Cougar Town – When a Character Doesn’t Ring True

cougar-town-etbscreenwritingI caught up with the Cougar Town premiere online and thought it was absolutely terrible.  The best words I have to describe this raunchy and demeaning show are desperate, pathetic and insulting.  Courtney Cox’s character asks her son why he doesn’t laugh at her sex-obsessed jokes and he says:  “Because they make me sad.”  Bingo!

I have nothing against sex-obsessed women who fret about aging and the difficulty of finding love.  I am a big fan of Sex and the City. But that show has something that Cougar Town lacks– authentic characters who feel real. Carrie and her crew each has a distinct and very specific take on sex and romance that defines who she is, how she sees the world and what love means to her.

Carrie Bradshaw is a well-defined Power of Idealism character.  Throughout the series, she is obsessed with the emotionally unavailable Mr. Big.  These characters believe that what is perfect but unavailable or unattainable is infinitely more desirable than what is flawed but possible or achievable. They are always reaching for the unreachable star.

Charlotte York is a Power of Conscience character and the most conservative and uptight member of the ensemble. While the show focuses on sexual liberation, Charlotte is the voice of more traditional values.  Perfection to her is what is proper and socially correct.

Samantha Jones is a Power of Will character and views sex as power.  She is always the one in control of the sexual power in her relationships.  She decides when, where, how much and what kind of sex she will have.  She is loud, lusty and unashamed of her passions.  She is unapologetic when she decides to move on to new conquests.

Miranda Hobbes is a Power of Ambition character.  She is extremely career-minded and has her sights firmly fixed on a prestigious law partnership.  She often views sex as a distraction to her work.  In one episode she and her lover fight over the fact she wants to schedule sex and refuses to let passion distract her from important work-related obligations.

Each of these women is thoroughly believable and acts consistently with specific attitudes about life and love.  I recognize women I know in the characters in Sex and the City.

Cortney Cox’s character is is poorly defined, cartoonish  and utterly inauthentic.  She acts like a thirty-year old Judd Apatow guy trapped in a one-note joke about being desperate but clumsy in the attempt to get laid.  I have no idea what her cardboard cut-out character believes about life or love or why she is doing what she is doing.  To you tell you the truth I don’t really care.  Someone please put this excruciatingly pathetic show out of its misery.

Here are some additional reviews that hit the nail on the head.

WALL STREET JOURNAL   (T)his is the 21st century, where pole dancing passes for a statement of female liberation. So it should come as no surprise that Jules will search for self-esteem in frequent sex and the proof that she is still “hot.”  Such a quest could be made funny, but here it mostly isn’t. Ms. Cox is struggling with some ugly material and often seems desperate.

CHICAGO TRIBUNE  Cougar Town is one of those shows with a trendy topic at its core, but it’s hard to see how the show will work long-term, and the screechy and semi-frenetic tone set by the pilot doesn’t help.

VARIETY  (T)he execution here is consistently about as subtle as a kick to the groin — and represents the least appealing component in ABC’s quartet of new Wednesday-night comedies.

HOLLYWOOD REPORTER  Cougar Town is a mess of a place no one would want to visit, even for a half-hour. With a little luck, though, it’ll have a short shelf life.

The Informant! – Power of Ambition

The-Informant-etbscreenwritingIn Steven Soderbergh’s film The Informant!, Matt Damon plays a pitch perfect Power of Ambition protagonist.  Although some critics and arm chair commentators have complained that the movie moves too slow or is boring– I disagree.

I found the fevered unraveling of Matt Damon’s character and his deceptions and lies fascinating to watch.  There are no big actions sequences, no shoot-outs and no chase scenes.  If you come to the theater looking for an action-packed thriller like the Bourne series or the sharp witty seriousness of whistler-blower  Erin Brockovich you will be disappointed.  SEE THE TRAILER IN VIDEOS

This is a meticulous character study about the bland banality of corporate greed, the endless self-justification of scheming executives and the deluded self-seeking that’s eating away at the American Dream.   The upbeat jangle of Marvin Hamlisch’s insistently perky elevator music underscores Whitacre’s deluded optimism.  Steven Soderbergh deliciously deadpan comedy is a brilliant, subtle and painfully funny expose of the empty calories (literally and metaphorically) that’s been making America both overfed and undernourished at the same time.

Damon’s character is biochemist and ADM Division President, Mark Whitacre, the highest-ranking corporate official in U.S. history to expose wrong-doing in his own company.  Whitacre sets off a massive FBI investigation into a global price-fixing conspiracy filled with secret meetings, concealed taping, wire taps, pay-offs and laundered money in Swiss and Bermuda off-shore accounts.

