Taylor Sheridan’s “Yellowstone” is a “Dallas” for the 21st century

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There’s no doubt that actor turned screenwriter and director, Taylor Sheridan has become one of the most exciting new voices in American cinema in the past 2-3 years, albeit in a very specific niche that he seems to have carved out for himself.

For about 20 years, Sheridan had been a journeyman actor appearing in small parts on American TV shows, punctuated by recurring roles in Veronica Mars (2005-07) and Sons of Anarchy (2008-10). Then suddenly, in his 40s, he decided to find a different form of creative expression and switched to writing.

He wrote the screenplay for the Mexican drug-cartel thriller Sicario, a big hit at Cannes and a sleeper hit at the box office in the Fall of 2015 for acclaimed director Denis Villeneuve. The following year, his brothers-on-the-run story Hell or High Water was directed by David Mackenzie and garnered four Oscar nominations including Best Original Screenplay for Sheridan. One year later, he directed his own script for the murder-investigation thriller Wind River, effectively his directorial debut (although officially he is credited as director for a student film he helped a friend make in 2011). And now in 2018, his screenplay for the sequel to Sicario, called Day of the Soldado, has just hit the big screen filmed by Italian director Stefano Sollima.

All four films are set in contemporary times but have the sparse and lonely feel of the early frontier Western films of John Ford. Wind River also deals with an aspect of American history that most people don’t want to dwell on, the emasculation and slow neglect of Native Americans. In January last year, I wrote about how the traditional Western genre has seen a bit of resurgence in recent years and I included Hell or High Water in that post as an example of a modern Western. It’s clear now that Mr. Sheridan has started to stake out a sub-genre that can be called the modern or neo-Western as his personal playground. His latest project, a TV series called Yellowstone that has just launched on the small Paramount network, further strengthens his credentials in this field.

Think of Yellowstone as a modern-day Dallas, the story of the super-wealthy but dysfunctional Ewing family that created so many ‘water-cooler moments’ in the late 70’s and early 80’s with its weekly servings of feuding, family politics and back-stabbing. Sheridan has taken a similar premise and placed it in a sprawling ranch in Montana, run with an iron hand by family patriarch John Dutton. The character is played appropriately by Kevin Costner, who has made his own name in the past as a ‘Western revivalist’ filmmaker and now makes his first proper foray into TV. As the world changes around him, John Dutton ruthlessly fights to maintain the status quo, to protect his power and everything that he has built up over the decades on his Yellowstone ranch. As the largest landowner in Montana, he is in constant conflict with Native American activists who live on the adjacent reservation, ambitious land developers who want a piece of his land and politicians who just want whatever works for them.

Dutton has four grown-up children; Lee (Dave Annable) is the simple-living oldest son, who has chosen to work on the ranch with his father; Beth (British actress Kelly Reilly) is a cut-throat, ambitious (and slightly psychotic) banker, who is as ruthless as her father; Jamie (Wes Bentley) is a corporate lawyer who steps in whenever the ranch requires his legal skills to fight off external threats; Kayce (Luke Grimes) is the youngest sibling, an ex-Navy SEAL who has married a Native American girl and moved with her into the reservation, thereby putting himself in potential conflict with his father. Also, in the mix is Rip Wheeler (Cole Hauser), the loyal ranch foreman who does all the dirty work for John Dutton. For those familiar with Dallas, it’s easy to pigeonhole the Dutton family into the standard personality types.

On the Native American Brocken Rock Reservation, there are a couple of familiar faces who acted in Sheridan’s Wind River – Kelsey Asbille plays Monica, who is married to Kayce Dutton, and Gil Birmingham plays the Chief of the reservation, Thomas Rainwater, a man who wants to establish his own power equation in this region.

When compared with Sheridan’s big screen work, which has featured interesting characters and unusual situations, Yellowstone does not live up to the same standards. From what I’ve seen in the first two episodes, it comes across as a standard big budget soap opera with stereotypical characters and a predictable over-arching plot. While I can watch Wind River and Sicario again and again (and I have), Yellowstone will fall, I think, into the ‘watch-enjoy-and-forget’ category of TV shows. Nevertheless, with charismatic and heavyweight actors on board, I know I will be hooked on to this show for mindless entertainment, while I will continue to turn to Sheridan’s big screen work for the really stimulating stuff.


