ROBERT BRESSON, the French movie director, once said that a movie goes through three births: when it is written, when it is shot, and when it is constructed in the editing room. He was not talking about television shows, but his truism was borne out in the making of Significant Others, the short-lived Bravo series that first aired in March 2004 and ran for a total of 12 episodes, which are now available on DVD from the prolific Shout! Factory.
The difference with Significant Others was there wasn't much writing to begin with. The regular cast of six--eventually eight--actors, most of them veterans of improv troupes like the Groundlings in Los Angeles, relied instead on brief outlines and what the show's creator Robert Roy Thomas called the particle accelerator. "We throw an idea out there, it hits the wall, and goes to a million pieces, and the scene sucks, but you go: 'That one part, that's at the heart of it.' So you throw everything else away and focus on that one idea."
And yet this sometimes brittle, always caustic comedy about couples in marriage counseling seems rich with character, definite, a little rough-edged, never nuanced, but wordy and unmistakable. If this is what less writing leads to, let's have more of it, no, I mean less of it, or whatever.
The basic setup is also quite novel. Half of each episode showed the couples, in a slashing quick-cut editing style, on the therapist's couch talking into the camera. The therapist is unseen and has no lines. The other half of the show shows the marriages in action. In the first episode, one of the wives discovers she's pregnant and her slacker husband doesn't want to accompany her to the doctor's because it's his "song day," his day to write music; another wife tries to cope with a lethargic, unemployed husband who begins a grubby affair with her sister; and the last of the three husbands, a short-tempered businessman, learns that his bohemian wife has slept with more than 200 men, several of whom show up at an art opening they attend.
But if there were no scripts, there certainly wasn't any shortage of great lines. The show was a dictionary of put-downs, many too bawdy to quote here. "I'm not the one wearing a size 2 dress on a size 8 body," is one of the few PG-rated examples to be cited. But it also excelled at grim off-topic digressions. After the unemployed husband commits adultery for the first time with his sister-in-law and the two are lying on the living room carpet half-dressed, he asks, "So are you having Thanksgiving?"
In the commentary, Thomas emphasizes the number of cuts per episodes, around 500. This means the average camera shot lasts only two and a half seconds. Indeed, watching the shows makes one jumpy, if not actually twitchy. Adding to the show's editorial burden, about 33 times as much footage was shot per episode as was used. In a typical live-audience sitcom, scenes will be shot only a few times to get all that is needed, yielding a much lower ratio of shots-to-usable-material--and much less editing.
In this setup, the editor is king, though maybe it's not so good to be king. According to a Los Angeles Times article, Thomas once had to go without sleep for 43 hours as he raced to edit all the material for the first season. But it was in the editing room that much of the magic happened. On the DVD commentary, Thomas goes so far as to say that new story lines were sometimes born in the editing room as unrelated pieces of scenes came together for the first time.
THE MAIN DIFFERENCE between Significant Others and other improv-based shows, such as Curb Your Enthusiasm, is that Thomas's show had less of a game plan. "We were breaking story on the set as we were shooting it," Thomas claims. But it was not totally spontaneous either. The actors did not have to come up with all their own ideas or lines. But neither were they always aware of what was in store. One learns from the commentary track that crucial plot information was sometimes withheld from the actors in order to preserve the element of surprise. Herschel Bleefeld, the actor who played Ethan (the slacker husband), wasn't told beforehand that his character's wife was going to announce in therapy that she was pregnant.
Says Thomas: "Our lives are spontaneous. They unfold one moment to the next. Why can't a story do that? That the big problem with writing and acting: knowing too much."
Perhaps the greatest advantage of improvisational comedy is that the actors are forced to listen to each other. One can see the mind grappling with information as it comes across--if not for the first time, then at least for the for the first in this particular manner. The actor may thus be better equipped for one of the greatest challenges of acting: looking like you're reacting to what was just said, instead of looking like you're simply waiting to deliver your line.
Significant Others enjoyed significant buzz when it debuted. Even the New Yorker deemed it worthy of coverage, calling it a smart and a more interesting alternative to other marriage-themed shows. Only Slate complained about its seeming heartlessness. Indeed one thing too often missing from the show is the lopsided attempts one finds in marriages to make peace, to salvage, and how even these efforts can become fodder for dispute. A terrific example, however, comes in the sixth episode when businessman James (played ruthlessly by Brian Palermo) repeatedly calls his wife Chelsea (the seductive Andrea Savage) from a business trip in New York--a trip he'd wanted Chelsea to come along for--begging her forgiveness for the terrible things he said before he left. Meanwhile Chelsea refuses to answer the phone, preferring that her husband stew in his own misery.
David Skinner is an assistant managing editor at The Weekly Standard and a contributor to the blog Galley Slaves.