outsider” character as narrator, the episode is charming and fulfilling.


Homicide: Life on the Street, “Subway” (1997)

Written by: James Yoshimura

How do you solve a murder that’s a kind of Schrödinger’s cat of a mystery? In this episode, which takes place almost entirely on a subway platform, commuter John Lange (Vincent D’Onofrio) is pinned at the waist between a subway train and the platform. His injuries are such that he cannot be removed without instantly dying, though whether he moves or not he will be dead within an hour. The detectives are tasked with trying to find the man who pushed him while also trying to keep him calm and track down his girlfriend so that he can make his goodbyes. The episode is moving and uncompromising – there is no last-minute save or easy ending. The best anyone can do is to find the not-yet-late man’s killer. The episode won a Peabody Award and earned two Emmy nominations (for the script and for D’Onofrio’s performance).


Law & Order: SVU, “911” (2005)

Written by: Patrick Harbinson

Though the show eventually leaves the Special Victims’ Unit precinct, most of the episode involves Det. Olivia Benson (Mariska Hargitay) speaking on the phone with a little girl who says she’s in a locked room. Tracking her down while calming her down is both harrowing and exasperating, but Olivia has to remain cool while marshaling all the forces of the unit to first determine it isn’t a hoax, then to actually locate the girl. Hargitay won an Emmy for her performance in this episode.

“When we finished the episode, I knew this was going to be nominated,” said then-showrunner Ted Kotcheff. “In 1967 I did a TV movie, The Human Voice, with Ingrid Bergman. She gets on the phone with a lover and off the phone. As her mood changed, the walls subtly changed colors to objectify her feelings…. The script [of “911”] did come to me because of [that film]: ‘Let’s put Mariska Hargitay on the phone for an hour.’”


Mad Men, “The Suitcase” (2010)

Written by: Matthew Weiner

Though not fully contained within Don Draper’s (Jon Hamm’s) office, the episode largely focuses on interactions between Draper and Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss) over one long night in which emotions get spilled and secrets are discussed. Both characters are going through life upheavals: The niece of Don’s friend is dying of cancer, and Peggy has sabotaged her relationship with her boyfriend by remaining at work. By the end of it they’ve had a rare (if brief) discussion about the baby Peggy gave up for adoption and Don has gone to sleep with his head in her lap. They’ve never been lovers, but in this moment they’re as intimate as two people in a long, meaningful relationship.

“In ‘The Suitcase’ you see a vulnerability from Jon,” Weiner said. “A lot of people look at that character and see someone who is reserved and a presence without dialogue, and to have an excuse to let go of that reserve and be adrift – he’s pitiful at times, he’s ashamed about having to break down his emotions, and that’s a satisfying thing to see him down… [With Peggy] you see this mutual respect between them.”

What’s your favorite “bottle” episode? Tell us here.

A love song for Howard Jones: Why pop lyrics matter to the teens we are and the adults we become

The world teaches us to think that life is full of limitations
The world tries to make us think that there are loads of limits
— “Conditioning,” Howard Jones


Two things happened in the world of music during the week of March 23, neither of which had anything to do with one another – unless you happen to live in my head.

Zayn Malik left One Direction, a band I do not listen to. And I went to see Howard Jones, a musician I fervently listened to when I was the median age of most of 1D’s fans.

In this column, I generally address great (and poor) writing on TV and in movies. But when I was a teenager, all the words in the world that mattered to me came not from TV or movies – or even books. I was voracious in my consumption of of music and spent hours flipped on my stomach in our living room parsing the lyric sheets of albums by my favorite artists, explicating every line for deeper meaning.

Music lyrics do that to us. The music is the bird that pokes holes in our conscious; the lyrics are the seeds it leaves behind, and they flower all the rest of our lives. My mentors never spoke to me directly, but left behind legacies of words put to a good beat you could sometimes dance to that still conjure up adolescent memories even today. When I was 14 and 15 and 16, I wanted someone to give me guidance about what the hell was going on in the grown-up world, and pop tunes did that for me.


Here I come now got no time to frown
Nothing in my way now nothing can bring me down
Feel that surge open the doors around
Higher and higher the world is my hunting ground
— “Hunt the Self,” Howard Jones

So 1D fans, I know none of your band’s lyrics and can hum none of their tunes, but I feel your pain: Your bedrock is crumbling and everyone around you who isn’t a fan is laughing. I’m way, way old and I’m not. Because I remember that whether the words are deep and meaningful or shallow and simply-rhymed doesn’t matter; as long as you’re listening to them, they are the scaffolding on which you are hoisting yourself to the next stage of life.