Godless: Steven Soderbergh’s Western mini-series is both epic and intimate

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In the past 5-7 years, scripted shows like Game of Thrones, House of Cards, True Detective, Narcos, Downton Abbey and The Crown as well as mini-series like John Adams, The Night Manager and The Night Of have all brought richly detailed, large scale, cinema-quality entertainment to TV.

Netflix and HBO in particular have been very successful at attracting the best of Hollywood talent to write, produce, direct and star in these drama and fantasy epics that have pushed the boundaries of what was considered possible and acceptable on TV, in terms of graphic violence and sex as well as production values.

One of those big names who turned his attention to scripted TV is Steven Soderbergh. From 2014 onwards, the Oscar-winning director has executive produced half a dozen TV projects, including the award-winning 2013 TV movie Behind the Candelabra (about the later years of entertainer Liberace) and the 2-season show The Knick.

This week I finished watching his latest TV project, the 7-episode mini-series Godless, a Western set in the 1880s, starring Jack O’Connell, Michelle Dockery and Jeff Daniels. After being indifferent to Westerns for many years (I didn’t really get all the fuss about Dances with Wolves and Unforgiven, because I didn’t understand the genre that they were deconstructing), I watched The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance in 2008 and fell in love with the genre. I embarked on a journey of ‘self-education’, ended up watching most of the classic westerns and now keep an active eye out for new entries into the genre (there haven’t been that many).

Godless is the story of Roy Goode (Jack O’Connell from Angelina Jolie’s Unbroken) and Frank Griffin (comedian turned character actor Jeff Daniels); Roy was adopted into Frank’s group of outlaws as an orphaned boy and has now grown into a young man who doesn’t vibe with the group’s modus operandi of robbing and raping. Frank is by turns cruel and caring, a learned, enigmatic man with a magnetic personality who wears a preacher’s collar while committing the most violent of crimes. He is a father figure to Roy and the rest of this 30-member ‘family’ of violent and psychotic men.

At the other end of the spectrum is La Belle, an isolated mining town populated almost entirely by women. An accident in their silver mine two years earlier wiped out the entire male population of the town, with the exception of the undertaker, the bartender, sheriff Bill McNue and his young deputy Whitey Winn. The women have slowly learned to make do on their own, but in addition to their emotional distress, they are now in dire straits financially as the mine is unused and no longer bringing income to the town. Sheriff McNue’s sister Mary Agnes is one of a group of women who decides to take charge of the town’s destiny.

Living on a ranch close by is the beautiful widow Alice Fletcher (Downton Abbey’s Michelle Dockery), along with her teenage son and mother-in-law. Also a few miles from La Belle, is Blackdom, a poor farming community of African American Civil War veterans, who have settled there with their families.

All these lives are violently thrown together when Roy Goode decides he has had enough of Frank Griffith’s life of crime and parts ways with him. Frank considers this a betrayal, even more so considering that Roy intercepts the gang’s latest robbery and takes off with the loot! Roy is now on the run from Frank and his men, gets injured in a shootout with them and eventually arrives at Alice Fletcher’s ranch seeking shelter.

The basic framework of the story is derivative. To begin with, there is a significant parallel with Shane – Roy Goode becomes a father figure to Alice Fletcher’s son while recuperating at the ranch. And the story of how a town holds out against attacking outlaws has been told in various classics including High Noon, Rio Bravo and Gunfight at the OK Corral. However, the freshness in Godless comes from having a large part of the story set in a town without men; this creates a unique dynamic, particularly for a Western.

The show is directed by Scott Frank, who made his name as a screenwriter on movies as diverse as the Spielberg sci-fi classic Minority Report, Barry Sonnenfeld’s black comedy Get Shorty, Steven Soderbergh’s crime-comedy Out of Sight (for which he received an Oscar nomination) and the X-Men franchise spinoffs The Wolverine and Logan. There is a dark sensibility running through all his work and that is given full rein in this show; in fact, the title Godless is a reference to a statement made by Frank Griffith that there cannot possibly be a God in this land of cruelty, sorrow and despair.

