Summer 2018

Tonal Shifts

TV's latest wave of crime comedies are distinguished by their directors' tricky balance between desperate drama and absurd humor

By Robert Koehler

Minkie Spiro, directing Better Call Saul, says she "sees the world in a very cinematic way," and is "very involved with the camera department." (Photo: Michele K. Short/AMC/Sony Pictures Television)

Highwire act. Standing on the edge of a cliff. Juggling plates.

Directors think in terms of images, and these are the kind of images they bring up when talking about the myriad challenges of executing one of the trickiest and most rewarding of genres: crime comedy.

In cinema, the form enjoys a great legacy stretching back to Mack Sennett's fabulously staged Keystone Kops series and leaping forward to a hip wave of novel adaptations ranging from Donald Westlake's The Hot Rock to Elmore Leonard's Out of Sight and Get Shorty.

For television, the track record is more complicated—first, a trickle, and now a veritable explosion. Conscious of itself as a medium functioning in families' homes, early TV treated crime fiction in highly moralistic terms, typified by the long-running Western law-and-order show Gunsmoke and urban sagas like The Untouchables. It was straight-arrow all the way until a certain style of cool drifted into the scene in the early '60s with the likes of Peter Gunn and I Spy, and in the '70s, The Thin Man-influenced McMillan & Wife and the casual cool of James Garner in The Rockford Files.

More than anything else, a growing irreverence toward crime as entertainment represented the growing sophistication of television, and learning how to navigate the apparently contradictory elements of crime fiction's paranoia and danger and comedy's itch to expose life's absurdities.

The current crime comedy wave—including such wide-ranging fare as Better Call Saul, Get Shorty, Good Behavior, Good Girls, Hap and Leonard, The Last O.G. and Sneaky Pete—could be considered the offspring of sometimes exceptionally dark sagas in which the ostensible bad guy is now the hero, starting emphatically with The Sopranos, in which there was almost never an episode without equal doses of violence and humor; Dexter, told from the view of an ironically narrating serial killer; Breaking Bad, the wild adventures of a chemistry teacher-turned-drug kingpin; Fargo, anthology reimaginings of the Coen brothers' Minnesota crime tale; and Justified, the ingenious adaptation of Leonard's short story Fire in the Hole.

Get Shorty is an extension of one of Leonard's best-known novels, a project that series director Adam Arkin explains is inspired by the book rather than a deliberately faithful adaptation. "If you start with an Elmore Leonard story," he says, "you have a higher chance of succeeding, but I think we may have risked disappointing his big legion of die-hard fans since we weren't going to do a straight adaptation." The new version, created by Davey Holmes, tracks mob "cleaner" Miles Daly (Chris O'Dowd) from Nevada to Los Angeles, where he begins to learn the ins and outs of the moviemaking business.

(Top) Chioke Nassor, with star Tracy Morgan on the set of The Last O.G., says "we're used to seeing Tracy's broader comedy, but he and Jordan (Peele, the show's co-creator) wanted to create a character who's living through a trauma…" (Above) Director Mikkel Nørgaard (Good Behavior), top left, insists on intensive character rehearsals without the camera. (Photos: (From top) Francisco Roman/Turner Entertainment Networks; Fred Norris/Turner Entertainment Networks)

Character Building

The key to Leonard, and to crime comedy, in Arkin's view, is a "focus on character. Elmore wanted to hear the characters talk, that would tell him where to go with his story, and that's exactly what we started with. The essence of this genre is character. If you don't have distinctive characters with voices of their own, you're lost in this form."

This sentiment is echoed by a range of directors, among them Ami Canaan Mann (Sneaky Pete), Chioke Nassor (The Last O.G.), Sarah Pia Anderson (Good Girls, Sneaky Pete), Jim Mickle (director and co-creator of Hap and Leonard, based on Joe R. Lansdale's quirky East Texas novels), Mikkel Nørgaard (Good Behavior) and Minkie Spiro (Better Call Saul).

Anderson taps into a key reason why crime comedy—which would appear on the surface to value plot most of all—is fundamentally character-driven: "This is material that sits on the cusp of comedy and drama, and it's so attractive to me as a director because this is where most humans live."

The starting point of The Last O.G. (co-created by Jordan Peele and John Carcieri) is an urban Rip Van Winkle tale of Tray (Tracy Morgan), a low-level Brooklyn drug dealer returning to the 'hood after a two-decade prison stint, only to find the place unrecognizably transformed and gentrified. "We're used to seeing Tracy's broader comedy," says Nassor, "but he and Jordan wanted to create a character who's living through a trauma, trying to go straight but fending off temptations."