I listened to a lot of bands and took in a lot of words in those formative years. Howard Jones was never No. 1 on my top list of bands but I put him quite high up in a rarefied position, thanks in part to the words he wrote – he was a guru to me. Legendary rock critic Robert Christgau may have vilified Jones’ first album Human’s Lib for being self-help twaddle, but I wasn’t listening to it as a grown up; I heard it as a kid.

So when I listened to some of those songs all over again some 30 years after hearing them for the first time in New York City the other night I confess: I took a little side trip in my head and remembered all the things I had learned from my guru, and the places those lessons took me.

Places like these:

  • Veganism and Taoism.

Howard Jones was the first person I ever heard of who was full-on vegan. He did it hard-core in the days before the world ever heard of a Boca Burger and even wrote songs about the cruelty done to animals in the name of feeding humans (“Assault and Battery”). So I went vegetarian. And had some eggs. And fish. OK, I was terrible at being vegetarian, but it was a blow for independence at a young age.

In addition to being a vegan, Jones referred both directly (with a B-side song title) and indirectly to the Tao Te Ching, a religion/philosophy/book/way of thinking I’d never heard of before. I still don’t know if I fully understand what “the way” really means, but it has a lot to do with letting go and understanding that you are just a speck in the river that carries you along.


  • Professionalism.

I’ve never met Jones (other than waiting hours in line outside Tower Records in 1985 only to have him sign my “Things Can Only Get Better” 45 record sleeve “To Mandee”), and it’s not important that I do. But early on in my journalism career, I interviewed him over the phone – in the most irritating way possible. I peppered him with dozens of nerdy fangirl questions until he finally asked, “Do you think we’ll talk about the new album soon?” which was of course why we were here in the first place. I went scarlet. I scrambled, recovered, did the job I was supposed to do and learned a hugely valuable lesson. You really do often learn best from your mistakes.

  • Acceptance.

When I went out to visit a friend of mine I’d been pen-pals with since she moved away after we were in kindergarten together, I was 16 and crushing hard on a guy in school who was still two years from coming out of the closet. He gave us ladies some hope by, well, dating us – but we knew the truth even if we (and he) didn’t want to admit it.

Meanwhile, my pen-pal had begun a deep dive into evangelical Christianity, and when I told her about my hopeless devotion to my uncertain friend she became first sincerely concerned for my soul. Then, when she couldn’t convince me to abandon my friend, she wrote me a letter quoting the Bible extensively and explaining that she could no longer associate with me.

It begged for a response. So I went to a different bible for my recourse: I shot her back the last letter we ever exchanged, covered with my own favorite lyrics about equality, tolerance, what is natural and what is not – Jones’ lyrics.

I have always felt good about that.

You don’t know
I don’t know
Nobody knows
This is an answer to every question
This is a place to begin
— “Always Asking Questions,” Howard Jones

It’s easy to mock pop lyrics. Easy to say Taylor Swift’s words are all about the same thing, or that the guys in One Direction don’t even write their own lyrics. But teenagers don’t care – they’re still listening hard, still using those lyrics to ascend into adulthood. Pop singers, rock singers, rap singers – those are the grown-ups kids listen to; they are their teachers as much as, if not more than, the ones paid to instruct them in school.

Awards strictly for lyrics don’t exist, so far as I know. Songwriters get prizes for the combination of words and music, but that’s a significant difference. And lyric writers, the good ones, really should get some recognition for a clever rhyme, the hidden pun, the evocative image. A well-turned lyric, aimed at the right person at just the right time, gets under the skin of even the hardest-to-reach young people. That’s a rare power that deserves respect – and love.

So thanks, Howard Jones. You weren’t the only musician who raised me into adulthood, but you were a significant player in the group. Long may you – and the beautiful simplicity of your words – reign.

Did a music lyric ever change your life? Let us know about it here!

Writing Dead: Why Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse still ask the big questions in ‘The Leftovers,’ ‘The Returned’

When Lost first aired in 2004, I was prepared to be hooked. Plane crashes on deserted island, people learning to survive. That’s my kind of story – Survivor without the gimmicks. Creation of a new community, a new society.

