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In this episode, Carl King examines Ali Wong in BEEF (2023) + Mike Keneally’s “Potato” (1997).
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I get a LOT of music and filmmaking questions here. And the questions I get more than any other are: 1 – what the HECK is going on in the Pre-Chorus of Mike Keneally’s song, “Potato?” And 2 – Is that new Ali Wong show BEEF character-driven, or plot-driven? So this week, since I have NONE IDEA, I’ll finally answer those questions. Here we go.
I’m Carl King, and this is The Carl King Podcast, where EVERY WEEK, we learn about music, filmmaking, and creativity. If you like this show, head over to Patreon.com/carlking, and join for just $1 or $5 per month.
Or send a tip through PayPal or Venmo to username CarlKingdom. Special thank you to my Illusionist $51 level patrons, both Hank Howard III and Chewbode.
Quick shout-out to my music endorsements: Vienna Symphonic Library, Fractal Audio, Ernie Ball Strings, Toontrack, and Millennia Media. Now let’s get this episode Beginned!
CARL KING THE HUMAN UPDATES
Just a few Carl King The Human Updates, and then we will officially start to get Beginned. 1 – It’s finally warming up here in Southern California, which is both good and bad news for me. Good news because I’m going out for more walks and enjoying the sun, and bad news because now my podcast camera is overheating constantly.
My studio plosive central is not well-insulated. So last week when recording my Travis Orbin interview, we could only record for 10 minutes before having to STOP for 10 minutes. It’s definitely not efficient, so a camera upgrade is on the horizon.
2 – This past Friday I finished the full-length first draft of my “Creative Musician” course called “What The Heck Is Music?” There’s still more work to be done, but I expect it to be released this year as a 2-hour video available only to my Patreon members. And if you are a member there, you can read the entire 12,000-word script right now.
3 – This week I’m shifting my focus back to working on my new vocal-oriented song album. So I will be starting on Song number 4. At this time, I have no idea what it will be. But just as with the other 3 songs, I’ll post the demo, or whatever progress I make, inside my Patreon account. And now, let’s move on to This Week’s Analytical Filmmaking Analysis of the Week!
BEEF: EPISODE 1 (Netflix, 2023)
This Week’s Analytical Filmmaking Analysis of the Week is BEEF: EPISODE 1. Screenwrited by Lee Sung Jin and Directored by Hikari. Starring Ali Wong and Steven Yeun.
Beef’s first episode is a perfect opportunity to talk about the difference between two types of stories: Plot-Driven and Character-Driven. You can determine if a story is Plot-Driven or Character-driven by asking the question: what causes the events to occur? What DRIVES the story forward? WHY is it all happening?
We talk about PLOT, but what IS plot, or plotting? It’s PLANNING. It’s charting a course, or drawing a line on a map. We’re starting HERE and we’re going THERE. Setting a destination in advance. Pre-meditated.
So in a Plot-Driven story, the focus is on a sequence of physical events. The writers PLOT out an adventure as if the characters are action figures. The MOST IMPORTANT THING is to get them from HERE to THERE. Everything else is in support of that.
In a plot-driven story, an “Inciting Incident” happens to the main character, which gives them a PROBLEM to solve. There’s a clear, tangible goal. Like “rescue my daughter from the kidnappers” or “rob the bank in order to pay off my gambling debts” or as simple as “defeat the villain.”
The rest of the story is one attempt after another to achieve that single thing. It’s as if the writers start with the beginning and ending, and the scenes in-between are ONLY there because “we NEED it to happen.” So they can get from A to B to C to D, all the way to Z and roll the credits.
But there’s a problem with this Plot-Driven method. Those things that happen in “B, C, and D” might not be plausible. You’ll often see characters doing things that make no sense and defying everyday human behavior. Like: ignoring obvious things in plain sight, making painfully bad choices that are out-of-character, stating facts out-loud for the audience’s sake, and even breaking the laws of physics.
