Summer Binge-Watch: The Handmaid’s Tale

“Binge” isn’t quite the right word. This isn’t the sort of show you watch all at once and maintain your sanity. (I read “Lolita” in a day when I was in college. I’m still not right.) I watched the ten-episode season 1 over two weeks, which was still a lot, but gave me time to breathe in between.

I have read the book. I picked up a copy from the used book store in town a couple years ago, when I first started seeing every story about women’s rights followed by a flurry of comments that “It’s ‘Handmaid’s Tale’ come true!” Which I hate about as much as “It’s Idiocracy come true!” because it’s a rather vapid knee-jerk reaction. And honestly, this book was not my favorite. I had already read “Reading Lolita in Tehran,” which is a memoir by a woman who was a Western Literature professor at Tehran University during the Iranian Revolution and went almost overnight from having a life any of us would recognize as perfectly normal to suddenly being a second-class citizen, not allowed to leave her home or be visible in public. That is a scary book, and it’s true. “Handmaid’s Tale,” by comparison, reads as a rape fantasy.

Where the revolution in the backstory of “Handmaid’s Tale” differs from real revolutions is that the inciting incident is a worldwide drop in fertility. When a woman does get pregnant, there’s only a 1-in-5 chance that a healthy child will result. Most of the time, it’s miscarriage, stillbirth, or the baby only lives a few days. With pretty much everyone in panic, a religious group called the Sons of Jacob rises in the U.S. and slaughters the executive, judicial and legislative branches of government and takes over. They have decided that this problem is the result of God’s wrath (it is otherwise heavily implied to be related to global warming, but not in a concrete, scientific way) and the remedy is forced piousness, which naturally includes rounding up all the fertile women and ritualistically raping them. It’s not clear how it’s decided who is and isn’t fertile, beyond that men are never considered infertile even though all evidence points to the contrary.

So my basic problem with the show is one that I knew existed before going in, because it’s baked into the premise: women can be oppressed without rape being the tool of that oppression, but not here. But like I said, I knew what this story was about and decided to watch it anyway. And for being what it is, it’s adapted very well for television. There’s a lot more backstory and nuance than we get in the book (it’s a relatively short book) and the world is pretty complete. The one piece of controversy I’ve heard is that, while in the book racism is addressed with “those people got sent away” (paraphrased), the show wanted to be more racially diverse and so they simply don’t address racism at all. It’s a hard argument. Yes, racists often use religion to justify their racism, but does that mean all religious zealots (not religious people, but zealots who would use religion to justify rape and murder) are also racists? I feel like arguments could be made either way. (EDIT: I’ve thought about this a bit, and come to the conclusion that in order for this show to be effectively scary, we have to be able to recognize the possible future. Which means being able to recognize the bad guys in the show as the bad guys in our world, and the bad guys in our world often seize power partly by taking advantage of racism and appealing to racists. The show didn’t have to deal with racism the same way the book did – by writing off the people of color – but it would have been realistic to see people of color generally being treated even more harshly than white people.)

In the real world, decisions about women’s healthcare are currently being made by large groups of men behind closed doors, who tend to emerge and announce that since women’s health is “optional,” they have no intention of covering us. Texas has an enormously high maternal mortality rate, largely ascribed to this same issue. Women’s rights are in danger, and although rape hasn’t technically been codified into law, it can sometimes feel like it has. But maybe a show about rape will help the conversation along. The striking visuals are useful, anyway.

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The Season Pass List

American Crime: Disappointed but not shocked this one has been canceled. It was a show that prided itself in tackling all aspects of difficult crimes, which in season one and two meant focusing on many aspects of a single (alleged) crime and in season three meant featuring a bunch of crimes that all revolved around a theme, in this case human trafficking. The ratings never really matched the show’s quality, which was too bad, but in season three I think the sheer number of victims got to be too depressing. (And the knowledge that the white men were winning might not have made it quite as enlightening as a show like this aims for.)