The object of all this intrigue is lysine, a sweet corn-based food additive, that is in nearly everything we eat or drink.  As the movie opens, Whitacer glowingly describes the many lucrative uses of  his company’s products (“corn goes in one end, profit comes out the other”).  When a virus derails the company’s production of  lysine, Whitacere is forced to come up with a solution fast.

He lies and tells management there’s a mole in the company, a corporate saboteur from a Japanese rival who wants a payoff to stop injecting the virus into the production line. Whitacre is shocked when the company calls in the FBI. Special Agents Brian Shepard (Scott Bakula) and Bob Herndon (Joel McHale), catch Whitacre in the lie about the mole and the fun begins as Whitacre spins an even bigger story.  He accuses ADM of fixing prices and divvying up the market for the corn-based food additive by ADM and other international corporate giants.

Whitacre begins an increasingly bizarre journey where lie enfolds lie.  The dorky but puppy dog charming scientist with the floppy pompadour toupee likens his situation in ADM to Tom Cruise in The Firm.  It’s an apt, if over-weaning, comparison to another Power of Ambition character.  An even closer movie comparison would be to Matt Damon in The Talented Mr. Ripley, a movie that also explores dark and twisted side of the Power of Ambition character.

Like Ripley, Mark Whitacre is a bland but eager to please guy who is obsessed with being liked and inflating his own importance.  Whitacre believes he should be running ADM and uses the price-fixing conspiracy to oust his superiors. He is obsessed with assessing the relative friendliness of everyone he meets.  Despite his double-dealings, greed and moral transgressions he believes that he is one of the “good guys” and his many “good friends” at ADM will welcome him into the top spot after he has taken most of the company management down.  He lies about a key biographical fact because of a study about personal likeablity. He justifies every twisted manipulation of the truth or of others with an incessant internal dialogue filled with odd facts, off-kilter observations and self-promoting rationalizations.

Like all Power of Ambition characters Whitacre is exceptionally adept at self-justification and at distracting himself from his own crimes and ethical short-comings.   Always the eternal optimist Whitacre enthuses, “There are so many really nice people in the world.” even as his web of deception is unraveling around him and one last lie earns him three times the prison sentence the other executives face.

Power_of_Ambition ETB ScreenwritingA character driven by the Power of Ambition is a staple of American movies.  This Character Type can be a hardworking, eager, charming optimist with a “can-do” spirit (Tom Cruise as the title character in Jerry Maguire)—or a lying, manipulative, backstabbing striver who will do anything to get ahead in life (Anne Baxter as Eve Harrington in All About Eve).  Jim Carrey in Liar Liar is another comedic version of the type.

Power of Ambition characters can be aspirational characters who want to rise from a lowly station to a more exalted one. Or they can be prostitutes, frauds, fakers or con artists, always on the hustle. In either case, their personal vanity, status, popularity and social importance is key to these characters sense of self.

SEE THE TRAILER IN VIDEOS

The Power of Ambition

Power of Ambition ETBScreenwritingPersonality

Power of Ambition characters believe that nothing is as important as projecting a successful, polished or accomplished image– Even if the character has to go deep into debt or lie, cheat and steal to do so. Image is everything to these characters.

How others view or rate them is crucial. They value themselves and others by the toys, the trappings, the prestige, the awards, the money, the status or the other public forms of recognition accrued. How it is accrued is irrelevant.

Power of Ambition characters want the reassurance of the visible, tangible evidence of their outward success or status.  The definition and meaning of “success” is at the heart of a Power of Ambition character’s story. Is success truly measured from the outside or from the inside?

A character driven by the Power of Ambition can be a hardworking, eager, charming optimist with a “can-do” spirit—or a lying, manipulative, backstabbing striver who will do anything to get ahead in life.  These characters are eager charmers, con artists, slick salesmen/saleswomen, lovable impostors and literal or metaphorical prostitutes.

They can be aspirational characters who want to rise from a lowly station to a more exalted one.  Or they can be selfish whores, frauds, fakers or con artists, always on the hustle.  In either case, their perceived status, popularity and social importance is key their sense of themselves.

Power_of_Ambition ETB Screenwriting

Character Examples

Christopher, Uncle Junior and Carmela in The Sopranos; Miranda in Sex and the City; David Brent in the UK version and Michael Scott in the US version of The Office, are all great television examples of this character.  For more television examples see the Power of Ambition blog posts.

