Tuesday, July 31, 2007

PVR Alert

Californication premiers Monday August 13th at 10:30 pm on Showtime with a "typical episode" pilot written by Tom Kapinos.

Ignore all the promo video on YouTube, etc. Watch the episode fresh.

We'll talk the 14th.

Sunday, July 29, 2007


Just a few words about Damages, a new series on FX. The pilot was written by series creators and showrunners Todd A Kessler & Glenn Kessler & Denial Zelman.

I'm still being treated for the scratch marks on head from watching Mad Men and the Damages characters offer a sharp contrast. Interestingly, Todd A Kessler, one of the Damages creator/writers is a former Sopranos writer like Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner.

Before continuing to read, let me warn you that spoilers lie ahead. I can't talk about shows in the way I want to without giving away important plot points. Even my haiku breakdown of Viva Laughlin gave away a lot. So from here on, let it be known, I'm going to give stuff away. If you care, go read the script or see the show before you read.

Damages is built around the character of high stakes litigator Patty Hewes (Glenn Close). Hewes comes out of the box as ruthless and ballsy. Her character is immediately recognizeable to us as viewers and unlike Mad Men's characters, behaves in a way we can predict. There are a couple of twists along the way, but we're not left asking wtf? Instead, we smile and accept her behavour, seeing that she is more extreme than we expected, but the behaviour fits the pattern we expect from the character.

In the first sequence that introduces her, Patty uses a combination of trickery, rhetoric and emotion to force the other lawyer in a case to cave to her will. When he realizes that she's tricked him to the tune of $150,000,000, he responds by saying that if she were a man, he'd "kick the living dog shit out of" her. Patty responds:

If you were a man, I'd be worried.

(Watch for the line in the video below. Close's delivery is perfect.)

There is one false move along the way, a scene that bugged me and nagged at me all through my viewing of the pilot.

Ellen Parsons, the young lawyer turns down her interview with Hewes to go to her sister's wedding. Patty turns up at the wedding to Ellen's disbelief. And then ends up hiring her as a result of their little ladies room chat.

I didn't buy Patty's reason for turning up at the wedding ("Because, kiddo, you're the first person to turn me down"). And I didn't buy her sentimentality in hiring the ingenue.

It wasn't a "huh?" moment like the character turns in Mad Men. It just didn't feel like something Patty would do. Why the heart-warming second act moment from the hard as nails anti-hero?

The answer came at the end of the episode. It wasn't a soft moment from Patty, it was a highly calculated move by a master maniulator. It wasn't out of character at all. We know Patty's manipulative from the teaser. And by the end of the episode, we learn how truly manipulative she is. The act of going to the wedding was just another one of her manipulations.

The action fits perfectly into the character as we come to expect her to behave.

The characters of Mad Men challenge us as viewers by refusing to act in ways allow us to understand them. They take us by surprise and leaving us unsettled. The Patty Hewes character surprises us too. By how far she's willing to go. But though I may not have predicted her behaviour, it perfectly fulfills my expectations for the character.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Mad Men - Preview

Advertizing is based on one thing. Happiness.

Mad Men

I'm predisposed to love this show.

People I like tell me it's great.

Plus, my dad was an ad man in the 50s and 60s. He wasn't a Madison Avenue type. His office was on Peel Street in Montreal. He worked his way up from copywriter through the executive ranks until he was running the Canadian branch of a big American agency. So we saw some fringes of the world that the series is about and lived through the Canadian version of the same scene.

The pilot episode of Mad Men is entitled Smoke Gets In Your Eyes and was written by series creator Matthew Weiner. You remember his writing credit from The Sopranos.

It is not a premise pilot. It doesn't set up the world. Although it's Peggy's first day at the firm, it doesn't show us the world through her eyes. The main characters are just going about their ordinary business and we have no problem jumping right into the story with them.

The stakes aren't high and there isn't a whole lot of forward momentum in the story. The curtains aren't big turn arounds or cliff hangers.

It's a character study. An exploration of a world and a theme.

The show has fabulous art direction and it looks fantastic.

Plus the writing is incredibly skilled. Weiner is particularly adept with his theme. He recreates the 60s flawlessly and his characters are unusually complex. My only complaint is that I failed to find an emotional connection with the characters.

But the fact that they left me cold might just be an expression of theme.