Another Period: Not on the schedule yet, but if history holds, Comedy Central will start airing it this summer. This, like Drunk History, is one of those fun, silly shows that makes you feel smarter for having watched it without actually giving you useful information. (Although what do I know? Maybe the fact that cocaine wine once existed is useful to you.)

Arrow: The Mothership of the DC shows on the CW (Arrow, Flash, Legends of Tomorrow, sort of Supergirl). This show likes to focus on the responsibility of leadership and the sacrifices involved with being a hero, which can make it bleak but I still like it.

Atlanta: This is a very, very good show. But although 90% of it takes place in the real world, it still likes to mess with occasionally having someone drive off in a literally-invisible car, or have Justin Beiber played by a black man with zero commentary. So just slightly magical, but so slightly that it makes it hard to definitively say they’ve found their voice. I still highly recommend it.

Better Call Saul: The third season of this Breaking Bad prequel-series is currently airing. I recently took a spec-writing class to help me with my fellowship applications and one of my classmates was writing a Better Call Saul. As I watched an entire act of the show play out on TV with no dialogue, I appreciated his struggle. It’s really hard to write a quiet, slow-moving story and have it read right and hit the proper page count. I had the same problem with my script.

Billions: I debating speccing this for the fellowships, but ultimately decided against it. As fun as the show can be, it’s about how no one was held accountable for the 2008 financial crash (the same way Ray Donovan is based on Whitey Bulger, which is to say, loosely inspired) and the current political climate just didn’t make that seem very fun anymore.

black-ish: I had just been discussing with my carpool buddy the genre lines when a comedy is dramatic and when a drama has comedic elements, and then I put on the season finale of this show and cried for 30 minutes straight. It’s not always perfect (Dre suffers from Adult Man-Child Sitcom Syndrome) but it does a much better job of addressing complex issues than most other shows on TV.

Broadchurch*: I don’t think this aired at all last year, but the third (and final) season is airing starting June 28, so that’s something.

Brooklyn Nine-Nine: This is one of those shows that has grown leaps and bounds beyond what anybody expected. They put a lot of work into making each character independently funny and making sure this isn’t just the Andy Samberg Comedy Hour.

Call the Midwife: Babies! But seriously, also class issues and civil rights and Thalidomide and how times have changed and how they stay the same. This show usually supplies the therapeutic cries I need from my TV.

Class*: This is a Doctor Who spinoff. The entire first season aired in the UK, the show was canceled, and then it started airing in the US. It’s kind of a relief, not having that bit of suspense. It’s set in the school where Clara taught, although she’s not referenced in the show at all. It’s a fun enough diversion, but I’m not starting a campaign to get them to change their minds.

Crazy Ex-Girlfriend: I have so many boxes of files on this show in my office. I’m drowning in files on this show. And yet, I still watch it. Voluntarily. Which says something.

DC’s Legends of Tomorrow: This show responded to their problem of too many characters to service by killing off a few characters and replacing them with a whole bunch more characters, mostly white guys. The good news is that as the show goes on and it becomes easier to remember who is who, it becomes easier to keep track of the storylines. The bad news is there’s still a lot of characters, and now some of them really look alike.

Doctor Who: I was reading a comment online today from someone who was griping that anytime he had a criticism of Doctor Who, people would attack him as a “hater” and I was like, “dude, where are you hanging out?” Because I go to a monthly Doctor-Who meetup that’s all about discussing which showrunner you liked or didn’t and why. We watch the show so we can debate the show. It’s definitely the most social thing on this list.

Drunk History: See Another Period, above. I have trouble getting too excited about this show because I tend to find drunk people boring, but the stories are interesting.

Frequency: Disappointed but not shocked. The ratings were terrible, even by CW standards. It was a fun show featuring time-travel but with consequences and through-lines and stuff, and I would have liked to have seen more.

Full Frontal with Samantha Bee: If you’re not watching this show, you are woefully misinformed. Sam Bee went to Russia in October and interviewed the state-hired social hackers targeting the election. In October. Watch. This. Show.

