Friday, September 25, 2009

The Story Hook

It's TV week, the week of premieres for the fall's scripted dramas.

Television as entertainment is frequently dismissed as having no intellectual value. "The Idiot Box" and "The Great Wasteland" are just two nicknames for our TVs, and let's face it, for much of what is on TV, that's fitting. However, the role fiction plays in our lives can be an important one. For most adults the thing most likely to introduce a new interest into their lives, the thing that is most likely to expand their views on societal ills, introduce them to new cultures, or new ideas, seems to be what they choose to view in fiction.

Clearly not everything on TV has the possibility to achieve anything that lofty. Most of it is dreck and rightly termed so. Some of it truly isn't and the difference lies in things beyond fiction or reality TV. Some scripted dramas rise above the level of mediocrity and present characters viewers end up caring about deeply. To craft a story that contains characters who are nearly interchangeable with people takes a tremendous amount of skill and not a little bit of luck.

Most of the people I know seem to watch Mad Men now. My husband and I have been watching since the first season, and to say the show is well written is an understatement. However, it isn't just that it is well written, that's just one of the challenges scripted dramas must meet to deliver a good product, the key difference for Mad Men is that it pulled off a casting miracle. Every actor cast on that show is a bang-on perfect fit for their character. Jon Hamm leads that pack playing the morally ambiguous Don Draper (aka Dick Whitman). Hamm delivers a riveting performance playing a character who is not strictly likable.

James Gandolfini pulled off the same trick playing Tony Soprano for years, although I was never able to get into The Sopranos. It was never my cup of tea, but a lot of people cared deeply about the fate of Tony Soprano.

For years I was told to watch The Wire and since I am an HBO subscriber, I did give it a try. The story failed to grab me and I abandoned the series. Still, friends kept telling me I was missing out and recently my husband and I sat down to give the series another try. Four episodes in my opinion was still the same, I wasn't invested. The drug world, and the cops battling it in Baltimore was failing to hook me. The material was interesting, but the characters were slow to make me invest. Plus, the drug kingpin bears the amusing name of Avon Barksdale, which sounds like the name of the Lacrosse team's captain at a particularly snooty prep school. Also, he's played by Wood Harris and he's this very pleasant looking man. At first I thought the main villain lacked menace. Something about Wood Harris's face just says, "Really, you'd be safe letting me pet-sit for you."

Until the sixth episode when Avon Barksdale becomes a truly frightening figure. In fact, a lot of characters begin to gel in that sixth episode which was not incidentally given the same title as the series. The episode opens with a terrifying image, fully indicating of what Barksdale is capable, but more importantly in the background of the story Lance Reddick's character slowly begins to commit career suicide and as a viewer, you don't quite get why. Harris is an actor with the kind of face that could, and does blend in with a crowd. Nothing about Reddick blends in. He's tall, elegant, imposing, ominous sounding, his face is startlingly beautiful. You probably don't know his name, but once you've seen his face, you will never forget it. No way on this green and verdant Earth could Lance Reddick have ever pulled off a life of crime. You have to look at him whenever he's on screen, no matter who he is playing, Lance Reddick has incredible physical presence.

That story hook. Either a drama has it or it doesn't. By the end of that episode the show does very quietly reveal why the rather mysterious, possibly power hungry, secondary character has risked everything he ever wanted to keep the wire case alive. There aren't any big speeches, it's a very quiet revelation but at that moment the fictional world came to full life and I wanted to know everything about all of the characters. Where there had been character constructs I was trying to get into, there suddenly stood a fully fleshed human being. Not entirely good, but possibly good enough.

All fiction seeks to make us feel. Really good fiction makes us feel when we aren't even sure we're comfortable doing so. The Wire had a five year run, and it never garnered an Emmy. A fact which critics still bemoan as being wildly unfair.

I don't know what's going to emerge this season as being a great show, filled with characters people can care about, but the reason people watch TV is not simply to have something on in the background. Or a way to kill an hour. People look for reasons to feel. To have emotions about things beyond their daily lives. To expand their personal universes.

Most of the shows being launched will come and go without much fanfare. Mostly because they will lack the ability to deliver that story hook, or they won't be given the time to do so.

But I like the true reason behind watching TV, going to the movies, or reading. People do want to feel for characters outside of their immediate lives.

It's always made me hopeful that what that truly indicates is that people are far more caring than the evidence of the news would sometimes indicate.


DUTA said...

This post is a masterpiece.

If you are not a TV critic /reviewer by profession, then you should be. You don't leave anything out; you mention and deal with : script, cast, characters, performance, tv watchers, all in a very constructive way and in a colorful language.

Thank you.

Derik said...

I have to agree with some of the things you've got going on here. It's a sad fact that TV is what gets people interested in things outside their normal lives. I can't say this is particularly true for me, but I get the idea.

But I have to say that I don't think people are searching for something to feel when they turn on the tube, I know that's not why I play games or read books. What if it's just looking for a good story, or a new way to work your mind?

It's all about the story for me. If there's a game with a good story, or an interesting radio drama, a comic book that tells something great, or a book, even a movie or television show--as long as the story is gripping, I give it a shot.

