And so I checked out Charlie Jade. A Canadian / South African international co-production, twenty episodes, trying to do full-on Blade Runner cyberpunk film-noir in Cape Town -- huge CGI vistas produced on a budget of about $6.50 and a packet of crisps. How could I not love this show?
Well... it tried its hardest to make me not. The show kept veering between stunning stylish visuals and flashy overproduction, imaginative storytelling and dreary torture porn (and indeed, regular porn; the producers seem so glad to have the chance to push boundaries, since they don't have a network deal, that they forget that some boundaries are a good thing; their extreme content ranges from a brilliantly effective fight scene to some interminable scenes of rough sex.) And the storyline... well, it's like if the slack patch in Twin Peaks began with episode six, and only fully snapped into focus half a dozen episodes from the end.
But the thing which really makes Charlie Jade riveting is the behind-the-scenes stories in the commentaries, which are a jaw-dropping picture of seat-of-your-pants filmmaking -- they make even the limp episodes adventures in themselves. You know the stories about the chaos of making the last episode of The Prisoner? Imagine that happening for about half the show's run...
This show had an uncanny ability to avoid living up to its potential. It sets up a wonderful premise, from a series bible written by Robert J. Sawyer (the novelist who also created FlashForward) -- three parallel universes, one overdeveloped, one developing, one unspoiled: a metaphor for the relationship for the First, Second, and Third Worlds, with the Alphaverse-based megacorporation Vexcor aiming to exploit Gammaverse and rob its resources... but then it strands our hero in the much cheaper Betaverse (our world), while most of the interesting supporting characters are left back in Alphaverse.
They created a fascinating secondary player -- Reena, who's basically a sympathetic terrorist, who blows up the inter-universe Link in Gammaverse to save her world from exploitation, and then gets stuck on the run in Betaverse where her actions killed hundreds of more-or-less innocent people -- and then leave her languishing in a go-nowhere subplot for weeks on end, with no connection to our hero. Then there's Charlie's Betaverse sidekick, Karl Lubinsky, who through a quirk of casting is played by Tyrone Benskin, making the character a black guy from Canada with a Polish name living in South Africa... you could get a whole novel just out this guy's life story, or his sad-sack crusade against Vexcor, but they hardly even begin to go there. Plus there's a breakout performance by Michael Filipowich as 01, the number-one son of Vexcor's founder, a loose-cannon agent-of-chaos villain... who gets a grand total of one dialogue scene with our hero in the first half of the show. Basically you've got a fascinating supporting cast of unusual Canadian and South African faces, all sorts of races and mixtures... who are then dramatically wasted, while our hero does bugger-all to affect his situation.
Because the hero himself, Charlie Jade, is another good idea shonkily executed -- a classic film noir hero figure, the jaded (geddit?) cynic who sticks his neck out for nobody, who gradually has to learn compassion and journey to the point where he's willing to sacrifice everything he has for the good of all. A missing-persons detective from Alphaverse who becomes a missing person himself, stranded in a different universe entirely, and finds that life doesn't have to be quite as cruel as the world he's been living in. A guy whose background turns out to be much more ethically grey (indeed, verging on black) than we first think, who realizes he has a lot to redeem himself for -- but who also turns out to have sympathetic reasons for having become the person he is. And the show's creator Robert Wertheimer had an ethos which I admire -- he wanted to avoid focusing on "big sci-fi" (somewhat quixotically, when you're dealing with a show about parallel universes and a cross-reality conspiracy) and treat the story as fundamentally a personal drama.
But then the first run of episodes completely fumble this ball. It's a classic case of when plot-based and character-based storytelling fail to intersect. On the one hand, they set up huge situations which largely demand a continuing plot throughline... and then send Charlie off in directions which have little or no connection to it, because they think they're telling small character stories. But then on a character level, the writers seem to mistake tangential actions which illuminate details of Charlie's inner conflicts, for dramatic situations which actually force him to confront them. Or to put it another way, Charlie spends weeks being moody and self-involved rather than changing anything, in either plot or character terms. His redemption story is so downplayed as to be practically invisible; rather than showing Charlie as a work in progress who's going to have to evolve, the early episodes paint him as a largely static figure who keeps not taking action on any level larger than the immediate one.