Game of Thrones**: You already have opinions about this show. Even if you don’t watch it. ESPECIALLY if you don’t watch it.

Girlfriends’ Guide to Divorce: This is one of those shows that’s much better binge-watched. I like to let the season gather on the DVR and then go through them all at once (and gawk at the fashion).

Grimm: We knew going into it that this was the last season, so the writers finished their story the best way they could. This started out as a procedural about the idea that fairy tale monsters were real and then became a serial about secret societies and royal families, but I am a sucker for fairy tales for adults and I was there for the whole ride.

HUMANS: I know you’ve never heard of it, but it’s on AMC and just finished season two and season three has been ordered and it’s really good. It’s another “robots develop consciousness” show but with a more real-world take.

Insecure: The HBO half-hour from Issa Rae. The second season will start in July. The first season spent time finding its legs, but even then it’s worth watching. I think every half-hour on HBO is in danger of being described as “It’s like Girls for…” so I’ll just tell you the correct answer: “It’s like Girls for grown-ass women with real problems who are at least sometimes likeable.”

Inside Amy Schumer: A weird thing happened with this show last fall when one of the writers tweeted some offensive stuff, and then Amy Schumer tweeted that people should stop referring to this guy as one of her writers because he’s not, then clarified that no one is because no one’s writing on the show, and everyone thought the show was canceled, and then she clarified that no, it’s just not being written RIGHT NOW but Comedy Central is totally holding a time slot for whenever they’re ready to return and Comedy Central was like, “say what?” So, this’ll be back? Eventually? Probably? Who knows.

iZombie: Here’s another example of a procedural that’s expanding beyond its premise and doing a lot of world-building. They keep flirting with curing zombie-ism, so we’ll see how that goes.

Jane the Virgin: Talk about expanding the premise; this year Jane became a (non-virgin) 28-yr-old-widow. So… that happened.

Killjoys: Hijinx in space! Coming soon! Season 3 starts June 30.

Last Week Tonight with John Oliver: If you’re not getting enough bigger-picture comedy news, this needs to be on your schedule. At the very least, the clips are easy to find online, fun and informative.

Legion: I LOVE THIS SHOW! I asked for (and received, because my brother is awesome) the comic book omnibus for my birthday. The show itself is a masterclass in non-linear storytelling, an unreliable narrator, and theatrical art direction. Which is to say it’s as beautiful as it is smart and entertaining. I put Fargo on my summer watchlist because of this show.

Lucifer: I started watching this show because I thought it might make a good spec. I ultimately decided against that, but it’s still a fun enough procedural, if you can handle another white guy making everything about him all the time. (To be fair, EVERYONE calls him on it. All the time. And it’s never actually about him.)

Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.: I am surprised this got picked up. The ratings haven’t been great, but the buzz was it was either this show or Inhumans (which is not a spin-off but is from the same comic books and they are on the same network) and we’re getting both.

Masterpiece: I’ve mostly watched this for Sherlock and Downton Abbey. I usually delete the other recordings, but something will probably come up at some point. I like to keep an eye on it.

Mr. Robot: The show I’m speccing for the fellowships this year. Much better binge-watched, and much better on second viewing. Season 1 is on Amazon Prime and season 2 is on

New Girl: Absolutely shocked this got a pick-up. It has an abbreviated final season next year, although I don’t know what they’re going to do with it. The writers are probably also shocked because they wrote the season finale clearly thinking they were done.

Once Upon a Time: Shocked this got picked up, with most of the main cast leaving. They’re rebooting the story (basically, they set it up as OUaT: The Next Generation) but since the hook (ha!) of doing a deeper dive into fairy tales feels pretty played-out, I’m not sure what they’re going to do with it.

Orphan Black*: I expect the final season to reveal that Tatiana Maslany is all of us.

Outlander: My boss recently told me that she watches this show and has listened to all of the audio books and my eyebrows have not recovered.