Many of these characters have lived or are currently living a life of crime, a situation that would have been rejected by TV executives in the era of '60s and '70s sleuths, before antihero series like The Sopranos. Now, as Spiro notes, "You can play with a comedy actor like Bob Odenkirk, and go on a tightrope with him as he plays this incredibly complicated character Jimmy. In my episode (from the third season, titled 'Fall'), Jimmy ruthlessly manipulates Mrs. Landry into agreeing to a group settlement that will give Jimmy a big payday, and how he does it reveals to us a big piece in the puzzle of how Jimmy turns into Saul the conniving lawyer in Breaking Bad. It's sort of the ultimate character study—you love Jimmy, you hate him, you don't know where to sit with him."

A key part of figuring out the right tone is helping actors find their way into the genre's typically contradictory and quirky characters. Mickle notes that Corbin Bernsen came in as a guest star for Hap and Leonard's third season playing Cantuck, the police chief of racist-drenched Grovetown, Texas, a hard-bitten type who suffers from an enlarged testicle—the kind of detail that defines Lansdale's fiction.

"Corbin and I talked about the fun of working with that strange character trait," says Mickle. "There's always a challenge to be an actor who jumps into a show that has seasons under its belt. You need to give actors their space to find their way, and with Corbin, he'll do different takes during rehearsal and will sometimes improvise, all of which I encourage because I know that we'll find the best parts of the performance in the edit. Then, when an actor like Corbin says something funny, you need to get the reaction shots. In the first cut of a scene where Hap and Leonard meet Cantuck in episode two, Corbin's performance wasn't landing. But when we inserted Hap's and Leonard's responses, it turned into the right kind of comic scene where our two guys are trying to figure out if this police chief is putting them on or not."

(Top) Ami Canaan Mann works with Giovanni Ribisi on Sneaky Pete; (Above) Sarah Pia Anderson, right, surveys the scene on Good Girls. (Photos: (From Top) Amazon Studios; Josh Stringer/NBC)

Comedy of the Absurd

These directors will readily point to key inspirations for their approach to the characters, guidelines helping them with the tricky business of juggling comedy and crime. For her ambitious first season finale episode of Good Girls, Anderson says, of a crucial moment when the forlorn husband character Dean (Matthew Lillard) crashes his car, that "it was really a steal from the Coen brothers, making the viewer feel the moment alongside the character."

The Coens' Effect is also felt in Hap and Leonard, Mickle observes, with the critical contribution of Ellen Chenoweth, the brothers' longtime casting director: "She brought to us several wonderful character actors, like Irma P. Hall and John McConnell, who seem to be born for this style." Mickle came to Hap and Leonard by way of directing his previous feature, Cold in July, based on a pre-Hap novel by Lansdale, "so it gave me a way of carrying over the mix of hijinks and high tension that I did in the movie into the series. But the thing that really inspired me for this was watching a huge number of Korean crime movies when I was in Korea. They drop in crazy twists and turns, dark stories with broad humor. I'm thinking of Bong Joon-ho for example, stuff that we haven't quite been able to do in the U.S."

That doesn't mean that a bunch of directors aren't trying, and many would say they're doing a terrific job right now. So how to pull off the twists, those high-wire moments that define crime comedy? Beyond the script itself, it starts with the actors—Nørgaard, the Danish-born maker of the hilarious Klown TV series and feature films that transformed Scandinavian comedy from situation-based to character-based, insists on carving out precious time on the episodic shoot of Good Behavior for intensive actor rehearsals without the camera. "You do this," he says, "and it's amazing how much time you save in the long run, since you eliminate any confusion about character behavior, motivation and the rest of the roadblocks that can creep in during production."

Beyond a critical bonding with the actors, several directors interviewed for this story offer extensive explanations of staging, camera position and lens and location choices as keys to making it all work. "When I want to find a more emotional or dramatic tone—keep in mind that tone is shifting from scene to scene, which is what makes this so dangerous and exciting—I'll often choose a longer lens," Nassor says about The Last O.G. "When we have a comedy scene with Tracy and Allen Maldonado (as the goofy Bobby), we'll go with a wider lens, which lets comic performers play a whole range of verbal and physical notes." Nassor found a stunning location for a city cemetery that holds sad memories for Morgan's character, Tray, and then framed the action in a distant long shot that allowed Maldonado to do a bit of physical business right out of the comedy playbook of Jacques Tati.

Both Anderson on Good Girls and Spiro on Better Call Saul deployed the technocrane and other camera tools for key moments in their episodes that result in bravura shots that stand on their own as well as inform each story's balance of absurdity and human drama. Anderson staged a supermarket heist by the titular Good Girls—three suburban Detroit moms turning to crime to solve their intractable money problems—over nearly two days with a fluidly edited mixture of overhead shots, dynamic night exteriors, a stunning right-to-left track shot on a low dolly and a terrific payoff shot where the moms robbing the store have switched clothes and blend into the group of shoppers. "These shots were all there to maintain a sense of threat and jeopardy," Anderson says, "alongside a comic accent. It was, um, an acrobatic experience."

