Television Tribune: In Defense of Character-Based Storytelling

futurama silhouettes tv tribune

By Allen

One of the core tenets of graphic design is “Show, don’t tell.” It’s a simple truism at face value, but when viewed as a way of writing television, it’s surprising how much some shows benefit from it as a method of writing character interactions. I’ve noticed that most of my favorite shows of the last few years show exactly who each character is supposed to be early on, with changes and eccentricities being introduced slowly over time. Also, viewing your characters as pieces of a larger puzzle is the best way to strengthen the viewer’s connection to them because it directly encourages empathy.

Take Futurama for example. As shown by the header of this very article, each member of the main cast can be easily identified from a silhouette. You’ve got Leela with the poofy hair and efficient bun, Zoidberg’s creepy eyes and mouth, Bender’s eye and head shape, Fry’s hair swirl and upper lip, and the Professor’s…posture/creepy head. These silhouettes actually tell you quite a bit about the characters that they represent, and how they would interact with one another. Fry and Leela both seem fairly young and relatively normal-looking, so they’re probably friends. Zoidberg and Bender look clearly alien or at least inhuman, so one could assume this is some sort of sci-fi show. And just a few more leaps of logic from there, and you can extrapolate that maybe the robot and the human male are friends based on so many films from the 80s depicting this exact idea, and that the Professor is probably a crazy person. It’s these little guesses and stories where we fill in backstory that form the basis of a good cast. From there, the show sets about to defy those expectations. Fry and Bender fight all the time, Leela has the tendency to be a little unhinged, and the Professor shows genuine pathos when some of his experiments go awry. By the end of the show, we’re attracted more to what the characters have become, and less of what they started as.

This concept doesn’t just apply to drawn animation. Lost was another show that spends most of its first season introducing and slowly fleshing out characters. Each character had a stereotypical role, and the later seasons were, at the best, all about everyone trying to defy these roles. Unfortunately, Lost started to fall apart when the story was less about the characters and more about the stories happening to them. Which of the following plots from Lost sounds more interesting to you: Locke engages in faux military training and lives in a fantasy world all his adult life before finally taking on a leadership role on the Island, or Jack got Chinese tattoos from an Asian woman? You need to write from the bottom up, with characters and their motivations coming before what happens to them. Build the silhouettes before you fill them in.

A related writing technique for television characters is the “puzzle pieces” method. The idea here is that each character is a vivid, specific piece of a puzzle. Some pieces fit in with several others, and you can make something resembling an image by arranging them randomly, but there is only one absolute configuration of characters. The many television projects of Joss Whedon are classic examples of this: In Buffy the Vampire Slayer, everyone is dating someone else at some point. The good relationships stay because they fit, but the bad ones slowly show themselves to be ugly and messy (ahem, Buffy and Riley ahem.) That doesn’t mean that Buffy can only be with the people who she fits with; it’s all about experimenting with different interactions until you see what works (Buffy and Willow, Willow and Xander, Spike and Xander, Xander and Anya, Xander and anyone). Viewing TV writing in this way makes bad episodes and pairings make much more sense, since it argues that the writers were just trying something new.

Shows that blend both of these writing methods are one in a million, and they almost always received universal praise when it works. So next time you’re watching your favorite television show, stop and think about what exactly you find so appealing about it.

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Television Tribune: The Cult of Barney

 

By James

I really like How I Met Your Mother. It’s funny, clever, and relies on a cutting edge narrative that makes it one of a few unique shows to air on a major network. With that being said, I hate some major parts of How I Met Your Mother. I am not going to delve into the critically mixed finale, nor am I going to talk about the framing of the last season. Such a venture is dealing only with minutiae, an outlier among the other eight great seasons. My issue is with the reception by the fans of the show itself.

The show is really about the characters, structuring plots around the reactions of the different friends to different situations. The characters provide foils for themselves, with character traits that are supposed to clash. Ted Mosby, the main character, is the helpless romantic, who often destroys relationships in his search for a platonic ideal of “the one”. His friend Barney is a notorious womanizer with abandonment issues, whose life is shown as empty, despite the numerous women that he has sex with. Ted’s best friend Marshall often seems childish, a simple man with the loyalty that comes with simplicity, quick to pick sides, and steadfast in his beliefs in monsters and aliens. Lily, Marshall’s wife, is a flamboyant and ditsy character, who often forgets important matters, and reverses the typical roles of sexuality. Robin, the last member of these Merry Men, is a woman who believes in her job above all else, sacrificing personal life for love life every time.

