The advice and rantings of a Hollywood script reader tired of seeing screenwriters make the same mistakes, saving the world from bad writing one screenplay at a time. Learn what it takes to get your script past one of these mythical Gatekeepers.
CHILLING ADVENTURES OF SABRINA is quite possibly the darkest show I've ever seen. I was a few weeks behind in completing this series and so while I was still mid-binge, I did my best to shut out the noise from pop culture sites that drop 13 recaps and even more thinkpieces within four days of the release of a Netflix show. I'm used to this by now and have developed my own method of getting through a new Netflix drop - no more than two episodes a night, and if two new shows drop close to each other, I tend to alternate back and forth. I like this method because it forces me to appreciate each ep on its own more.
The detriment is that during the instances where a binge takes a couple weeks, by the time I'm ready to talk about a show, the rest of the internet has moved on. There are a lot of reasons to appreciate the binge model, but I miss experiencing television at the same time as every other viewer. It made for more interesting conversation. Hell, it made for a longer, more in-depth conversation. That ship has long sailed, but usually, even if I was avoiding the thinkpieces, I at least had a vague awareness of their existence. With SABRINA, I finished the show with very little sense of what the wider discussion surrounding it was.
And with SABRINA, the most vocal protests I've seen have come from... the Satanic Church unhappy with their depiction? Really?
I'm not a fan of protesting TV scripted shows or campaigning for cancellations. If we're talking about people like Tucker Carlson who are putting genuinely harmful and dangerous ideas out there under the guise of "news," yes, by all means protest his sponsors and get his white supremacist ass off television. With scripted TV, the worst material has a habit of failing all on its own. Don't watch and it'll probably go away. Remember back when everyone thought STALKER was brutal and violent? Have you even thought about STALKER since that controversy?
The SABRINA situation shocks me mostly because of the total lack of reaction. Like many of my generations, I rolled my eyes when religious groups attacked Harry Potter for promoting Satanism, and every now and then you'd hear about fringe religious nutcases complaining that BUFFY's depiction of the occult was equally demonic. Both claims are pretty baseless to anyone who's actually consumed the material, but SABRINA isn't playing the witchcraft the same way - it's EXPLICITLY Satanic. The main arc of the first season deals with the fact that once she turns 16, the half-human, half-witch Sabrina must embrace her witch side and undergo a dark baptism where she pledges her obedience (and her virginity) to Satan himself.
Yep, there's no hiding behind fictional* demonic entities here. This is literally the Devil and our heroine as grown up as part of a coven that worships him. Sabrina as a few human friends but the most vivid personalities of the show are ALL IN on this Devil-worshipping.
*I consider myself pretty agnostic, so to be honest ALL of this stuff is fictional to me. New Testament, Crisis on Infinite Earths... it's all pretty much the same to me. But as the Devil is "real" to a large segment of the audience, I'm going with the flow for the sake of this piece. For me, the Devil is about as scary as Thanos.
Has there ever been a show where the "Good Guys" worry that the consequence of a teenage girl not selling herself to Satan will mean bad things for them? Sabrina's aunts Zelda and Hilda are depicted more sympathetically than some of the rest of the coven and spend half the season urging Sabrina to go through with her pact with the Devil. Using ACTUAL Satan as a player on the show should make the morality as black and white as possible, but the show seems to want us to perceive some shades of grey via the aunts' dilemma.
Pretend this was a grounded drama and instead of Literal Satan, Sabrina was being urged to give herself to the satanic Cult Leader. There's no ambiguity there, right? It's an evil act and any characters advocating for it must be evil. SABRINA takes that dynamic and makes it the drive of the aunts whom Sabrina loves dearly. It's an incredible subversion to anyone who remembers those characters on the Melissa Joan Hart series.