Pitch: Disappointed, but only surprised that the cancellation was announced this month instead of January. As someone who really doesn’t care about any sports at all, this was a fun view into a different world. But apparently there’s only a handful of us that felt that way because the ratings were terrible. It would have been nice if it developed a cult following, but the people in charge of these sorts of things didn’t ask me.

Portlandia**: If you watch this show while knowing that Carrie Brownstein is an introvert, it feels a little different. She’s wickedly funny, but I wonder how the show would be without such an extrovert right next to her.

Powerless: Not surprised. This is one of those shows that had a really great premise, and the execution wasn’t all bad (they liked to shoot from slightly above eye-level, using a fish-eye lens, and oversaturate so the whole thing had a vaguely comic book effect). But Vanessa Hudgens was miscast and the show didn’t have time to find itself. My carpool buddy saw the original version, which was screened at Comicon last year, and said it was much more sustainable.

RuPaul’s Drag Race: If all gender is performance, then why not perform the shit out of it? I love this show.

Saturday Night Live: I know some people haven’t forgiven them for letting Trump host, and I can understand that. I certainly can’t watch episodes from right before the election. In general, reruns of this show are getting really hard to watch.

South Park: For my office’s Christmas lunch, we went to a local restaurant that, among other things, put out a fruit plate. The grapes were so sweet that tasting them immediately transported me to August, when there was still hope in the world. I told one of my coworkers who, correctly, said “they’re member-berries!” I ‘member.

Speechless: My mother had a sister with severe disabilities, and this show speaks to my whole family on a very basic level. The family on the show can be a little more sitcommy than, for instance, black-ish, but they still prefer keeping the conflict grounded.

Steven Universe: This is one of those shows that’s like a symbiotic parasite that crawls into your eyes and settles in your heart and makes you sing songs in the shower and feel like there is good and light and joy in the world. But Cartoon Network airs it, you know, whenever, not really any rhyme or reason to the schedule and they haven’t released any DVDs even though they’re now on season 5. So if you don’t have Hulu or don’t trust Hulu, you can end up filling your DVR. Not that I would know about this. (I really wish they would release DVDs.)

Supergirl: Somehow demoting Cat Grant made this show more feminist, but it was still nice to see her in the finale. Personally, I think CWfying this show was exactly what it needed.

The Americans**: This whole season is currently sitting on my DVR. I’ll get to it soon! I promise!

The Daily Show with Trevor Noah: Jon Stewart made a point of calling out Fox News, which Trevor Noah specifically did not want to be his schtick. But he hasn’t quite found a schtick of his own yet, and it’s hard to say that he should have one enemy when there are so many to choose from now.

The Flash: This one used to be the “happy superhero” one of the bunch, but this season felt pretty dour, musical episode notwithstanding.

The Good Place: This is a great show. If you haven’t heard that it ended on a twist… well, sorry, spoilers. But go watch it right now before someone spoils the twist for you. I’ll wait.

The Last Man on Earth: This is another parasitic show, except this one makes me scream at other drivers on the road, “WHY AREN’T YOU ALL DEAD!” So not quite warm and fluffy like Steven Universe.

The Leftovers*: I’m sad to see this show go, but glad it gets to end on its own terms.

Throwing Shade: It’s like Full Frontal meets Best Week Ever, is on TV Land, and I know one of the hosts. It may not be appointment viewing, but hopefully it will be. (Although that might require more than 10 episodes/season.)

Twin Peaks: The Return: I am withholding public judgement until the season has aired. Let’s just say I have reservations.

Westworld: I LOVE THIS SHOW. Plus it’ll make you feel better than a bunch of near-future rich assholes because you’d imagine that killing probably isn’t fun, right?

*completing its run in 2017/currently airing final season
**scheduled to complete its run in 2018

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All the Stuff EXCEPT the Script

The part of Fellowship applications we all ignore until the last possible moment: The personal essay and the bio. We like to say it’s because the script is so much bigger and more meaningful, and it should be the only thing that counts, right? But when we stop and look deep down inside, the reason we’re procrastinating is… this shit is hard.