That was not going to be Lost’s story. Yes, there was an airline crash. Yes, survival was an issue. But Lost was never about day-to-day events; it had a lot of smaller stories and a much bigger ambition (if not always perfectly realized) than almost anyone – including those who stuck it through to the end – were planning on ingesting. Creators Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse (and to a lesser degree J.J. Abrams) wanted to ask the big questions about life, death, and meaning.

I wasn’t expecting that on ABC primetime.

“One of the thematic things that was always interesting about Lost is this idea of is this arbitrary? Is it happening for a reason? And that’s the fundamental question of life,” Lindelof told me. “That’s the fundamental question of life: Is there a purpose? Am I part of some grander design?”

I bailed on Lost when it didn’t give me what I expected, and though it clearly was worth going back to, I never did. One of those things I’ll get to in the nursing home, I expect, but there’s just so much good TV and only so many hours in a day.

But then I did it again, with Lindelof’s latest TV project. Last year, I gave HBO’s The Leftovers a real kiss-off in this space. The book is always better than the movie (or the TV series), said I, and here was just the latest evidence. And then I bailed on Leftovers.


Well, I’m going to give that one another try. As shows like Walking Dead and Game of Thrones have shown us in recent years, going off the reservation in terms of telling story is all but a requirement when you’re adapting a book for the long term. A movie of the week or even a miniseries is one thing; if you’re going to spin out a slim novel like Leftovers for more than a season, you’re gonna have to rethink things. But that’s not exactly why.

I’m interested in the big questions, and now I think I have a better grip on Lindelof’s (with author Tom Perotta) mission. And Lost fans, take heed: Lindelof’s writer-in-arms Carlton Cuse is also back on TV (well, he’s been there overseeing Bates Motel and Strain) with a new adaptation of the terrific French series The Returned. It’s another show that addresses those life-shaping questions – what if the dead returned to you, unchanged and unharmed, exactly how they were at the moment of death?


“It is interesting that we’re both working on projects that grapple with the idea of life and death and loss and absence and grief,” said Cuse, who meets with Lindelof approximately once a month for lunch (though they don’t talk shop). “But The Returned and Leftovers are vastly different in the way they’re executed, even if they are exploring both of the same themes. There’s plenty of room for both shows.”

Undoubtedly so. TV doesn’t always do very well asking, or answering, the big questions; we couch potatoes are fairly happy being spoon-fed good guys and bad guys and satisfying resolution within 42 minutes of screen time, once a week. But there are shows that go deeper, and are worth grown-up consideration. In just the last week I watched the latest episode of The Walking Dead challenge me with the question of what happens when a bunch of PTSD-ridden survivors of the zombie apocalypse find Eden? Could they be the ultimate snakes in the grass? And then on The Good Wife, atheist Alicia believes her God-fearing daughter may be losing her religion, which prompts a moment (that takes place in her head) in which Richard Dawkins visits her to ask why this troubles her so much.

This is big stuff, and the fact that it happened on one of TV’s top rated shows (Dead) and on the staid, older-skewing Tiffany Network (Wife) blew me away. But maybe I shouldn’t be so surprised, just as I shouldn’t brush off a show because it fails to meet my preconceived notions – and actually posits more challenges to my perception of storytelling. And of what couch potatoes can absorb.

“I feel like a lot of TV shows avoid religion,” said Lindelof. “It’s a very dangerous topic and that’s why I really responded to Tom’s book. He was talking about religion in a very interesting way, and the same thing is happening in The Returned. Leftovers doesn’t deal directly with death, but it is a death metaphor. These people have departed, they’re gone. But … you didn’t get to bury them, so could they come back? That’s what we’re trying to explore here.”

Have you given up on a show but then found a reason to return to it? Tell us about it here.

“Last Man on Earth”: Laughing, or not, at the end of the world

Can the end of the world be funny?

It sure can be serious: One of TV’s most popular shows has been showing just how un-funny the end of the world can be for five seasons now. In fact, The Walking Dead has pretty much rubbed our faces in not only how bad it is when the world ends, but how it continues to go on ending every day as the survivors lose their humanity inch by inch. There are zero laughs (except when Carl stuffs himself with pudding). It is well-written, a question I have to ask before praising anything in this column – most of the time.

