Tag Archives: TV shows

Two New Rules for TV story-telling (aka things to learn from Being Human)

being human

Let’s begin here:

My Netflix research this fall tells me that the rules for making popular culture and TV are changing.

The cause?  That popular culture is getting better and this means some of the old rules are now ineffectual and in some cases actually counter-productive.

Being Human is a great case study.

This is a study in fantasy and the supernatural.  A ghost, a vampire and a werewolf find themselves living together and look to one another for guidance and relief.

It is a show is riddled with implausibilities.  Characters skip around in time and space.  They morph from one creature to another. The plot lines can get really very complicated.

And the viewer doesn’t care.  (At least this viewer doesn’t.)  The acting is so good that we believe in these characters and we are prepared to follow them anywhere.   Even when the plot tests our credulity, we believe in the show.

The key is good acting.  Without this, Being Human is just another exercise in dubiety.  With it, the show holds as a story and more important it actually serves as an opportunity to ask big questions that attach to “being human.”

There is a second show in SyFy called Lost Girl.  .  This is billed as a supernatural crime drama.  It too is stuffed with implausibility.  Lots of fabled creatures and magical spells.  For me, it’s pretty much unwatchable.

And the difference is largely acting.  The actors on Lost Girl are not bad.  They are just not good enough to deliver the emotion truth on which narratives depend, but more to the point they are not good enough to help Lost Girl survive the weight of its own implausibility.

This condition is actually complicated by the creative decision to have the characters supply the “ancient lore” that explains spells and various supernatural beastie.  I found myself shouting at the TV,

“Oh, who the f*ck cares!  The back story is a) not interesting, b) it does not animate the front story, c) in short, the back story is your problem, not our problem.  Get on with it.  Spare us the pointless exposition.”

(Yes, it’s true.  I shout in point form.  It’s a Powerpoint problem.  I’m getting help.  It’s called Keynote.)

New Rule # 1

The more implausibility contained in a narrative, the better your actors had better be.

If this means spending more time casting, spend the time casting.  If this means paying your actors more, pay them more.  Actors are everything.  Well, after the writers.  And the show runners.  Um, and the audience.  But you see what I mean.

And this brings us to the second new rule for story telling on TV.  The old rule of TV was that actors should be ABAP (as beautiful as possible).  Given the choice between someone who is heartstoppingly attractive and someone who looks, say, like one of the actors on Being Human (as above), you must, the old rule says, choose the actor who is ABAP.  (The Being Human actors are attractive.  They just aren’t model perfect.)

This rule created a trade off.  Very beautiful actors were chosen even when they weren’t very talented as actors.  Indeed, show runners were routinely trading talent away for beauty.  As a result, a show began to look like a fashion runway.  Even good writing could be made to feel like something out of the day-time soaps.

Bad acting is of course the death of good narrative.  Wooden performances can kill great writing.  But real beauty exacts a second price.  There are moments when you are supposed to be paying attention to a plot point and you find yourself thinking, “Good lord, what a perfectly modeled chin!”

In a perfect world, every actress would be Nicole Kidman, perfectly beautiful, utterly talented.  In the old days, when TV makers had to chose they would go for beauty even when it cost them talent.  But here’s the new rule.

New Rule # 2

Do not choose beauty over talent.  Beauty used to be the glue that held your audience to your show.  Now that work is performed by talent.  It’s not that beauty doesn’t matter.  Seek attractive actors.  But beauty will never matter more than talent.  Make sure the talent is there, and then, and only then, can you cast for beauty.  Think of this as a kind of “attractive enough” principal.

Stated baldly, this rule seems indubitable.  What show-runner or casting agent would ever think otherwise?  On the other hand, I dropped in on The CW recently and everyone seemed model perfect with bad consequences for the quality of the work on the screen.

A change is taking place in our culture.  And over the longer term, it will provoke a changing of the guard, a veritable migration in the entertainment industry .  Actors who are merely talented will have a more difficult time finding work.  And, counterintuitively, actors who are blindingly attractive will have a more difficult finding work.  What used to make them effective now makes them distracting.

As popular culture becomes culture, there will be many more changes.  Watch this space.

