Wednesday, February 01, 2017

Bonehead Plays in TV Dramas

This post is meant as lighter fare.  I've been watching a couple of shows as diversion recently, Goliath and Homeland Season 5.  While their plots are quite different they share some common features.  Neither has any comedic elements.  Both have main characters who are highly proficient in what they do.  They are not geniuses in the sense of Albert Einstein, but they have deep understanding as insiders and long-time practitioners who are intensely into their work and whose intelligence manifests that way.  These abilities are then coupled with personal idiosyncrasy that humanizes the characters, but does not diminish their work abilities.

I very much enjoyed Homeland seasons 1 - 3.  The story line was gripping and the plot ingenious.  Season 4 was something of a letdown. Maybe that was unavoidable.  Let's recall that after the Bulls won their third championship in a row, Michael Jordan left the NBA for a couple of years to play baseball (and maybe to get his head right again).  These TV shows that are remarkably successful can't take such a hiatus.  That have a loyal following to keep happy (and, one suspects, the money guys wouldn't tolerate a lengthy interruption).  It's not just that much of the story was about defeat rather than triumph.  It's that the story is mainly set in Kabul but for much of the Americans act as if they are in Washington D.C.  I don't know what Kabul is actually like, but much of the show didn't have the right feel from the get go.

This sort of explanation doesn't work for Goliath, a mini-series that is one and done.  While Goliath doesn't have any comedy, it does have farce, quite a bit.  Characters are exaggerated in their construction.   They are also more uni-dimensional, the good guys and the bad guys, that sort of thing.  Some of the bad guys are really bad and particularly self-serving. 

At critical junctures each story relies on the main character(s) making a really bad mistake.  I asked myself as a viewer, were I in that situation might I make the same mistake?  Or is the mistake incongruous to the character, negligence or a mental lapse this is inconsistent with the rest of the behavior the character performs?

In real life, of course, people do make errors, quite a few of them.  Some of that is incompetence.  Other times, it is breaking down when operating under too much stress.  And then sometimes it is just a bad call made in the heat of the moment.  Major league umpires do that now and then.  But the characters we are talking about are anything but incompetent.  And the errors we're talking about survive substantial potential reflection on the matter, so a rapid call in the heat of the moment doesn't really cut it.  There is enormous stress that they operate under, yes, but otherwise they get things right and, indeed, show they are several steps ahead of everyone else.  So when they make a mistake like this it seems odd.  This is as much true for the villains as it is for the heroes in the story.

I wondered whether it would be possible to construct similar story lines but without these sort of mistakes.  I don't really know but my guess is yes, it is possible, but it makes the writing job harder for those who craft the screenplay.  The story line has to be tighter.  In some sense, these mistakes allow the writers to cheat a little with the story line.  The plot works as they originally conceived it, as long as the mistakes by leading characters are allowed to stand.  The plot fails otherwise, not like a failed coup attempt, but as a story that doesn't grip the viewer.  A really tight story line pulls the viewer in.  One which has these artificial plot devices seems contrived.

I also wonder whether other viewers react similarly to these shows.  I watch these shows substantially after they first appeared, with little to no lag between one episode and then next.  Maybe it is different watching them as they appear, with a week between episodes to let the suspense build.  I don't know.

It is something comparatively new for premium channels like Showtime and HBO to produce their own content and likewise for Amazon Prime and Netflix.  There is obviously a heated competition going on now for viewer eyeballs.  My guess is that competition of this sort is bad for story quality.  As the market gets more niched, the average quality goes down some, or so I conjecture.  Then again, if these shows are not competing with each other so much as they offer an escapism alternative to Bill Maher, John Oliver, and the Daily Show, perhaps that explains it.  I don't watch those shows but my wife does on occasion, so I sometimes hear them in the background.  In my view, they don't set a very high bar.

Alternatively, my tastes may be hopelessly out of date.  Definitely true.  And I'm still nostalgic for The West Wing

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