Film examples include:  Vivian Ward in Pretty Woman; Bud Fox in Wall Street; Vicomte de Valmont in Dangerous Liaisons; and Suzanne Stone in To Die For.  Tom Cruise has played many Power of Ambition characters over his career including:  Charlie Babbitt in Rain Man, Jerry Maguire in Jerry Maguire, Vincent in The Color of Money, Mitch McDeere in The Firm, Jasper Irving in Lions for Lambs, and Frank TJ Mackey in Magnolia.  For movie examples see the Power of Ambition blog posts.

Power of Ambition eBook

The Power of Ambition Character Type eBook explains how these characters are alike and how each character is made individually distinct. It Ambition help you develop unique, original, evocative and authentic Power of Ambition characters that fully explore all the contradictions, reversals and surprises of a fully formed human being.

Discover the Power of Ambition character’s specific goals, unique emotional obstacles and very distinct responses and reactions to any opportunity, challenge or threat. Create this character’s Immediate Tactics, Long-term Orientation and Strategic Approach in a way that is recognizably “true” at every step of the story and during every moment of screen time. The audience Ambition instantaneously recognize and relate to your character because your character is complex, three-dimensional and “feels real.”

This eBook is thorough analysis of the Power of Ambition Character Type in his or her many guises and roles as a protagonist or a member of a larger ensemble. It is packed with numerous examples from film, television and even real life! Examples from scores of scenes and dozens of quotes from film and television characters clearly illustrate this character’s motivations and psychological dynamics in a story.

Power_of_Ambition ETB Screenwriting

Comprehensive Analysis

The Power of Ambition Character Type eBook illustrates exactly how to create and differentiate this character based on his or her:

(1.) World View (beliefs about how the world works) What are the essential core beliefs that motivate a Power of Ambition character’s ordinary actions?

(2.) Role or Function (position in the story or role in the ensemble) What do the other players look to a Power of Ambition character to do or provide in the story?

(3.) Values in Conflict (competing values that push the character to extremes) What opposing choices or goals establish the Power of Ambition character’s moral code? What is this character willing to fight, sacrifice or die for? And why?

(4.) Story Questions (emotional journey in the story) What personal issues, dilemmas and internal conflicts does a Power of Ambition character wrestle with over the course of the story? What does this character ask of him or her self? What is this character’s Leap of Faith in an emotionally satisfying story?

(5.) Story Paradox (emotional dilemma) What is the duality or the contradiction at the heart of a Power of Ambition character’s story struggle? How is the character’s internal conflict expressed in actions.

(6.) Life Lessons (how to complete the emotional journey) What must a Power of Ambition character learn over the course of the story to make a clear, satisfying personal transformation? What actions lead to this character’s emotional salvation?

(7.) Dark Side (this character as a predator or villain) What happens when a Power of Ambition character’s actions are driven entirely by fear? How might or how does the story end in tragedy?

(8.) Leadership Style (what defines and qualifies this character as a leader) How does a Power of Ambition character convince others to follow? How does this character act to take charge and command?

(9.) Film Examples (the Power of Ambition character as a protagonist)

(10.) Television Examples (the Power of Ambition character as central to an ensemble)

(11.) Real Life Examples (historical Power of Ambition figures on the world stage)

Frost/Nixon and the Power of Ambition

Frost Nixon ETB ScreenwritingThe film Frost/Nixon is one of the best of a dispiriting lot this movie-going Holiday Season.  Although there have been some remarkable performances in the current crop of films, many of the stories on screen have been weak and unsatisfying.

In contrast, Frost/Nixon has it all– towering performances and a tight script that builds to a satisfying finish.  The film is the story of an epic battle between two Power of Ambition characters.  The characters and film are pitch perfect.

Power of Ambition characters fear failure in the eyes of others and in the eyes of the world. The worst thing that could happen to these characters is being publicly “unmasked” for the fraud, failure or loser they fear they are.

Image is everything to these characters.  They are terrified of any kind of public embarrassment, becoming unpopular or appearing to be of no public or social  importance. They are always keeping score and worry that they will fall behind somehow. It is nearly impossible for these character to admit their mistakes or acknowledge their failings.

In their worst moments these characters exhibit manic depressive swings— obsessive self-serving action punctuated by nearly paralyzing shame, despair, self-loathing and feelings of inadequacy, inferiority and failure.

