I don’t know when I decided I wanted to write a team story, but it was probably somewhere during my first watch of Leverage. And then the Nita story came along and it was clearly a team story in tandem with a romance, and I realized that I didn’t know how to write teams, and then I started watching Legends of Tomorrow . . .
The thing about Legends is that its flaws are so egregious that I can easily see what not to do, but once I peel those things away, its successes are so beautifully done that I can see how they work in contrast. So while I’ll be bashing the show a lot in these posts, I’m pretty sure I’ll always love the things it does brilliantly. It turns out, it’s well worth watching if you know what to look for.
So let’s start with the pilot. It’s mostly awful.
A team story is a lot like a regular story.
A regular classic linear story needs a strong protagonist with a clear goal opposed by a powerful antagonist who shapes the narrative by pushing back.
A team story needs a strong protagonist who assembles of team of people with complementary skills specific to achieving his goal which is opposed by a powerful antagonist who shapes the narrative by pushing back.
So Nate Ford convinces a grifter, a hitter, a hacker and a thief to go after the man who tried to kill four of them because he thought they were insignificant, and sticks with the team to go after other powerful people who prey on those they think are insignificant.
And Harold Finch finds a shattered government agent and invites him to share his sense of purpose, saving those the government thinks are insignificant, adding to that team as new skills are needed with people who share his sense that no life is insignificant.
And then there’s Rip Hunter, who wants to kill an immortal madman named Vandal Savage to prevent him killing Rip’s wife and child in the future.
This would probably work if it were a single-protagonist one-off story, but as a serialized team story, it’s horrible. Rip’s going to recruit a bunch of people to mess with history and kill somebody none of them know in order to prevent the deaths of people they don’t know because it affects him personally. It’s not that you can’t assemble a team for a one-time act of vengeance—Murder on the Orient Express does that pretty well—it’s that the team members have to share the leader’s sense of purpose and Rip doesn’t have one, he just wants his family back. This story is kneecapped from the beginning.
Okay, so we have a premise problem. We’re stuck with it, move on. Let’s look at how to open a team story.
The requirements for a good story opening are pretty simple: give us a protagonist we care about who has a goal he or she cares about and that therefore we do, too, so we have a reason to keep reading/watching. For the beginning of a team story, give us a leader we care about who assembles a team that we care about who have a mission they care about and that therefore we care about, too.
So we start with Rip Hunter (actually we start with a guy with an evil mustache, chewing burning scenery as he shoots a woman and child, but that’s so cartoonishly awful that I’m trying to block it out), standing in the middle of a dark auditorium yelling at a bunch of people we can’t see to convince them to help him stop some guy named Vandal Savage. Then we see him showing up in different places and zapping different people with some kind of flashy thing. And then we see all eight of those people waking up on an urban rooftop at night, where Rip tells them, “Of all the people I could have chosen, I chose you eight,” as if that makes kidnapping them something they should be grateful for. They’re not.
Dumbest way to assemble a team ever.
Now Rip has to motivate his kidnap victims, so he shows them the future in which their city and the world will burn unless they stop Savage, the immortal madman destined to conquer the earth. (I’d stop here and discuss how dumb a goal conquering the Earth is, but let’s just roll with that, we have bigger fish to dissect.) Rip explains that he knows this because he’s a Time Master (which should not be confused with a Time Lord) who can travel through time in his time ship, the Waverider (which should not be confused with a Tardis), making sure that time happens the way it’s supposed to because bad guys keep trying to mess with the timeline for selfish reasons. And that’s why Rip has assembled this team to mess with the timeline to stop Vandal Savage so he can get his family back regardless of the damage it has on the future after that.
Yes, my brain started to hurt about then, too. And there are questions somebody should have asked. Like if he needs a team, why doesn’t he ask other Time Masters instead of assembling this crew of weirdos and criminals who have no idea what he’s talking about? If Vandal Savage is immortal, just how are they going to stop him? And what plan does he have that requires these people and their particular skills?