I loved that the show took its time in exploring the backstories and personalities of the key characters, weaving its way through flashbacks and subplots. Some reviewers found that these diversions slowed down the pace too much, but I really enjoyed seeing all these slices of frontier life and it helped me invest emotionally in the fate of the various characters, including even Frank Griffin (such a fine performance by Jeff Daniels, who surely has come a long way since acting opposite Jim Carrey in Dumb and Dumber!).

The production values, cinematography and visual effects are all top notch – movie quality – as we have now come to expect from a Netflix production. Also, de rigueur for these top tier shows now, is the striking combination of graphics and theme music that comprise the opening title sequence. Totaling 7 ½ hours of viewing, this is perfect for a weekend binge watch!

Iconic film and TV soundtracks – an endangered species

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I grew up during a time when I took for granted that popular TV shows and movies would have memorable intro music or theme songs.

My particular favourite was the intro for The Six Million Dollar Man, composed by Oliver Nelson. Combined with clips of astronaut Steve Austin’s crash and transformation into a bionic man, along with the grim voiceover by his mentor Oscar Goldman, the entire package was thrilling and I never tired of sitting through it each week. At school, 8- and 9-year olds (myself included) would run around the playground in slow motion humming the tune as their personal background soundtrack. Another tune that gives me goosebumps to this day is the Hawaii Five-O opening theme, composed by Morton Stevens and performed by the famous instrumental rock band The Ventures. I can still recall the montage of surf waves, buildings and faces that was perfectly synced with the track, made so dynamic through zoom, jump cuts and shaky cam shots. And the theme music of the original Star Trek, composed by Alexander George and bonded with that opening monologue by William Shatner, is surely one of the most recognized around the world.

I discovered a few years ago while researching old TV tunes that Lalo Schifrin was the genius behind two other iconic intros – the Mission: Impossible theme which has been kept alive by the feature films over the years (loved the version that U2’s Larry Mullen Jr. and Adam Clayton concocted for the first movie in 1996) and the minimalist intro for The Man from U.N.C.L.E.

Schifrin also composed the original theme for Starsky and Hutch, but it was replaced from the 2nd season onwards by Tom Scott’s groovy synthesizer-based piece which is the version that pretty much everyone remembers.

Another favourite was M*A*S*H*, the tune became even more poignant for me when I discovered later that the accompanying theme song was titled Suicide is Painless. Of course, when it came to songs, it’s the happy ones that I would sing along with; and the two that lift my heart to this day are the intro songs of Happy Days and The Greatest American Hero.

There weren’t that many British shows that I watched, but of course the opening theme for Doctor Who remains well known to this day, with the show having been revived in 2005 and introduced to a whole new generation.

Later on in the 70’s as I got to around the age of 10, I started watching movies. This was mostly on grainy VHS and occasionally on TV – we didn’t have dedicated movie channels back then. And so it was that I came across the amazing Superman and Star Wars themes by John Williams, the quirky intro for The Good, the Bad and the Ugly by Ennio Morricone, the playful Pink Panther theme by Henry Mancini and of course, the theme for James Bond which has remained popular over the years even though it is built around the very dated surf rock sound of the 60’s. Many years later, as I watched other films from the 60’s and 70’s, I came across many more memorable themes such as Nino Rota’s evocative (and so Italian) soundtrack for The Godfather or Elmer Bernstein’s rousing score for The Magnificent Seven and John Williams’ scary score for Jaws. I think the last iconic theme from this era was John Williams’ signature tune for Indiana Jones from Raiders of the Lost Ark in 1981.

In comparison, the only contemporary TV show themes that I consider memorable or iconic are Mark Snow’s theme for The X-Files and Ramin Djawadi’s complex and multi-layered theme for Game of Thrones. Sure, I watch very little TV these days, but even when it comes to movies, I can’t think of anything memorable or instantly recognizable that has been written in the past decade. I would have to go back to 1993’s surprisingly mellow and evocative Jurassic Park theme by John Williams and James Horner’s work for Titanic; I think these are the last of the ‘classic film tunes’. Howard Shore’s music for The Lord of the Rings is also very good, but frankly I had to go online and search for the tune on YouTube because I couldn’t remember what it sounded like, just that I liked it a lot. I do have some personal favourites from recent years like Ramin Djawadi’s entire OST for Pacific Rim, or John Powell’s work for The Italian Job and The Bourne Identity both of which I have written about previously; but I doubt very much that you could classify these tunes as widely popular or iconic.