The following scene from Frost/Nixon articulate the Power of Ambition character’s fear perfectly.  The scene is intimate, personal and comes at just the right moment in the story.  Before their film taping session Nixon calls Frost’s hotel room late at night:

NIXON
We’ve sat in chairs opposite one another, talking for hours, it seems– days on end– and yet I’ve hardly gotten to know you. One of my people– ah– as part of the preparation of this interview–did a profile of you, and I’m sorry to say– I only got around to reading it tonight. (Nixon looks in the file: sees evidence or Frost’s humble childhood)  There’s some interesting stuff in there. The Methodist background, modest circumstances. Then off to a grand university. Full of richer, posher types. What was it? Oxford?

FROST
Cambridge.

NIXON
Did the snobs there look down on you,too?

FROST
I .. I ..

NIXON
Of course they did. That’s our tragedy, isn’t it, Mr. Frost? No matter how high we get, they still look down at us ..

FROST
I–. really– don’t know what you’re talking about ..

NIXON
Yes, you do. C’mon. You know exactly. No matter how many awards– or how many column inches are written about you– or how high the elected office is for me– it still isn’t enough, am I right? We still feel like the little man? The loser they told us we were? A hundred times. The smart-asses at college. The high-ups. The well-born.The people who’s respect we really wanted. Really craved. And isn’t that why we work so hard now? Why we fight for every inch. Scrambling our way up, in undignified fashion, whatever hillock or mountain it is, why we never tire, why we find energy or motivation when any sensible person would lie down, or relax.  (Nixon looks in the file: articles about FROST’s failure in America. The network show being canceled)  If we’re honest for a minute. If we reflect privately just for a moment– if we allow ourselves … a glimpse into that shadowy place we call our soul, isn’t that why we’re here now? The two of us? Looking for a way back? Into the sun? Into the limelight? Back onto the winner’s podium? Because we could feel itslipping away? We were headed, both of us, for the dirt. The place the snobs always told us we’d end up. Face in the dust. Humiliated all the more for having tried so pitifully hard. Well, to hell with that. We’re not going to let that happen. Either of us. We’re going to show those bums, and make them choke on our continued success.Our continued headlines. Our continued awards, power and glory. We’re going to make those motherfuckers choke. Am I right?

FROST
You are. Except only ONE of us can win.

NIXON
And I shall be your fiercest adversary. I shall come at you with everything I’ve got. Because the limelight can only shine on ONE of us. And for the other, it’ll be the ‘wilderness’. With nothing and no one for company, but those voices ringing in our heads.

It is my belief, facts are less important than the emotional truth of a story.  Just because it never really happened that way doesn’t mean it isn’t true!

Raising the Bar – Not Bochco at His Best

raising-the-bar-etbscreenwritingAccording to Media Post Publications: “TNT’s Raising the Bar (Steven Bochco’s new legal show) rocketed to a record-setting 7.7 million viewers in its early September premiere. But in the most recent outing–week four– the show’s viewer balloon has much less air–now down to 2.3 million viewers in its most recent outing (this past week).”

Why aren’t viewers more enthused? Want a quick take-away line: The audience needs to be actively concerned about a character’s sanity, safety or soul to be truly engaged.

Power of Idealism

Mark-Paul Gosselaar plays the show’s hero and nominal protagonist, Jerry Kellerman, a lawyer in the New York City public defender’s office. He is a classic Power of Idealism character. Kellerman is rebellious, passionate, intense, short-tempered and given to explosive dramatic grandstanding on principle. Think of a late-twenties, at the beginning of his career, John McCain with floppy (slightly greasy) hippie-length hair and a baggy suit. Not a pretty sight, and for my taste, an over the top portrayal. There’s too much flailing about and not enough deep smoldering danger, which is key to the most delicious angry young man characters.

Power of Conscience

Jane Kaczmarek, plays Judge Trudy Kessler, Kellerman’s nemesis with an Ann Coulter-style mean streak. Judge Kessler is a Power of Conscience character gone a bit to the Dark Side. She is smart, inflexible, harsh, a stickler for rules and proper conduct and very concerned with “judicial process.” She’d be much more interesting if her desire to rise in elective office were driven by duty and sense of mission rather than the desire for personal accomplishment. She’s a bit blurry right now. Hillary Clinton at her steely best would be a good model here.

Power of Ambiton

Melissa Sagemiller plays Michelle Ernhardt, Kellerman’s girlfriend, and a young prosecutor. She is a beautiful highly-motivated Power of Ambition character who will do anything for a “win.” She is willing to bend the law until it breaks, play fast and loose with the facts and wants to rise quickly in the prosecutor’s office. Not suprisingly, Ernhardt and Kellerman repeatedly clash but their arguments are predictable.

