Monday, January 11, 2016


by Jim Cirile

Having heard good things about THE MAN IN THE HIGH CASTLE, the Amazon Original featuring the return of that dynamic duo Ridley Scott and Philip K. Dick (you may remember they had something to do with a little movie called BLADE RUNNER,) my partner Tanya and I checked it out. The series takes place in an alternate reality where the Nazis won World War II, and the USA has been divided up between the Third Reich and the the Japanese. Naturally, a small resistance is fighting back. Cool premise, well-executed. The pilot was great; it looked fabulously expensive, and the characters were interesting and cleverly drawn.

By episode five, we'd given up on this turkey. 

You see, lazy writing undermines everything.


Episode two held up reasonably well too. But by episode three, we'd started to notice moments of missed potential and convenient plotting. For example, our protagonist Julianna's (Alexa Davalos) boyfriend Frank (Rupert Evans) just happens to be put into a jail cell adjacent to a resistance leader -- the very same one who is partly responsible for Julianna being on the run at the moment. And of course, there's a vent they can communicate through. Now we thought for sure that this was all arranged, so that the bad guys could listen in and hopefully extract useful intel. Nope. Pure coincidence. BZZZ! Lazy writing alert #1. But still, that wasn't too bad; we forgave and moved on. 

And so it went for the next few shows. Along with episode four came the unmistakable smell of poop on your shoe. Still, we soldiered on. But nothing prepared us for the festering pile that was episode five, which included such groaners as:

1) Nazi agent Joe (Luke Kleintank) is captured by Nazis after being AWOL for four days, having disobeyed direct orders from his superior and blowing a crucial high-stakes mission that allows the resistance a major victory... and they let him off with a warning. His superior even invites Joe to his home for a family barbecue.

Are you freaking sh*tting me?

We've just spent five episodes detailing how ruthless these people are, and now we have a clear transgression from someone who'd already previously been warned -- and there are no immediate and violent repercussions?

Firing a gun after getting shot in your gun arm ain't no thang.
2) Frank plots to kill a high-ranking official at a public speech. Inexplicably, he is able to work his way through a crowd of thousands, past both Nazi and Japanese security, to get within about 20 feet of the official. This, mind you, after he's only recently gotten out of jail for suspicion of his girlfriend helping the resistance, during which time he is brutalized and several members of his family are murdered to prompt him to talk. 

And then -- his gun arm already suffering from a recent gunshot that should probably have left him in shock and unable to use that limb, he heads to the speech to make the shot and cruises right up to the front without an eyebrow raised.

3) The very same sequence culminates in a Japanese official finding half of a distinctive pendant which Frank made, which he just happens to drop -- and that same official coincidentally later finds the other half of the same pendant on Julianna, thus pointing him at our heroes.

4) Julianna -- whom we'd seen kicking ass, literally, in a judo studio in episode one -- has yet to actually fight back despite numerous altercations and threats to her life.  Finally, she's cornered by an attacker -- this is her moment! Show us what you can do, girl! Get your Cynthia Rothrock on! Nope. She cowers and must be rescued by Joe. Didn't we leave this sort of crap behind in 1967?

5) But the coup de grace? We've all seen this a gazillion times -- that cheesy moment in movies and TV shows where the protagonist(s) knocks the bad guy down, but not out. What *should* they do?


Bash his head in, put a bullet in his skull -- problem solved, right? But what usually happens is, they temporarily disable the bad guy, then frantically race out the door, as if there's some urgency to getting away. Except there is no real urgency, because if you JUST KILL HIM while he's disabled, you don't need to race away because the person who was chasing you is freaking mincemeat. And thus, Julianna and Joe blow a perfect opportunity to take out the bounty hunter stalking them. Why? Because the series doesn't want to lose this character.

Would it have hurt the story to just kill him? Nope. Because more bounty hunters would follow -- a whole team this time, probably. So we'd give our characters a genuine moment, a win, buy them a breather and actually allow them to behave the way a real person would -- and the threat would still continue, thus monkey-wrenching precisely none of the writers' plans. Sure, we'd lose that one particular bad guy, but who cares? This is where shows like SONS OF ANARCHY got it so right -- doesn't matter who it is, if it's logical that the character's ass is grass, then he or she is going down, and we'll deal with the ramifications.

And so, folks, that was the death knell for THE MAN IN THE HIGH CASTLE as far as we're concerned.


I never actually use these skills. Don't get your hopes up.
Now maybe this is the problem with being story analysts. It becomes difficult to overlook lazy, convenient writing. Just look at the show's aggregate score on Rotten Tomatoes (95% critics/90% audience.) Clearly, people dig it. Hey, so did we. We just wish that the scripts were a little tighter. And so while it probably works just fine as pop entertainment, we can only imagine what THE MAN IN THE HIGH CASTLE could have been if they had, say, the BREAKING BAD or even JESSICA JONES writer's room.

So how do we recognize "lazy" or convenient writing in our own scripts? It's the hardest thing in the world. We know we need to get from story point A to C. But then someone points out a flaw in our internal logic. Would this character really behave this way? Or are they only following orders, as it were -- the WRITER'S orders -- because this is the way the writer wants it to go? We want these two characters to have a scene, but is it really organic that they'd just bump into each other? If not, then make sure that it's not happenstance -- it's deliberate.

We have to be able to step outside of our scripts and look at them critically and, if it just doesn't work, then freaking rewrite it. If the logical path creates unintended complications that mess up the story -- GOOD. Every single one of the issues mentioned above could have been solved with a little scrutiny and elbow grease. Purge your writing of coincidences. And if reality or logic interferes with the way you want things to go, then embrace the interference -- for it is your best friend. Incorporating these roadblocks, setbacks, and INconveniences into your writing creates verisimilitude. Complications are a beautiful thing. For example, if that bounty hunter had bought it in episode five, the ripple effect would have been glorious. Firstly, no one would have seen it coming -- after we'd spent several episodes setting him up as a major character, poof -- he's done. Pulling the rug out from under viewers is exactly what you should be doing as writers. Secondly, the psychological fallout as well as complications that would ensue from this would create additional dramatic potential. 

Sadly, it was not to be. Don't make that mistake.

Just kill him.


Rebecca said...

I liked MAN IN THE HIGH CSDTLE, but you make valid points. There were certain aspects of "each" episode I didn't like and found confusing. Please note, the series didn't develop the characters in line with the book. Alas, that's the way adaptations tend to work. Overall, the story was unfulfilling, but I liked the premise and it gave me food for thought.

Rebecca said...

Oh, Geezzz... CASTLE, not CSDTLE. I don't want to rewrite the whole thing again. LOL! Lazy writer.

Rebecca said...

Oh, Geezzz... CASTLE, not CSDTLE. I don't want to rewrite the whole thing again. LOL! Lazy writer.

Admin said...

Ha! I think we can all excuse a certain amount of typos in this age of lame iPhone auto-correct ;) Thanks, Rebecca.

Rebecca said...

Ha! And Android auto-correct. They are ALL guilty :)