Saturday, April 28, 2007

The Exception to the Ensemble Epidemic Rule

I have a confession to make. It's not very often that I get addicted to a TV show. While I enjoy "Lost" and "Boston Legal," and a handful of others, there's been nothing that's really broken out for me from the 2006-2007 season... until "Brothers & Sisters."

This ABC dramedy portrays the huge, dysfunctional Walker family--every Walker except J.J., it seems--a well-off bunch with a recently deceased patriarch, all coming to terms with their own neuroses and crumbling relationships in the wake of dad's death. The performances are top-notch across the board--Sally Field, Rob Lowe, Rachel Griffiths, and seemingly half the cast of "Alias"--Patricia Wettig, Ron Rifkin and Balthazar Getty--not to mention the most neurotic of the clan, uber-Republican Kitty, played wonderfully by Calista Flockhart. The cast is so strong you almost forget that not a single one of these siblings looks ANYTHING like each other, and in fact Rachel Griffiths towers a good foot over Sally Field's head, her supposed mother. Whatever!

The writing is consistently amazing--dialogue full of subtext (a recent episode had cast members trading veiled yet stinging personal barbs while seemingly talking merely about wine) and emotion and humor. Another recent scene featured a cat fight between two characters that started off polite, then turned bitchy, then to physical violence, then to humor and finally to tears--all in the space of four minutes, and it WORKED. Wow. I bow in humility and respect to the writers.

And it is a true ensemble show.

Regular CI newsletter and blog readers, along with many of you who've gotten coverage from us, know how we feel in general about ensemble feature screenplays. (If you don't, please read 'The Ensemble Epidemic' HERE.) In short, next to Westerns, ensembles are probably the toughest type of spec script to get anyone interested in. The reason is that these projects, when they are made at all, and that is rarely, are generally auteur-driven, not originated as specs. And while I love Altman and "Crash" as much as the next guy, the market is not generally looking for ensemble dramas--or any dramas, since they are not rewarded at the box office. But far worse is that more often than not, an ensemble feature screenplay is indicative of an amateur writer who has not learned how to focus, how to tell a single story following a solo protagonist yet, and so the writer goes off on tangents following secondary characters like he would in a novel... the net result being the typical prodco reader loses focus on the protagonist and hurls the script into the recycle bin in about 12 pages.

So it dawns on me that I need to revise my opinion about ensembles, since I somehow overlooked one venue where they are alive and thriving -- TV. As "Brothers and Sisters," and indeed, "Lost" and "Boston Legal" and plenty of others show, television is where ensemble writing thrives.

So if you're writing a new feature spec screenplay and you find yourself thinking about taking the ensemble approach -- STOP. Do yourself a favor and make it a TV spec of your favorite hour-long drama, or make it into a pilot instead. It will be less work for you (48 pages instead of 110!)

But even better, it might even have a chance at getting set up, which your feature ensemble spec likely will not.

--Jim C.

P.S. Oh, I know "Brothers & Sisters" has won a lot of fans thanks to the plethora of beefcake on the show, too--whereas the female cast members in general are not, er, shall we say fantasy material. However the show recently added insanely gorgeous 21-year-old Emily Van Camp ("Everwood,") so us dudes have some serious eye candy, too ;) Watch "Brothers & Sisters" on free ABC-TV.


Anonymous said...

Pretty much every dramatic show on TV is an ensemble show. While some of them have titular stars, they all have A & B stories, and sometimes C and even D stories, and the B and C stories always feature a member of the supporting cast

Anonymous said...