Yeah, he never explains any of that. The eight people respond in varying ways to his call to adventure, but there’s a strong sense that they all sign on because the story says they have to, not because they want to, and Rip doesn’t seem to particularly care if they want to, he just wants them to sign up. Worse than that, there’s no pattern to their skill sets, and some of them don’t have skills at all. Look at this line-up:
The Hawks, Carter and Kendra, are reincarnated Egyptian winged demi-gods who are caught in an immortal triangle with Vandal Savage who loves Kendra who loves Carter who hates Vandal and so they battle through time, dying and being reincarnated to fight again. The score so far is 206 to 0, advantage Vandal. I’m supposed to find that tragic and it makes me laugh every time. He’s killed you TWO HUNDRED AND SIX TIMES? You guys are losers. Also Kendra is not happy about finding out that she’s a hawk demi-goddess because she’s a barista, damn it (you’d think demi-goddess would be a step up) and Carter is basically stalking her, telling her that they’re destined to be together even though she can’t remember him and patronizing her like it’s the third century BC. Definitely the black hole of the series, the Hawks talk endlessly about destiny and their relationship and generate the sexual heat of plywood: they may be bonded by destiny, but they’re still big blocks of wood. However, they have the same antagonist as Rip, so they sign on.
Ray Palmer is a genius billionaire who invented the Atom Suit. He’s a former Eagle Scout with confidence and relationship issues who just wants to be pals with everybody and who REALLY wants to be a hero. He’s pleasantly goofy in the beginning and then becomes annoying for awhile because a genius billionaire who looks like Brandon Routh constantly struggling with insecurity can be very wearing. He loves the idea of being a legend, so he signs up, too.
Professor Martin Stein, genius physicist, and Jefferson “Jax” Jackson, pretty smart garage mechanic, get kidnapped together because, thanks to a particle accelerator explosion, when they clasp hands they combine to form Firestorm, a nuclear superhero. Their problem is a power struggle—Stein keeps patronizing Jax, bossing him around and treating him like a child, and Jax is fed up. Stein wants to go with Rip because he’s a physicist and time travel would be astonishing; Jax doesn’t want to go because he’s twenty and he doesn’t want to die. They’re a package deal, so Stein drugs Jax and has him carried on board, pretty much making Jax’s point that Stein is unreasonable. Also, no sense of shared purpose.
Then there’s Sara Lance, a trained assassin whose back story is ridiculously convoluted, including dying and being raised from the dead with a blood lust problem. Sara is the first one of the bunch to actually have a toehold on that sense of purpose the team is missing: she’s killed a lot of people, she has trouble not killing in the heat of battle now, and there’s an undercurrent there that she wants to save people to make up for it. She definitely wants to save the city Rip shows her burning in the future because it’s her city. She joins for reasons that could make her a good team member.
Finally there’s Captain Cold and Heatwave, two amoral and possibly demented thieves. Leonard Snart carries a gun that freezes things and Mick Rory has a gun that’s a flame thrower, and they’re also excellent at picking pockets and locks, stealing things, and beating people up. On the plus side, these are useful skills. On the minus side, they have a problem with authority and they think Rip’s an idiot. They join up for the lamest of all possible reasons—it’s easier to steal stuff in the past before electronic locks and alarms—and they have absolutely no interest in saving Rip’s family or the future or becoming legends. Mick sums up their sense of purpose succinctly: “We hate work and we love money.” They’re gonna be a problem.
So we have a team leader with a narrow goal and no sense of purpose who kidnaps wildly different people with skill sets that do not complement each other and who do not share motivation or a sense of purpose and brings them on board a time ship to . . .