One of the reasons that the quality and distinctiveness of soundtracks has reduced over the years (especially in movies) is that film makers increasingly rely on existing pop and rock songs to fill out the film soundtrack. I call this lazy composing and have a real problem with it. It was innovative when the Bee Gees composed an entire album of hit songs for Saturday Night Fever in 1977 and nostalgic when Cameron Crowe injected a bunch of rock classics into Almost Famous in 2000 and of course, we all love director James Gunn’s mixtape selection for Guardians of the Galaxy. But now I feel that every movie (starting with the trailer) is using popular songs rather than coming up with catchy original compositions. How nice it would be to once again fall in love with a piece of music and have it stay with you for the rest of your life as a part of the memory of a beloved movie or TV show…

Fortitude picks up from where True Detective left off

In the past few years, Scandinavian or Nordic Noir has given new meaning to the word ‘bleak’. The Bridge, The Killing and Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy have found fans all over the world with their dark, morally complex but minimalist storytelling. Last year, HBO dropped some of that bleak into the swamps of Louisiana to create the memorable True Detective. The somber and eerie opening sequence, powered by the song Far From Any Road (by the alternative country act The Handsome Family) sets the tone for the show. Series creator Nic Pizzolatto’s layered non-linear script is marbled with some seriously mind-bending dialogue; little wonder that twin leads Harrelson and McConaughey were both nominated for their acting at the Golden Globes, the Emmies and the SAG awards.

I typically don’t watch crime dramas, so I’m not in the best position to comment if True Detective is influencing the look and feel of other American and British crime dramas. But one show that very obviously seems to borrow from it is Fortitude, the new murder mystery airing on Sky Atlantic and available on Amazon Instant Video.

The title sequence, like that of True Detective, features stark visuals set to an eerie theme song performed by husband-and-wife Swedish duo Wildbirds & Peacedrums. Even the all-cap title fonts appear similar! In both shows, nature itself is a significant character in the story – the deadly Louisiana swamps being replaced by a polar bear infested Arctic landscape. But once again, it’s the humans who prove to be deadlier than nature, especially those wielding political and administrative power.

In the show, the township of Fortitude is home to an international community of professionals, mainly researchers but also the people required to maintaing the supporting infrastructure of a school, convenience store, hospital, police station, transportation, etc. It’s this amalgam of muti-national and multi-ethnic characters which forms the real landscape of Fortitude. Into this landscape steps Detective Chief Inspector Morton, sent from London to investigate the suspicious death of a British citizen.

Just as Woody Harrelson and Matt McConaughey lit up True Detective with some big screen acting chops, it’s Stanley Tucci who does the honors as DCI Morton in Fortitude. Sharing the screen space with him is the reigning queen of Nordic Noir, Sofie Gråbøl, star of the original Danish version of The Killing. Other familiar faces include Michael Gambon (professor Dumbledore from the Harry Potter films) and former Doctor Who star, Christopher Ecclestone. The other actors come from the small screen or stage and as with most British produced dramas, it is refreshing to see ordinary faces, not the square jawed, surgically enhanced features of actors cast in most American shows; in fact True Detective (and most HBO signature shows) is a welcome exception to this trend and that is what added to its appeal.

Having watched the first 3 episodes of Fortitude, I cannot say that it matches up to the quality of Nic Pizzolatto’s writing, but it has made for compelling viewing so far. However, with 13 episodes in the season (and no guarantee that it will complete its story in one season), there is certainly a risk that the viewer may lose his fortitude before the story is over and done with.

Did an Abbott and Costello movie provide the template for Scooby Doo’s mystery stories?

The early 70’s cartoon show Scooby Doo, Where Are You! was a big part of my childhood entertainment. I never tired of its tried and tested story template:

Scooby and his 4 friends would be passing through a town; they encounter a supernatural phenomenon and decide to investigate, during which they individually or collectively have encounters with the ghost/ creature/ monster; they eventually use their collective ingenuity to reveal that the phenomenon was a hoax being used to hide some sort of criminal enterprise. Each of the 5 characters played a clearly defined role – Fred was handsome and heroic, Velma was the nerdy, intelligent type, Daphne was…well, just good looking and would end up frequently in a damsel-in-distress situation, Shaggy and Scooby mostly just wanted to eat a lot and stay clear of danger, although Scooby saved the day on most occasions through some inadvertent act of bravery.