Blank looks for a new comedy and culture

There are two facial expressions I haven’t seen on TV before.  One is a look of suppressed speech.  The other is perplexity.  Both show TV characters going blank.

If you’re a fan of The Office or Modern Family, you know the looks I mean.

Suppressed speech blank

Jim or Pam (in The Office) stare blankly, as if to say, "I know exactly what I think but I can’t say it."  Michael Scott or Dwight Schrute are up to something embarrassing, stupid or juvenile (usually all three) and comment is unnecessary. It is in any case forbidden. Michael is the boss and Dwight is a lunatic. Provoking them is a bad idea. Better to stare blankly. (Occasionally they Jim or Pam will blank to the camera, because they know we know exactly what they mean.)

Perplexity blank

Phil or Claire Dunphy (in Modern Family) stares into the middle distance, as if to say, "I have no idea what to think.".  A little cloud appears between the brows.  They are nonplussed. They have done something embarrassing, stupid or juvenile, and now they are perplexed. Occasionally, Phil or Claire will blank to the camera, because, well, they know we know they have no idea what they mean.)

Four questions:

1) Is this new?  There is a standard sit com facial repertoire, that includes, laugh out loud, smirk, grin, frown, grimace, and operatic outrage.  There is every kind of facial posturing. And, yes, there are blank looks.  In fact there’s a long tradition here that includes Jack Benny, Lucille Ball, Jackie Gleason, Don Adams, Edith Bunker right up and through The 70s Show, Frasier, and Seinfeld,

But this blank?  The one that says says, "I am not saying.  I’m not reacting"?  Yes, I think this kind of blank perhaps is new. Is it customary to seeing sit com characters biting their tongues? The point of situation comedy is to loosen tongues and let fly. Conventional sit coms were positively disinclined to silence a character in this way.  This blank is new.

2) What does "blank" stand for? In the first case, The Office case, the blank is a way of acknowledging how utterly and hopelessly over the top is the behavior of a Michael Scott. Without these characters registering a real world reaction, this comedy would tip into its own lunatic world and cease being exceptional. The blank exists to refresh the standard by which Michael Scott is appalling. This blank exists to prevent a "Dunder Mifflin" world from terraforming in which the bizarre is ordinary.

The Modern Family blank is confessional.  The character is saying, "I understand that I have completely failed in the responsibilities of a social actor, to manage social impressions.  I am undone."  We are now looking at the person behind Goffman’s mask. The character is saying, "I stand before you without credibility." (How much fun must it be for a theatrical actor to play a social actor who is no longer capable of action?)

3) Why is this facial expression now a ubiquitous part of some sit coms?  I’m not sure.  I welcome reader speculation.  Some of it has to do with the mockumentary convention that has characters aware of the cameras and playing to it.  It’s also an expression of the comedic moment championed by Sacha Baron Cohen’s Borat and the antics of Michael Cera, Jack Black and Seth Rogen as directed by Judd Apatow.  Call it squirm comedy.  It excavates social rules by breaking them.  And there has to be someone standing around to observe the mayhem (to make sure it remains departure and does not "freeze" into norm).

Plus squirm comedy pushes characters into appalling situations.  (Think Ben Stiller in Something About Mary.)  And now in a sense they have played out the string of the scene. There is no recovery. There is no next.  And this means there is no way of way to end the scene, except to show the character just standing there.  The social actor can’t act anymore.  The writer has written herself into a corner.  The only thing left to do is blank.

4) But here’s the really hard question.  Why should our culture find this funny now? Readers (and I think it is now clear I have the most interesting and brilliant readers) start your engines.

Last note:

Those of you who haven’t seen Modern Family might want to take a look.  It’s now a critic’s darling and according to TV By The Numbers it is the no. 1 scripted show in its time slot for 6 weeks in a row and nows ties with American Idol as the No. 1 program among men 18 to 34.  

Really last note:

I just want to say how grateful I am for reader comments. I haven’t been at all good at responding to them lately. Things are hectic. But this doesn’t mean that I don’t read them. And it doesn’t mean that I don’t treasure them. Thanks a million.

Totally last note, and this time I mean it: This post reposted December 23, 2010.  It was destroyed by Network Solution neglect.  I just came across it floating around on line.  Hurray!