Genre: TV Pilot – Dark Comedy
Premise: The host of a kids show that explores life’s tough questions is fired and must move cross-country and reinvent his show on a smaller budget.
About: Charlie Kaufman is coming back to TV, a place he so desperately tried to escape 20 years ago. But instead of writing bad jokes for The Dana Carvey show, this time he’s in charge of the whole shebang, and he’s bringing with him a stellar cast that includes Michael Cera, Catherine Keener, Sally Hawkins and John Hawkes. Where this will go is anyone’s guess. But the show should be debuting on FX soon, a channel that isn’t afraid to take chances on “strange” talents like Kaufman.
Writer: Charlie Kaufman
Details: 39 pages

john-hawkes_hi-rez_h.png.600x624_q100John Hawkes

Is it possible that something can become TOO experimental? The whole reason everyone’s rushing to TV is because they can take more chances, do more interesting things. They can actually experiment, which is something that’s become almost impossible to do in the overly processed, carefully calibrated feature market.

The question is, what do you get when you bring to TV the one person who was already able to experiment in the feature world? The guy who wasn’t having any problems creating weird narratives with strange non-conformist characters? Do you get something that is so experimental that nothing makes sense anymore? I don’t know, but I have a hankering to find out!

Like pretty much every Charlie Kaufman script I read these days, the plot for “How and Why” is a little hard to follow. The opening sequence alone takes 2-3 reads to achieve only the barest understanding of what’s happening.

We start out watching an average family sitcom, something you’d expect Tim Allen to star in. Bobby, one of the child characters in the show, is watching a show called “How and Why” on TV, which is hosted by a man named Goodman, who can best be described as a mix between Tyson Degrasse, Bill Nye The Science Guy, and Mr. Rogers. The theme of his show is asking kids profound, deeply philosophical life questions that they are clearly too young to comprehend.

Bobby turns the TV off and starts asking his parents about these questions, complete with a laugh track and un-hilarious zingers. At the end of the scene, we follow Bobby’s jovial father over to the couch, where he immediately becomes very serious. He eases into a monologue about how “none of this is funny,” and how he “used to live in a cave,” then pulls out a gun and SHOOTS HIMSELF IN THE HEAD. It’s unclear if this is the actor playing the father who does this, or the character himself, but laughs from the audience indicate it was probably part of the show.

Gotta check that pilot out.

Strangely enough, despite this overtly intense and disturbing moment, the family we just saw has nothing to do with the story. Instead we follow Goodman, that TV science guy, as he’s told by his boss that they’re going younger and that he’s fired.

Goodman moves with his family (wife and three triplet boys) to the town where his new show is picked up, (titled “Wherefore and By What Means,” since they’re not allowed to legally use “How and Why”). The production takes place at a company that used to build hallways, which are so big and elaborate that all the rooms are very small. This makes simple things like filming a show really challenging, since everybody’s so mushed together.

Back at home, Goodman starts wondering if he’s past his prime, all while dealing with a wife who doesn’t seem as interested in him as she should be, and hearing tales of his triplet sons getting bullied at school.

But everything takes a turn for the supernatural when one morning, as everyone’s getting ready for the day, they notice that all of their things have been packed back up and put into boxes. Goodman’s wife and kids are convinced it’s a ghost. But Goodman, being the practical, logic-based guy that he is, is thinking there’s gotta be a more rational explanation here.

That is until he starts hearing the faint sounds of a distant laugh track. Could this house that he’s moved into be the former house of a sitcom family? Like a REAL sitcom family? Not the actors playing in the sitcom? We’ll have to wait for future episodes to find out.

640_michael_cera_youtube_13

Eternal Sunshine is still one of my favorite screenplays ever. So I go into every Kaufman script hoping for a new version of that genius. But I don’t know what to make of this. It’s just so… weird. Every conventional storytelling technique is thrown out in favor of a meta storyline, somewhat gimmicky flourishes (a “hallway company”) and a hard-to-tab, hyper-realistic tone.

