Understanding Screenwriting #141


By Tom Stempel.

The Financial Maguffin.

The Big Short

(2015. Screenplay by Charles Randolph and Adam McKay, based on the book by Michael Lewis. 130 minutes.)

Christian Bale as Michael Burryin The Big Short. Image by Jaap Buitendijk

Christian Bale as Michael Burryin The Big Short. Image by Jaap Buitendijk

Boy, talk about your degree of difficulty. Lewis’s book is a detailed non-fiction look into one of the elements that led to the Great Recession. It’s about sub-prime mortgages…zzz, credit default swaps…zzz. In other words, a lot of financial details. I have no head for numbers, and I never could follow all the details of the financial breakdown, both in real life and in this film. So I should have slept through this movie. But I did not, and I was royally entertained for my wakefulness.

Back in 2013, I finally caught up with the great 2011 film about the crash, Margin Call, which I wrote about here. A lot of what I loved about that film comes back into play in The Big Short, with the extra jolt of it being based on a true story. Like J.C. Chandor in the earlier film, Raymond and McKay focus not so much on the mechanics as on the characters. Chandor handled that in an inventive way: the higher up the trading company we got, the more the bosses asked the underlings to explain it “in plain English,” making it quite clear they did not know what was going on in their own companies.

To add to the degree of difficulty, the main characters in Short are the only ones who know what’s going in, and when they try to explain it to people, nobody believes them. Essentially the real estate market had sold a lot of sub-prime mortgages (loaning money to people who were bad credit risks to buy houses), assuming nobody would default on the mortgages. Then the financial world bundled those mortgages into bonds, and when those mortgages fell apart, so did the bonds, losing millions in the process. You with me so far?

Short tells the story of guys who understood the bonds were risky and they bet against the bonds. O.K., here’s where I get lost. I don’t understand the mechanics of that. What I do understand is the writers have the characters repeatedly use the term “bet against them” so that we get a general idea about what they are doing.

And that’s enough. Really, it is. By now you should know Charles Bennett’s Fat English Friend’s term, the Maguffin. That refers to what all the running around is about in a film. In North by Northwest (1959), what are they chasing? In the last minute of the film it turns out to be some microfilm. What’s on the microfilm? We never know, and we never need to know because we are busy watching Roger Thornhill and Eve Kendall trying to outwit Philip Vandamm. In other movies it’s money or jewels, but our real interest in the characters and what they are doing.

Cary Grant as Roger O. Thornhill in North by Northwest

Cary Grant as Roger O. Thornhill in North by Northwest

Raymond and McKay understand this, and they know that Lewis has given them some terrific real-life characters to work with. Michael Burry, who realizes the problem first, is a flake and a half who never wears a suit and hangs around the office barefoot. His co-workers assume he is an idiot who gets lucky a lot.

His idea is picked up by Jared Vennett, a much slicker trader whom the writers make the narrator of the film. If you made Burry the narrator, the script would fly off in several directions. With Jennett you get sharp and very funny insights into what is going on, often in asides to the camera. I particularly loved his explanation of his “Chinese” math wiz, and the wiz’s observations on the process.

The third major figure is Mark Baum, who is convinced the whole system is corrupt, so he brings a moral tone to the situation nobody else in the film does. He is also appalled to discover how right he is about the system, especially when he realizes he is going to make millions on people losing their investments and their homes.

The writers also give us some vivid supporting characters, such as a couple of real estate guys who sign up everybody they can for mortgages, including a stripper who owns five houses. The guys are last seen in an employment line at a job fair, stunned at their fate and not really understanding how it all happened.

There is also a great scene with an official of a bond rating service in which she admits what we have all suspected: the rating services rate bonds higher than they should, because if they didn’t, nobody would use their services.

O.K., have I convinced you that the characterization is the most crucial element in the film working as well as it does? Fine. Now let me praise the writers for including explanations of what is going on, as in Margot Robbie of The Wolf of Wall Street sitting in a bubble bath explaining…something, or Selena Gomez and Richard Thaler (Google him) at a gambling table on how betting on betting works. Sometimes the explanations work, sometimes they don’t, but they, like the film, are never less than entertaining. Mostly, it is through the main characters that we get the details.

Margot Robbie in The Big Short

Margot Robbie in The Big Short

And I still don’t understand how betting against the bonds really works. And for purposes of the film, I don’t really care.