Each of these characters is flawed in a particular and unique way, carefully balancing each other out. Ted’s romanticism and Barney’s lechery balance out to the comfortable love life of Marshall. Robin’s father issues and Marshall’s over-reliance on his father lead to the happy medium of Ted’s relationship with his parents. Each character is a balance, not only of strengths and weaknesses, but also (relative) normality. No one character has a domineering role on this stage of the New York bar life. Sure, there are episodes devoted to showing us the change. Both Ted and Barney eventually start to come closer to the happy medium of accepting relationships as they are, and Marshall and Robin are forced to accept a more traditional role as children, but by and large the show remains the same. All of the friends are first among equals, but that isn’t quite true.

My least favorite part of the show How I Met Your Mother is the fans. Now, I will be the first to say that I don’t like fanboys. I have written before on how much recent Doctor Who fans have raised my ire, but there is something wholly different about fans of How I Met Your Mother. The point of the show is that everybody has their own mix of horrible and fantastic attributes. And yet, whenever I ask a group of kids who their favorite character is, I inevitably get a cry of Barney Stinson. Now, I like the character. I think that Neil Patrick Harris has done a fantastic job of making his character, creating a half James Bond, half laughable magician. With that being said, people don’t just like the character: they want to be him. There is a phrase that Barney often uses: “Legen-wait for it-dary. Legendary.” After I started watching the show in 2010, I began to notice that phrase bandied about. A lot. In fact, it seemed like I couldn’t go a single lunch without hearing a reference to the phrase, or to Barney and his cult of sexuality in some oblique way. I don’t particularly like unoriginality to begin with: banality to me is a sin equivocal with theft of time. But the fact is that this wasn’t just unoriginality, this was a much bigger deal. Impressionable kids couldn’t see past Barney’s cool façade, and wound up thinking that Barney actually enjoyed his life. The show is founded on the principle that everyone is equally miserable, but without that critical insight, nobody could see past the lampoon. Instead, they took the satire as a standard, and molded themselves to the cult of Barney.

Once again, I want to reiterate that I love the show. The plots are great, characters develop, and the entire thing exudes polish. But I also believe in impressionability, the fact that people will not always understand what they are watching. In the end, a show shouldn’t be shut down to prevent the few from misunderstandings, but I also think that it’s important to keep this in mind. It’s important not to fall under the allure of the cult of Barney.

Television Tribune: Educational Television

BIg BangBy James

I am, first and foremost, a learner. While some people look to films and television for art and entertainment, I look to learn. Sometimes I learn about a plot or a character. Sometimes I take away a song, and very rarely, I take away a lesson. House of Cards managed to provide all three. House of Cards centers on South Carolina Congressman Frank Underwood, the majority whip in the House of Congress. For those of you who have no idea what any of that means, it’s okay, because the show explains it. The show is almost Shakespearean, from the asides the Congressman makes to the political intrigue and betrayal. The story pulls quotes from Oscar Wilde to add to the depth of the story, and uses a high level of symbolism to reinforce the idea that every political machination is all just part of a larger game. The idea that everything is a game is utterly pervasive throughout the show. Every step of Frank Underwood’s ascent is weighed, measured, and executed. The logic is very remarkably simple, as long as the fundamentals are remembered. Throughout the course of the political action, everything starts to make sense, and the viewer is put into the seat of power. The greed, betrayal, and complex set of alliances seems like a second nature that can be controlled and harnessed.  Everything becomes a simple piece of the puzzle.

Similarly, the BBC show Sherlock gives the viewer the sense of progressive understanding. At first, the workings of Sherlock’s brain seem mysterious. He has an almost inhuman ability to pick out the important facts, make a logical conclusion, and come up with an answer. The deductions he makes are simple, and require only certain information. The phone is scratched around the charging area, so the owner of the phone habitually is drunk when plugging the phone in to charge. In that way, Sherlock’s powers are almost magical. While they seem mystifying and arcane, in the end, the revelation of the truth feels almost disappointingly simple. However, just like a magician practicing his trade, what takes a few seconds to learn takes years to master. However, the viewer is given the tools required to think like Sherlock Holmes, if not the experience.  But given enough time, it is possible to master Holmes’s deductions.