That’s what happens when writers paint themselves into a corner. The deadline arrives, and whoops, too bad, it’s time to make a movie. “At least we got our characters from Point A to Point Z. No one’s going to notice, right? As long as the hero punches the bad guy and stops the end of the world, everyone will LOVE it.”
But in his book called On Writing, Stephen King had this to say:
“I distrust plot for two reasons: first, because our LIVES are largely plotless, even when you add in all our reasonable precautions and careful planning; and second, because I believe plotting and the spontaneity of real creation aren’t compatible. It’s best that I be as clear about this as I can — I want you to understand that my basic belief about the making of stories is that they pretty much make themselves.
The job of the writer is to give them a place to grow (and to transcribe them, of course). […] Plot is, I think, the good writer’s last resort and the dullard’s first choice. The story which results from it is apt to feel artificial and labored.”Stephen King, On Writing
As a plot-denier, I think Carl King agrees with Stephen King. So that brings us back to BEEF, which is a CHARACTER-driven story.
Everything that happens, everything that drives the story forward, is motivated by internal PSYCHOLOGY. The people we’re watching and learning about are NOT serving a PLOT. There’s no LANE or TRACK their behavior is forced onto — like those little cars at Disneyland, where you can move the steering wheel back and forth but you’re still stuck on a guided rail.
There are also no cartoony good guys and bad guys. There’s no chaotic evil villain who only does chaotic evil things. And there’s no lawful good hero who only does lawful good things. We can see positive and negative aspects in ALL of the characters. They lie and manipulate each other AND themselves. But they attempt to do what THEY think is the right thing, under the circumstances. Much of it comes from their subconscious.
Since everything sprouts from that somewhat chaotic human behavior, every scene unfolds in an unpredictable way. The script feels as if it’s improvised by real humans. We discover their secrets, we see them struggle with moral ambiguity, and we follow them around as they act on their own individual impulses. So with every scene, their future changes, which means the possible structure of the PLOT changes. They don’t know what’s going to happen, and neither do we.
Every scene serves as another Inciting Incident. But those inciting incidents emerge from within the CHARACTERS THEMSELVES.
Each character makes bad choices, but those bad choices are GROUNDED in the context of their own life experiences. So while WE might not make those exact bad choices ourselves, they DO make sense. It feels like what that character would really do in a situation. And since those choices don’t need to support a pre-determined plot, they’re free to make them. Within reason, the characters could do anything according to their nature and not ruin the story.
Because the story is being written FORWARD, from scene to scene. That creates a chain of causality from A to B to C. But if you retro-actively try to create a chain of causality by writing the beginning and ending first, and later trying to fill in the blanks, you probably end up with non-sequiturs — material that doesn’t feel like it belongs.
As a writer, in each scene, you can ask yourself, “would this really happen?” If not, you’re probably forcing the character’s behavior, and often the laws of physics, to fulfill the plot.
But if your story is entirely Character-driven, you could have a different problem. You might end up in a place where the story is hard to resolve. Episodes of Seinfeld can feel that way. The scenes might move from one to the next flawlessly, developing the premise, and then the episode might just END. To me, it doesn’t feel satisfying, but that’s okay, because most of the world disagrees with me.
The main point is, when writing a character-driven story, it might be a completely different script than you expected to write. And that could be a good thing, because I suspect that’s how my favorite films are written.
Now let’s go through some of the Character-Driven MOMENTS in BEEF: Episode 1.
1 – Danny is at the store to return his hibachi grills for the THIRD TIME. And instead of successfully returning them, he can’t find his receipt, he’s frustrated by a rude clerk, and he gives up and decides to keep them.
2 – And because of that…
Danny gets into his truck, and in a moment of intense anger, he ALMOST punches his steering wheel. Once, again, holding in his unhappiness. Then the seat belt is stuck. “Always F-ing something.”
3 – As he’s backing out of the parking spot, not looking where he’s going, he is HONKED at by a BMW. The BMW pulls forward and FLIPS HIM OFF. And the adventure begins.
