A few months ago, The Beat ran a story about Crisis on Infinite Teen Dramas, a shockingly good screenplay from popular Twitter user Bitter Script Reader that merges the worlds of fan-favorite teenage soaps. Since then Bitter Script Reader came out as Adam Mallinger, writer’s assistant on the upcoming Superman & Lois.
There was a lot of excitement about the script. Mallinger’s boss’ boss, Arrowverse architect Greg Berlanti, read it and wanted to bring Adam’s vision to life, which resulted in a live script reading. The reading, featuring recognizable and fan-favorite Hollywood actors, including Emily VanCamp and Gregory Smith reprising their Everwood roles, aired Friday. Crisis on Infinite Teen Dramas is now available to stream from now until 11/8 midnight EST.
After the great conversation I had with Bitter Script Reader last year, I was really pleased to get to interview his alter ego. Check out my interview with Adam Mallinger below.
Did you face any writer’s block when you were tasked with turning the 4 pages you wrote on a lark into a full-length story?
Less writers block and more, “Oh man, is there a story to be told here, or am I just tap-dancing?” The first four pages were basically a riff on the opening of Crisis, but with teen drama characters filling the roles of The Monitor, Harbinger, and Pariah. I hadn’t broken any story to go with it, so I had no idea how long this gag would sustain before it collapsed on itself. The TV version of Crisis on Infinite Earths gave me a sort of roadmap and as I was working on the second set of pages, it occurred to me to play with the gag that some actors exist across different TV universes and maybe make that a real plot point.
It was during the third set of pages, set in Everwood, with Archie and Veronica meeting Ephram and Amy where I cracked it. OF COURSE they’d recognize Archie and Veronica as comic book characters. That let me play to Ephram’s comic book geekdom and led to the idea he totally understands the idea of a multiverse crisis. I figured Ephram considered himself more highbrow, so his touchstone for it would be Animal Man… where the writer, Grant Morrison, writes himself into the story and controls it. As soon as I hit on that line, I realized that was gonna be the story – wherever the story went, it was gonna end with realizing that Ephram was an Avatar for Greg Berlanti and using that Morrison-like control, saves everyone. That naturally led to the whole idea of Avatars who control the story and ultimately to who the antagonist was.
You have a real knack for capturing characters’ voices, which was key for a project like this. Is that something you learned or one of your natural talents as a writer?
This is a good question, but also a hard one. It’s not entirely instinctive, even if there are some characters that came more naturally to me than others. I felt more comfortable with characters I’d watched and rewatched a lot than I did with those who I’d been a more casual viewer of. The Gilmore Girls characters are a good example. That tone and style is SO specific that if you don’t nail it, you get pegged as a fraud pretty quickly. It took a little while to hone, but I could tell when it clicked. The more distinctive performance the actor gave, the easier it was to feel something like, “no, wait. This isn’t aggressively mean enough to be Sue Sylvester.”
I was less confident about the Katy Keene characters. I’d seen the pilot, but nothing else, so I actually ended up watching another episode or two and wrote down a few choice phrases from each character. That was mainly about finding their tone – though there’s some cheating all over the script where I use some callback dialogue just to give the sense, “yes, this is the character you recognize.” Veronica Lodge saying, “We are SO endgame” is the most blatant example of that.
Were there teen dramas you wanted to add to the mix but couldn’t fit into the story?
Oh yeah! I mused over a few more “gathering the troops” moments with Hannah/Harbinger and Dawson/Pariah collecting people. I had this idea that it would be funny to have Hannah collect Felicity and build the scene around a haircut gag, but there never was a place for it. I also brainstormed several different ways to work in Gossip Girl, but I couldn’t find an interesting enough counterpart for them. Like, sending Hannah Baker from 13 Reasons Why and Amy Abbott from Everwood to Pretty Little Liars worked because both Hannah and the Pretty Little Liars girls dealt with bullying in high school. Amy and Hannah were also natural people to put together because they’ve both dealt with severe depression, with the difference being that Amy came out okay on the other side of it. I just couldn’t find the same chemistry that would make a Gossip Girl moment work.
It’s funny – I blew up The O.C. in the opening moments because I had only seen a few eps of it and doubted I could do it justice… and then right after I finished the script, the series hit HBO Max and I binged through it all in about a month. I was like, oh man, I should have used these guys! That led to putting Taylor Townsend into the script when I was rewriting it for the live read. There was an effort to condense some of the characters and the area that kept getting affected was the Pretty Little Liars sequence where we meet the Dark Monitor’s spy. There was a brief period where that was going to be Kim Kelly, Busy Philipps’s character from Freaks & Geeks. I binged all of reaks & Geeks in a weekend just to get her voice down, but then I realized both Ben Blacker, who was producing the show, and I knew Autumn Reeser and it might be fun to get another actor to show up in their iconic role. So that part became Taylor, but I wish we’d found a Freaks & Geeks place.
Angela Chase from My So-Called Life would have been cool too, but I couldn’t figure out a take on her.
Did you have the chance to chat with cast members about their roles?
