Sheriff Of Nottingham Syndrome

Yesterday I was at a BBC Writersroom event for action-adventure writers, listening to Adrian Hodges speaking about the BBC’s upcoming show The Musketeers. He had a lot of interesting things to say about reinventing familiar characters, about establishing the tone and world of a story, and about creating stories from a book with surprisingly little plot.

However, the thing I found most interesting was what he called ‘Sheriff Of Nottingham Syndrome’ – the way some shows trot out their supposedly all-powerful and scary villain every week, only to have him roundly defeated by the hero yet again.

The way I see it, there’s an understandable tension here. For your major villain, you cast the best actor available. You want to use him as much as possible. He wants to actually have something to do – something interesting, inventive, something that stretches him. The audience think they want to see him as much as possible –

But the more often they see him, the less effective he is. Because every time your supposedly all-powerful and terrifying villain is defeated by the hero, he becomes less scary. Eventually he becomes a buffoon, a figure of figure who the hero runs rings around, as the Sheriff becomes in many Robin Hood stories. Now you’ve got a dissatisfied actor, a bored audience, and all you ever did was give the public what they said they wanted…

Is there an answer to this? I think it might lie in something I’ve alluded to before – one of the show rules on Leverage, which co-creator John Rogers calls “Sterling Never Loses”.

Recurring villain Jim Sterling is used sparingly, which helps avoid Sheriff Of Nottingham Syndrome – but more importantly, he’s used cleverly. Whenever he appears, he wants something specific that runs counter to what our heroes want – and he always gets it.

Our heroes don’t go to jail, and they get what they want too, or some of it – but not by defeating Sterling. Though they may start the episode in opposition to his wants and needs, they end up working alongside him, or around where he isn’t looking, not directly against him. This allows both sides to walk away with what they want, each having benefitted from the other’s involvement: honour is satisfied, and the simmering conflict between them is saved for another day.

It’s an elegant solution to a perennial problem. And not a bumbling Sheriff in sight…

Things I Learned From… Leverage

It should come as no surprise by now that I’m a big fan of Leverage. To my mind, the best TV series are the ones that cover as many emotional bases as possible; comedy and high drama, triumph and tragedy. Leverage is a superb example of a series so secure in its own ‘world’ that it can swing from action sequences to character comedy to intense threat to slapstick, and still keep the audience utterly invested in the story and the characters.

I’ve just finished watching season four, which has got me thinking – in a show with such a clearly defined (and therefore, potentially limiting) concept, how do you keep generating ideas and developing the characters over such a long period? When you’re sitting down to write episode sixty or seventy, how do you keep the series fresh and entertaining, find new character arcs for the actors to play, take the series concept to new places without losing that vital spark that makes the show what it is?

Luckily for us, series creators John Rogers and Chris Downey are busy producing some of the best resources for writers that any television show has ever produced. Between the extensive DVD commentaries, Rogers’ Kung Fu Monkey blog, and the Leverage podcasts on iTunes, we have a unique insight into the creative process behind a long-running show.

So, what can we learn from Leverage about keeping a series fresh and exciting?

(Some discussion of Season Four plot elements, but no real spoilers)

Trouble walks in the door every week.  British TV commissioners love ‘cops and docs’ – crime dramas and medical dramas – because stories from all strata of life just walk in the door. Anyone from a pregnant drug addict to a Duchess, from a Hassidic Jew to a lapsed Muslim, from a child to an octogenarian, might need the help of the police or the medical staff at the centre of the show. The protagonists don’t have to go looking for trouble – it finds them.

And that’s exactly how Leverage works. Every time a new client walks in the door, the team are plunged into a new world – pharma company, mining, the Hamptons, a ski resort, an Ivy League university. Though the clients are mainly working class and middle class, they could come from any social strata, and certainly any race, nationality or area of America. The lesson here is, make sure your initial concept is a good source of stories, and that those stories naturally make their way to your central characters’ doorsteps.

Make every character different and distinct.  This is absolutely written into Leverage’s DNA: hitter, hacker, grifter, thief, mastermind. Different backgrounds, different life experiences, different personalities. To see what this gives you to work with, compare Nate’s crew with the characters from the conceptually similar British series, Hustle – where the crew are all grifters.

Pair up any two characters from Hustle and send them to perform part of a con, and that scene will play out in largely the same way. But do the same in Leverage, and how you write the scene changes radically depending on whom you choose. A scene pairing Hardison and Elliot will play out very differently to one pairing Sophie and Parker. Every character works differently with, and reacts differently to, each of the others.

Secondly, giving your characters distinct skills allows you to push them outside their comfort zone. Parker has to grift, Hardison insists on running the con, Elliot plays weak and vulnerable – all dramatic gold. On the flip side of that, everyone has their ‘thing’, and we love to see them released to do it.

