Another Day, Another Blank Word Document

Another day, another blank Word document.

That is a wonderful and daunting feeling every morning for me.  I love the fact that every morning I have to come up with something new.   Sometimes I find that thing that will drive the piece and keep it a logical progression to something meaningful.  Other times, I’m putting words down and writing in circles never finding what I thought I was looking for when I sat down.

I can only imagine what that feeling is like when you have to finish a script for a television show so that filming can begin, so that the editing and post-production can be done, so that the show actually airs on the date the network has mandated.  To get the thing done, do you take narrative shortcuts or in the course of trying to get it done, do you become blinded to the narrative shortcuts you mistakenly took?

Two things that bother me about some television shows: 1) Characters that are nothing more than archetypal traits and emotional ticks, and 2) Using shocking and/or violent acts with no context and little consequence.

If you have ever watched a show that seems lifeless and bland with no emotional resonance it is probably because the characters are poorly defined and written.  In television, you don’t have to like the characters, but you have to find the characters interesting enough to hang around with for 13-22 weeks out of the year.  House of Cards main character Francis Underwood is not likeable, but he is interesting.  It is interesting to see how deep he is willing to go to feed his ambition and vengeance.

Also, the characters surrounding him are equally as interesting.  The two characters closest to him especially.  Why do Chief of Staff, David Stamper and Underwood’s wife, Clair stay with him?  They know what he is capable of, yet they stay.  That interests me.

These characters are all based on archetypes going back at least to Shakespeare: The ambitious politician, his steely wife, and his faithful lieutenant.  Through some combination of writing and acting a show like House of Cards transcends those simple labels and gives us characters worthy of our attention.  The same is true for most of the highly acclaimed shows on television, which are about exploding the archetypes to reveal something more about them and us.  Check out television critic Alan Sepinwall’s book The Revolution Was Televised for an excellent summary of the best shows to do this type of work (Oz, The Sopranos, The Wire, Battlestar Galactica, etc.).

I don’t mind violence in my entertainment.  I have no problem with violence that is graphic and realistic.  I have no problem if a character has his head chopped off with a broad sword.  I do mind graphic and pointless violence.  I do mind watching a litany of violent acts meant simply to shock the audience and tricking them into thinking something important is happening.

A show about serial killers should not be about the violent acts serial killers perpetrate.  A show about serial killers should be about the cumulative effects seeing this violence has on the people charged with catching them.  Maybe you could throw in meta-commentary on how this violence affects us the viewer, but it isn’t necessary.  (This is a much longer and better commentary on this very subject from the AV Club’s Todd VanDerWerf.)

Violence should be a plot device that shocks the viewer and raises already high stakes for the characters.  However, if your show peddles in graphic violence constantly simply to shock, there becomes a need to increase the graphic nature of the violence because it loses its shock value.

The best uses of violence in any type of art are those that are rare.  Take the mundane example of cop shows.  You remember the violence on shows like NYPD Blue and Homicide because it was so rare.  Those shows were developed around the characters and their jobs. You cared about what those jobs did to those people not about what a depraved murder was doing to some woman.

When a show turns itself over to easy answers like two dimensional characters and shock for shocks sake, it makes it easier to write.  You are cutting corners to keep the train moving.  When you are under deadline and a huge crew of people not to mention a network and a studio are all waiting on you, it makes perfect sense to do what you can to get the script done.  That is an unfortunate reality.

I do think if done well a show watching writers, directors, and actors deal with these decisions and these consequences might be fun.  Oh Studio 60, what might have been?

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