A late-season episode revolves around "The Feast of Feasts," where one member of the Coven is selected to be the Queen of the Feast. It's an honor that demands the selected Queen slit her own throat so that the coven may feast on her body. Sabrina finds the whole practice barbaric and is prepared to protest it, but the selected Queen, Prudence, is only too proud to be a part of this legacy. Through most of the episode, we're pretty sure we know where this is headed. Sabrina will take a Lisa Simpson-like stand against this archaic practice, people will begin to question this tradition (especially since we're told it's an old tradition being revived after a long dormancy), and in the end, humanity prevails - probably after a stirring speech from our heroine.
And for a while it looks like exactly what we'll get. The lottery is found to have been tainted, rigged. Sabrina makes an appeal that their leader simply outlaw the Feast, thereby facilitating a cover-up of this scandal. It's a situation where everyone saves face and Sabrina gets a "win," so it surely has to work, right?
Before they can put it into action at a meeting of a coven, one of the witches slits her own throat in genuinely disturbing fashion. Moments later, the entire coven goes ravenous, feeding on her as Sabrina can only watch with revulsion.
Like I said, DARK.
Then, the show somehow tops this bleakness with a finale where Sabrina is convinced that the only way she can get the power to save her friends and her entire town is to pledge herself to Satan of her own free will. She must sign her soul over to the Dark Lord and pledge to answer him when he calls. Sabrina does so and though she saves the town, it comes at a cost. By the end of the episode, she's strutting around with bleached blonde hair dressed like some of the more evil members of the coven who've spent the season representing everything Sabrina rejects.
It's as chilling an ending as seeing Captain Picard assimilated as one of the Borg. It's darker still because it's a selling of the soul that's stripped of all metaphor. She literally gave herself over to the Devil. There are altruistic motivations for doing so, but the result is that we're left with a Sabrina who's an agent of darkness.
Walter White: "I'm going to spend five years metaphorically selling my soul to the Devil for wealth and power."
Sabrina Spellman: "Lol, that's cute."
Last season I was shocked that Archie Comics was so willing to let RIVERDALE have Archie and Veronica get in deep with the mob. This makes that look like child's play. Without even debating whether it's good or bad on a story level that Sabrina sells her soul, it is straight-up the bleakest thing I've ever seen a series do, let alone one aimed at a teen audience.
While I'm on the subject of Dark TV, when I first tweeted some of these thoughts, it was clear that several of my readers immediately assumed that I was drawing a link between darkness and quality. I said the show was the darkest show I've ever seen - without any reference to its quality. From the replies I got, it was evident some respondents took it as an endorsement. I don't think saying something is "dark" automatically makes it good... nor do I think that alone makes something bad. In the end, it all comes down to story.
(Good example: in 13 REASONS WHY, I think Hannah's rape and her subsequent suicide in season one are also two of the darkest scenes I've seen on TV because there's emotional context to them. Contrast that with the bathroom sexual assault at the end of season 2, which is equally brutal, but creatively indefensible in a lot of ways.)
Time will tell if SABRINA can become a great show. It's willing to go places that few other shows have gone before, which shows bravery. As Sabrina explores the darkness next season, it will be discipline in story-telling that ultimately will determine how good a show it can become.
And still I wonder, what has exempted SABRINA from the typical moral panic that most other shows of its kind have faced? I don't think it's flying under the radar, so what makes that story of Satanism acceptable, while "fat-shaming" and suicide are extremely taboo? Right now, that's a question I have no answer for.
"Every single person down there is ignoring your pain because they're too busy with their own. The beautiful ones. The popular ones. The guys that pick on you. Everyone. If you could hear what they were feeling. The loneliness. The confusion. It looks quiet down there. It’s not. It’s deafening."
That was the thesis statement of the season 3 episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer entitled "Earshot." Last month, this episode turned 19 years old and yet in many respects it still remains one of the most accurate commentaries on the high school experience. The episode itself has an interesting history. It was originally slated to run on April 27, 1999, but seven days earlier, two teenagers killed 12 of their classmates and two teachers in a massacre at Columbine High School. Suddenly The WB was very nervous that the next episode of Buffy featured Buffy sensing one of her classmates was planning to kill everyone and racing against time to stop a mass casualty event at school.
The fact that the character remarked directly on the rise of school shootings and Oz quipped, "It's bordering on trendy at this point" might have also played a part in the network decision to hold the new episode until just before the start of Season 4.