This next part is where my brain cells actively started to die. Rip’s a Time Master so he knows that screwing with time can have disastrous effects. Therefore he knows that the only time he can kill Savage to have the least impact on the timeline is right before he murders Rip’s family. After that the future is screwed, but hey, Rip’s family lives and that’s all he cares about. So what’s his plan throughout the first season? Travel to the seventies, travel to the fifties, travel to the eighties, travel to the ancient Egypt, pinballing through time and yelling at his team because they’re damaging the timeline in spite of the fact that he’s the one who carried them there for the direct purpose of changing the timeline and any idiot would know that turning these quarreling nutjobs lose on history would lead to screw-ups of massive proportions..
This makes no sense. The team he’s assembled makes no sense. Their skill sets make no sense. You want to know why this pilot is so bad? NONE OF IT MAKES SENSE.
Okay, we’re stuck with that. Moving on . . . Rip’s assembled these people, let’s watch him build them into a team through action so they can see each other’s skills and respect them, beginning to bond into a unit. That’s always the fun part of the beginning of a team story anyway.
Rip lands them in 1975 so they can talk to a Vandal Savage expert and immediately splits the team into two parts, telling Sara, Snart, and Mick they’re not getting off the ship with everybody else because he doesn’t need them on this mission. Rip Hunter, Worst Team Leader Ever. Snart says, “Meaning you don’t need anybody killed, maimed, or robbed,” which is the first skills summary given, and the first time that Sara’s put in a group with Snart and Mick. By telling them to stay on the ship because he doesn’t need their skills, Rip has neatly made them outsiders, inviting them to band together in opposition to the rest of the team. Thank god, they take him up on it, they’re going to be the closest thing to a real team this show has.
The rest of the team—minus Jax who’s still mad about being roofied—goes out into 1975 New Orleans which could have been a lot of fun except the guy they go to see is the elderly son of the Hawks in one of their previous incarnations, and he just wants to deliver exposition about them and Vandal Savage. There are flashbacks. Then the twenty-something Hawks bond with the sixty-something son they didn’t know they had. It’s supposed to be touching, but it’s excruciating instead. Why? We don’t care. There’s nothing about these people that is interesting. They talk about ideas, they don’t do anything. They talk about emotions, but they don’t demonstrate any. And Rip is stuck in Obnoxious Didactic Jerk mode so you just want to Mick to show up and slap him (because Sara and Snart would probably need a reason but Mick would do it just for fun).
Meanwhile, back on the ship, the three people who have been told they’re not currently necessary are bored. Sara suggests they go “get weird in the seventies,” Snart and Mick are all for it. They leave Jax on the ship because he’s . . . underage? He’s twenty, why are they treating him like he’s twelve? Never mind. In the next ridiculous scene, they hit a biker bar and shortly thereafter there’s a bar fight. It may be ridiculous, but it’s also the best thing in the pilot, because we finally get to see the very early beginnings of three people connecting as a team:
• Sara takes the lead when she suggests the bar, and Snart and Mick agree.
• At the bar, Mick hits the juke box, Sara asks Snart to dance and he refuses, but he offers to hold her beer, telling her he’ll watch.
• Sara dances and gets harassed, tells Snart, “I’ve got this,” and wipes the floor with the harasser while Snart exchanges a look of approval with Mick.
• The harasser’s pals gang up on Sara, she asks for help, and Snart and Mick both go; big bar fight ensues with Mick saying, “I love the seventies” as they clear the place.
(I posted the video for this scene before, but here’s the link again.)
Here’s why this is the solid team intro Rip should have created for the whole team:
• There’s a leader the team agrees to follow, first because they share the same problem (they’re bored) and they like her solution (“Let’s go get drunk”), and then later because they recognize how competent she is, all shown through action, not through Sara saying, “I’m the leader.”
• The team shows their respect for the leader; in this case by not rushing to her rescue, in part because they’re not rescuers but also because she says, “I’ve got this” and they believe her–extra credit for not assuming a woman can’t take care of herself–without ever saying “We respect you, Sara.”