Most of them, no. Greg Berlanti arranged a call with the two of us, Ben Blacker and Gregory Smith right at the start of this, so I did get to hear Gregory Smith say that the Ephram/Amy scenes “felt like the show” to him. Everyone was pretty much left free to interpret their roles as they saw fit. Some of them clearly were aiming for the spirit of the original actors and others just went in a completely different direction. Like, until he opened his mouth, I had no idea Nick Wechsler was going to play Dark Monitor so dark and unhinged, but it was completely perfect for the part.
I was worried about Amy Abbott coming off looking bad in the scene where she’s going on to Hannah Baker about all the terrible stuff she went through in high school, but she got through it and now she realizes that none of the high school crap matters. The undercurrent of the scene is that WE know that Hannah lost that fight in her own life and she did let it all get to her. Amy thinks she’s being encouraging, but she doesn’t realize how Hannah takes it as a personal affront. There’s also a little bit of Amy being just a LITTLE too wrapped up in herself to consider someone might have it worse. It’s this careful tone where you don’t want it to play like an ironic joke, but you also don’t want Amy to come off so self-centered that you hate her.
So I wrote a three-paragraph email to Emily VanCamp about the scene, and I ALMOST sent it before I realized, “you know what? She was Amy Abbot for four years. She’ll know how to play that scene from Amy’s point of view and just self-centered enough while still protecting her.” I trusted that what she brought would either be better than I could imagine, or I could just adjust her on the day. Sure enough, when Emily played that scene, my reaction was, “That’s exactly how Amy Abbott would say that.”
What was it like to see Emily VanCamp and Gregory Smith reprise their Everwood roles, speaking the words you wrote?
It was unreal. From the moment when Greg Berlanti said, “Let me know if I can help,” my biggest hope was “We HAVE to get the Everwood kids!” Obviously, I was stoked to have them on board, and when their scene came up, I swear, my gut reaction was, “Wow, it’s like fourteen years melted away. That’s Amy and Ephram right there.” I was so caught up in that emotion that it took me a moment to process, “Oh yeah, and those words they’re saying are MY WORDS.” It was incredible to see they still had that old chemistry even over Zoom, like when she’s teasing him about his manga. Seeing that dynamic resurrected right in front of me… that was a cool moment.
Has writing Crisis and watching the live read affected your relationship with the teen dramas featured within it?
Not consciously, but who knows? Maybe the next time I write something in that realm, I’ll figure out that it did.
What is it about teen dramas that causes them to leave such strong imprints on our psyches?
I think that they speak to a lot of universal experiences that we go through at that point in our lives. The Wonder Years was so great at honing in on those moments of childhood and teen years that a large part of the audience was able to relate to – either because they were going through that at the same time, or because they were looking back on their own childhoods. I think we see ourselves in these characters or are drawn to shows that remind us of ourselves.
One thing about writing teen characters is they tend to wear their emotions on their sleeve more than their adult counterparts. That’s great for drama. You can tell stories about people who feel. There’s a great license to make the emotions more intense than you might with an adult. That’s why from time to time you’ll see adult dramas emulate this, often to great success. I remember when Grey’s Anatomy debuted, I thought that a lot more of the characters seemed a little more “high school” in their maturity compared to their ER counterparts, but it’s all that intense, messy, soapy relationship drama that’s kept that show on the air for sixteen years and counting.
What is it like to work on (and write for!) Superman & Lois after being such a fan of DC and the Arrowverse?
Like finding a gold ticket in your Wonka Bar. It’s characters I’ve loved all my life, and we’re getting to tell stories about them that haven’t been told before. That’s exciting. I can’t really say anything specific about my episode or any of the episodes until they air, so my lips are sealed. At the same time, my job is to go into a room and really pick apart the mindset of Clark Kent and Lois Lane – what drives them, what scares them, etc. How cool is that?
Is there anything that might surprise The Beat’s readers about writing for the Arrowverse?
I can’t speak to any of the other shows. We all distribute each other’s scripts just so no one’s out of the loop, but beyond that, I don’t know how much in common our process is with The Flash, or Legends, or Black Lightning. That said, I think fans of every show would be shocked how much every story is debated, analyzed and rebroken on its way to the script stage. It’s rare that a viewer will say “I don’t think they thought about ____ at all while writing this.” Usually we did, and there was a reason. There’s almost nothing that ends up in an episode randomly.
What has bigger plot holes, superhero series or teen dramas?
I’m gonna say teen dramas because, in superhero shows, you usually have a built-in way to explain plot holes or inconsistencies – like time travel, alternate dimensions, magic spells, etc. Teen dramas are also more character-driven and you’ll see it happen from time to time that the departure of a few key writers can result in some characters becoming COMPLETELY different people.
Has your life changed since outing yourself as the Bitter Script Reader?
Not significantly. I’d say the biggest change is how on Twitter I no longer have to tiptoe around how I know certain writers I’ve worked with and THEY don’t have to worry about accidentally blowing the secret. It’s been fun to discover that a lot of my real-life friends were very nervous they’d be the ones to accidentally blow the secret. This is a huge burden off of them.
Follow Adam Mallinger on Twitter @BittrScrptReadr and watch Crisis on Infinite Teen Dramas while you still can. Tickets benefit the Center for Heirs Property Preservation and the Hollywood Support Staff Relief Fund. If you’re reading this after 11/8 I highly encourage you to read the screenplay, a wonderful experience in its own right.