Buffy as a series got a lot of mileage out of its conceit that "High school is hell." For the first three years, most of the random demon-of-the-week stories were metaphors for typical teenage drama. One of the more effective examples was when Buffy lost her virginity to Angel and the moment of "perfect happiness" broke the curse that forced a soul on the vampire. The result was an unleashed Angelus, ready to do evil and eager to break Buffy's heart and mess with her head. Joss Whedon is often quoted as saying that female viewers would tell him, "The same thing happened to me." They related to the core analogy which was, "I slept with him and he got mean."
Given that kind of identification with teenage pain was central to the show's appeal, it's odd how few shows have run with that ball in the decade and a half since BUFFY left the airwaves. Most teen dramas decided to be aspirational, about cool people with cool clothes and cool lives. Half of the characters on ONE TREE HILL were celebrities of some breed - singer, fashion designer, pro basketball player - and many of the others were leading successful lives. GOSSIP GIRL was set in a world of wealth and privilege that rarely explored real high school dynamics, and 90210 wasn't much different. You might make a case for PRETTY LITTLE LIARS dealing with some of this, but it was again a show about extremely pretty people with expensive clothes and a lot of relationship drama with other people. It seemed no one wanted a show about teenage pain, at least not on network TV.
Enter Netflix. Their first foray into modern high school drama was 13 REASONS WHY. I've written at length about that show in many other posts you can find on this site. Though the season 2 drama gets much more heightened, season one was one of the more realistic explorations of high school bullying, and all the emotional body blows that today's teens face. It's weird to realize my high school experience has more in common with the world of THE WONDER YEARS than that of 13 REASONS WHY, but concepts like cyber-bullying didn't even exist when I graduated 20 years ago. Some of what Hannah Baker faces is relatable to any high school graduate. There have always been people victimized by bad rumors and reputations that were forced on them. Certain sexual assault is nothing new even if our ways of raising awareness are different.
Teenage trauma was the core story of 13 REASONS WHY, so viewers were primed to expect that journey. What's more impressive is how a series that spent its first season on an 8-episode dick joke and then came back for season 2 with an equally prolonged poop joke turns out to be an even more incisive portrait of contemporary teens. AMERICAN VANDAL is many things. It's a brilliantly executed mockumentary that scores off of the modern hunger for true crime stories, it's an incredibly funny show that achieves laughs both base and intelligent, it's an amazing showcase for fresh-faced talent.
And it is the most serious look at the loneliness of adolescence.
If you haven't seen AMERICAN VANDAL's second season, I'll warn you that I'm about to spoil the ending.
In the final episode we learn that "The Turdburgler" is a previously-expelled student who catfished dozens of students and teachers at his school as part of a revenge plot. Not every student took the bait, but those who did believed they were in a relationship with the woman whom The Turdburgler presented themselves as, using stolen pictures and video. In doing so, he enticed many of them to send compromising pictures and videos, which were later used to blackmail four of them into participating in the four Turdburgler pranks.
To our shock, those four victims include not only prime suspect Kevin McClain, who is something of a performative weirdo and the kind of lonely person you'd expect to fall for it, but also Big Man on Campus DeMarcus Tillman, the basketball superstar who seemingly could be friends with anyone. It's a good lesson that even the popular kids feel like they're wearing a mask at school. Their popularity isn't always a cure for loneliness. Indeed, it can be isolating. Students want to be close to DeMarcus because he is the best... but he always has to wonder in the back of his mind... do they like him for him?
For DeMarcus to form what he believed was a genuine emotional bond with someone he never met speaks to both the loneliness he felt and he nature of online connection. My generation was just getting online around the time we started high school and college, but these kids have grown up in a world dominated by this sort of social media connectivity. Online life is real, particularly in an emotional sense.
DeMarcus couldn't find that intimate connection in person. It was only with the distance of talking to a stranger online that he felt he could show his "real self." With that vulnerability came the expectation the person he was talking to was being equally vulnerable.