The unfocused oft-confusing plot doesn’t help things. We start out with the kind of sitcom where people kill themselves, only to then follow the guy in the science show that one of the sit-com characters was watching. Does that mean Goodman’s world only exists in the sitcom universe, or that his show is known in the real world as well, but was just being used as a program that one of the characters was watching? I’m not sure. And since it’s Charlie Kaufman, I’m not sure if I’m supposed to be sure.

Even if you take this unique world off the table though, and judge the pilot solely by the characters and story, it’s still hard to get into. Kaufman’s take on the world has always been dark, but it seems to be getting darker with every project, leaving a trail of sadness after every character exchange and story beat. When his wife isn’t interested in hearing about Goodman’s day, you get the sense that this man leaves a really sad existence, and finishes every day with the thought, “We’re all going to die anyway, so why even try?”

I’m a big believer that the best stories are about characters who get placed in bad situations, or who’ve hit a rough patch in life, but they don’t complain about it or give in. They fight. I think that’s why American Beauty resonated with so many people when it was a spec (and then, obviously, a film). This guy had a shitty life, but then he took action and made it better. Imagine if Lester Burnham instead said, “My life sucks. What’s the point?” then moped around for the next 90 minutes. Probably wouldn’t have been that good of a film, right?

Hey, I like hope. Kill me.

Also, I understand that Kaufman is writing what he knows here (he used to write sitcoms), but there’s something dated about this premise. I’ve seen people over-do the hyper-exaggerated sit-com thing before, as well as play the laugh track even as terrible things are happening onscreen (like people getting beat up or killed). So there was a feeling of “been there, done that” when that happened. This is Charlie Fucking Kaufman! Why not give us something new?

Why not tackle the absurdity of more current genres, like reality TV? Generally I’m not into that, but I think Kaufman could do wonders with it. What is reality? What isn’t! Who’s real? Who isn’t? That seems to be one of the themes he’s exploring anyway. But alas, I don’t think he knows or really cares about that world much.

I will say this. This script has a very specific tone to it that feels like it requires a very specific treatment. It’s kind of like if you’d read Breathless before it was made. How could you possibly envision what that movie eventually became? So I’m hoping that Kaufman has a few tricks up his sleeve when he shoots this (I think he’s directing this at least).

And How and Why does have its moments. The huge hallways and tiny rooms of his hero’s new workspace, as well as his clueless new boss, for example, make for some funny dialogue. But I’m stuck wondering if that’s going to be enough to make up for a strangely bizarre concoction that, at least from this pilot, doesn’t seem to know what it wants to be.

[ ] what the hell did I just read?
[x] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius

What I learned: If you deal your character a bad hand, don’t have them mope about it. Or, at least, don’t have them mope about it for long. Sooner (rather than later) they should want to better their predicament. No one likes to watch anybody mope about life. It’s depressing and, typically, not what we’re looking for when we want to be entertained.

  • cjob3

    Huge hallways and tiny rooms sounds like a variation of the half-floor joke from “Being John Malkovich.” And you’re right – busting on sitcoms does sound dated. There was a time the airwaves were littered with laugh track sitcoms but theyre a lot more scarce these days. Nobody’s talking about them. It’s all reality shows and single camera comedies. Poking fun at “Full House” is a bit like shooting fish. “Natural Born Killers” of course had some disturbing sitcom scenes set to a laugh track, so that’s nothing new. I like the new title “Wherefore and By What Means” though.

    • Logline_Villain

      I immediately thought the same thing about the small rooms mentioned in the review as being somewhat derivative of his own Floor 7 1/2 in “Malkovich” – of course, it worked well in that movie. I’d give anything by Kaufman a chance out of the gate – and time will tell if his unique brand of zaniness can work as well in a weekly format as it has in several of his memorable movies… ?