But can it be something that’s not jut bleak and bloody? Can laughs be wrung out of the most divine joke of them all; namely that the machine of civilization has seized up and perished?

Answer: Yes. If you’re willing to squint.

Squinting is crucial when it comes to Fox’s new series “The Last Man on Earth.” The premise is, thus far, as stated: Will Forte appears to be the only survivor of a virus that has wiped everyone else out. The squinting begins when you have to set the hyperbole of the title aside – no network show is going to permit 22 minutes per week to be a one-man operation. So, there’s a woman. Also, while Forte is shown scouring the U.S. and parts of Canada in a big RV, he’s not exactly done due diligence on the entire planet.


The fact that Forte is an interesting actor helps. He does sad and thoughtful and absurd all at once, most nimbly shown off in the movie Nebraska. All three are needed to enjoy Last Man, but by the time the show gets moving, squinting’s not enough. We’ve all seen too much of this kind of thing not to have some crucial questions that invariably invade any attempt at funny. Like:

  • Where are all the bodies?
  • Where are all of the car pileups on the highways?
  • Why would anyone choose to live in the inhospitable, arid desert of Tucson following civilization’s collapse?
  • Why (other than for purported comic reasons) would a man who can appreciate fine paintings decide it was OK to use a fountain as a toilet, rather than dig a trench?

A well-written series can get away with anything, even when it does veer off course. Set the tone, set the mood, set the tension between the conflict and the characters in just the right way and you’re free to experiment. Last Man Standing, however, isn’t all that well written and so it doesn’t fly. Whether you like Forte’s character or just find him sexist almost is beside the point – the fact that I’m left with questions rather than chuckles as the show goes on means they haven’t set this world up very carefully. I’m constantly aware that this is going to be a sitcom and it will follow sitcom rules, like never leaving the immediate vicinity or considering things in a practical manner.

That leaves me sad, and a little bored. What could have been!

Yet the end of the world can be funny, if you do set it up right; this is why I have hopes that Comedy Central will let Matt Porter and Charlie Hankin make more episodes of New Timers, a web series whose heroes don’t seem to fully grok the challenges they’re facing now that the end has arrived. We first meet them 281 days after “the event,” just two guys hanging out and making condiment dip in a tool box to take to a gathering.


The party they’re expecting to attend turns out to be an escape from the hellhole the city around them has become – a handsome hero has fixed a car so they can flee with a handful of others who have been invited. But the gathering turns into a “who is more equipped to survive the apocalypse” bicker-fest (one of them suggests his narrow wrists come in handy more than you might expect), and the hero drives off alone. The cluelessness, the vague nature of the disaster, and the general reflective, mundane complaining that goes on is what makes this funny. It’s sly, and it’s subtle: You totally know guys who would be like this when the world ends.

It may also help that each episode is less than 10 minutes long; funny and the end of the world may work a lot better as a sketch than a thought-through narrative series.

The problem in the end is this: If Last Man insists on being what it has so far set itself up to be – yet another half hour of men and women clashing over their various differences – then who cares if it’s set in the apocalypse or not? If the only point of having to grow their own food is so they can be at odds over fresh vegetables – why should we bother? It’s plug-and-play battle of the sexes, with two members of the sexes who really do have much bigger battles to wage. The most interesting thing that series could do right now is to have both characters remember that it’s a big – and now empty – world out there, and start chasing down some actual plot.

Are you a fan of end of the world stories? What are your favorite shows and movies about it? Write us here.

Game the Pool! Between the Lines’ First Annual Oscar Predictions – Writer Categories Only

The writer on a movie set is a second-class citizen, a vestigial remnant that might once have served a purpose but who, once filming has begun, can only get in the way. Once a script leaves the hands of its screenwriter, unless said screenwriter is also directing, they’re less useful than an appendix. Nobody wants to know or hear about the “writing” any more.

But that hasn’t stopped the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences from creating two Oscars for the writing that even makes the story possible. Sharp acting, studied design and clever writing aside, all movies have to start in the same place – with a story – and so the writing of that story deserves at least a nod. Even though, on Oscar night, writers tend to be shoved all the way in the back of the theater. (They’re the ones most likely to have loosened hair pins and bow ties by the time they’re called; bless them, they’re so grateful.)

With that in mind, my hubris and expertise has surged to the fore again (as it did in August when I prognosticated which TV scripts were most likely to take home Emmys). Here, a brief look at the two important Oscar writing categories and which male scriptwriters (because there are no women nominated) will bring home a new lil’ buddy (and a whole new lease on his career) after Sunday night.