Television shows have great potential to be informative. For years, Sesame Street has taught young viewers the basics of letters and numbers, while also preparing them for real life social situations. Television shows can enforce vital concepts while making the viewer interested in the material that they are learning.  For example, after the television show The Big Bang Theory gained a popular following, the number of physics majors sharply increased. A similar phenomenon appeared when the television show Scrubs aired, significantly increasing the number of students who applied to become medical students. The fact is that a popular show will at least divert attention onto the surroundings in the show. Be it a hospital, a physics lounge, or a bar, people notice the places where their characters work, drawing attention to different professions and different walks of life. Even without any educational content, by sheer dint of the fact that people become invested in their favorite characters, people become invested in professions. The implications of this are huge. Shows could showcase different walks of life that were previously unknown. It is relatively well known that William Shatner deliberately flubbed his lines in a take so that the show Star Trek would be forced to showcase the first interracial kiss on television. The use of a television show to forward a social viewpoint is certainly well established, and it would be a relatively easy step to transition to an educational viewpoint. This wouldn’t be so bold as to suggest that the shows would become overburdened with the educational emphasis, but even just the change in setting from a bar to a psychiatrist convention could be enough to give a proper foothold in the world that most people did not even realize. As long as the writing remains at the forefront of the show, a show that expands horizons could be just as brilliant as the show that stays at home, and what’s more, educational television will no longer be just for kids.

Television Tribune: The Thing About British Shows

The Thing About British Shows
By James

This article has been coming for a long time. Some of you might have noticed that I seem to have a touch of Anglophilia. It’s true that I bleed red, white, and blue, but it would probably come out as the Union Jack. Due to a long history of family friends living in England, my childhood was filled with trips to the Welsh countryside. There, we were exposed to something entirely foreign: the BBC. The BBC is a government run broadcasting corporation, allowing the inhabitants of the isle to watch quality programming, free from conventional advertisements. From a young age, I was able to watch shows like Super Ted, the story of a stuffed bear thrown in the rubbish, free from the blaring pop music that was Kidz Bop 8. As I grew up, the shows grew with me. From Blackadder to Father Ted, and from Chef! to The Vicar of Dibley, I developed a taste for British humour.

British humour is much different from American humor. America was and still is a melting pot of cultures. The cultural heritage is so diverse and varied that it is impossible to guarantee that an audience will understand a joke, let alone find it funny. Instead of specializing, comedy became more relatable. Slapstick humor and sexual innuendo is still used to appeal to the universal spectrum of comedy as a base humor. That is not to say that all shows in America do this. However, there is a cultural trend based on the phenomenon. British humour is usually more subtle, relying on sharp wit, quick tongues, and vicious words. Oftentimes, the humor in a situation is sheer abstract absurdity, such as in Monty Python. British humour relies on its subtlety, choosing to let a funny situation develop without the aid of a laugh track. The point is that British shows are subtle, clever, and dry.

Let us for one minute dive into the realm of Doctor Who. For those of you who haven’t heard of the show, it is a huge success in England and America, detailing the journeys of a space traveler, called The Doctor, whose ship is a blue Police Call Box. He wanders around the universe with his companions, a mix of humans who change out every few seasons and his trusty sonic screwdriver, a device capable of fiddling with any technology except for wood and deadbolts. The doctor regenerates whenever he is killed, as his entire race can do. The show is currently enjoying its huge success, and fans wait with bated breath for the announcement of their brand new Doctor every season. The past three actors to play the doctor have all been in their thirties, good looking men with a teenage heartthrob quality to them. At the announcement of the twelfth Doctor, there was a huge outcry. You see, the new Doctor is going to be played by Peter Capaldi, a famous actor in his own right who carries his 55 years on his face. This new doctor isn’t the vibrant young man that people wanted, and so they are as upset as ever.