I think, then, why television is considered a wasteland is because of pollution. Advertisements about, shows aren't made to be good, but are made for money. How many CSIs are there, now? And movie sequels, and game sequels--all of our media is bowing under the pressure of the almighty capitalist dollar.

So I'll leave it at that. For me, I search for a good story, not a feeling. What feeling is left under such circumstances?

Kathryn said...

I agree with DUTA!

We like sci fi & that is most of what we watch. I loved the series Boston Legal. Didn't get into it right away, but the tongue in cheek way of working the legal system (tho i know every bit was fiction) was great. As was the many ways they chose to poke fun at many divergent aspects of life.

Hope you're all better & feeling wonderful! :)

PhilipH said...

My wife is a telly addict; I am not. Some documentaries are excellent; a few comedy series, like 'Only Fools and Horse', 'Dad's Army' are my main likes; and one 'reality' show: Strictly Come Dancing! It is on now.

We both met at dance school and have been partners ever since, both in marriage and when we danced regularly.

SCD has been copied world-wide. The States have Dancing with the Stars which I like to watch too, when it becomes available in the UK.

So that's my tv menu. Frankly, the rest is just not for me. But to each his/her own of course; and so it should be.

Vera said...

I feel greatly relieved that I have become a non-TV person, and that I have left behind my need to spend the hours of my life glued to the box. This has been swapped by some extent to being glued to my PC, but that is a more mentally stimulating environment through I can read interesting blogs such as this one.
Thanks for your posting, it made me realise that I am glad to be minus a TV now.

Land of shimp said...

Thank you so much, DUTA. What a lovely lift to my spirits your words are. That's an exceptionally kind thing to do, just put something out there that is guaranteed to make someone feel better about their own abilities. I wasn't feeling low before I read them, but I'm certainly feeling uplifted having read them!

I'm not a TV critic, by the way. I know, rather slightly, two people who review both movies and TV. According to them it's a very fun job, 10% of the time. The other 90 is spent having to sift through things they'd never personally choose to view, and having to write something coherent about it.

Sounds like it might be better suited to the Hobby Blogger. No pay, but fewer headaches :-)

Derik, that makes sense for you. You're interested in writing, aren't you? Good stories do make people feel, more so than bad ones certainly, but I think I understand what you mean.

I've always also been interested in the mechanics behind telling a story. Writing, casting, directing, heck, even lighting is an art form when done well. I understand more about it than perhaps the average viewer, and that can present a challenging when watching something. So I'm doubly impressed when a story pulls me in completely, and I stop thinking about things like structure.

Hellllloooo, Kathyrn :-) We've all still got this cold. It's hilarious, but thankfully only impacts how we sound. My husband caught this while out in Jacksonville for business. I guess along with mold spores the size of terriers, Jacksonville also has cold viruses so virile, you could rope and ride those bad boys!

We like scifi too, by the way. Not all scifi, just some scifi. Science fiction was the genre most likely to hold a mirror up to society, and address societal problems such as racism, greed, etc. in a manner that viewers were open to. The examination of the ill was present, but not in such an overt manner. Like Rod Serling and [i]The Twilight Zone[/i]. It's now almost impossible to watch those without seeing the political and social messages/examinations going on.

It's kind of neat, and freeing genre. I'm more likely to watch something in Scifi than one of the many medical dramas. In fact, I don't watch any of the medical dramas. If something shows promise of being a good drama, regardless of genre? I'll give it a shot.

But Scifi has really, really strong female characters, and I admit, I enjoy that aspect tremendously.

Philip, you met your wife at dance school? Now that, sir, is properly romantic! What a lovely story to be able to share.

I love a good documentary, also.

Vera, to each their own :-) I don't watch a tremendous amount of TV, but I've always loved stories of all kinds. I read a fair amount, both fiction and nonfiction. I love a good movie, and I really enjoy the depth of characterization that a serial drama can present.

When I mentioned [i]The Wire[/i] taking six episodes to fully present to a viewer the reasons to care, the things that would make them invest, that's a good example. Six hours, three times the length of a feature film. I truly enjoy both the story, and the craft that goes into that kind of work, from all levels.

If it isn't your cup of tea, that's fully understandable.

I don't think choice in entertainment (watching a movie/hoeing a garden) has a particular worth in either direction. It's not a case of one being better than the other, but rather, one being better suited to the individual.

Viva la difference, and all that.

Land of shimp said...

Completely forgot to add something.

Kathyrn, people who will watch scifi know this one to be true: Science Fiction is also the genre most likely to present a story that is so awful, it becomes great fun to watch it. That's only a small fraction of what is available, but if I had to guess, you and Duane have done what my husband and I have on occasion, sat down to watch something with a satiric eye. It's great fun!

My husband and I spent a couple of merry hours catching the worst production of Merlin a few years back. It was dreadful, but populated with truly great actors. Sam Neil, Angelica Houston, and more.

We made a game out of counting the times someone in the background yelled, "Run for you lives!!!"