Not Enough Personal Urgency

Unfortunately, everyone is pretty much a stock character without the deep rich internal conflicts so viscerally present in Bochco’s sensational NYPD Blue. There is little personal urgency for any of the characters. The audience doesn’t need to worry for principal character, Jerry Kellerman, like they worried for Andy Sipowicz. The wrenching internal struggle for the character is absent and so the audience’s emotional bond is weak.

The setting has urgency and certainly, crime and punishment is always a high stakes arena. That’s not enough. The audience needs to be actively concerned about a character’s sanity, safety or soul to be truly engaged. The audience should be forced to tune in because personal disaster is always right around the corner. It’s like cheering for your favorite sports team– if you don’t tune in and personally “will” them to victory they could lose! And if they lose, then next time they need you all the more!!

Lack of Complexity

Equally problematic for Raising the Bar, are its rather pat simplistic stories. Everything gets wrapped up neatly in less than 44 minutes. I understand the need to have “stand alone” episodes for commercial reasons but short-cutting story and tidying loose ends in a hurry can cripple authenticity and credibility. Too often the show does this and doesn’t “feel” real. The iconic Law and Order, an endless replayed staple on TNT, does this much better.

The degree of “innocent” accused criminals also hampers authenticity. It is stereotypical to portray everyone represented by the public defender’s offfice as guilty. But it begs credulity to believe so many of those charged are somehow “not guilty.”

Most of the cases have a racial angle and reach for social significance, a Bochco trademark. But in Raising the Bar the really tough questions of racism and the wrenching struggle to protect the rights of individuals vs the safety of society are not tackled in a complex, emotionally gut-wrenching way. NYPD Blue had a much more intense, multi-layered and explosive take on racism that brought the topic alive and made it feel real and very urgent to the story.

At this stage, the show lacks sufficient authenticity and personal urgency to be a hit. I don’t feel compelled to tune in and it looks like many viewers who initially gave the show a look aren’t compelled to come back. Raising the Bar has a second season order but Bochco and company will have to dig deeper if they want a third season.

What Happens in Vegas

WhatHappensinVegas ETBScreenwritingA very long international flight is the perfect time to catch up on movies I missed the first time around.  On this trip I managed to catch up with a high-spirited Romantic Comedy romp that turned out to be a really enjoyable surprise.  The film has its flaws, particularly in its rather pat ending.  The finish is predictable and lacks that little extra twist that lifts this kind of story above the ordinary. But the film does have its virtues.

Joy McNally (Cameron Diaz) is super-conscientious career woman engaged to a man who is exhausted by her organized, detail-oriented uptight attitude.  She is a Power of Conscience character who schedules a meeting with her fiancee to “make a plan to make plans.”  Fed up, he breaks up with her in her apartment hallway.  Joy is humiliated that all their friends are listening as they wait inside for a suprise birthday party for HIM.

Jack Fuller (Ashton Kutcher) has the opposite problem.  He is “not serious boyfriend or husband material.”  He is a Power of Ambition character who is so afraid of failing (and proving he is a loser) that he never takes a gamble or finishes anything.  He is fired by his disgruntled fed-up boss, who also happens to be his father.

Feeling devastated, they both head to Las Vegas to (literally) drown their sorrows. A computer error is the “meet cute” that throws them together in the same room. The two spend a drunken night of true confession and “my life is crappier than your life.” They wake up to discover they are married.

A 3 million dollar jackpot won with Joy’s quarter but played by Jack lands them in front of a judge, in an argument about who can claim the money.  The judge decides that they should remain married for 6 months and attend counseling sessions before splitting up either the money or the marriage. Neat as a pin Joy moves into Jack’s sloppy and disgusting bachelor pad.

Over the course of the film there is a real exchange of gifts.  Joy learns to be less uptight and driven to prove her “worthiness.” Jack learns to believe in himself enough to put his talent on the line.  He becomes the woodworking craftsman (and artist) he was meant to be.

Jack Fuller is a refreshing take on the Power of Ambition.  This Character Type is usually portrayed as an eager young striver in the Tom Cruise mode of Jerry Maguire or Rain Man. Instead, Jack starts out squarely in his fear.  He is paralyzed by his utter conviction (and his father’s belief) that he is a failure.  When Joy speaks up on his behalf, Jack is astonished.  At a corporate retreat she makes him feel like a winner.

Joy is a more conventional Power of Conscience female character.  She is the good girl who works hard, is responsible and plays by the rules.  She is vying for a promotion in a job she hates because that’s the “right” thing to do. Jack teaches Joy the importance of loving what you do and finding time for family and friends.

Check this movie out. It’s not perfect but it hits enough of the right notes to be a fun romp and a satisfying bon bon of entertainment.