Advertizing boils it all down to a digestible message.

Which is kind of like what we as television writers sometimes do with our characters. We simplify them, reduce them to a few adjectives or a simple world view. Their clearly defined needs guide their actions. The audience understands why they do what they do and can even predict their next move. Or at the very least, recognize it as logical.

The characters of Mad Men are not predictable or logical.

Check out DMc's post. The character turns left him scratching his head.

Don Draper, the ad man who fronts the cast of characters, asks Midge, the smart, independent and sexually available career woman to marry him. He likes smart women, we conclude.

Then he dises Miss Menkin, the smart, independent and possibly sexually available business woman saying "I'm not going to sit here and let a woman talk to me this way." We must have been wrong. Don hates smart women.

Later, Draper goes home to his sexually available babe of a wife and a child he adores.


He's a devoted husband and father?! But he asked Midge to marry him.

The character is a bundle of contradictions. You don't know what he's going to do next.

He refuses to be simplified into a neat, digestible message.

He's messy and complicated and conflicted. Like real people.

Like the world.

Not simple and digestible. Not "healthier" or "toasted" or "finger licking good" like advertizers would have us believe.

This is Matthew Weiner weaving theme deftly into every element of his show.

What is his theme? I thought of Isaac Ho's theory that theme is expressly stated in a pilot's third act at approximately the 30 minute mark. So I went back to the 30 minute mark.

It's the scene at the Lucky Strike pitch meeting. Draper has been struggling with the campaign throughout the episode and here is the big pitch meeting. Draper's dry. He's got nothing. Pete, the upstart kid who's after his job, is at least in there throwing out ideas even they do fall flat. The client gets up to leave. Suddenly Draper has an idea. He pitches a slogan, the client is intrigued but unsure.

Then, at 32:11, he has this speech:

Advertizing is based on one thing. Happiness. And you know what happiness is? Happiness is the smell of a new car. It's freedom from fear. It's a billboard that screams with reassurance that whatever you're doing it's okay. You are okay.

Weiner thinks we are not okay. His characters are not happy or free from fear, but they are desperately clinging to the hope that they are okay.

Advertizing is based on one thing. Happiness.

Look at the opening titles sequence -- the first thing you see in this teaserless pilot. An executive walks into his office, puts down his briefcase, his window is open.

Suddenly, he is falling and falling and falling down the side of the skyscraper. Advertizing images are reflected in the windows as he falls toward certain death.

Did he jump? Was he pushed? Is he dreaming?

He doesn't hit the ground. He's sitting comfortably -- king of the world -- in his big executive chair.

(My dad had a chair just like that, by the way. And his office on Peel, looked an awful lot like Draper's.)

This isn't a show about happiness. It's about how advertizing's framing of our world makes us unhappy. It's about illusion and image and deception. And how nothing is as simple as advertizing.

Not Weiner's characters nor the relationships between them.

Other characters are as illusive as Draper.

I had no idea what Peggy the secretary was thinking as she settled into her new job. She's passive in most of the scenes. When the kid is crude in her presence, she says nothing. Joan, who runs the secretarial pool, tells her to put a paper bag over herself, examine naked self in the mirror and be brutally honest. And she says, "I always try to be honest." Then she goes out and gets herself a prescription for the Pill.

Huh? Where's the pattern? Who is she? Why isn't Weiner simplifying her for me so I can digest her nice and easily? Oh shit, I think he wants me to think.

The relationships also refused to lay down neatly into expected patterns.

Don chews Pete for mistreating Peggy, warning him that if he acts like that no one will like him. A scene or two later Pete admits that Don is right about him and asks him to be his mentor.

In any other pilot, there would be a handshake and a bonding of the characters we're going to follow for the series.

Instead, Don refuses to shake and as Pete heads down the hall he mutters "fuck you" under his breath.

Boss and secretary don't have a heart-warming, we're-going-to-be-a-family-for-the-run-of-the-series moment either. Don both chews her out and rebuffs her sexual advances.

This isn't neat commercial story telling. This is complicated, messy and unexpected. The antithesis of the reductionism of advertizing. And the most of formulaic of network television shows.

I think part of what attracts Denis and others to this show is the resonance of theme through it.

It's about something.

And the thing it's about is interesting and very relevant to our lives right now.

