Watching Collateral, Cheo Coker’s first episode for NCIS: LA, is an inspiring experience.
His former show, SouthLAnd, was all about character, and only about the plot and the crimes when it related to character. SouthLAnd has never been about solving the crime; it’s about understanding the character. Whereas, NCIS: LA is a plot juggernaut, a procedural freight train that requires its characters to deliver high volumes of exposition as its multi-layered crimes are uncovered. Coker has proved himself the master of deep character revelation through minimalist and fiery dialogue; what would he do with a show that demands huge blocks of time devoted to the procedural details?
Turns out, a tremendous amount.
Writers of TV scripts, movie scripts… hell, whatever kind of writer you are, Coker’s episode contained some invaluable lessons.
In a heavy procedural like this, the majority of the 42 minutes running time is taken up with blocks of discovery, exposition and payoff. That’s the point of the show, and NCIS: LA delivers that with style. What Coker did was fill those brief interludes between procedural necessities with a furious flurry of character-revealing dialogue and banter. He added depth and soul, where many shows would settle for “we’re here, and now we need to go… there.” His riffs on LPs and cartoons allowed him to create a fast-moving, warm dynamic between Callen, Nate, Nell and Hanna. The lesson: every moment, every line and beat and reaction, is a chance to deepen your characters and their relationships. Don’t waste a second of your screenplay.
2. Seriously, Character.
But Coker didn’t stop there. Even during the more mechanical components of the plot, he was reflecting character, taking each opportunity to shine a light into the team, showing us what makes them tick, what makes them work well together. For example, even a quick comment about grandstanding partners (along with the reactions in the room) added to what we know about the team and how they feel about each other. The lesson: exposition can be a bitch — so make it fun, vivid, naturalistic… and make it reveal something about your characters as well as the story. The facts of the case are best served up while they are also telling us more about the speaker and the listeners. If your plot point is also a character point, you’re winning.
3. Pop Culture.
Damn. Coker is the true master of the pop culture riff. No one is doing it like him. He emptied clip after clip of pop culture into his SouthLAnd scripts (“Where’s Optimus Prime when you need him?”, riffing on James Ellroy, or Sonny Chiba), and he stepped up again in Collateral, firing off ongoing bits about Hong Kong Phooey vs. Underdog, Isaac Hayes and vinyl LPs vs MP3s, James Bond blu ray box sets, video games… the list goes on. The lesson: keep things LIVELY. It doesn’t have to be via pop culture — that’s hard to pull off naturalistically unless you have a genuine love of and feel for your references — it can be via snark too — but keep the dialogue cracking, multi-dimensional and, above all, revealing. It’s a blast when characters face off about pop culture in the middle of a crisis (a great example of this is Quentin Tarantino’s “silver surfer” rewrites in Tony Scott’s Crimson Tide). It’s also a blast if your characters can talk in snark-tightened one-liners, even as they are discussing plot. Make each line do at least two things. Bring the swagger.
NCIS: LA is a cool show, with a quick-moving format that can handle cases that broaden their scope as the investigation progresses. Coker’s script was an exceptional example of how to accomplish procedural heavy lifting and character/relationship revelation on the fly, while having an awesome time doing it.
If you can tell stories like that, your viewers/readers will stay with you to the end.