Nuances, More Than You Can Shake a Stick At.

45 Years

(2015. Screenplay by Andrew Haigh, based on the short story “In Another Country” by David Constantine. 95 minutes.)

Tom Courtenay as Geoff Mercer and Charlotte Rampling as Kate Mercer in 45 Years.

Tom Courtenay as Geoff Mercer and Charlotte Rampling as Kate Mercer in 45 Years

Here’s another new film like Brooklyn (see US #137 for how nuanced that one is) that does nuance really well. In fact, Brooklyn seems like over-the-top melodrama compared to this. Brooklyn has a young woman leaving her home in Ireland, going to Brooklyn, falling in love, going back to Ireland, sort of falling in love, and deciding whether to go back to the States. Whew, I’m exhausted just listing all that.

The David Constantine short story is very short, about twelve pages according to the good interview with Haigh by Ramona Zacharias in CS. (Background information here is both from Zacharias’s interview, which focuses on the writing, and a longer interview in the September 2015 issue of Sight & Sound, which, being S&S, spends a lot more time on Haigh’s directing than on his writing, although it does point out the changes Haigh made from the story, which I am now going to tell you about.)

The story is about an elderly man, Geoff in the film, who gets notification that the body of Katya, a woman he was in love with before he met his wife, has been found in the Swiss Alps frozen in ice. Geoff deals with his emotions about this. Needless to say, Haigh elaborated on the story. First he made Geoff and his wife Kate younger, in their seventies rather than eighties. Haigh moved the event of Kayta’s death up from the Second World War to the early sixties so it would correspond to the youth movements at the time. Haigh also gave Geoff a past as a trade union member, and his script leads to the 45th wedding anniversary party, which is not in the story at all.

The biggest change Haigh made was to shift the focus from Geoff to his wife, Kate. In the script Geoff more or less comes to term with the news fairly quickly, but the more Kate thinks about it, the more it bothers her. If Katya had lived, Geoff admits to Kate, they would have gotten married, and a couple of slides of Katya on their trip to the Alps shows Katya holding her stomach like she is pregnant. Kate and Geoff, who never had children, would never have met or married, and what would her life have been like? And what does that do to how she sees herself?

Tom Courtenay and Charlotte Rampling with David Haigh on set of 45 Years. Image by Agatha A. Nitecka

Tom Courtenay and Charlotte Rampling with David Haigh on set of 45 Years. Image by Agatha A. Nitecka

You see what I mean about nuances. We spend the most time with Kate, in a deservedly acclaimed performance by Charlotte Rampling. We get a lot of flickering in Rampling’s eyelids that tell us a lot about Kate. We get a LOT of shots of her reacting to what Geoff says, or does not say, or does, or does not do. In his direction I think Haigh does a slight disservice to his script, and certainly to Tom Courtney, who plays Geoff. I’m all in favor of telling stories from a woman’s point of view, but I think he focuses so little on Geoff that we sometimes are not sure exactly what Kate is reacting to.

One of the great difficulties on screen is showing the thinking process of people, and often trying to do this ends up being ambiguous. That may not be an awful thing, although it can lead to people reading the film in different ways. As Haigh told Zacharias, men and women react differently to the film. Or men and men for that matter.

Roger Clarke reviewed the film in the same issue of Sight & Sound the interview appears in, and he describes the last scene as “Geoff makes an emotional speech and weeps sentimentally. Kate’s face reveals that she does not believe a word he’s said.” I take an, ahem, more nuanced view of that scene. I think Kate feels he is telling the truth as he sees it, but she knows that is not the truth of their relationship for her any more. See what I mean about nuances?

Goings and Comings and Goings.

Midseason Television 2015-2016


Patrick Wilson as Lou Solverson in Fargo

Patrick Wilson as Lou Solverson in Fargo

In US #135, I wrote about the opening episode of the second season of Fargo. I said it seemed more like imitation Fargo than the real thing because the show had not yet presented us with a real breakout character like several in the first season. That continued to be a problem with rest of the season. The characters were mildly interesting, but just not that compelling. The plotting was also hit and miss, the most interesting thing about it being the way the good, at least semi-innocent people kept getting the better of the professional crooks. All the baddies ended up dead, in particularly bloody if not surprising ways.