Charlie wants to get home... but he doesn't do anything direct to pursue Vexcor to find a way back. He wants to avenge the death of a client he neglected... but then doesn't go after 01, who he's certain killed her. He's a detective who hardly does any detecting. And there's a huge plot engine lurking in the background -- if the Link becomes permanent, bringing Alphaverse and Gammaverse together will literally rip Betaverse to bits -- which our hero is completely unaware of for more than half the show, and wouldn't feel capable of doing anything about anyway. It's like if Hamlet were really dull.
For much of the series, Charlie is the sort of hero which Kate and I call "GuyMan!" -- the guy who's the center of the story not because he merits it in dramatic terms, not because he's actually heroic or dynamic or motivating the action or indeed blessed with any particular redeeming features, but because a series like this has to be about a white guy. (See also: practically every fantasy quest story, ever.)
The main thing which saves the show is that eventually the other characters call him on this. When Charlie is confronted with the fact that the villain, 01, who he's been dismissing as a brutal self-involved asshole (O the irony), has actually been doing more good by disrupting Vexcor than he has... well, it yanks his pants up over his head and ties them in a knot. Charlie finally seems to realize that he has to be a better person than the utter bastard is. And he eventually does rise above himself, in spades -- but the wait would have been agonizing if it hadn't already gotten boring.
So after a quite intriguing start, and some neat developments over the first five episodes (episode five is an early standout)... gradually you realize that all the neat moments are occurring around the fringes of the episodes' main plots: flashbacks illuminating Charlie's character, or the separate subplots with Reena and 01. And that there is, in effect, no A-plot worth a damn -- nothing driving Charlie or the series forwards from episode to episode. And gradually the show tips over the balance from "I wonder where this is going?" to "...They don't actually know where this is going, do they?"
But then they did something tremendous: halfway through the season, they sacked their entire writing staff.
And hired a new team, led by Alex Epstein, whose blog and book on "Crafty Screenwriting" are wonderfully clear-eyed and technical on a practical level. They needed someone to make sense of this meandering storyline now -- and they got it.
Imagine getting the call. Hey, Alex, love your work, want to come to South Africa to work for four months? Okay, when? How about Tuesday? Uh, I've got a meeting Tuesday, is Wednesday okay? Next thing you know you're on an infinitely long plane flight, watching DVDs of rough-cuts and boning up on scripts. Episode 7 is shooting now, episode 8 will start a day after you start work, episode 9 goes into prep the same day -- they've got scripts in hand for 9, 10, and 11, you're going to need to start by storylining episodes 12-16. Oh, and it turns out that the series bible is full of background, but not so much on ways to take the story forward. Oh, and did we mention that we're having money troubles because we went over budget? The shooting schedule's been cut -- instead of six days an episode, you'll have five. Which means you'll have to get a new script ready for the production departments every five working days. Oh, and maybe could you do a clip show that can be done in four?
You get off the plane. You've got a little breather to recover from about nine hours' worth of jetlag. Then you walk into the office, and meet your two fellow new staff writers (Sean Carley and Denis McGrath). But before you can get to work on the storylining, you all agree that the script for episode 9 is a mess. You want to completely rethink it, make Charlie take the initiative for once, totally change the direction of the show. You've got 24 hours before the script needs to be issued to everyone. You break down the main beats of what should happen in the episode, everyone takes one act's worth of the script, you go away and write it, and whoever finishes first jumps onto the remaining bits. The next morning you staple it all together, make sure there's no contradictions and it's all in English, and issue it. You now have five days till episode 10 has to be ready. That gives you enough time to start storylining episodes 12-16. Which also need to be outlined in, like, a week.
So where the hell do you go from there? Basically, you ask yourself, "What would this show be if it made sense?"
Okay... What if all 01's apparently random actions are really him being crazy-like-a-fox -- he doesn't want the Link up, he's got a plan to stop Vexcor activating it? Okay, what would that plan be? How does that explain all the things that have happened so far? Hey, maybe you can use episode 12 to get Charlie and 01 in a room together, then make episode 13 the clip show, and use it to show what was really going on in all those previous events! Fire up the Retconmobile!
And while you're at it, maybe you can come up with some plot threads which will tie in the characters back in Alphaverse, give them a role in the actual plot. And make sense of all the crap that Reena's been put through, tie all that abuse into the actual fight against Vexcor. Oh, and try to turn a bug into a feature -- make Charlie's complete disinterest in the overarching situation one of the character flaws he has to overcome, make it part of the drama. By the end of 16, you want to have Charlie back in Alphaverse trying to fight the good fight -- and freely able to travel between universes -- and Reena integrated with the other characters.