Take notes!


Writing, Adapted Screenplay

For reference: An adapted screenplay may be an original work, but it derived its inspiration (at the very least) from something else (like a memoir) that has already been written.

American Sniper
(Jason Hall)

Based on the late Chris Kyle’s memoir, Sniper has been a source of contention since it was first released. Is it anti- or pro-war? That foot-on-either-side-of-the-minefield approach is likely director Clint Eastwood’s, but clearly Hall’s script wasn’t interested in seeing things in black-or-white at all times. Nominated by the Writers Guild of America.

The Imitation Game
(Graham Moore)

Being nominated by the WGA is one thing; winning it gives your script a huge boost: Moore comes to the Oscars knowing the guild is on his side, and this is likely to tip the balance in his favor on Sunday. That said Imitation is a weird artefact of a script, divided in what story it wants to tell and dropping a major moral quandary three-quarters of the way through telling it. The likely winner, but not the most deserving one.

Inherent Vice
(Paul Thomas Anderson)

As the heir to the Robert Altman school of intertwined, loopy and often surreal storylines, Anderson wrote and directed his own script and probably deserves a special prize for being able to successfully adapt a Thomas Pynchon novel. Alas, Vice has a very low profile and didn’t even receive a WGA nomination.

The Theory of Everything
(Anthony McCarten)

Or, the biopic about a Cambridge-educated scientific genius who changes the world that isn’t Imitation Game. Theory is a more coherently-told, if rambling, story about the great Stephen Hawking (based on his ex-wife Jane Wilde Hawking’s memoir) that is conventional in nearly every way. Still, McCarten’s take on the love triangle between Jane, Stephen and a family friend was done with a light hand and a firm expertise. Not WGA-nominated.

(Damien Chazelle)

Here’s your dark horse outsider. A relative newcomer to directing/scriptwriting, Chazelle occupies a unique niche: storyteller/director for dark musical tales. Whiplash is roundly considered to be original and extremely well made, but is probably in the wrong category. It’s only considered “adapted” because Chazelle adapted his own 2013 short film by the same name for this longer take. The WGA recognized this and nominated it as an original; being in the wrong category for the Oscars could sink Chazelle’s chances.


Writing, Original Screenplay

Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)
(Alejandro G. Iñárritu, Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, Jr. and Armando Bo)

Those who haven’t yet seen Birdman may sneer, and sneer rightly: At its twee, weirdly-punctuated title; at the fact that it took four people (including the director) to write it. Yet Birdman soars above those criticisms by being a kinetic bit of magical realism that was like nothing on the screen we’ve seen in years. Not nominated by the WGA, though; this may hurt its chances.

(Richard Linklater)

The screenplay that took 12 years to complete should win for something. But it’s hard not to feel that Linklater let his actors form the script every time they met for a week each summer over that long span of time. It’s the Mike Leigh way to tell a story, and while it’s not wrong … it’s not exactly scriptwriting. Linklater is owed, big time. But based on the script – there’s not enough there, there. WGA-nominated.


(E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman)
A big misfire. Slow-moving and dreary, starring Steve Carell’s prosthetic nose. Director Bennett Miller really thought he was on to the next Capote (in which he was also directing an Oscar-nominated script by Futterman) and then found whatever gems his script kept hidden buried under turgid directing and performances (save for Mark Ruffalo). Nominated for reasons unknown by the WGA.

The Grand Budapest Hotel
(screenplay by Wes Anderson; story by Wes Anderson and Hugo Guinness)

You want your quirk? Wes Anderson delivers your quirk. He may be pushing his limits in terms of just how sweetly off-the-wall he can be, but no question that director/writer Anderson knows how to move things along on charm and style. As the WGA winner this year, Budapest is largely considered to have this in the bag.

(Dan Gilroy)

There’s a good chance you missed this film, but it’s never too late to seek it out. Darker than the inside of a goth’s closet during a blackout, Nightcrawler was also pointedly satirical about the way the greed for ratings has turned the newsgathering game into a blood sport. Gilroy wrote and directed his own script with a firm, clear hand but this one tended to fly under most peoples’ radar. Worthy, and WGA-nominated, but hasn’t really a solid chance.

Who do you think will win? Let us know here!