Weiner has something to say. And this pilot makes me want to keep listening.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Time + Emotion - Jekyll Part 2

I finished reading Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows and am now back to tv. I have decided to wait for the final episode of Jekyll before watching ep 5. I'm looking forward to the mini-binge and dreading saying good-bye to the show.

Meanwhile, so much is building up that I may have to give up sleep to keep up (thanks for the tip, Bill). But before I comment on Mad Men (omg, Denis, I can't wait) and John from Cincinnati (Will is keeping the discussion warm), I have to finish with the pilot of Jekyll.

I wanted to discuss the rising tension in the pilot, but my first post on it got way too long. So here's what I found when I broke it down:

Time is an essential part of how tension is built in this show. Not surprisingly then, the first shot of the series is of a ticking clock. It doesn't create tension for us yet, but it will when we form an emotional connection with Tom Jackman, the series lead. In Jeckyll, time plus emotion equals tension.

The tease and first act are fairly flat in terms of jeopardy, but by the end of the first act, we've begun to feel something for Jackman. So Hyde's impending appearance (time) in front of Jackman's wife (emotion) creates an exciting act break.

Then the tension drops again for the top of act two.

Two sequences into the act, we learn that Hyde is due in twenty minutes. Still Jackman is determined to pursue a clue in the mystery of who is following him. This leads us into a long mid-act sequence of tension that keeps turning. Each turn seems to crank the stakes a little higher.

And when the knife is literally at Jackman's throat and we feel like things can't get any worse, Hyde appears. The heat keeps rising.

The sequence which follows is long, funny, tense and violent. The tension here is the product of a couple of marriages of opposites. Toward Hyde himself, I feel both a revulsion and fascination. He is funny and good-looking, but vicious and the nemesis of Jackman with whom I've finally bonded. And then there's the situation. We want this bullying kid dealt the blow he deserves but we know that wanting that is wrong. We sit at the edge of our seats anticipating that violence.

And after it comes, after this long long mid-second act sequence of high tension, Moffat brings us relief in the form of a drink at the local pub, a good-looking woman and some comedy.

Even though, he plays the rest of the act and most of the following one for comedy, the sense of danger boils beneath the surface. There have been too many surprises. We've felt contradictory emotions, rooted for evil (however quietly) and learned to like Jackman. So here we are on edge and still, the third act curtain is a surprise as it cranks the stakes way way up.

Now Jackman's worst fears are realized; Hyde's next target may not be some (semi-) deserving punk. This time it may be the innocents.

Most of the fourth act plays with time and toys with our emotions in order to achieve another long, agonizing sequence of tension.

But when we finally have the answers that relieve that tension, Moffat turns up the heat one last time. The dams break on Jackman's anger and we realize that the rest of the series will be a battle between the two men who inhabit the same body.

What we have is a long long section of tension in the middle of the long long second act. And then a sense of growing danger held at bay with comedy through the rest of act two right up to the third act curtain. The fourth act is one long agonizingly drawn out sequence of tension and fear until almost the end.

Thinking back, it's that long second act sequence of action and drama that bonded me to the series. The plot kept turning and the stakes kept getting higher. It was a powerful viewing experience and left me dying for the next installment.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

If Jackman Gets a Hard On, I'm It: Jekyll

Perhaps I have sufficiently conveyed to you my admiration of Jekyll. Now down to business:

The pilot episode, written by Steven Moffat, is laid out in a teaser and four acts and as Anonymous pointed out, it's the pilot for a short-lived miniseries and not for an ongoing series. For that reason it's quite different than many of the other pilots I've posted about.

No, it doesn't apply to what most Canadian writers are doing to respond to the demand (?) from our broadcasters. Our marketplace wants stand alone episodes of unarced series. Miniseries are out of fashion here.

But maybe this is what we should be doing. Maybe an intense six part series is exactly what we should be doing. It seems to me that our audience could commit to a whole six hours of programming. And it's certainly the kind of event television that would fulfill cultural mandates (if those still exist under the current government); drawing the audience into a shared experience. But never mind all that.

Even though this pilot sets up a miniseries, there are very specific lessons to take away from it and to add to my writing toolbox.

I'm going to focus on these things:
the structure, which shines a light on a new part of this world in every act,
the way the show slowly pulls us from a position of skeptical detachment into one of full emotional connection to the lead character
and, (in my next post) the way the tension builds through the episode.