  • fragglewriter

    I think TV is becoming stale because this premise has been done before but this new twist is not exciting. I do like to watch TV/movies that have different storylines, but this sounds so boring and drabby. Maybe it might shoot better and I’m just jumping to conclusions.
    Also, how would this story progress to the season finale? I’m not thinking about future seasons, but can this story pique an audience’s interest for an entire season?

    • http://atticofthefilmaddict.blogspot.com/ Matty

      I don’t know. I think network TV is becoming stale for the most part – and I guess you could say comedy is becoming stale. But drama television, particularly cable, is better than ever. Breaking Bad, Mad Men, Game of Thrones, Orange is the New Black, True Detective, House of Cards, Masters of Sex, Homeland (first two season anyway), etc…. unfortunately I can’t come up with such a similarly great list for comedy. The only comedy shows I watch these days are Parks & Rec, Big Bang Theory, Californication, and Girls. And none of those are particularly amazing and certainly not groundbreaking. The only network drama show that I watch is Hannibal, and I think that’s an amazing show. But it’s an exception for network TV, imo.

      The state of television is definitely in a state of flux – what really makes something “TV” these days? Much TV isn’t even watched on a television, but rather a computer. And many films are watched at home these days using the same device. Even the episodic nature is changing, when you have series like House of Cards or Orange is the New Black where an entire season premieres in one chunk, it’s almost like a 13 hour film, particularly because those shows aren’t made for commercial breaks. What’s the difference? It’s an interesting question.

      • fragglewriter

        I use to watch a ton of TV growing up unti about years ago. I liked the orginial Law & Order and SVU (until Stabler left but one episode where the cop shot a supsect in the hallway was interesting). Most of the TV shows that I read about and watched a few clips online look overrated *cough cough Breaking Bad cough, but I’ll reevaluated when I take a break from writing again. Comedy is so boring except for the Big Bang Theory.

        TV is definitely in a rut and I think in a few years, if networks don’t change, then there will be increase in viewership in Cable and Netflix (which will increase in cost which means that I need to jump on the Netflix bandwagon before the prices go up again for new subscribers.

        I started reading your script from the Writers Store but stopped as I have to finish my script for the Nicholl next week (work got in my way from it being finished two weeks ago). I’ll give you feedback hopfully next month, if you want it that is.

        • http://atticofthefilmaddict.blogspot.com/ Matty

          I wouldn’t judge Breaking Bad by any clips. Looking back after the brilliance that is seasons 3, 4, and 5, season 1 doesn’t seem as great as it did when I first watched it, but that’s simply because the latter seasons are so fucking incredible. I was hooked on the show after the first few episodes. It truly is just brilliant storytelling.

          I definitely agree that comedy television is kind of in a rut, and network TV is definitely in a rut. Like I said, aside from Hannibal, I don’t think there are really any great dramas on network TV.

          But overall, network, cable, or otherwise, television has never been better.

        • http://atticofthefilmaddict.blogspot.com/ Matty

          Oh, and not sure how I missed your last paragraph there – I’d love your feedback of course, but focus on your own work first and foremost! Good luck with the writing and Nicholl!

          :-)

        • wlubake

          I find it amazing that so many people on here are into Big Bang Theory. I’ve always found it predictable and unwatchable.
          For comedy now: Louie, The League, and Modern Family.

          • http://atticofthefilmaddict.blogspot.com/ Matty

            The only reason Big Bang Theory works for me is because of Jim Parsons. Without his brilliant acting, it would be unwatchable to me. I know a lot of people who find Sheldon annoying (and if you do, you probably don’t like the show overall), but I don’t know anyone who at least can’t admit Parsons does a brilliant job playing the character, even if they’re annoyed by him.

          • wlubake

            Admittedly I don’t watch it, but I always felt he seemed so one-note. I remember him beating out Steve Carrell in the final season of the Office for the best actor in a comedy emmy. It saddened me. Carrell’s character was this masterfully awkward character with subtlety and nuance. He had heart. Parson’s character always came across to me as screaming “everybody look at how awkward I am”. There may be so many layers and aspects to his role that I don’t see because I’m not a regular viewer. But every minute of it I have seen, I felt like I had seen 100 times before.

