Friday, August 24, 2012

Break it Down: Arrested Development

As I prepared to start writing my newest comic book script, I decided to take a break and do something I've been meaning to do for nearly a decade. Sit down and watch Arrested Development.

Little did I know I'd waste a day and half watching all 53 episodes. I was depressed because I really wanted to sit down and start writing, but I wasn't. I was glued to my TV and was in some kind of coma. It wasn't until I made it half-way through the series I realized why I was hooked on the show. This was the story structure I was looking for.

To explain that further I should go back to last week. I actually sat down and read some archived webcomics I've been meaning to get caught up on. All of them are different, but they had one common trait. They lacked any narration. Now writing just like drawing is subjective. In fact I love it when people tell stories with as little dialogue as possible. Especially since most of the comic books I grew up with were very text heavy ( i.e. Chris Claremont's run of X-Men ) Again that's subjective, so there is no right or wrong way. However when it came to my material I realized I too completely left out a narrator.

Which is why Arrested Development felt more like a comic book to me than a TV show. Even though the show was 21-22 minutes, each episode went by really fast. Just like reading a comic book. Besides the comic book comparison, Arrested Development also had the same traits I enjoy in the other shows I watch. Archer, American Dad, and How I Met Your Mother who make good use of carrying over small jokes throughout the series and Chekhov's Gun.

Now I'm not sure if Arrested Development started this formula, as I did find similar to the Larry Sanders Show and was told one of the producers was from that, but tracking down who is a task since they hand out producer credits like candy on every TV show. Either way, that formula of quick dialogue, past references with in the show, and Plot Devices makes each episode of Arrested Development feel like a solid story.

One example of a past references in Arrested Development is the first episode. Micheal asks Gob about his new trick, which Gob replies " Illusion Micheal, tricks are for prostitutes " This was referenced in the 3rd season where Gob's dummy Franklin was a pimp and told Micheal " he has to pay for the illusions...I mean tricks ".  To which Micheal learned Gob was the pimp.

Like the other shows I mention, Chekhov's Gun plays a huge role in each one of them. Some are painfully obvious, but in most cases the Gun is hidden so well that when it's revealed towards the end of the episode the viewer immediately loves it because they made the connection. I can't remember any in Arrested Development at the moment, but they are there. And they are hidden pretty well.

Another thing the show does well is tell multiple stories. I was inspired by American Dad to make a Two Story Structure, which works pretty good as my current script is going by the Structure I made out. But Arrested Development had about 3 or 4 separate stories going on in each episode. And they all came to a conclusion at the end of each episode. Sure Buster's relationship with Lucille 2 lasted more than one episode, but every conflict he had in one episode with her ended with that episode.

This attention to detail and resolution to all these small stories with in each episode is amazing. For a person who's been taking writing pretty seriously the last 2 years it's daunting. But then reality hits me. All those shows I mentioned have multiple writers. They have staffs. To emulate that with one person working on a comic book is nearly impossible.

But that's why I was sucked into Arrested Development and marathon'd through it. It wasn't me being lazy ( which is always my first assumption. ) I was inspired. And why not shoot for the same quality with something that inspires you? In fact if you don't, and you think it's out of your league, then you're selling yourself short.

This inspiration lead me to find that all these shows I loved or are currently watching all share the same traits. Use of plot devices, quick dialogue, references to previouse episodes, and running gags. It's amazing to me how the ratio of shows that make use of these tools are out numbered by those who just phone it in. Which is why I only watch maybe 10 shows at the most. And movies just don't do it for me anymore, they don't have the same quality I find in TV shows I love.

So after breaking down Arrested Development I found out why I loved it. It wasn't a particular actor, the subject matter, or the setting. It was how it was put together. The same structure I found in the other shows I like. It isn't so much what's on the surface, but what's holding it together.

That's what I'm looking for in my own writing. Like a bad TV show, a bad Comic will try to rely on another aspect of it if the story structure isn't there. For a show it could be a guest star ( Simpsons ) and for a Comic Book it could be great art. Those are surfaces, a fancy cover that's maybe too fancy to cover up the lack of structure.

And Arrested Development is the perfect example of how the structure was so perfect that the surface didn't even matter. It was shot on video, the characters were kept to a minimum, and the guest stars weren't the main focus, they fit in small roles that were key to the story instead of being the major focus for that episode ( something the Simpsons use to do, but now they treat guest stars like they're hosting SNL )

In the end the show just confirmed something I already knew. If you have a good story structure, you'll get good writing, and when you have good writing you have good entertainment no matter what it looks it. I think this is something a lot of aspiring comic book artist don't learn. Especially those who want to be creator/writers.

They take the writing for granted. They focus too much on the art thinking that's what sells it. It might sell at first, but what keeps it selling is good writing. And for that you need a good Story Structure. But just like art, writing is subjective.

You can have a good structure and still produce a crappy story, but at least that crappy story was told in the best way possible.

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