Some of the catfish victims are persuaded to do truly humiliating things. When the truth comes out, some of their classmates are likely unsurprised because, yes the theater nerd and the strange "Fruit Ninja" are exactly the kind of people to be duped by an "online girlfriend." A lesser show would have left it at that, but it's AMERICAN VANDAL that finds the insight BUFFY did all those years ago. The creators recognize that some teenage trials are universal and that few teens recognize others' pain because they're focusing too much on their own.
This is why AMERICAN VANDAL resonates beyond being a silly diversion where a school is attacked with laxatives. It tries to reflect the truth of teenage life, knowing that audience identification and investment with the characters will run that much deeper. It's a show that gets under your skin by poking at the sides of themselves that the audience tries to hide.
Show your audience something in themselves they don't want anyone to see and I guarantee they'll follow you. In fact, they'll probably be unable to do anything else.
This Friday brings the second season of Netflix's brilliant comedy series AMERICAN VANDAL. That means if you haven't checked out season one, you have four days to watch eight half-hour episodes and get caught up. This is a completely doable project and the results are well worth it. Trust me.
Last year, I first became aware of AMERICAN VANDAL through a short promo that was posted to the net. The idea of an entire mockumentary series devoted to figuring out who vandalized the cars of a high school faculty by spray-painting dicks on them seemed so ridiculous that I assumed the ad itself was a gag. It presented as a mockery of Netflix's interest in true crime documentaries. Only later did I realize it was real, and it wasn't just a short one-off. I couldn't imagine how they planned on filling four hours of content with a joke that seemed likely to only sustain a five minute sketch.
I had a complete meal of crow after that, let me tell you.
The brilliance of AMERICAN VANDAL is that it isn't just a dick joke and it isn't just out to send up the conventions of the true crime documentary. The creators, Dan Perrault and Tony Yacenda, understood that they had to create an entire world and the documentary-format is merely the conventions they use to explore that teenage culture. I've said before that the most important question to ask before telling a story is "What's it about?"
Here's how I answer that question with regard to AMERICAN VANDAL: it's about modern high school life, and about how smart phones and social media have made the high school experience vastly different than it was for generations before it. It's about how those document our lives, but also how they project versions of ourselves, sometimes inviting judgement, sometimes bringing distortion. It's about a cultural obsession with tales of perceived injustice, and the indifference of those who tell those stories to the collateral damage they leave in their wake.
And it's funny as hell.
When the series starts, Dylan Maxwell has been expelled from his high school following the vandalism of 30 teachers' cars. The vandal spray-painted penises on each of the cars and Dylan was the prime suspect due to his penchant for pranks and the frequency with which he drew dicks as an in-class disruption. But there are a couple loose threads here: first, the dicks are drawn in a different style from Dylan's. Another curious wrinkle is that 30 minutes of security footage is missing. As a member of the school's morning TV show, Dylan would have had the access to erase it, but so would 8 other members of that show.
So two students, Peter and Sam, get to work on their documentary in an effort to get to the bottom of what really happened. Was it indeed Dylan? Or did he get railroaded by a biased teacher out to get him and a system with inadequate due process? Peter and Sam are pitch perfect as the self-righteous crusaders who've likely been inspired by Serial and other true crime dramas. They take this "injustice" seriously because to them, it IS their whole world. We might look down on this high school bullshit, but they live it every day.
One of the great moments of the show comes in episode 4 after Peter and Sam have tried to narrow down the number of possible alternative suspects. At least one of the eight other members of the morning show would have to be involved if Dylan is innocent, so they assess the profiles and alibis of each of them. The two boys also have to acknowledge that they are also suspects as members of the same show, so Peter produces a segment assessing Sam and vice-versa. Sam doesn't take it that seriously, offering up a jokey indictment of his friend that might as well be a bad parody of a negative political ad. Peter, on the other hand, goes for the jugular, and in the process lays out several embarrassing personal details about Sam before ultimately deciding he's not a suspect.
