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James Tarr

After once again struggling, and failing, to make it through more than two episodes of Blindspot, I am reminded that it often takes quite a bit of work to “write smart”, and smart writing is the exception rather than the rule when it comes to network TV.  Blindspot is poorly written and often quite stupid, and yet it lasted five seasons.  I guess a good-looking woman covered in tattoos, who is naked for a good portion of the pilot, will get you a long way.  It isn’t original at all—think Prison Break combined with The Blacklist, only half as good as either of those shows on their worst day.  On a very related note, I only made it through four minutes of the pilot for the new S.W.A.T. TV show.  Like most network TV, it seems to be made to entertain the lowest common denominator.  And there’s nothing wrong with that…as long as those kinds of shows aren’t the only thing out there.  Unfortunately, they seem to be the rule, rather than the exception.

By writing smart I don’t mean good quality writing.  If your movie/TV show/whatever has very smart people in it, sometimes it is quite difficult to write for them.  And by that I mean it is sometimes impossible, as many writers aren’t as smart as the characters they’re writing for…but think they are.

A perfect example of this—the TV show Salvation (2017), which lasted but two short seasons.  Quite derivative, it’s about an asteroid hurtling toward the earth, and the people working in secret to stop it.  One of those is an Elon Musk-type industrial super genius, except the writers of the show make him seem like a putz, because they just weren’t smart enough to write the character.  At all.  And there was a lot of technical things in the show that they just didn’t bother researching, figuring the average viewer wouldn’t notice, or care.

Limitless is a perfect example of this problem.  The 2011 movie starring Bradley Cooper is excellent, and I highly recommend it.  Cooper discovers a new drug which expands your intelligence to a shocking degree.  Think four-figure IQ.  The movie was very smart, and only touched on the potential of the drug and the possible story lines you could explore.  The TV show had a good pilot, but only lasted one season because the writers weren’t up to the subject matter.  The show wasn’t bad, but it certainly didn’t live up to the four-digit IQ potential.

Die Hard, believe it or not, is a perfect example of a smart movie with smart writing. By that I do not mean that it is populated with smart characters, arguably the only genius in the movie is Hans Gruber, who can quote literature and talk about men’s fashions all day long, thanks to a classical education. Instead, I mean that the movie itself is very smart. All of the characters are written perfectly for their personalities and occupations, whether that is terrorist and exceptional thief Hans Gruber, the ruled-by-emotion Karl, or the oblivious Ellis who makes million-dollar deals for breakfast, and can surely handle some eurotrash.

What is smart about Die Hard is the movie’s plot. It is amazingly exciting while running along the ragged edge of believability. But more importantly, every single plot point is properly addressed. There are no plot holes in the movie. Nothing, for people paying attention, to object to. Every loose end is tied up at the end of the movie. Unfortunately, that can’t be said about most action movies, where you are best served by shutting your brain off at the door of the theater. The few action movies that are the exception to that rule always tend to stand out.

A smart movie doesn’t necessarily mean smart characters, it can also mean a movie that doesn’t insult the intelligence of the audience. With certain genres, that is a very tough thing to do. That is why Die Hard continues to be one of the best action movies ever made, and one of the best Christmas movies ever made.  Far better than the book, in fact, which means it is unusual in one more way.

The main complaint that stupid people have about smart movies is that they are “boring”. And there are a lot more smart people willing to sit through a dumb movie than there are dumb people willing to sit through a smart movie, so producers and directors have responded accordingly.  Blade Runner—The Final Cut in this instance—is my favorite movie.  It isn’t necessarily a “smart” movie, but you do have to be paying attention to pick up all the layers.  This is a very deep film, one of the most influential sci-fi movies ever made and perhaps the darkest—if you’re paying attention to what’s going on.

It took them over 35 years to make a sequel, and considering Blade Runner is such an iconic movie, and as I mentioned my favorite movie, I had serious trepidations about the sequel.  Blade Runner 2049 was, in fact, a worthy sequel, just as deep and dark and thoughtful as the original, beautiful and horrific in equal measures. However…I remember almost word-for-word a conversation that I had with fellow gunscribe David Fortier about this movie. He said some people that he knew had gone to see it, and they said it was boring.

“Then they’re stupid,” I responded reflexively, and I stand by that statement.  And I don’t mean it as an insult.  There are smart people and stupid people in the world, the same as there are short people and tall people.

There is a great quote about how, if you are dead, you don’t know it.  You are not there anymore, so the effects of your death are only felt on those around you, and the same is true of stupidity.  Most profoundly stupid people are unaware of that fact…but the people around them aren’t.  And, as Forrest Gump likes to say, that’s all I’m going to say about that.

Billions, if you’ve never seen it, is a revelation.  A smart TV show about very smart people.  The smart people do smart clever things and say smart clever things, including throwing around classical and pop culture references a lot of people won’t get, and aren’t explained.  It is clearly written by smart people, about smart people, for smart people, and the writers do not dumb down anything.  Keep up, or you’ll be left behind.  Personally, as a movie geek, I loved the Chinatown and L.A. Confidential references.  In the last episode of the first season there is a direct reference/homage to The Conversation (1974), which is one of the best movies ever made, and another movie made by smart people for smart people, starring a who’s who of familiar faces.

In fact, since I’ve brought it up, the only consistent complaint I ever heard about the movie L.A. Confidential (1997) was that it was hard to follow.  It’s only hard to follow if you’re stupid or used to not paying attention while watching a movie, but just rather sitting there with your brain shut off, as most movies are made for people who want to do just that.  “Mindless entertainment”.  And there’s a place for that.  Some of just want alternatives.

Generally, you just can’t be dumb and be a writer.  However, there is a big difference between above-average intelligence, being smart, and writing smart.  Writing smart is tough, and there are not a lot of people who can do it.  Luckily (for Hollywood, etc.) most people can’t spot the difference between good and great writing.

Paul Giamatti’s brilliant lawyer character in Billions is actually a slimy disgusting person, but the character is written so well (and acted so well) you don’t hate him, even when you should.  As this is on a pay cable channel (Showtime) series they’ve thrown in a lot of sex and nudity, just because they can, but the fact that a lot of it involves Giamatti is often hilarious.  Or hilariously disgusting.

The only dark lining in this silver Billions cloud is the character of Taylor Mason, introduced in the second season—I’m guessing because someone complained there wasn’t enough “diversity” in the cast.  Taylor Mason is a genius, so she better than most people should know that humans, like all mammals, are biologically binary, and yet the character she plays insists that she is “non-binary”, despite her father telling her she’s a girl.  Asia Kate Dillon (who plays her) believes this nonsense herself, and apparently thinks that by shaving her head and telling people she’s no longer male or female that makes it so…but acting doesn’t require intelligence, just the ability to play make-believe.  Apparently she’s internalized that….

Her character, on the other hand, is the opposite of dumb.  The people around her just roll with the non-binary thing, because she gets results.  Which I guess is the point of this article.  People will put up with crazy and stupid, as long as they’re getting something for their troubles.  When you promise smart but fail to deliver, expect to sometimes get kicked to the curb.  Or your show to get canceled.