Supergirl and Crazy Ex Girlfriend

Mellisa Beonoist as Supergirl and Iddo Goldberg as the Red Tornado in Supergirl

Melissa Benoist as Supergirl and Iddo Goldberg as the Red Tornado in Supergirl

Of the new fall shows, I had particularly liked Supergirl (see US #137) , The Grinder and Crazy Ex Girlfriend (US #135), and they are all continuing nicely. On Supergirl I mentioned that I liked how they are dealing with Kara’s emotions about her coming out as Supergirl. They have continued to develop that angle, and for me the best moments of the series have been Kara dealing with her emotions, as in the episode “For the Girl Who Has Everything” (teleplay by Ted Sullivan & Derek Simon, story by Andrew Kreisberg).

The alien-of-the-week arranges for Supergirl to be subject to the Black Mercy, which puts her into a dream world in which Krypton was never destroyed. So Melissa Benoist gets to play herself younger, and then when she gets out of the Black Mercy, she is determined to get revenge on the alien who did this too her, so we see Benoist’s macho side as well. Mostly the Supergirl stuff is fighting off the bad aliens, and it gets rather repetitious. Then they will throw in an episode like “Strange Visitor From Another Planet” (written by Michael Grassi and Caitlin Parrish), where Kara tries to work out a meeting between her boss Kat and Kat’s son, whom she had not seen for years.


The Grinder

Rob Lowe as Dean Sanderson and Fred Savage as Stewart Sanderson in The Grinder

Rob Lowe as Dean Sanderson and Fred Savage as Stewart Sanderson in The Grinder

The Grinder is also keeping its nose to the grindstone, finding inventive ways for Dean, the ex-TV star brother, to get on the nerves of his regular-gay brother. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is keeping up its high level too, which given the potential repetitiousness of the basic concept is striking.


Life in Pieces

Zoe Lister-Jones as Jen and Colin Hanks as Greg in Life in Pieces

Zoe Lister-Jones as Jen and Colin Hanks as Greg in Life in Pieces

I mentioned in US #137 that Supergirl was one of the shows I saw the promotional pieces for last spring that looked interesting. It has lived up to my expectations. Life in Pieces, which I wrote about in US #135, did not for reasons I mentioned.

The third one that I thought had potential was Angel From Hell, which did not premiere until January. It was dead on arrival. The setup had potential: Jane Lynch is Amy, an extremely weird woman, who convinces Allison, a dermatologist, that she is her guardian angel. Well, Lynch as a freewheeling, earthy angel, what could go wrong? It’s a bit difficult to say, but the script gives her only the most obvious lines to say and things to do.

The show was still setting up its premise several episodes into the season when it should have been in the midst of the fun. Maggie Lawson, who plays Amy, has been wonderful in other shows, but here she and Lynch and their characters simply have no chemistry. There is not the connection between them that you get with Allison Janney and Anna Faris in Mom.


Ben Feldman as Jonah and Lauren Ash as Dina  in Superstore

Ben Feldman as Jonah and Lauren Ash as Dina in Superstore

Superstore is yet another workplace comedy. You have probably seen variations of all the characters in other, better shows. The lead is America Ferrera, late of Ugly Betty, but she is not given as much to play as on the former show. Her character, Amy, is the floor manager of a big box store, and we know she has a child, but it’s not clear if she’s married or not. The writers do give us short throwaway scenes of customers going weird things. They should have developed those in major scenes. There is a lot of satire of big box stores to be had, but they don’t get any of it.


Eva Longoria as Ana Sofia Calderon in Telenovela

Eva Longoria as Ana Sofia Calderon in Telenovela

Telenovela is another workplace comedy, this one set in the production of a Spanish language telenovela. Jane the Virgin handles the satire of telenovelas better with its character of Rogelio, Jane’s father and a telenovela star. While Telenovela is a straight-ahead satire, Jane’s writers not only satirize the production, but also the style of the telenovela, especially with its narrator.

The star and producer of Telenovela is Eva Longoria, and the writers do not do her much of a favor either. Her character Ana Sofia is a full-out diva in some scenes and just an ordinary person in others. The writers on Desperate Housewives managed to make the same kind of twists with Longoria’s Gaby, but made them sharper and funnier and more tonally consistent. The rest of the cast are standard workplace supporting actors.