I'm not going to break the whole thing down, beat by beat, but instead I'll talk more about the shape of the acts,.

The episode has a short Teaser, which I described in a previous post, followed by four acts.

What the Acts Do
Each of these five acts unveils new aspects of the world of Jekyll.

In the Teaser, we learn the rules by which Tom Jackman co-exists with the as-yet-unnamed entity who shares his body.

Act One reveals Jackman's life and the huge sacrifice he's made because of Hyde. We get a hint that the rules between them are breaking down.

Act Two shows us Jackman investigating what he calls his unprecedented condition. Half way through the act, Hyde finally makes his first startling appearance. And now we begin to learn about Hyde's life and his attitude toward Jackman.

By Act Three, we learn Jackman's back story and are introduced to a theory about Hyde's existence.

In Act Four, we learn how big the stakes really are for Jackman and it becomes clear that Hyde is going to fight him for total control of his body and his life.

The act by act turns are quite spectacular when you're watching. Not only does more and more of the world get revealed, but the show begins to reveal itself. The special effects change, increase, intensify. And you are dragged further and further from reality as the fantastic elements of the series are slowly revealed.

And your emotional relationship to the show and characters changes as well.

First Shot, First Line
The show opens on a ticking clock.

The first line comes from Jackman, referring to Hyde:

He's due at midnight. He's usually punctual.

Act Lengths and The Curtains
Tease: 4 minutes
Act One: 6 minutes
Act Two: 20 minutes
Act Three: 12 minutes
Act Four: 91/2 minutes

The Teaser ends on an image of Hyde's eyes popping open. It's an intriguing moment, rather than one of jeopardy.

Act One ends with a dip to black as Jackman's car pulls away and we are quite certain that Hyde is in the driver's seat (although we don't see him yet). Again, the curtain is more of mystery than it is of danger.

The long, long and very exciting second act ends with a startling display of Hyde's powers which prove that he is not anywhere close to a normal human being. Now we're weirded out and we can't look away, but it isn't a cliff-hanger; nothing is hanging in the balance, except what is at stake for the entire series: Jackman's life (and maybe reality as we know it).

Act Three ends with an enormous cliffhanger. Characters we've come to know may or may not be dead or injured and innocent lives may be in danger. The stakes have gotten huge.

The episode ends with Jackman declaring war on Hyde. The stakes are huge, but the events in this episode are clearly complete. We have been reminded of the continuing story threads earlier in the act, but as the curtain falls what we have before us on the screen are Jackman's intense emotions, his determination to protect what is dear to him from the other man inside his body. It is not a hard cliffhanger like the one at the end of the Burn Notice pilot or any episode of Heroes. Instead it's an ending that closes off a story but drives you toward the next beginning.

The Viewer's Emotional Thru-Line
The teaser introduces us to Dr Tom Jackman and Katherine Reimer, the psychiatric nurse he's hired as his minder. Watching the tease, we share Reimer's detached p.o.v. and feel maybe even more than a little skeptical about the drama Jackman's laying on. Even as the act ends, with the startling moment when Hyde's bloodshot eyes pop open, we don't feel any sense of danger, just clinical interest. We definitely want to see what's coming next, but our emotions haven't been sucked into it yet.

In Act One, we meet Jackman's family, see that his wife and kids love him and the agony he feels at his forced separation from them. His emotion brings in ours. By the end of the act, when he seems in physical pain as he tries to prevent Hyde from making an unscheduled appearance in front of his wife, we are sympathetic toward Jackman, even if we aren't quite sure whether his fear is warranted.

Act Two continues to build Jackman's reality and our empathy for him. Then comes the sequence when he visits the private detective and suddenly we are in Jackman's shoes with him. It's all as new and bewildering to him as it is to us. It's taken the tease plus one and half acts to get us to the point where we're seeing the world through Jackman's eyes; what a perfect time to put him in physical danger.

Boom. Hyde bursts out.

First fag of the day always hits the spot.

And Moffat toys with our emotions here. Because we hate this punk with the knife who's been bullying Jackman and want to see him put in his place. So yay for the appearance of the cavalry in the form of Hyde. And he's funny. And larger than life. And maybe, kind of appealing. But out of control. Too violent. Scary.

And what do those special effects signify? We're not quite ready to accept the implications.