It's a sly character moment, showing Peter is so driven by the opportunity to play Sarah Koenig that he'll go hard after his friend in pursuit of the truth. This isn't the last time we'll see Peter put his documentary project above someone else's feelings. The beauty of the show's structure is that we experience him dig into someone's like, as if he was a 60 MINUTES correspondent building a case against a murder suspect. We're so used to this part of the format that we don't even question it, and if we think about it at all, it's because the joke seems to be that Peter is taking his project FAR too seriously.
The most brilliant moment of the series comes at the start of episode 5. For the first half of the show, we've watched it without really knowing who the audience is. Is this something Peter's making and releasing all at once? Is it even being released? Episode 5 answers that question by revealing that Peter's been posting each episode to the web and at some point after Episode 4 went live, AMERICAN VANDAL went viral. I'd never seen one of the mocumentaries actually deal with the feedback loop that happens when one of these stories gains an obsessed fandom.
Everything Sam and Peter have compiled begins to impact the narrative. A teacher is fired for some unprofessional statements he made about a statement in one of his interviews. A crucial piece of evidence is destroyed when obsessed AV fans harass a peripheral player in the story so much that she gets rid of a recorded prank call that might strengthen Dylan's alibi. For Sam and Peter, one of the benefits is that it forces the school to let them continue filming on campus after having been banned earlier.
But it's also the moment when the story's scope gets wider, as it allows it to touch on all the internet theorizing that happened with series like Serial. I also thought of the crowd-sourcing internet detectives who often cause almost at least as much harm as good when they try to identify suspects in the wake of terrorist events like the Boston Marathon bombing. AMERICAN VANDAL uses the story of Dylan Maxwell to explore all of that, even as it gives one of the more astute looks at modern high school culture.
One of the savvier sequences of the series comes as Sam and Peter examine all the footage from "Nana's Party," a party thrown by one of the students the weekend before the prank. By compiling everyone's social media videos from the party, the documentarians are able to create a timeline of the entire night. The tidbits it reveals might lock down the origin of the spray paint used in the prank, and nail down who had access to it. It's like watching these kids dissect a couple dozen Zapruder films, scrutinizing them for clues.
It's utterly inspired. You can read an entire oral history of it here.
The series manages to get us completely invested in the question of "Who Drew The Dicks?" even as it stops short of giving a definitive answer. What it does provide is an unexpected coda where one student humiliated by the documentary calls Peter out on everything he did needlessly in pursuit of the truth that hurt people. It's a surprising callout of the ethics of these documentaries and a reminder that while we might see only a binge-worthy drama, if you immerse yourself in the world of the series, Peter is NOT the noble hero his perspective frames him as.
99 out of 100 mockumentary creators would not have thought to take that path. At best, some of them might have realized this issue, but decided they were going for humor, not reality. As viewers, we're so conditioned to just buy into that conceit that it allows the creators to surprise us with a detail that's been hiding in plain sight the entire time - "how would we feel about this documentary if we were one of the people being put under the magnifying glass by it?"
AMERICAN VANDAL is smart enough to recognize that confronting these questions doesn't dilute the humor. It takes a braver chances than most shows in its place would have, and doing so keeps them one step ahead of the audience. It is the smartest dick joke I've ever seen and I'm utterly in awe of how the creators have elevated the mockumentary genre to greater heights than I would have assumed possible. I can't wait for season two to surprise me even further.
INT. CLAY'S HOUSE - BEDROOM - MORNING - This scene has a simple purpose - remind the audience that Justin and Clay are living under the same roof, with Justin being Clay's adopted brother in this timeline.
SERIES OF SHOTS and EXT. TONY'S NEIGHBORHOOD - This is a lot of narrative shoe leather and connective tissue. I needed to honor the reality that Clay would have gone to school that day, but I didn't have any story I wanted those scenes for, so I skipped through it. After that, the scene in Tony's neighborhood is just there to allow Clay to connect some dots.
INT. BAKER'S DRUG STORE - Another scene that's pretty self-explanatory. It made sense to me that Tony would have sought out help from Olivia, and it made equal sense she'd do what she could by giving him a place to crash in New York.