• The leader shows she respects her team, that she’s first among equals not their boss. So Sara’s strong enough to ask for help and confident in Snart and Mick’s ability to help her, which shows she thinks they’re more than the meathead muscle Rip has dismissed them as; in turn they support her when she asks, but it’s not a rescue, they don’t push her aside to save her, they join her as part of the team.
• All of this is demonstrated through action that makes the team stronger because fighting a common adversary binds people together in a common cause. Nobody announces anything. Nobody flashes back. There’s a problem in the now, they come together to solve it, they’re a team.
Meanwhile Rip, Ray, Stein, the Hawks, and the Hawk’s elderly son are still discussing one of the two hundred and six times Vandal Savage killed the Hawks, none of them finding that as funny as I do, and it’s all exchanges of information without any conflict because there’s no antagonist. The scenes with the Hawks are supposed to be the great love story at the center of the first season, but I find them alternately boring and ludicrous (honest to god, TWO HUNDRED AND SIX TIMES????), included mainly to set up the Vandal Savage back story. If this were my novel, the things with feathers would be on the cutting room floor.
Rip, Ray, Stein, and the Hawk Three try to go back to the ship, but they’re attacked by Darth Vader Lite, heretoafter known as Chronos, bounty hunter for the Time Masters who are mad at Rip for stealing his ship, something he chose not to mention to the eight people he kidnapped and also to the audience. Putz. They’d be in big trouble except that Killer-Klepto-Pyro show up and hit Chronos with their stolen car—“We go out for one lousy drink and you pick a fight with Boba Fett”—which gives everybody time to get to the ship, demonstrating that Rip has created two teams, one that talks and one that acts.
Son of Hawks is mortally wounded, living just long enough to explain another clue—the biggest danger to this mission isn’t Chronos, it’s dialogue poisoning—and then he dies, leaving the Hawks mourning for somebody they met an hour ago because “He was our son.” Then Rip bitches at the team until Kendra punches him, the first interesting thing she’s done in the story. Rip admits he lied and Sara punches him. The show is suddenly fun. Then Rip tells them he lied about them becoming legends, too, and Mick suggests they kill him. If only. More dialogue ensues, and Rip remembers his wife and child in a flashback.
This is a superhero show on the CW: It’s supposed to be hitting and kissing, not explaining and remembering.
Also, Important Character Tip: Something is not sad because a character says it is, it has to touch the heart of the reader/viewer, too. We don’t know Rip’s wife and child, we just see them die. That’s awful but it’s not sad, they’re just figures in the dark. The Hawk’s elderly son was fated to die later that day anyway, they just moved up the timeline a little; they just met him; and he’s basically an exposition fairy, not a character. None of these people or these events is emotionally involving.
So the big takeaway here for me in introducing a story team (for those of you skimming this ridiculously long post):
• Start with a leader who demonstrates that she deserves to be followed because she has a goal the reader/viewer can believe in,
• Show characters respecting the leader and choosing to follow her.
• Show characters discovering common ground and and supporting one another as a first step in recognizing themselves as a team, and
• Show the newly formed team in action, working together well and showcasing their skills.
The end of the episode tries to fix the mess that came before by showing some of the relationships evolving through dialogue. Kendra, for some reason, tells Carter it’s okay to call her by her demi-goddess name. Jax, for some reason, tells Stein it’s okay that he drugged him. Ray has a pessimistic moment about his lousy destiny as a non-Legend, and Sara tells him to snap out of it, insisting that they can change their fates. Snart agrees. Why they don’t vote to make Sara the captain immediately is beyond me. They all assemble so Rip can give another lecture about time, the team agrees to stay, and the final scene is Vandal Savage doing an evil monologue, looking and sounding like The Most Interesting Man in the World’s younger, dumber brother.
