Watch & Learn
Lots of my Bang2writers say they’re going to watch TV shows ‘for work’ … but then don’t do any work! They just enjoy them. Tsk. Naughty writers!
But seriously, you CAN watch whatever you like *and* learn from these produced TV shows at the same time. I’m going to show you how to do this, using the free B2W plotting worksheet, which you can download HERE.
By the way, you can watch stuff if you’re a novelist too! Everything I know about novel writing, I learned from watching movies and TV shows. Similarly, you can watch different genres and styles to the stuff you write too. I don’t write comedy and would even bet real money I will never write a sitcom in my life … But I watch and learn from them all the time.
Sitcoms are highly structured. Also, at just 22-30 minutes, sitcoms prove just how important pace and plotting truly is. They also demonstrate how character and plotting are inextricably interlinked.
After all, who a character is in a sitcom has a very obvious ‘knock on’ effect to what they do … which in turn fuels the events in the plot.
What’s more, if you can see how it’s done in such a short timeframe, then it helps you appreciate how longer stories work too. This helps you ‘scale up’ from shorter stories to longer ones, whatever you’re writing. What’s not to like!
Consider Friends … Every single episode of this iconic show is literally called “The One Where [X Happens]”. Inside that framework, we see characters react according to their key characteristics, which in turn feeds into the various thematics of the show. Here’s a case study on all this, done for you …
Now, let’s watch and break another sitcom episode down, this time together.
Brooklyn 99 Structure
Brooklyn 99 is a sitcom currently in its seventh season. You can watch the latest episodes on All4 and Amazon Prime in the UK, plus the first six series are available on Netflix.
Created by Dan Goor and Michael Schur, Brooklyn 99 is a work-based, police procedural comedy about an immature but brilliant detective Jake Peralta and his diverse band of police colleagues in New York.
Traditional models of sitcom like The Simpsons typically have two ‘story strands’ per episodes, which I call an A and B Story.(CLICK HERE for a case study breaking down 2 classic Simpsons episodes).
But just like Friends before it, Brooklyn 99 has established itself as usually having 3 story strands per episode instead – A, B & C.
The A/B/C story strand model enables B99 to concentrate on the relationships between the characters who may ‘break off’ from the main group into pairs or threes, just like the writers of Friends did.
That said, B99 does mix it up from time to time. The show sometimes has very plot-led special episodes involving the squad as a whole, such as its ‘Halloween Heists’. When this happens, there tend to be only 2 story strands per episode.
A Quick Primer on B99 Characters
Jake might be yet another white male lead, but he is an unusual character as THIS RECENT B2W CASE STUDY outlines. He wants to be a hero and is very immature, but is also emotionally literate and supporter of the underdog. The others in the team also go against type, plus they are all brilliant at what they do …
- Captain Raymond Holt – a black, openly gay police officer who has had to literally fight his way up the ladder and to remain there (this character takes the well-worn trope of ‘black police captain’ and turns it on its head)
- Lieutenant Terry Jeffords – a muscle-bound, neurotic but devoted family man (unusual to show contrasting sides, plus positive representation of black fatherhood. Also, two black leads contradicts the usual ‘Highlander Effect’ of so-called diverse ensembles … There can be only one!)
- Sergeant Amy Santiago – super-organised, ambitious control freak who is very smart (unusual for Latina female leads). Also Jake’s wife.
- Detective Rosa Diaz – mysterious and dark loner who is very violent and also bisexual (again, very unusual for Latina leads, plus there are two in the same show which hardly ever happens)
- Detective Charles Boyle – a hard-working foodie and ‘beta male’ who leans into this, rather than is ashamed by it (usually this would make him villain, or pathetic. Instead he is Jake’s best friend)
The show is known for a particular brand of ‘compassionate comedy’ that ‘punches up’. This means marginalised people don’t tend to be the butt of the jokes. Instead jokes are usually at the expense of those in positions of power. This means there are a lot of jokes about men and white supremacy, especially within institutions like the police and education.
Lots of media commentators like to claim so-called ‘woke culture’ has ‘killed’ comedy. B99 is a ‘woke’ show that demonstrates this is not the case … Its writers CAN be funny and even fly close to the edge without throwing marginalised people under the bus as standard. Far from being ‘political correctness gone mad’ then, storylines in B99 are hugely irreverent and hella sexual. As an example, one of its long-running gags is the very naughty fan favourite, ‘Title of your sex tape’.
Archetype Versus Stereotype
B99 characters also tend to be archetypal rather than stereotypical. Archetypes such as the ‘hero’, ‘outlaw’ and care-giver are employed to give the characters depth and help fuel what’s happening in the episode.