And by the end of the act, the jury's still out on Hyde. He's a complicated character and we're not sure how to feel. But one thing's certain; reality has slipped away and we're in a world of unprecedented possibilities.

We're already exhausted by the time the curtain goes up on Act Three and so is Jackman. Now that Moffat has revealed to us how distant from our reality he's prepared to take us, he's ready to give us some back story. We fully appreciate why Jackman has that deer in the headlights look about him and know that his level of anxiety is justified. In fact, we begin to suspect that maybe he's not quite fearful enough. And that's when we get hit with the first truly scary act break.

Act Four is a web of filmic tension, the sweet agony of horror. Along with Jackman, we know that worst may have happened. We want to look, we don't want to look. The identification with Jackman is complete. And when he freaks out we know he's justified. And when he finally declares war on Hyde, we applaud him.

The Third Act Statement of Theme
Isaac Ho, over at the Script Enabler, tells us to look for a statement of theme in the third act and here it is about the 41 minute mark:

How often in this world does the sun rise on something completely
new? And how often do we mistake a miracle for a monster?

That's enough for today. Next time, the patterns of escalating tension through this pilot.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Good News

According to Rob Salem in today's Toronto Star, Jekyll is premiering here in Canada on Showcase on August 29th. Set your PVR now!

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Coming Up

Of the pilots I've read or watched so far in 2007, my five faves, each of which I've written about however briefly:

1. Jekyll

2. Skins

3. The Riches

4. Reaper (script)

5. Friday Night Lights

I am in the process of breaking Jekyll down. I'll be writing about it next (I hope) so watch it soon if you can. What I love so much about it is that every act offers new surprises. The show keeps unfolding, taking unexpected turns, becoming something new.

The Riches pilot is quite similar to Jekyll in this respect. So I may write about it right aftter I finish with Jekyll -- for comparison purposes. Watch that too.

Then there's Friday Night Lights, which has a very unusual and successful structure. So doing a breakdown of it is also on my agenda. Especially since I recently came into possession of the script.

Also on my pilot script reading list:
Aliens in America
Bionic Woman
Miss Guided
New Amersterdam

And on my pilot watching list:
Hill Street Blues
Slings and Arrows
The Shield

Monday, July 9, 2007

Veronica Mars

Burn Notice (BN) made me want to go back and look at my notes on the Veronica Mars (VM) pilot written by series creator Rob Thomas. I think I've broken down the show at least twice and I've certainly watched many times. I've also read the script which is quite different that the produced episode and avaible on Rob Thomas's website.

The episode of Veronica Mars I'm referring to in this post is the extended pilot that comes on the DVD of the first season. Like the broadcast version of the first episode of BN, it runs longer than a normal hour.

Compared to Burn Notice
There's a lot of similarities between the shows these pilots set up. Most importantly, they are both shows that will feature a complete mystery every week and will tantalize you with some shocking detail about a larger season long mystery. Both shows a lot of narration and neither takes itself too seriously.

Both pilots are premise pilots.

But the screenwriters went about setting up their formats very differently. BN set up the series premise in the teaser and didn't get to the weekly mystery B-story till mid-way through the second act. VM gets to the weekly mystery right off the bat and gives us ever so teensy a clue about the premise.

Whereas I didn't dare give you the beat count for BN because my count was so ridiculously large that I decided it was better to ignore it. I'd like to stick with the theory that an hour has somewhere between 40 and 45 beats and ignore any sample that contradicts me. (You should know that in case you think I'm a reliable source on anything, because I'm not.)

I got 44 beats for VM. I broke it down into five story lines. Four of them are arcing lines that will play out over the season and one is the weekly mystery.

(Here's the convention I'm using for lettering the storylines in a premise plot. The A-story is always the larger arcing storyline (A for Arc, get it?). Chances are, when you're writing an episode of the series further on down the season, the weekly mystery will be the A-story and the arcing longer story will drop down in importance to a B- or a C-. But with a premise pilot, the arc is usually the most important story you're telling.

I will designate the weekly or episode story -- the one that's going to give this episode it's satisfying ending -- the B-story.

The tough thing for today's purposes is that VM had more than one arcing story. So for today, those other stories are going to be C, D and E. )

The five story lines:
A. Who killed Lily Kane? - 16 beats
B. Weevil's war on Wallace. - 16 beats
C. Who raped Veronica Mars? - 2 beats
D. Why did Duncan Kane dump Veronica? - beats
E. Where's Mom? - 2 beats
Char. Character moments - 6 beats

Whether C through E are really stories or mere runners or really part of the A-story is debatable, but that's how I did it.