For the personal essay, the prompts and rules differ slightly, but the basic idea is that you need to write about what makes you a unique person, what compels you to write, and why your voice is so sorely needed in the modern TV landscape, without being cliche or insufferable, and all in 500 words. So easy, right? And the bio is “another writing sample” which means it should tell your life story in a way that’s entertaining and relatable and about a half a page, max.

So first, don’t run away. And don’t assume you can write a page and a half in your sleep so this will be easy. Don’t even tell yourself that. Find a couple days between drafts of your script, when you can’t look at the thing anymore or you’re suddenly sure that everything you ever thought was brilliant and right is clearly ALL ALL wrong. Take a deep breath and tell yourself it will all be okay, you’re just going to redirect for now. And turn your attention to the essays. Make yourself focus on them. Do not write blog posts about writing them instead of writing them. Ahem.

A good place to start is by defining your brand. This is a great article that explains what that means, exactly. And even better, gives concrete steps to take to define your brand. Do them. Do all of them. Figure out how you’re trying to sell yourself. This will reflect on everything else you write. (Or should.)

Next, the essay. There are so many different thoughts on this. I’ve taken seminars and heard from judges and everyone I know has thoughts. Here’s what I’ve landed on: your personal essay proves that you can tell a story. So find your most affecting personal story and tell it, like a short story. It needs a beginning, middle, and end, and if the end can relate back to the beginning, so much the better. Your reader should have the same reaction you want them to have to your script – which is to say, if you’re a comedy writer, it should make them laugh. If you’re a drama writer they should cry or gasp or whatever. Laughing and crying would be best, but don’t force it. Cloying is the worst. Just tell this one story. If you incorporate your brand statement, it should fit nicely as the “why I write” without being the same thing everyone says.

Your bio, on the other hand, should hint that you have many, many stories to tell. You don’t have room to actually tell them all, but every sentence should make them want to sit you down and ask you questions. I think of when I was a page at Paramount, where new employees would be interviewed and hired in groups. My bosses told me about someone they were bringing in for an interview just because she had the bad fortune to be named Britney Spears, and they had to meet this person. The chances that you have the same name as a celebrity are low, but what about you would make someone say, “I HAVE to meet this person!”? Imply your most fascinating stories. Use adjectives to do it quickly and efficiently. Don’t just say you were a wedding videographer, and don’t tell me you were a wedding videographer who didn’t know how to frame a shot. Tell me you were a terrible, overpriced and overworked wedding videographer.

And lastly, all that stuff that people say and you say “I KNOW” but really you don’t know. I was talking with a friend recently who was a finalist at Disney last year and she told me it’s important that your spec and your pilot (they ask for a pilot if you make it to the next round – you knew that, right?) have the same point of view. For instance, hers both reflected her unwaivering optimism. (In her spec, this meant featuring the optimistic character.) And I said, “Ohhh, THAT’S what that means!” I had no idea what “point of view” really meant, in a way I could define. So find the one word that defines you. If you’re not sure, look back at the work you did on finding your brand. If it’s not in there, it should be.

And then the interviews. You should know, going in, that part of the price of admission is being vulnerable. They want to know that you’re willing to give everything, to tell all your most painful stories for just a chance at winning. So be prepared.

And finally, a lot of this is luck. Writing is subjective and reading is subjective, and most of these contests “cast” their winners. My masterclass at UCLA was like that – of the 8 people selected to be in the class, four were men and four were women; four were comedy writers and four were drama writers. There are slots they need people to fill and maybe you fit the category and maybe you don’t, but that part’s not in your control. Do the best you can with the parts you can control. And try not to procrastinate.

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Rakes and Invisible Acorns

I decided that this year would be my big push year. I wrote a list of the scripts I’m going to write and the projects I’m going to get done. I looked for classes that would specifically help me with those projects and signed up. I’m entering ALL the contests. This is the year.