I'll admit that with some of the plotlines, I tried to project a trajectory for them across 13 episodes, just because it forced me to think of this one episode in a larger context. When it came to Tony's plot, I didn't come up with much beyond the notion he'd probably be back in town within a few episodes.
When it comes to the rest of Clay and Olivia's interactions, though, I did have a few ideas. I think that at some later point in the season, Clay would have tried to use his connection to the other Hannah as a way of bringing some peace to his Olivia. I hadn't worked out what that was. Maybe Clay would eventually tell Hannah what he's experiencing and tell her that his Olivia needs some peace of mind. Perhaps Alternate-Olivia has reacted badly to Hannah's suicide attempt, either becoming over-protective, or maybe she's furious with her, or humiliated, or she's overwhelmed with guilt and in trying to deny it.
However it came out, Alternate-Olivia would have been in a bad place, but through his connection to the other Olivia, Clay would be able to provide Hannah with what she needed. That's a bit abstract, but it's the start of an idea.
There's an important moment here where Clay knows something he learned in the alternate timeline and it turns out to be something true in the "real" timeline. This lends some credence to the idea that both worlds are equally real. Clay certainly seems to think that's the case, as the odds of his dream inventing something that's actually true are pretty long. But it's hardly conclusive and there's room to assume Clay might have heard something about Aunt Laura before, and his subconscious brought it out in the dream.
It's early in the season, so I couldn't give Clay a clue that was TOO definitive, just one that seemed very suggestive, while being explained away with a little effort.
INT. DR. LIZ DUFFIELD'S OFFICE - There's one big objective here - show Clay passing on the chance to treat the Alternate Timeline like a delusion he needs serious treatment for. We know he's pondered that he might be crazy. Now he's in the room with a trained professional and he won't tell her the truth. Maybe some would read this scene as him not wanting to sound crazy, but I was going for the subtext that he doesn't want to be cured of his delusion.
INT. CLAY'S HOUSE - BEDROOM - I initially thought I'd go out on the scene with Clay talking to his therapist, smashing to black as we reveal he's embracing the alternate timeline. But I had trouble landing that beat in a succinct line that would provoke a smash-cut to black. So I added this scene of Clay preparing for another timeline shift. It also is a subtle echo of the end of the pilot, which concludes with Clay finishing one tape and then putting on the second side.
Usually when I finish a first draft script, I blast it out to five friends. I mostly use people who've read a lot of my stuff before (and who's own work I've read) and so by now, I'm familiar enough with each of their style of notes that I'm able to decipher what the "note behind the note" is.
"Note behind the note" is an acknowledgement that what people say isn't necessarily what needs to be fixed. Their viewpoint is valid but their diagnosis could be wrong. And by now, I know that there might be certain readers who get particular buttons pushed by something.
My point is - I give it to five people I know and trust. That's enough to get a sense of consensus. I don't always go by majority rules, though. If four of them LOVE something and the fifth picks something apart but does so in a constructive way that makes me realize, "Fuck. I can't ignore THAT observation," I'll probably take that lone reader's advice. On the other hand, if one reader thinks the mystery was too obvious and the other four totally fell for my red herrings, I'll be relieved that a majority took it the way they were meant to.
Then after those five sets of notes come back, I do a rewrite and then blast it out to another four or five people. This is important because it gives you a fresh read on the changes. Go back to the same five people and subconsciously they might still remember the old version. This means they'd have to intellectualize about if the changes really work. Give it to new readers and they don't know what changed, so they're more accepting of everything as a whole.
If I do a rewrite off of these notes, I might send it to a couple people in the first group, hoping that the longer time between them and the more massive changes will make this different enough that it's almost fresh for them. Otherwise, I just suck it up and accept I won't get a totally fresh read.
Eventually, a draft emerges that I'm happy with.
This has been a fun blogging journey over the last two weeks. I hope you guys have gotten something out of it, and I've enjoyed all the comments and tweets from people who enjoyed the script. Feel free to comment further on the script. For now I think I'm done with this, but should inspiration hit and I do any substantial rewrites, I'll detail the process here.