The episode uses a fair amount of flashback. I have indicated in brackets (fb) where it occurs. (The whole first and half the second act are actually one long flashback from the teaser, but I am not including that in my FB designation.)

Here's my breakdown:

A, Char, B

(more after the video of the teaser)....

ACT ONE - 12 beats:
B, Char, Char, D (fb), B (fb), B, Char (fb), Char, A, B, A, A (fb)

ACT TWO - 9 beats
A, B, A (fb), A, A (fb), A, B, C (fb), B

ACT THREE - 12 beats
E, E (fb), B, B, A, Char, A, B, B, B, B, A

A, B, C (fb), B, B, B, Char, B, Char, B

There are lots of clustered story beats, particularly when it comes to the B-story.

Act One: Lots of character up front with a focus on the B-story and a burst of A at the end.

The nine beat second act is short and almost entirely devoted to the A-story, with just two little B beats to keep it alive.

Act Three is the same length as One and is mostly B-story with a little A sprinkled through. The two E beats at the beginning are very strong character moments that set up the story about Veronica's missing mother (Logan teases Veronica and Duncan stops him and a flashback to mom leaving).

Act Four has a lot of B with a couple of character beats interspersed and A beats book ending the act.

Like BN, the act curtains aren't moments of extraordinarily high stakes:

The act break for the Teaser comes after Veronica's car is surrounded by a not-that-tough-looking motorcycle gang. Weevil (who we're just meeting, remember and could, possibly be evil) asks "trouble, miss?"

The first act curtains with Veronica's memory of her dad trying to send Celeste Kane's husband to jail.

The second act ends with Jake coming out of the Camelot Motel as Veronica snaps pictures.

The third act is the most dramatic of them all: Veronica discovers that the car from outside the Camelot Motel is registered to her mother.

And then the big moment of jeopardy at the end of the show that is designed to pull you back next week: Veronica arrives back at the motel room, but her mother isn't there.

Why It Works
Of course what happens between the curtains -- a missing mother, a dead cheerleader, a rape -- is so juicy, you don't need the high stakes curtains.

Plus Rob has taken the time to build a great cast of characters that are well drawn from word go, especially the title character and he devotes plenty of episode time to develop them and let you get to know them.

Wednesday, July 4, 2007

Selma and Patty Will Love It: Burn Notice

If you're doing an arced series, you pretty much have to write a premise pilot script.

Burn Notice, written by series creator Matt Nix, was indeed a premise pilot, setting up the mystery story that the series will unravel over its season; why covert operative Michael Weston got served with the eponymous burn notice and his life as a spy terminated.

The series seems to be doing a Veronica Mars thing. Each week the show will dole out a few tantalizing tidbits about Weston's termination and maybe even end (as it does in the pilot) with a juicy cliffhanger relate to this long story. But in addition there will be a complete (and hopefully satisfying) plot delivered from beginning to end in the episode.

The show, if you haven't seen it, is a kind of MacGyver-Magnum PI cross with a little Fugitive thrown in. A wise cracking ex-spy with a roll of duct tape and heart of gold helps the underdog all the while trying to figure out why he got burned. There's a fair amount of action but played for comedy. And there is a lot of voice-over narration as Michael gives us the play-by-play on his life which I realized as I watched helps us to understand how all the cool MacGyverisms work.

It's really interesting to look at how the pilot sets up the premise and at the same time delivers the episodic plot.

The first thing to note is that the episode ran just over 65 minutes without any commercials. A seven minute plus tease ran in advance of the series titles, followed by what appeared to be four acts (hard to tell without those commercial markers). The act breaks seem to fall at the 24, 32 and 45 minute marks, with the final 22 minutes playing out without interruption.

The act curtains were soft compared to some, possibly because Nix knew he wouldn't have commercial breaks he had to hold onto his audience through. Or maybe it's just that they're comedy act breaks, not designed to build the jeopardy and tension.