And finally, difference gives you conflict. Characters with different backgrounds do things differently, compete, argue, antagonize one another – and that’s the key to both comedy and drama.

Be smart with your bad guys.  Leverage knows how to handle bad guys. One of the most important things I learned from them came via their ‘Sterling Never Loses’ rule.  (Check the DVD commentaries for discussion of that one. Season two, I think. Yeah, I know that’s vague, but trust me, listen to the whole lot. You’ll learn more about writing TV than you would from a year in college.)

Because of the tone of the show, not every bad guy has to present a direct threat to the protagonists. Most weeks, we’re introduced to a bad guy who’s hurting innocents, we hate him, and it doesn’t matter that we know the team will make mincemeat of him – because we want so badly for it to happen. There’s a pleasure in the inevitable, especially when it’s the ‘how’ and not the ‘what’ that the show is based around.

However, every now and then, you have to introduce someone who presents a genuine threat to the characters, or the skill and hard work they put into each con stops registering and the show begins to feel trivial.  And when you have the best of best in every field on your team, you have to work hard to make those bad guys sufficiently threatening.

One way to do that is ensure that, sometimes, consequences catch up with you. That means you have to be prepared to make changes and cross boundaries. Sophie leaves the team for a time. Nate goes to jail. Elliot resists killing for as long as he can, but when he finally has no choice… And in Season Four, the bad guy does something unforgivable to Nate, and the consequences get pretty damn ugly.

So, however light your show, make sure that sometimes, the bad guys land a real punch and the protagonists actually get hurt.

Don’t let concept become formula.  All shows develop a basic shape for their episodes. The cops find a crime, investigate it, solve it, catch the criminal. The doctors examine a patient, attempt a cure, the patient gets worse, they try something else, the patient recovers or dies.

A lot of the skill of running a television series lies in knowing exactly how much to subvert or reinvent the formula without changing the show beyond recognition. Audiences like the comfort of formula, and a show with a clear shape and style to it is easier for a tired, lazy audience to take it, and retains an audience more effectively.

Challenging shows tend to lose casual viewers and end up playing to the dedicated few who are prepared to work that hard. Which isn’t a bad thing – we all like to be challenged now and then, and people who turn their backs on one challenging drama may absolutely adore another one – but if our show can be challenging and draw a large audience, all the better.

The fourth season of Leverage takes risks, reinventing the formula in a few carefully chosen episodes – a episode composed largely of flashbacks where the team appear as different characters; a pair of linked episodes following different team members on their disastrous attempts to have a quiet night off. Some work, some don’t – but it’s the willingness to reinvent that keeps the show fresh.

So, anything else you feel Leverage does particularly well? What about other long-running shows, either side of the pond? What tips can we pick up from them?

The Fiddle Game

Thanks to Sherman Cymru and Aberystwyth Arts Centre, last night saw one of my occasional hesitant digressions into theatre.  The Sherman is running a theatre writing programme called Spread The Word in venues around Wales, finding writers relatively new to theatre and putting them through a five week writing course.  The writers then turn in a short piece of writing, either a complete piece or an extract from something longer, and three pieces are chosen for a public rehearsed reading.

So last night, Tony Jones, Catrin Fleur Huws, and I saw our masterpieces performed to a small but friendly audience, and were then dragged on stage to answer questions and receive feedback.  All jolly good fun –

But actually, seeing my piece performed reminded me of a question I’ve been asking myself for a while.  My piece was about a group of conmen (and women) who gather for a ‘job interview’ to join the world’s most revered grifter and his crew, only to start to suspect that the situation is rather more complicated than they thought.

So, judging from last night, confidence tricksters work reasonably well on stage.  They certainly work on TV – Hustle has been a huge hit in the UK, and Leverage (one of my all time favourite shows) is an equivalent hit in the US.  Not to mention shows like White Collar, Psych, and even Burn Notice, all of which draw on the “big con” – false identities, elaborate schemes, obtaining information or money by deception – to some extent.

So why aren’t there more movies about con men?

Yes, yes, The Sting, I know.  A huge hit in its time, and a classic piece of cinema.  But apart from that?  Off the top of my head, I can’t think of a recent movie about grifters that’s been a real commercial success.  The Argentinean Nueve Reinas (Nine Queens) is a clever and emotionally engaging film, but really only played to the artwork crowd, and an English language remake, Criminal, never really found an audience – possibly due to that bland, uninformative title?  The Brothers Bloom vanished without trace, and so did corporate espionage caper Duplicity, a grifting movie in all but name.

So what’s going on?  If Leverage can stuff an average of two cons, a heist, and a fight sequence into 42 minutes, it can’t be that cons are too complex to fit into a feature length movie.  Is it that we find it hard to bond with a central character who spends half the movie pretending to be someone else?  But spies do that, and we love spy movies…

No, I’m genuinely stumped on this one.  Over to you, my valiant readers.  Why are there so few successful con movies?