A few months back, I had decided that I was done with Doctor Who. The fans all seemed too obsessed, and the plot lines were too clichéd. The show focused on inspiration instead of subtlety, antithetical to my view of the complexity that I felt was necessary in British entertainment. The final straw was the contrast between fan conventions and my perception of the English Way. All of these factors led to a temporary boycott of the show. Then, last weekend, I decided to sit down and watch an episode with some of my friends from college. All of a sudden, I was brought back to a different time. When I first sat down to watch an episode of Doctor Who, I was in the first grade. My dad rented videos of the Fourth Doctor series out of the library, and we watched the terrible budget and fantastic writing battle out for our attention. From the plastic bags that were supposed to be blood-sucking aliens from the planet Krakos to the crazy mannerisms that Tom Baker brought to the role, the show was the inspiring silly sci-fi that blesses every child’s life. The show was still the same kooky comical farce that it always was; it was just me who had changed.

The thing about British television is that it is easy to not understand it. After 19 years of having watched shows and movies fresh from the other side of the pond, it became painfully clear to me that I was wrong. Just as I was wrong about writing off Doctor Who, I was wrong about what makes up the basis of English humour. The defining attribute is not subtlety, as that answer is as wrong as it is pretentious. Rather, the defining attribute is the desire to make an audience laugh, the same as any other type of humor. And in the end, all the pretension in the world will not increase the value of a show. British shows are no different from American shows, just another face of entertainment.

Television Tribune: It’s So Hard to Say Goodbye

Clone+High

By James

I hate show endings.  I recently finished watching the fantastic animated cartoon Clone High. Clone High relies on the premise that government scientists cloned famous people and left them to grow up in a suburban town. The show stars Abe Lincoln, his friends Joan of Arc and Gandhi, his love interest Cleopatra and his enemy JFK.  It had a very special type of humor, a mix of intellectual history jokes and satirical high school sitcom scenarios, with a fantastic diversified cast starring SNL members, guests from MTV, and practically the entire cast of Scrubs. So of course it got canceled after one season. One season might have been enough, if not for the ending. Due to an abrupt cancellation, the cliff hanger ending of the season became the series finale, leaving a disappointing, dissatisfying conclusion to what was otherwise an outstanding series.

The theme of early cancellations comes up often. Shows like Firefly, Arrested Development and Freaks and Geeks draw huge amounts of fan boy attention, due to their early cancellation, and too-little too-late viewership. The internet is filled with petitions to bring these shows back, but in the end nothing changes. These shows are left without a proper ending, and the fans are left disappointed by their brief love affairs.  However, compared with the potential for perversion, the prospect of an inconclusive end doesn’t necessarily seem so bad.

The worst end to a show that I can think of is the movie Serenity. Firefly was one of my favorite shows, and after finishing the televised series, I couldn’t wait to see the movie that would extend the show’s ending. Only, the movie I watched wasn’t the same as the show. The episodic, care-free narrative of the show disappeared within the strict confines of the cinematographic structure.  At the end of the movie, I was more disappointed with the movie than the note of finality. Everything was tied up neatly, with all major plot threads tidied up, but the result felt hollow to me, a purposeless ending for the series. The entire series was rewritten into a black and white tale of good and evil, and the kind-hearted bandits living in the cracks of society were replaced with the sterile moral absolutes. That to me was the worst sin, because I could have stood to watch a bad movie, but it was more than I could bear to see the show ruined.

The show Scrubs is a complement to the early cancellation. Scrubsstarted as a popular, funny show with funny writers and a fresh spin on the idea of a doctor in a hospital, making a deep show that also managed to mix in humor. Unfortunately while I was ready to stop around season seven, the cameras rolled for another two seasons. The unique twist of the show eventually aged and ossified. When the show became established in itself, it was no longer original, fixated in rigid formulas for the sake of maintaining continuity. Unfortunately, when shows get stuck in these formulaic patterns, they experience the law of diminishing returns and thus shows like Heroes, The Office, House, Futurama, and 30 Rock, eventually outlive their audiences.

I don’t think there really is a great way to end a show. There’s a thin line to straddle. Either you risk cutting off a budding show, or find a stagnant mess. The fact of the matter is, people don’t want to watch their favorite characters fade away. The thing is, even though the endings to shows can be messy and somewhat disheartening, the ending ultimately is only one small part of the show. Maybe Gilligan will never get off the island, but it was enjoyable to always watch him try. In the end, Clone High was one of my favorite animated shows of all time, and even though Clone High died young, I’m glad it never grew old enough to disappoint me.