The first curtain, at the end of the teaser, comes as our hero, Michael Weston, escapes danger in Nigeria and passes out on a plane. The second is Weston screaming into a pillow after having to face his mother. This is a character beat -- big tough double black belt can face anything except mom. -- rather than a moment of tension in the story. Act Three ends at the end of a day, a date has ended not too well and a villain dispatched rather effectively and it's time for bed. Act Four begins the next morning (I think this is the act break, I can't swear to it). The final curtain at the episode's end is the first cliffhanger, a suggestion that something weird and possibly sinister is at play in the long story and that strong invitation to come back next week to find out what.

Let's look now, at how the various subplots lay out.

To my reckoning there were five story threads. The A is the longer story: the mystery of why Michael got burned combined with the more functional tale of how he's dealing it with it. The B-story is the mystery of the week, involving Javier, a rich guy's servant who's being framed for robbing the rich guy. The C involves Michael's new apartment and the pain-in-the-ass drug dealer living downstairs. Then there's a runner about Michael's mother which I'm calling the M-story. And finally, there's a heartwarming mini-story about Javier's son; the K-story.

The teaser is all A story. We meet Michael the spy at work in Nigeria. In the middle of a dicey situation, he gets word that there's a burn notice out on him. He's surrounded by enemies with big guns and suddenly no one's backing him up. With wits, a little violence and a cool car chase that ends in a comedic twist, he escapes. But not without a few broken ribs and possibly a concussion. He passes out on a plane.

The first half of Act One sticks with the A, updating us on what's happened since he left Nigeria and showing us Michael dealing with the implications of being burned which involves some jeopardy -- for example he has no money anymore, the FBI are following him and his mother knows he's in Miami. The seven A-story beats that open Act One also introduce us to a couple of characters who will be his sidekicks, ex-girlfriend Fiona and ex-spy, current lush Sam.

And then we come to the B-story, which is developed in four quick beats which introduce us to the three main players: Javier, his rich boss and the boss's security guy.

Next comes a single beat of the C-story in which Michael moves into his new apartment over a disco and his landlord tells him about the bad ass drug dealer living downstairs. The scene also includes some information about Michael's career as a spy in which we learn how capable and amazing he was at his job, to make the comedic contrast with the next scene.

And to end the act, the first M beat, the phone call from mom (we can hear her voice) which drives big Mr. Tough-guy spy to scream into a pillow.

Act Two opens with a scene that combines another M-beat with an A-story beat. I think it's one of the funniest and cleverest scenes in the episode. Michael is driving his nagging mother to a doctor's appointment as he tries to shake his FBI tail.

This is followed by another quick A-story beat, a C-story beat and one more A beat. Then a cluster of 3 Bs, plus the introduction of the K-runner and finally, a C-beat to round off the act.

So the second act, keeps all the story lines in play, but like the first act, clusters the B beats close together, moving us through that story quickly and efficiently.

Act Three begins with an A beat, a little C-moment and then a cluster of three B beats, a K, then three more B beats. Then comes a scene in which Michael goes to dinner with his ex Fiona, which gives us some character and back story, reminds us of the A story and updates B a bit. The act ends with the C-story once again.

The final and very long fourth act opens with the B story and then settles into the C for a couple of beats and big MacGyver move that wraps up the C-story. Then it's time to get back to the B for two beats, make a quick visit to mom and then an action and MacGyver sequence of three beats that are there more for their thrills and coolness than because they drive the B or K stories forward. Then come two K beats in which the spy teaches the kid to overcome bullies.

Next we go to the A story for a couple of beats and then three more beats of action and MacGyverisms to bring the B story to a conclusion.

Finally, a scene that acts like a tag in the way it adds that extra ending to the B- and K-stories. And the final A story beat that leaves us hanging from the cliff waiting for next week.

Throughout the episode, we see clusters of scenes that drive particular stories forward. Only the C really drops in in single installments and that too needs a concentrated section at the top of the fourth act to get real momentum.

Sometimes, we think we need to start all the plot lines near the beginning of a show and then interweave them throughout, going back and forth with regularity. The more shows I break down, the more I see how wrong that is. Stories seem to play out nicely when you devote a few consecutive scenes to them, even most of an act. And you can leave another story thread hanging for quite a while.

Burn Notice didn't have a lot of jeopardy, sexual tension nor did it have high stakes curtains, but it was an engaging hour that kept you watching with humour, story, action and some great duct tape sequences. I'll watch it again, not because I'm dying to know why he was burned, but because it's fun to watch.