Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Anatomy of a Sitcom Revision

At the risk of boring you to death -- a risk I'm always willing to take -- I wanted to return to something I highlighted in a couple of earlier posts: the steps for re-shaping a bad sitcom story into a good one. Normally I'd leave this sort of thing to the professionals, like Ken Levine or Jane Espenson, but they're not here, so there.

I would prefer to use some other show as an example, since it seems that 99 out of my last 100 posts have dealt with this one season, but the only good example I have in front of me is that side-by side comparison of the episode "Ling Ling" from season 1 of "Bewitched." So I'll take that as the example and try to find a later example from a more recent show.

Now, the finished product is not one of the better episodes from that season, but it's a solid enough effort, and certainly much better than the original story submitted by the freelance writer. The freelance script had a normal idea for this show: a cat is turned into a beautiful woman; someone falls in love with the woman; Samantha has to figure out how to break up the romance and turn the woman back into a cat. This idea was retained in writer-producer Jerry Davis's rewrite, but all the weak elements in the original script were turned into things that either felt a little fresher or worked a little better.

So what I'll do is go through some of the changes between the freelance script and the final episode. I'll list a story point from the original, identify the weakness of it, and explain why (as I see it) the rewrite fixes that weakness. And if you're not interested in sitcom script revisions, well, what kind of person are you anyway?

Original Script: Begins with Samantha in the kitchen making hors-d'oeuvres for a party. Endora appears and criticizes Samantha's marriage. She also brings along a Siamese cat belonging to one of Samantha's uncles.
Weakness: Too many episodes of the show begin exactly this same way in this same setting.
Final Episode: Begins with Samantha in the backyard reclining on a chair and reading; a Siamese cat walks around on the fence near her.
Why This Works Better: It's a set, and an opening, that we haven't seen over and over again in the season so far. It also introduces the cat in the very first shot of the episode.

Original Script: Endora turns the Siamese cat into a woman, hoping to use her to break up Darrin and Samantha's marriage (reasoning that since Durwood is an "animal," he needs an animal for a mate). Darrin and Larry see the woman and decide to use her as a model for an advertising campaign.
Weakness: The story is driven solely by something Endora does, not by anything the main characters do (a problem that would pretty much choke off the show by its third year).
Final Episode: Samantha, hearing that Darrin needs an "exotic" model for an advertising campaign and can't find anyone appropriate, decides to help out by turning a Siamese cat into a woman ("Cat, how would you like to be a cover girl?")
Why This Works Better: The story is now driven, Lucy-style, by a bad decision that the main female character makes. Samantha is now driving the story instead of standing by and watching it happen.

Original Script: Samantha brings the cat-woman, Felicia, into the living room to talk to Darrin's advertising client, apparently hoping to focus Felicia's attention on someone other than Darrin. The client, Mr. Ames, starts to fall in love with Felicia, unaware that she's only interested in the sardine Samantha has slipped into his breast pocket.
Weakness: The situation is too silly; Samantha's motives are confusing; the client is basically another in a long line of clueless clients who (we can predict) will be talked into giving Darrin the account at the end.
Final Episode: The client does not appear. The person who falls in love with the cat-woman (here named "Ling Ling") is the photographer for the modeling session, a friend of Darrin's named Wally. That night, Darrin brings several people home for dinner to celebrate. Samantha is shocked when she sees who Wally's date is.
Why This Works Better: It's a stronger act break; no farcical complications have been introduced yet (the first act is setup; the complications are saved for Act II); the young, naive, shy photographer is a funnier pairing with the bitchy cat than a businessman type would be.

Original Script: Samantha tells Darrin the truth about what Felicia is.
Weakness: Just a standardized "revelation" scene with nothing much of interest before or after it.
Final Episode: Samantha confronts Ling Ling directly and tells her she has to stop leading Wally on. Ling Ling replies that she doesn't care about Wally, but she likes being pampered and made a fuss over, and as long as Wally can give her nice things, she will stick with him. Ling Ling leaves the room and Samantha tells Darrin the truth.
Why This Works Better: Now there's a direct confrontation between Samantha and the cat-woman, once again putting Samantha at the centre of the story. Also, in keeping with the style of the first season -- using fantasy situations as explicit parallels with real life -- we get a clearer connection between the cat-woman and real-life people: the joke is now that a cat turned into a woman acts a lot like a real-life bitchy gold-digger. And this creates a better reason for Samantha to tell Darrin the truth then and there, namely that she now knows that Ling Ling is out to break his friend's heart.

Original Script: Darrin tries to tell his client that Felicia is not right for him, but the client won't let him get a word in edgewise, instead announcing that he's engaged to Felicia. Endora pops in and tells Samantha that Felicia must be turned back to a cat by midnight before the owner comes to get her.
Weakness: Two more standardized scenes: The "can't get a word in edgewise to tell the truth" scene, and the addition of a "ticking clock" for bogus suspense.
Final Episode: Darrin tells Wally that Ling Ling is no good. Wally gets angry and tells Darrin that if he keeps insulting his girlfriend, their friendship is over.
Why This Works Better: The guy actually listens to the truth (or as much of the truth as it's safe to tell) and won't believe it. Also, again, fantasy works better when it parallels reality, and here we have the realistic situation of a young lover who won't believe that the woman he loves doesn't really love him. Finally, instead of the "ticking clock" situation, there's now a more interesting problem: before Samantha can turn the woman back into a cat, they have to figure out how to discourage Wally's feelings for her.

Original Script: To break up Felicia and the client, Samantha conjures up a mouse; Felicia pursues the mouse out of the backyard and into the alley, leaving the client broken-hearted. Samantha and Darrin convince the client that Felicia probably wasn't right for him anyway.
Weakness: The usual problem with solving a problem through magic: when your lead character can do just about anything, there can be no real cleverness in the way she solves the problem.
Final Episode: Samantha puts catnip into Ling Ling's drink. Under the influence of the catnip, Ling Ling hisses at Wally when he tries to take the drink away from her, and then scratches him across the cheek. Wally, realizing that the girl he loved is a violent drunk who doesn't care for him, decides to give her up and devote himself to his career.
Why This Works Better: In keeping with Danny Arnold's rule that magic should be used "sparingly" on the show, Samantha solves the problem with no supernatural help. The audience likes the character better if she solves a problem through cleverness rather than a supernatural deus ex machina. Also, the real-life parallel plays out once again in the scene: though it's a fantasy show, it's a real-life situation (a lover finding out something unpleasant about the person he/she loved, and realizing that the relationship won't work).

Also, the original script does not include Gladys Kravitz; the finished episode does. This is an improvement if only because you can never have enough Alice Pearce.

So, to review: in the original script, the main character reacts instead of driving the story; the story introduces too many complications too early and resolves the problem too easily; and it has no real point to it other than seeing a woman eat off the floor like a cat. The final script places the main character at the centre of the action, creates a relatively uncluttered Act I and saves the big complications for Act II; and draws funny parallels between the fantasy situation and the real-life, non-fantasy situation it resembles.

Now, if I can find an early draft of some other script for some other show, I can write something even longer....


OregonDad said...

I randomly stumbled on this. Lot's of good work here. Very interesting web site - I'll keep reading.

Anonymous said...

^^ nice blog!! ^@^

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