I be a good righter.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

The Friendly Skies

I've been thinking a lot about the shows that have inspired me. Sure there are overall series that are incredible. But, when speccing something, I always try to emulate a little of what I've learned from specific episodes that have made me pause and question my own ability when in the face of such brilliance.

MIRACLES -- "The Friendly Skies"
Written by David Greenwalt, Richard Hatem, Chris Brancato, Albert Salke

MIRACLES was a short-lived show on ABC. It got preempted a lot. I think maybe six episodes aired (of 13). And I think each of those six episodes aired on different nights and different times. So, you know, you had to love it to look for it. It was ABC's X-Files -- but with a priest! Paul Callan (Skeet Ullrich) who joins a merry band of Scoobies .

The pilot episode showed that this show was going to present you with things, that on the face looked straight forward, but later, you'd find out that if you look at them in a slightly different light, there might be something a little more sinister at work. A small example of this is a bunch of people who all saw the same words when experiencing some sort of miracle:

God is now here.

Okay, you know, we've got a priest, and religious stuff happening. It makes a lot of sense, in the grand scheme of miracles, that is. Except, as one of the Scoobies, Alva Keel (Angus MacFadyen) tells Paul, what happens when you take out the space between the "w" and the "h?" Well, you get:

God is nowhere.

That clinched that this was going to be my new favorite show (it actually ended up being my most favorite show of all times, no thanks to ABC). That small moment.

But that wasn't the moment that changed my writing life. That moment happened in the second episode, "The Friendly Skies." In this episode a plane full of people go through some sort of supernatural pocket. Whatever they were thinking right then, that's what they became. A young girl wished that she was a grown up. Lo, she was. I mean, she was still a little girl, but she was an adult. This was proved by her desperately needing a cigarette.

A woman who wished herself dead, died.

And so on.

The plane landed and the passengers were herded into a hangar, where they were questioned. The little girl finally got her smoke. The woman who was dead was autopsied. There was a man who clearly wanted to be smarter, he now had every fact ever in his head. Including a lot of Top Secret stuff. And then, there was another woman. I don't remember why she was on this plane. Or why she was alone. Because she had been in an car accident many years ago and she had no motor skills, no speech skills. She was a vegetable. So, again, I don't know why she was on the plane. I'm sure they covered that, though.

This woman must have been thinking about being normal again when the plane went through that patch. Because, suddenly, she could walk again. Talk again. It was as if she'd never been in an accident.

As with most airplane passengers, there are people waiting for their plane to arrive. The passengers of this plane, however, their spouses, friends, family had to wait at the terminal. They were told there was a delay of some sort, and that it shouldn't be long.

Meanwhile, Paul is speaking with the accident woman. She's talking about her husband. And how he takes care of her. And her embarrassment when he has to clean her up. And her love for him. And how much she appreciates everything he does for her, and how she's grateful he never put her in a home. And we cut from her to him, waiting. Planes taking off on the runway in front of the windows near where he's sitting. It's just about dusk at this point. And he's impatient, worried for his wife.

She continues to talk to Paul. She wants to see her husband. But no one's letting anyone from the plane out of the hangar. And finally, fed up, she sneaks out. There's a great chase scene, in the dark, on the tarmac, as she runs from the hangar to the terminal. She manages to find her husband in a window, but not a way in. She pounds on the window, calling out to him. It's fucking heartbreaking. Because he doesn't hear her. Nor does he turn his head and see her. And then we go inside with him. And we see what he does. The window merely reflects what's inside the terminal. It might as well be a mirror. Because, when it's dark outside, and the lights are on inside, you can't see out unless you cup your hands around your eyes and go in close.

He can't hear her because planes are taking off. And landing. And the terminal is busy and noisy. But something in him hears her. And he goes to the window. And she's pounding and screaming and crying. He cups his hands around his eyes and peers outside and sees nothing, but a couple of official men carting a woman away. The husband shrugs and goes and asks when he can get his wife.

In the end, everyone reverts back to their original selves. The woman becomes a vegetable again. Unable to tell her husband anything (Paul sends him a tape recording of their interview, that the husband listens to while his wife sits beside him, trapped in mind and body). The little girl becomes a little girl again. The dead woman, well, she remains dead because she's been autopsied -- if she hadn't, she'd still be alive. And the man who knows everything? He gets carted away, because the government can't risk his knowledge getting out there.

It is, I think, the best episode of television I've ever seen. Every single moment. And I cry every fucking time that woman is at the window screaming for her husband.

But what changed my writing life about this episode? I mean, it's great and all, but what was so earth-shattering? Well, it was that damned window. I remember waiting for my dad to pick me up from Mom's at night. I remember having to cup my hands around my eyes and get really close to the window. I've done it tons since then, but this is an instance where I distinctly remember doing the actual act.

And I never thought about turning something that mundane into something that dramatic. Something from every day life. I'd never thought about what could be outside the window when I don't have my nose pressed up against it. I'd just never looked at anything like, brushing my teeth, sitting in a chair, drinking a glass of wine, whatever... I'd never thought of how you could take something so simple and turn it on its head like that.

I believe I've become a better writer because of that small moment. But I also know that there will be a time when I'll see another moment like that and it will shatter all illusions I have of being any kind of decent writer.

There are two other episodes I can think of that changed my perception of what it takes to be a great writer. I'm hoping to create a little series here and get to those later. But for now, I think I'm going to go re-watch "The Friendly Skies."

If any of you know any of the writers personally, and are close enough to them to find out who actually wrote that window scene, I'm dying to know. I love all of the writers of this episode. But there's clearly one I've got to thank for his brilliance.


  • At January 14, 2009 4:02 PM, Blogger James said…

    I love that episode of Miracles. I didn't love the pilot as much as you did, the god is now here, god is nowhere thing did nothing for me. But Friendly Skies is up there with any hour of television ever.


Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home