That’s our Inciting Incident, and it’s entirely Character-driven. There’s no overall PLOT set-up by this scene. There’s no implied ending. He doesn’t need to get home for Christmas, solve a murder, or a deliver a briefcase. HE doesn’t even know what he’s doing. He hasn’t thought it through. It’s just plain-old road-rage after a bad day. What PLOT could there possibly be here?
After that scene ends, at about 5 minutes in, we have the Title Card, with the Werner Herzog quote. And for quite a while, there’s no “Plot.” It’s entirely people interacting. Characters are introduced. We learn who they are, what they’re unhappy about, and what they want out of life.
On the surface, Danny and Amy both crave something similar. Danny wants to build a big house for his parents. And Amy wants to sell her business to spend more time with HER family. Those are nice goals. But they’re secondary. They’re not the actual STORY here. Those are in the BACKGROUND. The actual story is the conflict — and relationship — between Danny and Amy. If those two characters aren’t going to interact again, the show would be pointless.
It’s not until 28 MINUTES into the episode that Danny takes action related to that conflict. He finally looks up Amy’s address using her license plate number. He goes to her house, pretends to be helping her with some contracting work, and he URINATES all over her bathroom. And the episode ends with Amy chasing Danny down the street.
The full episode is 36.5 minutes, and there’s very little PLOT. The majority of the story is CHARACTER.
You could say, well, of course there’s not much plot… it’s only the first episode. It’s establishing the characters and backstory. But okay… for comparison, let’s look at a plot-driven show like The Mandalorian.
In Episode 1, the main character goes on TWO plot-driven Bounty-Hunting missions in a row. And until the final scene, we get no indication of anything internal driving him. It’s just quest after quest. Everything that happens is related to moving those Star Wars action figures through the pre-determined adventure. It’s a “family show.” So the characters have no depth or grown-up problems: there’s no internal conflict, no self-doubt, no neuroses.
It’s all physical and obvious and on the surface, and everyone’s intentions are clearly stated through dialogue. They’re not concerned with the internal. It’s as if the show is written by kids playing with toys, unaware that adults develop a deeper level of psychological complexity.
It seems like the deepest we see into Din Djarin is in the final scene, when he DOESN’T KILL Baby Yoda.
The series is now 3 seasons in, and it’s still the “mission of the week” like a video game. Every episode, our hero flies to a planet to get something from a guy, but that guy sends him on a mission to defeat a foe. Next week, repeat the same thing with a different planet, different guy, different foe. I can’t think of a better example of Plot-Driven.
At this point in my life, for my own totally subjective personal old-man tastes, I want to believe a story’s characters could be real people. And unfortunately, that’s rare in plot-driven stories.
And of course, stories can be some mixture of the two. But which do you prefer, Plot-Driven or Character-Driven? If your answer is character-driven, I recommend BEEF. I gave it 5/5 stars, and a little heart, on Letterboxd.
And now, let’s move on to This Week’s Analytical Music Theory Analysis of the Week!
MIKE KENEALLY “POTATO” (1997)
This Week’s Analytical Music Theory Analysis of the Week is “Potato” by Mike Keneally, from his 1997 album SLUGGO! We’re going to examine what I’m calling the Pre-Chorus, which I consider to be 2.5 bars. Or two bars of 4/4 and one bar of 2/4.
On the surface, this is a fun, lighthearted, straightforward pop rock song. It’s got catchy diatonic verses and a mandatory sing-along chorus. But in-between, there’s a pre-chorus with a sequence of tense chords. It reminds me a bit of what he did with those non-diatonic chords on his song “Live In Japan” from the album Dancing. I decided I needed to understand it.
It tuns out figuring this out one by ear, even after watching a performance of the song on YouTube — was beyond my capabilities. I sent my own video rendition of the guitar parts to Mr. Keneally, and I thought I was pretty close… but it turned out I was NOT. Thankfully, he gave me a video call, and he showed me each guitar chord in detail. Disaster averted.
SO let’s get into it. For context, the Verse is in the key of A Mixolydian.
We won’t spend a lot of time here, so quickly, the chords are:
A – D – F#m – A – Em – A – D
Same notes as D Major.