(Top) Director Jim Mickle, with Louis Gossett Jr., credits casting director Ellen Chenoweth for recruiting character actors for Hap and Leonard "who seem born for this style;" (Above) Adam Arkin, standing left, directing Get Shorty, says "you have to make sure that when you jump from a more comic scene to something more dramatic, you don't undercut one or the other." (Photos: (From Top) Jace Downs/SundanceTV; Lewis Jacobs/Epix)

Tales of Ordinary Madness

Spiro, trained in photography and known in television for her meticulous approach to cinematography, executed an extraordinary technocrane shot at the end of her Better Call Saul episode that encapsulates the visual nature of the genre. Jimmy's straight-arrow legal partner Kim (Rhea Seehorn), running late to an important meeting, crashes her car on a New Mexico highway and nearly runs off the road. As Spiro's camera gradually pulls back into a massive overhead shot, Kim's car door creaks open, her legal papers fly everywhere, and she seems lost in a wasteland.

"I wanted it to feel ordinary, but with the sense that Kim's world is falling apart, as if the fluttering paperwork is mocking her," Spiro says. "I see the world in a very cinematic way, and very involved with the camera department. I hate living in hotel rooms, so when I'm on location like I was here for Better Call Saul, I will decorate my walls with inspiring images and actual images from the show, arranging them on the wall like film strips. It gets my mind going, and it was partly out of that where I had the idea for this shot that seems to fly up in the sky forever."

A different photographer, Duane Michaels, inspired Nassor for a sequence in The Last O.G. in which Morgan's Tray remembers his early Brooklyn years. "I had thought of dressing up everyone in wigs and period clothes but looked at Michaels' 1970s work and how he used superimpositions, and I thought that this would be a great way of visualizing Tray's nostalgia that he's trying in his own bumbling way to convey to his kids."

Anderson, who has a long track record in British theater, cites surprising yet apt theatrical sources for her approach to crime comedy, where tonal shifts define the form. "If you look at the right way to play Chekhov or French farce, you see comedy and drama running along side by side, in different ways," she explains. "The Russians handle Chekhov with a real comic touch, and the inherent sadness comes across so much richer than if you do the play too reverently, the way you usually see it in American stagings. If French farce is done correctly, the stakes are incredibly high, the danger facing characters should be severe."

Yet it's these constant shifts that can set dangerous traps for the director. "They're everywhere," says Arkin. "On one hand, you have to make sure that when you jump from a more comic scene to something more dramatic, you don't undercut one or the other. On the other hand, in television filmmaking, you risk falling into a static or imitative look and style just because everyone is so comfortable with it. I deliberately didn't study the movie version of Get Shorty because of this, so we wouldn't even be tempted to copy it. I remember it as being more comedic than Leonard's book, and we knew that we wanted to pull back the comedy a bit, while juggling tones so that we don't fall into a rut."

By contrast, Mickle wanted to direct the first two episodes of Hap and Leonard's third season since "I wanted to play with a broader comic approach early on that doesn't prepare the viewer for the dark tone that enters the story in the later episodes, a bit like the latter half of (Mickle's 2014 crime thriller) Cold in July when Don Johnson enters the movie and brings in a slapstick tone. It helps remind the viewer that they're in the world of the tall tale, where we can stage a huge storm, where colors are louder, where lighting is more extreme. It's not reality."

While some might say that mixing crime with comedy is a matter of pacing, for Mann, "It's a matter of piecing. So you have this piece of absurd comedy, this piece of pure crime action where you see the real stakes and danger, and you put them together. There's a crazy moment in my episode (of Sneaky Pete) where Giovanni Ribisi (as the title character) runs to a car, jumps into the back seat instead of the front seat. That's a goofy moment. But then he has an emotional flashback in the car. The pacing is consistent, and the audience can get lost in the comedy so that when the dramatic moment comes, they're surprised and feel the stakes."

The sheer risk is most visible for these directors when drawing up a scene with their actors. Nørgaard recalls working out the character of a struggling female FBI agent in Good Behavior, played by veteran actor Ann Dowd, who's best known for her intense dramatic performances in such series as The Handmaid's Tale.

"We hadn't conceived of her as a long-running character, but she delivered such interesting, funny moments in her early scenes that we had to continue exploring her character," Nørgaard says. "But if you fall into comedic shtick or traps, you lose the authenticity of the drama, and it can send the signal that we're not supposed to take this seriously. Ann would do a scene, she's this master actor, and would worry to me, 'Is that too much?' It just shows you how tricky this whole thing can be."


Feature stories about the craft and challenges of directors and their teams in episodic television, movies for television, daytime drama, reality, sports, news, variety, childrens, commercials and other television genres.

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