You know that old Simpsons scene with Sideshow Bob and the rakes? Sideshow Bob is out to kill Bart, and he tracks the family down where they’re hiding and sets off to find Bart, but he takes a step and immediately a rake flies up and hits him in the face. He regroups, changes direction, takes a step, and… another rake. He regroups, takes a step… another rake. You get the idea. The scene goes on for a really long time. (Comedy writers use it as an example of a joke that goes on so long it stops being funny and then actually gets funny again.) The point is, I feel like I keep stepping on rakes. And then I had a realization.

Trying really hard ALWAYS feels like stepping on rakes.

That’s how it is for everyone. That’s why most people don’t try really hard all the time. There’s WAY fewer rakes if you’re not trying something new. And it made me feel much better to know that this feeling of getting hit in the face isn’t just me, and it isn’t just this year. Putting off my goals wouldn’t make them easier. And I’m not cursed. I just need to keep powering through.

Not getting into all the classes I want.
A death in the family, necessitating a last-minute trip across the country for the funeral.
Half of my writing group being unavailable (all for good reasons, but this is about me).
Getting a rejection from one contest exactly as I’m trying to get my stuff together to enter another one.

But then there’s the acorns.

Tiny, invisible acorns, that the universe pelts you with. The real-world analogy would be when I was working on Jericho and our production office was covered with this carpet that created static electricity really well. And we, of course, all wore rubber-soled sneakers, because that’s what you wear when you work in a production office. When the Santa Ana winds would come through and the air would get really dry, literally every piece of metal you’d touch would give you a static shock. Pens, doorknobs, file cabinets, staplers, shock, shock, shock, shock. It had a very depressing effect, to be constantly low-level hurt like that. We all get static shocks sometimes and shake them off, but when it’s every few seconds, it’s harder to shake. It gave me a new appreciation for people with Tourettes or chronic pain disorders. It’s really hard to be happy.

Tiny invisible acorns are the micro-annoyances the universe throws at you. You’re likely to get at least one a day and shake it off, and you might not even notice that you’re getting considerably more than one a day until you snap. None of them are really big enough to qualify as “bad-day makers,” which makes it really hard to explain why you just snapped.

And then there are squirrels. Most of the acorns come from the trees, but sometimes you’ll have squirrels throwing them at you. When there’s too many acorns, when the squirrels in your life are the people you physically spend the most time with, it might be time for a change. Which doesn’t necessarily mean change is available, but that’s why you have to keep stepping on rakes, to stop the acorns.

The cat wakes you up early.
When you get up, you realize the cat was hungry because she barfed all over the bath mat.
The news insists on showing the complete speech of someone who makes your skin crawl because he signed an executive order rolling your rights back AGAIN.
Your carpool buddy is late.
You keep telling other drivers “that’s not how stop signs work” but they’re not getting the message.
Your boss calls from the car with a big project she wants done before she arrives at the office.
You can’t leave the office on your lunch break.
The person you need to talk to has no interest in talking to you.
A visitor to your office comments on the amount of work on your desk.
There’s a lot of traffic on the way home for no discernible reason.
etc. (there’s a lot of etc. You do you.)

And, of course, there’s the general universal badness. The political climate, the talk of a WGA strike, the feeling like everything is wrong, the fact no one has put me in charge of the world yet. So far the only thing I’ve found that helps with that is reading Neil Gaiman short stories. When you’re absolutely certain that there’s something evil just beyond your peripheral vision but you can’t name it or stop it, Neil Gaiman has your back.

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Read This

Ken Levine has been on a roll this week! Here’s:

A primer on the industry side of the industry.

What you need to know about the possible WGA strike.

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The Beat Your Pilot Needs

I’m working on rewriting a pilot for the HBO Fellowship, including looking at current HBO shows and getting a feel for their brand and tone (this is particularly difficult since, at least for dramas, all of their current shows are based on books) and deciding what my show should be. Should it be non-linear? How many characters should I follow? What will be the “oh, shit” moment?

The “oh, shit” moment is the moment that the audience will remember forever, that makes them sit forward and swear. (The corollary is the “oh, no” moment, when a show does something so bad you can’t believe anyone ever thought it was okay. Don’t do those.) Some big “oh, shit” moments from pilots include:


Mad Men: Don Draper was married all along.