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This formula worked so well that Scooby Doo became an iconic character for Hanna-Barbera productions and the CBS network, staying on screen for another 30 odd years through spin-offs, movies, reruns, crossovers and reboots.

Earlier this week, I was catching up on another one of my childhood favorites, the comedy duo of Abbott and Costello. I had seen a couple of their movies as a kid and was a big fan of the 5 minute Abbott and Costello cartoons (Hanna-Barbera produced 156 of these short cartoons in the late 60’s after Costello’s death) After re-watching one of their biggest hits Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, I decided to check out some films of theirs that I hadn’t yet seen; the first one that I picked was another comedy-horror film, 1941’s highly regarded Hold That Ghost.

Half way through Hold That Ghost, it suddenly struck me that I was watching a virtual template of a Scooby Doo episode – Five acquaintances are stuck on a rainy night in a house that appeared to be haunted…a dead body that appeared and disappeared, hidden rooms and closets, spooky sounds, etc. But most of all, the characters themselves seemed to closely mirror the 5 friends from Scooby Doo…Abbott and Costello were clearly the Shaggy and Scooby duo, Richard Carlson (extreme left) is the ‘Fred’ equivalent as heroic, handsome and intelligent Dr. Jackson, comedic actress Joan Davis (2nd from right) is the ‘Velma’ character – intelligent but not particularly brave, Evelyn Ankers (2nd from left) was the pretty damsel-in-distress, the ‘Daphne’ character.

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I found it almost uncanny how well this movie seemed to be the template for the Scooby Doo show, although strangely I have not found a single online reference or acknowledgement of the similarities in characters and plot devices. Given that Hanna-Barbera would have researched all the A & C movies in detail while producing those 5 minute shorts in 1967-68, it is not unthinkable that Hold That Ghost would have influenced both the narrative and character templates of Scooby Doo, Where Are You! just a year later. This would have been a much tougher stunt to pull in today’s age of corporate lawyers and IP rights protection!

Thunderbirds are Go! again

I’ve just seen the new promotional photo released for the upcoming reboot of classic 1960s British TV show Thunderbirds. The show, scheduled to air in the UK in 2015, is titled Thunderbirds are Go and is being produced by ITV and WETA (Peter Jackson’s company which created the special effects for Lord of the Rings and Hobbit trilogies and King Kong).

The new CGI-based reboot will once again centre around the secretive International Rescue organization, led by ex-astronaut Jeff Tracy and his 5 sons (Scott, Virgil, Alan, Gordon and John), who are featured in the new promotional picture.

When the original Thunderbirds ran on British TV in the mid-60s, it became a cult hit among young boys. The show used marionette puppets and incredibly detailed scale models (for a TV show of that time) to create a very believable high-tech world of the year 2065. I remember watching this show as a kid and being completely blown away by the scale of the settings and the various air-, sea- and spacecraft featured. I was so very excited when a live-action movie version came out in 2004, but it turned out to be an embarrassing critical and commercial failure. Perhaps the charm of the show lay in the artificiality of its puppets and it could not ever translate into the modern age, I thought.

So, I am hoping that a CGI version which creates a similar look and feel on the small screen can bring back the thrill of the original show. Anyway, while reading up about the upcoming show, I discovered that there was a 1966 theatrical film based on the show called Thunderbirds Are Go and the entire film was available on YouTube.

I thoroughly enjoyed watching it this afternoon. The plot centres around the flight of the Zero-X manned mission to Mars. The opening sequence featuring the multi-stage spacecraft taking off is scifi fanboy’s dream.

There are two amusing anecdotes connected with this movie. One of the astronauts Paul Travers was modeled on Sean Connery who had become world famous as James Bond by that time. This picture doesn’t do it justice, but if you check the clip online, you’ll see it’s a fair resemblance.

And there is a bizarre dream sequence in which one of the younger Tracy boys goes to a night club and sees Cliff Richard and the Shadows performing (surprisingly accurately depicted in their marionette form) a song Shooting Star which was written and performed specifically for the film by the great man himself! Here’s what he looks like in his marionette form.