Angie Tribeca

Hayes MacArthur as Jay Geils and Rashida Jones as Angie Tribeca in Angie Tribeca

Hayes MacArthur as Jay Geils and Rashida Jones as Angie Tribeca in Angie Tribeca

Angie Tribeca is trying to be Police Squad! and it’s not. It’s a cop comedy, but cops behaving stupidly without the writers of Police Squad! are just stupid, not funny. You can see what the jokes are supposed to be, but they are not that funny. Angie is played by Rashida Jones, whom I have liked in other stuff, but here doesn’t quite click. In the first episode, she is paired up with a new partner, Geils, who seems to have no character at all.


Zach Galifianakis as Chip Baskts in Baskets

Zach Galifianakis as Chip Baskts in Baskets

Baskets is one of those shows that writers love to write and actors love to play, but nobody really enjoys watching. Chip Baskets flunks out of mime school in Paris, not apparently having learned any French during his time there. He returns to his native Bakersfield, California and gets a job as a rodeo clown. O.K., but he is a dreary person to be around.

His French wife, who married him simply to get to the United States, just hangs around the motel swimming pool. Chip gets involved with Martha, an insurance agent, but she seems emotionally blank. Chip’s mom is just a typical mom, even if she is played by Louie Anderson in drag. Why did anybody think we would want to watch these people? The writers could have had a lot of fun with the rodeo setting, but that would have undone the dreariness of the whole concept.

You, Me and the Apocalypse

Mathew Baynton as Ariel in You, Me and the Apocalypse

Mathew Baynton as Ariel in You, Me and the Apocalypse

You, Me and the Apocalypse is a nicely bizzaro show running on NBC of all places. It is written and created by Iain Hollands, and it is an American-British co-production, which I suspect gives Hollands a chance to avoid traditional network notes. It’s a freedom he uses to great advantage.

It is a funny look at the traditional end-of-the-world story. Yes, there is supposed to be a large comet heading to destroy the earth in 34 days (although, and this may or may not be a spoiler alert, Ariel, a superhacker, thinks it is just misinformation given to us by the governments and the media). Hollands got the pilot “Who Are These People?” off to a good start. After showing several people huddled together in a basement, he jumps back in time and introduces us to the characters slowly, so we have no idea what, if any, their connections are.

We first meet a nice guy named Jamie, who works in an office in England. Then we meet Rhonda, who is in an American prison for hacking into super-secret government computers. Sister Celine, a nun from Africa, is brought to the Vatican to be offered a job with Father Jude, a chain-smoking priest who is in charge of investigations of potential saints. What can these people possibly have in common?

Twenty-nine minutes into the pilot, the authorities, who have been bugging Jamie, suddenly arrest him. They think he is the superhacker Ariel, and they want to know what he knows about Rhonda’s case. Ah ha, a connection. But he knows nothing about it. At 46 minutes in, we get the first announcement about the comet. A standard network pilot would have gotten all of that in much quicker, but part of the fun of this show is trying to catch up with Hollands, as opposed to some of the shows I mentioned above, where we are way ahead of the writers.

Just as we are convinced Jamie is completely innocent, the investigators show him a picture of his wife, whom he thought died seven years ago, not only alive and well, but in a photo with a man who looks exactly like him. It was taken a few days before in Moscow.

Jamie gets him mom to admit he may, well, might have, a twin brother. And it’s his twin Ariel, also known as White Horse, who picks up Rhonda after a prison break. He tells her he likes her work. But we know it was her son who did the hacking she’s in jail for. So, twists, turns, connections, although we still don’t know after two episodes how Father Jude and Sister Celine are related to the others. But we have every confidence that Hollands will make it clear. Eventually.

Shades of Blue

Jennifer Lopez as Harlee Santos in Shades of Blue

Jennifer Lopez as Harlee Santos in Shades of Blue

Shades of Blue is a new NBC cop series, with a title that is supposed to make us think of the glory days of Hill Street Blues and NYPD Blue. Not so fast.

Harlee Santos is an NYPD detective in a very corrupt unit. The unit is run by Wozniak, the most corrupt of the lot. The FBI traps Santos in a sting operation and wants her to be a mole in the unit. She is torn because Wozniak is her mentor and friend, but the FBI puts pressure on her as a single mom. So she tries to avoid informing on Wozniak.