Part Two of the pilot is better because they finally do things as a team. Rip is still a lousy leader: he tries to assert his authority—“I’d like to remind you that I’m in charge”—and Snart takes it away from him—“I remember, I just don’t care.” Snart demonstrates his competence by stealing the identification they need to get into a terrorist auction of nuclear weapons in Norway that Savage is attending. Stein bullshits them past a questioning guard, and Mick approves. There’s a moment when a real antagonist shows up—Damian Dahrk appearing from out of nowhere but always welcome as a Big Bad–and then Savage shows up as a Lesser Bad and sucks all the air out of the room with ham acting, turning the rest of the terrorists against our Killer-Klepto-Pyro team and Professor Stein, which means Our Gang is vastly outnumbered which is good for dramatic tension. (This also gives Snart the opportunity to nod at Sara and Stein and say to Mick, “Let’s get Ginger and the Professor and get out of here,” which works on several levels, not the least of which is making Rip Gilligan.) Then the rest of Rip’s crew shows up and pretty much undercut any tension in the fight since they have two flying demi-gods (air support), a guy in an invincible atom suit (bullet-proof and invisible), and Nuclear Man. Carter faces Savage, his immortal enemy, who says, “Prince Khufu, always the fashion plate.” (Vandal, we need to work on your sinister dialogue; that just sounds bitchy.) Firestorm saves the day, but the team has still screwed up because now Savage knows they’ve come through time to chase him. Oh, well.
Rip, the Worst Team Leader Ever, yells at the team. Ray has lost a part of his suit, Sara gets it back, taking out a bunch of evil lab techs while stoned (it’s the seventies). Ray screws up the theft that Snart and Mick had planned, Snart and Ray fix the screw-up, but then Savage shows up and says, “I’m grateful for another chance to kill you” with his mouth full of scenery. Martin tries to steal something from his younger self, thereby meeting himself in the past and screwing up his own timeline.
Meanwhile, the Hawks discuss their relationship. Endlessly. With flashbacks. Other stuff happens and then Savage kills Carter again. (TWO HUNDRED AND SEVEN.) A non-touching death scene ensues—the guy reincarnates, get over it—and then Savage stabs Kendra, which is not as painful as his dialogue. There’s more dialogue, an entirely unearned spot of mourning for Carter, and one final outcome: Savage has now pissed off all of them. At least they have a slim stake in the fight now: They’ve all met Vandal Savage, and they don’t like him.
At this point, there are three team members who are efficient, focused, and always achieve their objectives: Sara, Snart, and Mick. My recommendation for speed watching Season One is to fast forward until you see any one of those three faces, then watch. Anything you’re missing probably doesn’t make sense anyway.
How I’d fix this pilot:
Get rid of everybody but Sara, Snart, Mick, Ray, Stein, and Jax. Rip can kidnap them aboard the time ship, but then he dies and they have to figure out the rest of it on their own as Chronos chases them across history. And all six of them go to the bar where Ray gets knocked out right away trying to rescue Sara (probably by Sara), Jax kicks racist ass, and Stein analyzes the velocity of the sucker punch, all while Snart watches and Mick plays “Muskrat Love” on the jukebox.
What I learned from this that will help with Nita’s story:
Nita has to show she’s the natural leader (see Sara Lance and Leonard Snart).
I think she does that when she finds out about Joey and ask questions, and then gets out of the car and Mort and Button follow her. So everybody who said the first scene takes too long to get to that point was right, that’s where the good stuff is. I just have to sharpen that.
Mort and Button have to respect her and choose to follow her because of what she does.
Nita has to be smart and get the scene to a place where they want to follow her because they agree with her actions. And like Snart and Rory in the bar scene, they have to respect her enough to let her handle things on her own once she gets in the bar. Button has to move from trying to stop her from getting out of the car to supporting her.
Nita has to show she respects Mort and Button by asking for help when she needs it.
One of the most unpleasant things about Rip as a leader is his Master of the Universe schtick. One of the most attractive things about Sara as a leader is her willingness to ask for help from teammates she respects. If I want to telegraph the Nita team in the first and third scenes (Nita’s PoV scenes), I need to not only show Nita in charge, but show her respecting and relying on Mort and Button.