For example, the character Terry draws from the care-giver archetype. This characteristic is not only towards his own family, but also the 99 Squad. He’s referred to as a ‘mother hen’ and even just as ‘Mom’ by the other characters. Male characters very rarely spring from this archetype at all. Huge hench men even less so!
When B99 characters are stereotypical, this tends to be solely for comic relief, such as the more peripheral characters of Hitchcock and Scully … They are two white, middle-aged, incompetent detectives who are frequently gross and inappropriate. They were lauded ‘in their day’ back in the 1980s, so ride on the coattails of their colleagues … A very obvious comment on times changing there!
Games Night, s5, ep 10
What’s also interesting about Brooklyn 99 as a police procedural is it focuses primarily on its characters’ relationships. This includes their view of themselves and the world. Cases usually play second fiddle to this. This means that whilst solving crime plays a big part of the episodes, the crime never takes over from the characters.
This also means sometimes there is no crime to solve at all, as in ‘Games Night’. This is episode 10 of the the fifth series and you can find a full breakdown HERE.
What To Do Now
1) Grab your B2W plotting worksheet, HERE.
2) Fire up Netflix and watch Games Night
3) As you watch, write what happens in each scene. Keep it brief.
4) Identify each story strand – which story is the ‘biggest’? What takes up the most ‘story space’? That’s your A Story. The second one = B story. Third = C.
5) Plot each strand on the B2W worksheet. Colour coding helps illuminate this. Here’s what I came up with ….
Here’s how it breaks down …Captain
Note how the colours work out on the picture of the story map I drew. There’s LOTS of differentiation here! Here’s what I saw happening in the episode …
A Story (green), approx. 11 scenes (13 including flashbacks)
Rosa is the protagonist of this strand. She comes out as bisexual to her parents but does not get the reaction she hoped for. This episode revolves primarily around her, with her parents (primarily her mother) acting as the antagonists for this story strand. Jake acts as secondary character to Rosa here, as her facilitator and general foil.
In this section, flashbacks are used in the Set Up, plus Rosa’s big announcement forms the midpoint of the story, with the second half dealing with the fall out of this. There is no ‘happy ever after’ here either, but no is there a big feud either … This makes a refreshing change as this is much more realistic and authentic. Instead, Rosa must find comfort with her friends and the knowledge she is being true to herself.
B Story (pink), approx. 5 scenes
Captain Holt, Terry, Amy and Boyle dominate this story strand. The squad has a big problem with their WiFi and blame Cyber Crimes, who have just moved in downstairs. Captain Holt, Terry, Amy and Boyle go down there, with Holt pulling rank immediately. Cyber Crimes, the antagonists of this strand laugh in their faces, knowing the squad have no expertise. This is when Charles suggests asking Gina to help them. With her refusal, they try and bribe Cyber Crimes with meat, but this does not work either. They are about to laugh them out a second time when Gina magically turns up when they need her and vanquishes the antagonists of Cyber Crime with no problems whatsoever.
C Story (blue), approx. 6 scenes (some crossover to A and B)
Gina is the protagonist of this strand. She has just had a baby, so is on leave. She’s happy to hear from her friends at the 99, but in true Gina fashion is not interested in their problems. She then drops the bombshell she won’t be returning to work before disappearing. The rest of the squad is shocked, but Amy and Boyle take it upon themselves to persuade her to return but fail. At the end of the episode, Gina magically turns up a second time and announces she will be coming back after all, thanks to the raise Holt has (not) offered her.
Aren’t The B & C Strands Just One Story Strand?
Maybe. It depends on your viewpoint. What’s particularly interesting then about ‘Games Night’ is the B story essentially resolves very early, just before the mid-point but then branches off into another story – Gina’s return to the 99.
This episode is unusual in doing this … Viewing it in isolation, it could be argued this is actually an extended MacGuffin. A MacGuffin is a trigger or catalyst for what happens in the plot, a device frequently used in comedy. If we say the start in cybercrime is an extended MacGuffin, then arguably B & C are one story.
That said, I do not believe it is an extended MacGuffin. I am going with Gina’s bombshell being a ‘C’ strand… This is because viewed beyond isolation, B99 has established itself as a three-strand sitcom for character-led episodes, which this is. What’s more, story strands in B99 relate not only to differentiated stories, but timing/place.
That said, if you believe the B & C strands are one story, that’s okay too. The point of this exercise is not to be ‘right’, but to be able to develop a vocabulary for how plotting and character work together, as part of our structural toolbox.
Practice makes perfect! So download your free worksheet from the B2W Resources Page and fire your favourite show up Netflix or Amazon Prime. You can work on your writing craft AND enjoy TV … who knew?
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