He suspects there is a mole in the unit, and sometimes he suspects her. She talks her way out of it. Then he suspects her again. And she talks her way out of it. And again, and again. You see the problems with this as a series: very, very repetitive. And several episodes in, it has not overcome the problem.

It sounds like a great setup for a seventies or eighties Sidney Lumet film, like Serpico (1973) or Prince of the City (1981), with a complete story in a couple of hours, but it does not work stretched out to series length. It’s not helped by having the other cops as the kinds of cops we saw in those Lumet films. Sidney and his writers got there first and best.

Mercy Street

Gary Cole James Green as and Donna Murphy as Jane Green in Mercy Street. Image by Antony Platt

Gary Cole as James Green as and Donna Murphy as Jane Green in Mercy Street. Image by Antony Platt

I love the opening of Mercy Street, the first new original American drama on PBS since, well, a long time. It is the spring of 1862 and both sides of the Civil War assume it will be over soon. Yeah, right. We are first introduced to Mary Phinney, a widowed New England abolitionist, who is being lectured by Dorthea Dix, who runs a nursing program in Washington D.C. Dix is sending Mary to the Mansion House Hospital in Alexandria, Virginia, which is occupied by the Union army. Mary arrives at the hospital and lectured by its boss, Dr. Summers. O.K., exposition, so what?

Well, Mary is played by Mary Elizabeth Winstead, who has appeared in a number of films and shows, but she’s never commanded the screen like this. That is especially impressive when you see she is going up against one of the great American actresses Cherry Jones as Dix and one of the great American character actors Peter Gerety as Dr. Summers. And she holds her own. So we will willingly follow her.

Then we begin to get the other characters in the pilot (written by co-creator David Zabel from a story by him and his co-creator Lisa Wolfinger), and they do not grab us they way Winstead’s Mary does. There is a brilliant surgeon Dr. Foster, who samples the morphine a little more than he should. The chief surgeon is Dr. Hale, who has no interest in Foster’s modern ideas. Dr. Hale is cahoots, both administratively and sexually, with the chief nurse Hastings. If Foster reminds us a bit of Hawkeye in M.A.S.H., then Hale and Hastings are the Frank Burns and Hot Lips of this show.

Loretta Swit as Major Margaret ‘Hot Lips’ Houlihan and Larry Linville as Major Franklin Marion Burns in M.A.S.H.

Larry Linville as Major Franklin Marion Burns and Loretta Swit as Major Margaret ‘Hot Lips’ Houlihan in M.A.S.H.

One of the creatives involved in the show described it as a cross between Gone With the Wind and M.A.S.H., but that is neither accurate or fair. This being a PBS show, there is not the kind of wild humor of M.A.S.H. or St. Elsewhere, or even E.R., which Zabel wrote for. It could use some M.A.S.H-like humor to liven it up a little bit, but this is PBS.

As for GWTW, it does not (not yet at least) have either the rich characterization or the narrative drive of the film. We do get a Southern counterpart for Mary in Emma Green. Her family owns the Mansion House, which used to be a hotel. Emma comes to the hospital to give some aid and comfort to the Confederate soldiers who are there. She has some of Scarlett O’Hara’s strength, especially in comparison with her dippy younger sister Alice, but we so far only get flashes of it.

There are a large number of black characters, some of them still slaves, some of them freed, but the characterizations are rather stolid. Samuel, one of the free men, is working at the hospital, and we learn he had learned the medical trade living for ten years with a doctor in Philadelphia. So he ain’t stupid, but he does not seem to have any interior life. The Green family maid Belinda is too much a Mammy type, although with the Tony-Award-Winning L. Scott Caldwell in the role, there may be room for growth.

Remember Mary Elizabeth Winstead as Mary? That great opening fifteen minutes was misleading, since she simply becomes part of the ensemble. The writers could do a lot more with her, both as a character and an actress.

War and Peace

Lily James as Natasha Rostova in War & Peace (2016)

Lily James as Natasha Rostova in War & Peace (2016)

War & Peace is a new large-scale BBC production of the Tolstoy novel. It runs six hours in Britain, but the American version is dragged out to eight hours by commercials on the several basic cable stations it is on. The commercial breaks do us or the show absolutely no favors, coming at the worst possible moments. Some of the commercials are in the style of the show, and one use clips from the show in cheesy ways. Try to see it uncut and uninterrupted if you can. I DVR’d it and nearly got carpal tunnel syndrome fast forwarding.