We need to see Nita, Mort, and Button in action together, even if it’s just to foreshadow the team they’ll be. In this case, “in action” means doing things, not necessarily beating people up; I am not the CW.
And then do the same thing with Nick, Dag, and Rab in the second scene which is getting a huge rewrite.
Also “Love Will Keep Us Together” should be on the jukebox in Hell Bar.
Note: We’re skipping Episode Three, “Blood Ties” by Marc Guggenheim & Chris Fedak.
This episode starts with a flashback to ancient Egypt. All flashbacks in this show to ancient Egypt are so bad they’ll make your teeth hurt; this time it’s Rip announcing to Savage that he’s there to kill him. That’s dumb, Rip, just kill him. Then Rip flashes forward to the present, where he insults Mick, pissing off Snart, and then later drowns in self-pity while Sara makes a plan. Meanwhile Kendra is dying so Ray shrinks down to do a fantastic voyage thing in her blood stream to earn Stein’s respect because Stein was his professor a long time ago and doesn’t remember him. Nobody remembers Ray, the rich, handsome genius, it’s very sad.
Rip decides to rob the bank that holds Savage’s money, telling Sara, Snart, and Mick they can’t come along because who needs a team of experienced bank robbers to do a bank heist? Worst Team Leader Ever. Sara goes with him anyway, and at the bank, she points out that the place is full of professional killers, Rip tells her she’s overreacting, and then everybody tries to kill them. Sara takes everybody out, reactivating the blood lust that being raised from the dead created in her (that was on Arrow, try to keep up) and this episode is just a dog’s breakfast at this point. Sara is distraught because she’s a blood-thirsty monster; Ray is distraught because he’s incapacitated by self-doubt and back story and nobody remembers him, Kendra is screaming about Carter in her sleep (he’s dead, he’ll be reincarnated, moving on . . .), dear god, somebody bring in Snart and Mick.
Oh, good, here come Snart and Mick, not distraught in the least, convincing Jax to take a trip to 1975 Central City so they can steal an emerald and change Snart’s past. That’s fun but nothing to do with the story. The bad guy Sara and Rip kidnapped does a dumb monologue so Rip hits him; then Rip yells back story at Sara, then there’s a secret immortality cult bathed in red light with Savage talking about how he was buds with Jack the Ripper, and then the team shows up to rescue them and Rip stabs Savage, who is still immortal . . . really, dog’s breakfast.
One of the biggest problems—there are so many–with this episode is that it’s mostly exposition and back story, almost all told in dialogue. The one piece of back story that works dramatically is Snart, traveling back to his childhood, meeting his pre-school self, telling him not to let anybody hurt him and to look out for himself, leaving the emerald he stole so that his father won’t steal it and go to prison and come out an abusive son of a bitch. It’s back story dramatized in the now of the story instead of as a flashback–that is, the story doesn’t stop to show something that happened in the past, this is the the present and Snart time travels back in the now of the story to create something new–and it helps that Wentworth Miller can act, so it’s a solid scene that tells an emotionally compelling story that develop Snart’s character. The problem is that Snart’s early character arc is not a subplot in the Vandal Savage story, although it does foreshadow one. This part is infinitely more compelling and better acted than all the Savage Hawks, but if you dropped this scene sequence from the plot, nothing would change in the main narrative. If you’re going to spend this much time on a secondary story, you have to make it a secondary story, not just “here’s something interesting about the best character in this story who unfortunately is not the lead.”
So really, we can skip this episode.
Next: Sara, Snart, and Mick rob the Pentagon, Snart kisses a Russian who tries to kill him, Mick bonds with Ray in prison, Martin and Jax are reunited, and Rip talks endlessly while Kendra tries to find a purpose in her story, any purpose, and feels very sad. And I talk about supporting characters and subplots in team stories.