And here’s the cover of the single Shooting Star, featuring a still from that dream sequence in which Cliff Richard is the chauffeur of a 6-wheeled pink Rolls Royce in which the young man is sitting in the back seat with fellow secret agent Lady Penelope, while the other band members are seen sitting on the car and playing along. Yes, I did say it was a bizarre sequence!

Yup, when you insert a sequence like this in the middle of scifi film, you can guess why the 1966 movie failed to replicate the success of the show! I’m pretty sure we won’t be seeing anything like this in the upcoming TV reboot…



Under the Dome premiere delivers the goods

The premiere episode of CBS drama Under the Dome, based on Stephen King’s highly acclaimed 2009 novel, delivered giant ratings when it debuted a few days ago. I haven’t read the novel yet and I understand that several plot elements of the  TV show vary from that of the novel. Given that the TV script is written by Brian K. Vaughan, that’s perfectly fine by me. You see, Mr. Vaughan wrote the outstanding post-apocalyptic graphic novel series Y: The Last Man from 2002-08, which explored what would happen in a world where every male living being suddenly died. The series – much like Max Brooks’ World War Z – used a post-apocalyptic setting to evaluate how social and political structures would respond to a calamitous event…how strongly would the veneer of civilization hold in the face of the unthinkable.

I think Mr. Vaughan is bringing much the same thinking to his writing on Under the Dome. How will the citizens of a small town in North-eastern US respond when a single event takes loved ones away and leaves you having to defend your way of life against forces that you have no understanding of? Some people look to take advantage of such a situation while it brings out the best in others, frequently from those who have never demonstrated much altruism in normal times.

Another novel which explores a similar situation, although in a spatially inverted manner, is Eric Flint’s 1632. In that novel, a town in West Virginia mysteriously is transported into the year 1632 and transposed into the middle of Germany. I found many parallels in the story structure of the early chapters of 1632 and the pilot episode of Dome.

I really hope the showrunners of Dome can keep the momentum and quality going into the 2nd episode and beyond. I had similarly high expectations with J.J. Abrams’ series Revolution a few months ago. The premiere episode was directed by Iron Man‘s Jon Favreau and was really good. Thereafter, it went downhill, primarily because of the irritating Matheson family, especially Charlie (Tracy Spiridakos) and to a lesser extent her mother Rachel (Elizabeth Mitchell). Even the presence of intriguing characters like Major Tom Neville (Giancarlo Esposito) wasn’t enough to save the show for me.

Similarly, I noticed that the pilot episode of Under the Dome had great credentials – executive produced by Steven Spielberg and directed by Niels Arden Oplev, the man who directed the original Swedish version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Hopefully with the solid source material from Stephen King and the adapted writing from Brian Vaughan, the subsequent episodes will maintain standards. The other reason I have hope is that the casting seems to be better than that of Revolution. Although the father-son combo of ‘Big Jim’ and Junior Rennie are going to be a handful to deal with, there are likeable characters like Linda the cop (Natalie Martinez, who had such a good role as the cop’s wife in last year’s End of Watch), Julia the journalist (Rachel Lefevre, who plays the vampire Victoria in the Twilight movies), the precocious kid Joe McAlister (played by Colin Ford) and the mysterious stranger ‘Barbie’ (Mike Vogel) who just missed leaving town before the dome fell.

The show is a bit violent and gory, but what would you expect of an adaptation of a Stephen King novel? And I have to admit, the bit with the cow was one of the best scenes in the episode!

I understand that the scientific explanation of the dome will differ in the show vs. the novel (although I haven’t read the novel, I know what causes the dome to happen), so that’s a good trick by the showrunners to keep people hooked till the end of the series, even if they’ve read the book. The only thing I am uncertain about is the likelihood that CBS will make this an open-ended story lasting for months (and therefore extending beyond its current 13-episode first season order), unlike the King novel in which the story lasts just a week or so. I am not keen on an endless wild goose chase like Lost (for which Mr. Vaughan was a story editor and co-producer for several episodes, by the way), where ultimately the sub-plots get so convoluted and characters become increasingly weird, that it becomes tough for the writers to resolve the story in a sensible way. No matter how good a story is, there can always be too much of a good thing!