Overall it’s pretty consonant, and if you reduce it down, it’s basically an A Major sound.
Now: We’re jumping ahead real quick to the Chorus. And we’re going to say that Chorus is in the key of A Major. Because it uses the chords:
F#m – D – E
vi – IV – V
It does that 3 times, and then switches to:
A – D – E
I – IV – V
And then returns cleanly to the Verse, which is rooted in A.
That’s just so you understand, the Verse and Chorus are both VERY tonal, and aside from that little Mixolydian flavor in the Verse, it’s total pop songwriting.
But in-between those two slices of white bread is some stinky cheese.
This Pre-Chorus doesn’t seem to be in a diatonic key.
What chords do we have here?
C/B – Bm7 – G5 – Bb – C/Bb – A/G – D/E – E/D
If you collect all of the notes from that sequence and make a scale out of them you’d have a TEN-NOTE scale going:
C – D – E – F – F# – G – G# – A – Bb – B
If it had a C# and a D#, it would be fully chromatic. Anyway, that’s all to say there’s no way this is in a single diatonic key.
Now let’s look at those chords. Most of them are SLASH chords. And in this case it’s putting a non-chord-tone in the bass.
Measure 1 starts with a C/B, which is mysterious and tense sounding. When he showed it to me, I immediately said “Ah, that Phrygian thing.” But it’s not an easy chord to play on the guitar. He’s playing a C barre chord at the 8th fret — but dropping the barre down to the 7th fret.
He then moves down to a Bm7 at the 7th fret.
Those two chords are followed by a rock n’ roll G chord. Played Angus Young style. (Fix the pickup 16th notes to be Bb at end of Measure 1 per Keneally).
Those 3 chords together COULD be considered to be in the key of G. But this is all moving so quick, it doesn’t really establish a key center.
And that’s Measure 1.
Measure 2 starts with a Bb major chord in root position. There’s a little bass voice movement with the notes F and E happening there under it. The F would be a 5 and the E would be a #4. So there’s tiniest Lydian moment happening.
Followed by C/Bb. Which has a Lydian sound itself!
And then he moves that chord shape down, parallel, 3 half steps, to A/G. And he made a point to explain that he then hits an open A string right after it.
Then he moves up to a D/E. Which is like a D chord with a 9 in the bass.
And in Measure 3, he reverses that concept — E/D. Which is an E chord over D. Another Lydian moment.
And that’s the entire 10 beats, or 2.5 measures. Leading to the chorus, which lands on an F# minor chord.
Now here’s one way to make sense of this whole chord sequence, starting with the Bb chord in Measure 2.
That Bb (with that little F bass motion) and C chord are outlining the IV – I – V in F.
And then the next 3 chords are outlining the I-IV-V in A. If you remove the bass notes the triads on top are A – D – E.
Which then perfectly resolves to the F# minor in the Chorus, as a classical deceptive cadence.
I have NONE IDEA if this is what Keneally is thinking, but I hope to have him on the podcast soon, and I’ll be sure to ask him about it.
By the way, here’s what the entire thing sounds like with MIDI piano playing the guitar, bass, and vocal line.
So here’s the CREATIVE TAKEAWAY from Mike Keneally’s song, “Potato.” If you’ve written a song with a VERY consonant and happy verse and chorus, why not throw in a little bit of non-diatonic tension between? As Mr. Keneally demonstrates, even 2.5 measures of chromatic dissonance does the job.
Be sure to check out the entire Sluggo! album, as well as his recently released “The Thing That Knowledge Can’t Eat.” I’ll put links to purchase those albums in the show notes.
OK, that’s the end of this Episode of the Carl King Podcast. Remember to subscribe on Spotify, Apple, YouTube, or anywhere else you listen to these dang podcasts.
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And as always, special thank you to my $51 a month Patrons, at the special Illusionist level, Chewbode and Hank Howard III. And thank you to ALL of the Very Good Friends of Carl King for listening, and as I always say: “Now you’re going to sing.”