The Leftovers: 2% of the world’s population disappears at the exact same moment.

Westworld: A robot swats a fly, thus harming a living thing and violating/growing beyond her programming.

This Is Us: The show takes place in two timelines and all the characters are related.

Pitch: The dad’s not really there.

Now obviously, not every pilot ever made has one of these moments. But they are memorable, and if you’re entering a contest, that’s something you want your script to be. They cause the reader/viewer to be emotionally engaged with your show. What’s interesting is that there’s not necessarily a pattern to the “oh, shit” moment: most are at the end, but some are in the teaser (Leftovers). Some are character beats, some are functions of the narrative structure, some are the basic premise of the show. Some barely matter to the show as a whole (“ghost dad” never really came back in Pitch), but all are incredibly important to the pilot.

When you’re writing your own pilot, remember when you’re breaking the story to decide what your “oh, shit” moment will be and then build to it. If you can pull it off, you’ll be step above most of the competition.


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TV Terms: What is a trope?

I’m not going to just list a bunch of tropes at you. Other people already do that. But it’s something I’ve been thinking about lately, especially in the context of a Jack in the Box commercial:

In the commercial, Jack announces to his restaurant executives that they are going to start serving brunch all day. One of the executives asks why, and we flash back to Jack sitting on his couch, watching TV with his pregnant (presumably) wife, who announces that she’s craving brunch and that Jack should start serving brunch all day at his restaurant. When Jack dismisses her, she casually mentions that she could invite her mom to stay with them, and the horror music in (presumably) Jack’s head transitions us back to the present.

Commercials only have 30 seconds to tell a story, and so they often rely on tropes to get complex ideas across. In this case, the dominant tropes are that pregnant women have cravings and are unreasonable, and that men do not get along with their mothers-in-law. The commercial doesn’t have to show us Jack’s past interactions with his mother-in-law. A few seconds of horror movie music (also a trope, in that you can recognize horror movie music without knowing the specific movie it came from) and a culture wherein all media has been depicting mothers-in-law as shrill harpies conditions us to understand that this is the relationship, and Jack is being threatened by his wife.

Tropes are shorthand, and that makes it easy to think of them as lazy and bad, but sometimes they’re necessary. Especially when you’re establishing character, you often need the quickest cheats possible so that you can get to the story. A character appearing with disheveled hair can get the point across that they’re overwhelmed much faster than watching them try to get to all of their appointments, and if the story is not about getting to those appointments, then you want that part over with as quickly as possible. (Never mind that in real life, being busy almost never results in frizzy hair. The audience has been conditioned (ha!) to understand it that way.)

Which is not to say that tropes are never lazy and bad. Tropes are so common that it can be difficult to recognize them, but as a writer it’s important to know when you’re using them and do it deliberately. The writers of the Jack in the Box commercial may not have been aware that the nagging mother-in-law is a trope that they were using (although they would have understood that this was a concept everyone would understand, they may not have taken the time to consider why or had the vocabulary to name it a trope). And that’s a problem, because that particular trope is Sexist AF (“as fuck”). Many tropes are so culturally ingrained that we’ve all grown up with them, but culture changes much faster than tropes do, so many tropes that we today recognize as Racist or Sexist or Homophobic AF (or would if we thought about them) are still in use. It’s especially infuriating when you realize that although Jack in the Box decided to go with a Sexist AF trope, the most obvious one for them would target a stoner audience. So they reached to be sexist. They put effort into it.

One of the best ways to be sure you’re not using the wrong kind of trope is to make sure that your characters are completely and fully fleshed-out. Is the boss a cold bitch because that’s a trope, or because her parents were addicts and she spent her whole life trying desperately to control the people around her? (And are you planning on fleshing that out in the context of the story?) If a reader tells you that you’re using a trope, what they often mean is that this feels like it’s been done before and you should try to be more original. Having complex, complete backstories is a good way to make that happen – and something you should be doing anyway.

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