          • Mike.H

            #1 comedy show, billion$$$ of profit$$ for CBS, AND weekly audience first run numbers of 18mm to 21mm weekly which is unheard of and unparalleled in today’s TV market.

            Seinfeld used to draw about 24’ish… so you do the math, amigo.

      • ripleyy

        Said it like a pro. I couldn’t agree more.

      • Magga

        Louie is my favorite TV comedy ever. You have to watch a few episodes before it gets amazing, or maybe just skip the earlier ones and start somewhere in the middle of season 1. But it’s Bunuel-level inventive yet relatable

        • http://atticofthefilmaddict.blogspot.com/ Matty

          Ah, damn! Forgot about Louie! He took a break after season 3 so I forgot to include it. Easily the best comedy on TV, probably my favorite comedy ever as well. IT is DEFINITELY groundbreaking television. I honestly don’t even know how he does it. It was definitely a little rocky getting off to a start, but by season 2 it was shining, and I thought season 3 was fucking amazing. I can’t even explain that show or why it works. Some of the episodes are basically about nothing, there is no convention to it, no continuity, and yet it’s gloriously entertaining. I think “Bunuel-level inventive” is very apt. It’s easily one of the most original shows in decades.

          Coming back soon. Can’t wait!

        • http://atticofthefilmaddict.blogspot.com/ Matty

          (And David Lynch should be a required guest star in every show ever from now on)

  • Randy Williams

    I actually like the idea of the characters finding themselves living in the shadowy blueprints of a sitcom family’s home.

    I’d like to live in I Love Lucy’s country home in Westport. That huge fireplace, exposed beams, early american furniture carefully chosen by Betty Ramsey. Heaven!

    I think you can get away with a female character moping around. Some of the best did it very well, Mary Tyler Moore, Lucy, and my favorite, Barbara Eden in I Dream Of Jeannie.

    Of course, they didn’t mope for long, but they were funny in their misery and you knew it would trigger trouble.

    • witwoud

      Have you seen the movie Pleasantville, in which Toby Maguire and Reese Witherspoon get sucked through the TV screen and into a black and white 1950s sitcom? It’s not a bad movie — worth a watch, anyway, and it might cure you of those 1950s-sitcom-house yearnings ;)

      As for moping, I think it’s essential that sitcom characters have more time on their hands than they know what to do with — that’s more or less where the comedy starts.

    • klmn

      How would you like to live in the Douglas home from Green Acres? At least you’d have more interesting neighbors.

      • astranger2

        Then you could watch the stars “shoosting” through the air… lol That show was under rated, imo… Even if you never saw the show, Hootersville is imbedded in cultural references. I think Carson referenced it in one of his more recent reviews.

  • Casper Chris

    That Hawkes dude even looks like a Hawk.

    • http://atticofthefilmaddict.blogspot.com/ Matty

      Hahahaha.

      You don’t know who John Hawkes is? Great fucking actor. Been really brilliant lately in films like Winter’s Bone, Martha Marcy May Marlene, and The Sessions.

      • Kirk Diggler

        Deadwood.

        • Wes Mantooth

          Dustin Powers from Eastbound and Down. The perfect counterbalance to obnoxious, egomaniacal little brother Kenny Powers.

        • http://atticofthefilmaddict.blogspot.com/ Matty

          Yeah, the only thing to dislike about Deadwood is how short lived it was.

          Can’t beat its casting.

          • astranger2

            Yeah, David Milch could’ve used one more season to tie everything up. Such great characterization. Least we have one more season of Justified… and you did a nice job in your script paying tribute to Elmore Leonard. And a nice job on The Savage South all around. Props.

          • http://atticofthefilmaddict.blogspot.com/ Matty

            Thank you! I’m glad you noticed that nod to Justified. Justified is where I first heard of the Dixie Mafia, and then I did research on the real Dixie Mafia for my script. And I took their rivalry with Detroit out of Justified, but obviously the rest is my own stuff, just inspired by that wonderful show (and to solidify the inspiration, I used the name “Arnett,” who I’m sure you remember in the show until season 3 episode 1).