This is about the fourth film version of it. The two I have not seen were a 1972-73 BBC version with Anthony Hopkins that ran nearly 15 hours and a 2007 version running six and a half hours. The first was written by Jack Pulman, who wrote the classic miniseries I, Claudius in 1976, so it was probably pretty good. The 2007 version was written by three writers, two Italian and one English.

There are two previous versions I have seen. The first was the 1956 American version with eight writers listed on the IMDb, and some others not mentioned. Henry Fonda took the role of Pierre based on what he thought was a great script by Irwin Shaw, but then the director King Vidor got to messing with it. It was a lavish production, but not a very smart one. It ran three and a half hours.

The later one was the 1966 Russian production co-written and directed by Sergey Bondarchuk, who also played Pierre. Its original Russian version ran seven and a half hours, but the American release version ran about six hours. Even at that it had its slow moments, as in Bondarchuk included elements he felt he had to rather than those he was passionate about. On the other hand, he had thousands of Russian army troops to serve as extras in the battle scenes. It is the most spectacular of the two versions.

War and Peace (1966)

War and Peace (1966)

The writer of this new version is Andrew Davies, who has a great track record of adapting literary classics. He is best known for his 1995 television adaptation of Pride and Prejudice (that’s the Colin Firth wet shirt one), and he also created the original House of Cards (1990). On the other hand, I should mention that he got the job of adapting a novel written by a friend of mine. The author showed me the first and only draft he did before he left the project and the script was awful.

Fortunately the great Andrew Davies showed up here. There is a clarity in the story that makes it relatively easy to follow, always a problem even with the Tolstoy novel. I tried reading the novel once when I was a teenager and stopped after about fifty pages, since between the given names and the Russian diminutive names I found it impossible to tell who was how. With Davies we nearly always know who is who and how they are related to everybody else, either in familial or plot terms.

Davies’s version also, unlike the Bondarchuk version, has no slow spots. Even though it’s a British miniseries, it moves like an American one. At the same time, Davies knows when to slow down and give us great character bits. What I like about the work Davies does with the characters is that all of them are multi-faced. Pierre is something of the “fat oaf” people describe him as (although the fat suit Paul Dano wears through most of the film is not completely convincing), but you see his brain working and his sensitivity, as well as his lust. Natasha, the women he is in love with starts out sweet and innocent, but lets herself almost be seduced by a real cad for what she thinks are good reasons. Andrei is noble and romantic, but very aware of his weaknesses. Even the secondary characters have several sides.

Paul Dano as Pierre and James Norton as Andrei Bolkonsky in War & Peace (2016)

Paul Dano as Pierre and James Norton as Andrei Bolkonsky in War & Peace (2016)

The production budget is not as lavish as those for the 56 and 66 versions, but it is well used. The Battle of Borodino and the burning of Moscow, done with some CGI, are not as elaborate as in the earlier versions, but that in turn helps keep the story and characters in focus. Fortunately the cast is up to the demands of Davis’s script, and a vast improvement over the early versions.

In the 56 version Henry Fonda and Mel Ferrer were grossly miscast as Pierre and Andrei respectively, and while Audrey Hepburn was right for Natasha, she was overcoming a miscarriage while shooting the film and not up to her usual high standard. In this version we have Paul Dano as Pierre. I have never been much of a fan of Dano’s, since he is usually one-note sensitive. He showed more range in Youth, and here he gets all the nuances Davies gives Pierre. Andrei is the impossibly handsome James Norton, and he captures not only the romantic heroism, but Andrei’s underesanding of his own limitations. Lily James, Lady Rose of Downton Abbey, gets to show a much greater range as Natasha.

My friend Elaine Lennon saw the show in Ireland a couple of days before we did, and she warned me to have several boxes of tissues ready for the final episode, which is full of death scenes, reconciliations, and discoveries of love. My kind of stuff, especially since Davies gets so deeply into the characters. Elaine was right, and I pass the warning on to you.

Downton Abbey

Brendan Coyle as Mr. Bates and Joanne Froggatt as Anna Bates in Downton Abbey

Brendan Coyle as Mr. Bates and Joanne Froggatt as Anna Bates in Downton Abbey

Downton Abbey has returned for its final season, and after a lumpy previous season, Julian Fellowes is working on all cylinders. One theme of the series from the beginning has been the changes that are taking place in the world and how they affect the people both upstairs and downstairs at Downton Abbey. That is really at the forefront of this season. In the fourth episode of this season, John Harding comes to Downton for business reasons. He brings his wife Gwen. Does she look a little familiar to you? She sure does to the downstairs staff, who remember her as Gwen Dawson, a maid who was there in the first season and left to go to secretarial school.