I think only people open to watching Scifi know that how much fun it can be to just enjoy the bad at times. Once, while trapped in a hotel room on particularly dismal visit surrounding a funeral, my husband and I watched Mega Snake. Oh my goodness, it was so bad, but we were almost paralyzed with laughter.

I'm telling you, it was funnier than something setting out to be a comedy.

I do really like good scifi, but fans of the genre also know the fun it can present, too :-) "Oh this should be awful!" "Yay!!"

Amy said...

As usual, a great post Alane! I admit to liking some shows on TV. I tend to wait 'til the evening when I can't move or think anymore. Rarely do I watch anything during the day. The DVR helps save time as I try to never watch commercials.

That being said, as you know I adore Mad Men and I'm banking all the past episodes I missed so I can immerse myself sometime, hopefully soon.

The Emmy's were on the other night and I was happy to find I'd watched some of the shows that were nominated in more than one category. Grey Gardens is an example - plus I saw it in NY which was totally amazing, so of course I had to catch Drew Barrymore and Jessica Lange in their stellar performances on HBO. Jessica won btw. Into the Storm - a docudrama about Winston Churchill - really, really good!

HBO seems to have some good series though I never got into The Wire either, but we certainly watched the Sopranos over and over - loved the music especially. Mad Men has that nice feature as well.

And the dance shows - I love them all because they just make me smile. So You Think you Can Dance has some of the most creative, entertaining dancing and the judges are so ridiculous, they're funny. And Project Runway is one of my favorites as well. Reality TV fulfills that voyeuristic tendency that some of us can and will admit too!

Land of shimp said...

Thanks, Amy :-) I thought of you last night, as Don Draper took some dents!

I think that life in the modern world can be awfully stressful, and escapism is a good thing to incorporate into a life. Whatever form that escapism takes is clearly going to be individual.

I like Top Chef, for instance. It's certainly not highbrow entertainment, but it makes me happy :-)

Isn't it funny that whenever TV watching comes up, there's this urge, or at least I experience this urge, to start listing more virtuous activities. "And...I also eat plenty of leafy, green vegetables!"

I'll resist ;-)

Amy said...

Alane, I loved the last episode of Mad Men - it's fun too because I've got my husband into it as well! And yes, I eat healthy and my main goal as I get older is to stay healthy, in mind, body, and spirit - part of that for me is not to worry much about what other people think. 'Live and let live' I say!

It's ironic that I happened to watch Iron Chef right after Mad Men the other night - I found it grandly entertaining! So now maybe I should look for Top Chef?

Land of shimp said...

Iron Chef is sort of self-contained, so you know who wins it all at the end of an episode.

Only watch Top Chef if you have a DVR of some kind, Amy. Top Chef airs on Bravo and the commercials would drive a saint to swearing, since they advertises the bejeebers out of some of their much trashier reality shows, like the real housewives reality series they have in several cities.

Since I'd only watch those in a world where it was a condition of the ransom to free my son...I'm mightily grateful for the FF option on Tivo.

Top Chef is fun in that it's competitive, but it does stretch over the course of a season :-)

I agree on the "live and let live". Once, while in a bookstore with a friend, she began mumbling about "...going over there..." as she trailed away, and then returned with a book she was trying to hide from me. Turns out she likes historical romances. Now, don't get me wrong, I did laugh at the concept, but really, good for her. She found something that makes her happy, and takes her away from her everyday stress.

It's not like it's Proust, but not everything needs to be judged by how someone else will see it, in fact, very little should be.

It made her happy, she found something that makes her happy, which really, that's a win in life.

Jo said...

I love Mad Men. And DUTA is right, this post is a masterpiece. You have captured everything.

One of my favorite shows was a show you mentioned on my blog - "Dead Like Me". That was an amazing show, but unfortunately it was short-lived. (It was also filmed in Vancouver, by the way). Another show I loved was "Life On Mars", but ABC cancelled it and replaced it with some trashy thing that also got cancelled. So, I try not to get too attached to a series now.

Land of shimp said...

o, I adored Dead Like Me and own the DVDs! I thought it was wonderfully imaginative, and done in a style seldom seen. Plus, it could make me laugh hysterically one moment, and tear up the very next. It was a fine, fictional ride, and I recommend it to people all the time.

I did know it was filmed in Vancouver, by the way. I'm such a structure-of-fiction geek that I frequently listen to writer/actor/director commentaries. Yes, I'm that much of a geek.

The man behind the Dead Like Me concept, although he left early in the series, was Bryan Fuller. He also did the short-live Wonderfalls, which Fox tanked after airing only four episodes. That one was filmed up in Toronto. You can Netflix the series, if you've ever got the yen. He also did Pushing Daisies which I honestly found a little bit too sweet most of the time, but it was still wildly imaginative.

Luckily, in loving Mad Men we're all a lot safer from seeing a good story canceled. AMC renewed that for a fourth season after the third episode of the the third season aired.

So that's one story that will continue, and bonus, AMC had the brains to lock in Matt Weiner (creative power behind it) for the renewal for the fourth. They played a game of contract poker for the third season, and darn near lost him that time. They were wiser with this renewal.

Uh...did I mention I'm kind of a geek about this stuff? I am.

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