            What’s sad is that you’re the only person who noticed that, which means not enough people are watching Justified haha. Really brilliant show. I don’t want it to end, but I am looking forward to season six.

            Thanks for the kind words!

          • astranger2

            Interesting how many Deadwood actors have popped up on Justified.

          • ElectricDreamer

            Pretty sure I mentioned Elmore Leonard & Justified in my notes too.
            It was pretty obvious you’re a fan. And you have good taste.

          • http://atticofthefilmaddict.blogspot.com/ Matty

            Yes you did, my bad!

        • Mike.H

          Deadwood is my sex life, man.

      • Midnight Luck

        wasn’t a fan of Winter’s Bone, or MMMM, but man, The Sessions was just Awesome, and he was stupendous in it. Pulling off a guy with a disability like that and it feeling perfectly real, just amazing.

        • http://atticofthefilmaddict.blogspot.com/ Matty

          He was amazing in The Sessions. That’s easily one of the most confined and restricted performances I’ve ever seen, and I think the difficulty of such a thing is really overlooked. But he brought so much emotion into it, I fell in love with Mark O’Brien within the first 5 minutes.

          And I love Winter’s Bone – he’s subtlety fantastic in that film. I got to see it like 6 months before it actually came out, and I predicted at the time that Jennifer Lawrence would be a big name. Didn’t have any idea how big, however.

          I had a lot higher hopes for MMMM so I was a bit let down. Still a good movie I thought, though.

          • Midnight Luck

            yeah, Sessions was one of the best movies of the year. I was the only person I knew who saw it. Glad to see you saw it and thought as much of it as I.

            Winter’s Bone just didn’t do anything for me. It was very slow and plodding, didn’t have anything that stood out or was memorable. I am a bit surprised Lawrence got so huge from it. Not that she isn’t great, she is, but I didn’t find anything from her in that movie that jumped out and said “star”. I am glad she did though, as she has proven herself with other things. I thought she was the best thing about AMERICAN HUSTLE. She was funny and just plain fun to watch onscreen. She was my favorite part. She also lit up SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK.

            There was so much talk around MMMM, and I had such high hopes as well, and it just fell like a dud. Sad. There was absolutely no spark there whatsoever.

          • astranger2

            Concur… MMMM… was… mmmmmmmmm… just another crash-test-dummy film… for the inert… never understood the fervor…

  • mulesandmud

    OT:

    Stephen Soderbergh has recut HEAVEN’S GATE into a down-and-dirty, 108-minute “Butcher’s Cut”, seemingly just for shits and giggles. Who is this guy?

    http://extension765.com/sdr/16-heavens-gate-the-butchers-cut

    For those not familiar, that’s exactly half the running time of the original 1980 film, which stands as the classic example of a bloated Hollywood auteur folly. The cutdown is better in just about every way; a testament to the power of economy in storytelling.

    • fragglewriter

      Great. Now another movie that I have to add to my list for learning (sarcasm) LOL

  • G.S.

    I can’t tell you how much I hate when “quirky” goes wrong. I think it’s along the same lines as having a problem with suspension of disbelief for sci-fi/fantasy and even some types of comedy. If the world isn’t realized correctly or if the choices in the writing don’t exactly fit into the world you’ve created, it’s going to come off badly. In the quirky types of shows/movies, everything just comes off as unnecessarily weird.

    As far as I can tell, quirky scripts are for advanced writers with particularly unique voices anyway, so I keep far far away as a practice.

  • ScottStrybos

    OT: Alex Kurtzman & Roberto Orci Splitting Up on Bigscreen

    “Kurtzman and Orci–who will remain in business together on the TV front–are parting amicably, according to sources, and the split will allow them to pursue separate feature careers as directors.

    • Kirk Diggler

      This is hacktacular news!