Gwen is reluctant to say anything to the Crawleys, so Thomas, the under-butler, who is always willing to stir the pot (very useful to have a character like that around), mentions it while the Crawleys are talking to the Hardings. The Crawleys are a bit embarrassed not to have recognized her, but she is very gracious about it. Most writers would leave the scene at that, but Fellowes goes further. Gwen remembers that the late Lady Sybil (whose windowed husband Tom Branson has returned to Downton) was very nice to her and encouraged her to go to school. The Crawleys and Tom are a bit taken aback by that, since they did not know. Lady Mary particularly realizes how little she knew about her sister. We are nostalgic along with her.

In episode six, the Crawleys are opening up Downtown for a tour for charity. Fellowes takes the time to let us know about both the upstairs and downstairs people feel about this, just as in the first episode of the series he introduced most of the major characters as they reacted to the news of the sinking of the Titanic. The Crawleys did not plan the tour very well, and they are caught off-guard by the visitors who all sorts of questions about the house and the artwork in it. Fellowes has a lot of fun with these scenes. The tour makes money for charity, and in the final scene Tom Branson suggests to the family they open the house up on a regular basis and make a little for their own. Again, we get a variety of reactions.

I am writing this before the final episodes, but I am sure I will use one of the boxes of tissues left over from War & Peace for the finale.

The Good Wife

Julianna Margulies as Alicia Florrick in The Good Wife

Julianna Margulies as Alicia Florrick in The Good Wife

And I will save yet another box for the end of The Good Wife. CBS ruined the Super Bowl by running a promo for The Good Wife in which it announced this would be the final season of the show. This did not come as a surprise, since the word was out that the show’s creators and runners Robert and Michelle King were leaving the show at the end of their seven season contract. I would imagine, given the complexity of the characters and all their storylines it would be very difficult to find another writer-producer to take over the show. On many shows the franchise is relatively simple (Law & Order= cops arrest them+lawyers try them), but not so The Good Wife.

The Good Wife ended the fall midseason with a real shocker. I had mentioned in #135 that I looked forward to great scenes with Eli (Alan Cumming) and Ruth (Margo Martindale), the campaign manager who replaced Eli when Peter ran for the vice presidency. There were some very good scenes, but the Kings (like Fellowes in Downton Abbey) went beyond that. Eli was unmoored completely by losing his position, and then thrown into further turmoil when he fell in love. Eli in love? Who’d a thunk it?

She was Courtney Paige, a very rich businesswoman whom Ruth was courting for a big donation to Peter. O.K., so she’s rich, but she’s played by Vanessa Williams, whom nobody hit with an ugly stick when she was born. It would break your heart if she left town on you, wouldn’t it? Eli was so undone on losing her that he came to Alicia’s and told her that six years ago he had deleted Will’s second message on her cell phone.

See what I mean about complexity of character and story? Alicia had been in love with Will Gardner and he left a message telling Alicia they had to break it off. Then he called back and left another message that he couldn’t give her up. Eli had been holding Alicia’s phone, heard both messages and deleted the second one.

So the curtain on the first half season was Alicia slamming the door in Eli’s face. The second half of the season has dealt with, among other things, Eli trying to get back into Alicia’s good graces. Meanwhile Alicia has been dealing with her depression over what might have been. But Will is dead, after all, and life goes on. As you can imagine, I am very curious to see how the Kings finish up the series. I may have to lay out more than one box of tissues.

45 years 4For more on 45 years, don’t miss our interview with writer and director Andrew Haigh: From 12 Pages to 45 Years.

the big short 3 featuredOr, to read more about The Big Short, check out our interview writer Charles Randolph: Banking on The Big Short.



Tom Stempel is the author of several books on film. His most recent is <a href="">Understanding Screenwriting: Learning From Good, Not-Quite-So Good, and Bad Screenplays</a>. <br><table> <tr> <td><a href=""><img src="" style="height:25px"></a> </td> <td><a href="">Tom on</a> </td> </tr> </table>

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