Not that you have time to stop and think about all the details this week; thanks to the couple of days you've taken to come up with that much, you've now got maybe two and a half weeks till episode 12 needs to be issued to the crew. (Normally when you're doing a script with a freelancer, you have a month just to do a first draft, then rewrites.)
But wait -- you've almost forgotten about episodes 10 and 11. Which are a two-parter, scripts you inherited from the previous boss, Guy Mullally... but between everything you changed in episode 9, and the storylines you're starting in episode 12, big chunks of it don't match any more. They're gonna need an overhaul. (An overhaul in which a minor character named "Guy" suddenly turns up, to get the crap kicked out of him by 01. Gosh, is someone a bit frustrated, guys? Oh, and Reena gets parked for two *more* weeks, since you moved her into position in 9 but the plot you've worked out for her can't really kick in till 12-13. Sorry.) So while you're focusing on 12, before Sean and Denis get on to episodes 13 and 14, they've got 48 hours in which to rewrite episodes 10 and 11 -- Sean working on one, Denis on the other -- before 10 has to be issued to everybody.
You've just finished your first week on the job.
Oh, but even after you're down to a normal level of television chaos, the show is still a moving target. That clip show you'd written to take place entirely on standing sets? The director's found this really cool abandoned warehouse, can you move the office scenes to it? The guy playing Charlie thinks the interrogation scenes will be more effective if he actually tortures 01. Ohhkay. And the actor playing 01 is a notorious improviser -- full of brilliant eye-catching ideas, but the lines he comes out with don't actually establish the plot points you wanted to set up. Got to rewrite the next episode! Then the show creator says he hates the actors for 01's family, so you've got to drop the plot you had in mind for them, but he likes 01's Betaverse girlfriend so use more of her. By the way, we're only doing 20 episodes this year, not 22. Or maybe 19. No, 20. Oh, and a director tells you they can't shoot what you wanted in five days, you have to throw out the "Charlie meets his evil double" scenes, and then the executive producer cuts another subplot after it's been shot and mixes the dialogue out of your exposition scenes for artistic reasons, and...
Forget shooting the show, they should have turned the cameras around and filmed them trying to get it made. It sounds mad!
I'd actually recommend checking out Charlie Jade just for the story behind the story. Get the DVDs and go to charliejade.net, particularly the podcast section, which has links to commentaries for all the episodes. It's a staggering look at TV being made on the fly -- you get a wonderful sense of people trying to climb on to a runaway train.
Those commentaries are enough to make it worth sitting through even the bad episodes -- and there are a bunch of them, sadly even after the new writers turn up. Episode 9, as I previously posted, was a quantum leap up, but then 10 and 11 see it slip back down a gear, and the elegant retconning in 13 is buried in the midst of endless clips, tedious torture, and some OTT S&M.
But from episode 14 on... each episode is better than the last. Once Charlie starts realizing that he needs to be a better man than he's been, suddenly his journey begins to make sense -- and they start using the sci-fi concepts as dramatic expressions of his character. Then you get Rolanda Marais as a quirky police detective named Blues, and an expanded role for David Dennis as Sew Sew Tukarrs, who grows from a straight-up copy of Eddie Olmos from Blade Runner into the most soulful character in the show -- a rare honest cop in Alphaverse, whose Achilles heel is that he's in love with Charlie's girlfriend... but who even when deeply compromised can't quite bring himself to lie down. Then there's Tyrone Benskin (Karl) and Patricia McKenzie (Reena), who make the most of every scrap of material they get, and knock it out of the park once they finally get to take center stage. And once the show gets back to Alphaverse, you even get the cool supporting characters from the pilot back. By the time you get to the last four episodes, the look of the show becomes positively staggering given the budget (and remember -- still five days), and the show becomes a strong combination of plot and character drama, which Epstein says finally reached the vision Wertheimer was after from the beginning. And there's a resolution that just about convinces you that they knew what they were doing all along!
If they'd found a way to cut those first thirteen episodes down to nine or so, Charlie Jade could have been a really impressive series. As it is? It's a curate's egg with some really delicious bits -- and a behind-the-scenes story which is a fascinating epic in itself. And then there's the plans for series two (also hidden on the website), which sound like they could have gone on to a whole different level.
Just remember to stock up on patience before you start out...