Archive | December, 2011

TV Drama Script Writing: Gaps and Metaphors

31 Dec

There are several questions I want to raise for today’s post, which I am writing after watching the second episode of NYPD Blue. In a movie or TV show, what gives an event meaning? And when we think of “meaning,” we can think of literal and symbolic meaning. What makes a story move forward? Why do we desire what we don’t need? What makes a character complex? What is the difference between what the character desires and what the audience desires?

In answer to these questions, Robert McKee’s textbook Story makes two important points. His first is about the gap between expectation and result. A character acts in order to achieve something, but the result is different from what the character expects. This gap drives the plot forward. McKee’s second point elaborates upon his first point. He observes there is always a dialectic between the action of one character and the reaction of another character. The protagonist’s action is always somewhat extreme or excessive or surprising in some way. That’s what makes it an interesting story. The action taken by the protagonist is not what you or I would do in such circumstances in order to achieve the goal. It’s what this unusual character would do. The unusual action provokes an equally unusual reaction, and then the protagonist must react again, and so on, etc., etc., so that the plot unfolds according to this special, somewhat strange and excessive logic that is unique to the particular story. The characters are repeatedly unsuccessful at the beginning of the story. Stories begin with failure. The unusual action taken by the character also provokes the audience to wonder about the deep psychology or background of that character that causes him or her to take such action. The audience then desires to discover two different things. The first thing is whether the unexpected action will be successful or exactly how the “result” will be achieved in spite of the dialectic that inevitably frustrates the protagonist’s desire. The second thing is what the secret motivation for the main character’s action is. Here is a YouTube video of McKee talking a bit about this in answer to a student’s question:

I have some disagreements with McKee, but I will explain my disagreements in another blog post. For now, let’s just see if McKee’s theory works for the second episode of NYPD Blue. Focusing on Detective Kelly’s character, we can see that his desire is to provoke a reaction from the mafia boss Marino, but because this is a TV drama and not real, his action is excessive and extreme. The police department is worried and considers disciplining Kelly because they fear that he is simply taking revenge against Giardella for shooting his partner. The meaning of the episode is clear: what is the line between justice and revenge? The audience is put into the position of wondering whether Kelly’s actions will succeed and whether they are “good” actions to take. The plot unfolds according to this dialectic between the police and the mafia.

But dialectical relations are never stable, and some other event or “third” character must intervene somehow. The dramatic climax of the first act of the episode, when Officer Janis Licalsi suddenly shoots Marino, is the unexpected result of Kelly’s actions. Kelly had no knowledge of Marino’s power over Licalsi and no understanding that his romance with Janis Licalsi had any connection to his attempt to get Giardella, and consequently we the audience experience “dramatic irony.” Dramatic irony is when there is a gap between what the audience knows and what the character knows. The audience is made aware of this through the character of Licalsi, who knows that Marino intends to murder Kelly because of Kelly’s excessive action. This gap of dramatic irony also adds to the suspense and keeps the audience interested in the story.

But there is also another kind of irony, and this is “tragic irony.” Kelly’s excessive action, motivatived by guilt over Sipowicz, provokes an excessive response from Marino which in turn provokes an excessive response from Licalsi. Moreover, what the audience fears is that Kelly’s efforts to solve the problem and this logic of excess will turn back on him. His action seems to be creating more chaos, rather than more order, until Licalsi saves him. In other words, we fear that Kelly’s action will have the opposite effect that he intended, and this special kind of gap between a protagonist’s expectation and result is what is called “tragic irony.” It is this kind of irony that lends depth, complexity, and meaning to the theme of justice-versus-revenge.

What I like about this particular moment in NYPD Blue is how the show shifts from Kelly’s point of view to Licalsi’s point of view.  Kelly’s motivation is justice/revenge against Giardella for shooting his partner Sipowicz, whom Kelly sees as a fallen father figure in need of redemption. Licalsi’s motivation is actually quite similar to Kelly’s as she desires to protect her corrupted father from exposure. Both characters have a complex relationship to a father or father-like person whom they love even though he has done wrong. In a sense, if we think of the drama structurally, Licalsi temporarily takes Kelly’s place. It is Licalsi who acts powerfully and decisely. She simply kills the bad guy. The police department can’t do this and must follow rules. Ironically, when Kelly discovers what Licalsi is done, he is naturally upset, but I don’t think that he is upset simply because he learns that Licalsi’s father was a “wrong cop.” Rather, I think he is upset because she has done exactly what he and Sipowicz fantasized about doing. In other words, she did exactly what he was afraid to do. Confronted with the image of his own desire, he recoils in disgust and horror. This is the difference between a simple TV drama and a bad one. In a simple story, the object of desire is clear and rational. In a complex story, the protagonist tragically or comically discovers that the object of desire is not what he or she actually wants.

If we think about Licalsi metaphorically in the manner of Freudian psychoanalysis, we come to see that the “dangerous woman” is a metaphor for Kelly’s dilemma. She is able to close the gap of his desire. Just like Eve completes Adam in the Bible (because all human beings are born incomplete), Licalsi completes Kelly. But this apparent completion is just a metaphor for what we innately lack, because in reality we are afraid to actually get what we want (just as Adam and Eve have to leave Eden after Eve gives Adam what he desires.) There is a lot more to say about the relationship between Officer Janis Licalsi and Detective John Kelly. In my opinion, their complex and interesting relationship is an example of what is missing from Robert McKee’s theory. I believe we need to consider the useful contribution of feminist theory. I will discuss feminist theory and criticize McKee in another blog post, but in this blog post I simply want to show how the television drama NYPD Blue illustrates some of McKee’s points.

Lastly, I want to conclude by pointing out the many minor plots in NYPD Blue, because the subject for next week’s workshop on Monday is the relationship between major and minor characters. Like all television dramas, there is a major plot that happens over the course of several episodes, and there are many minor plots inside each episode. In a good show, the minor plots and the major plots have a thematic relationship to each other so that what happens in a minor plot might contribute in some way to the “gap” between the protagonist’s expectation and result. So, in this episode there is a father grieving over his murdered son who attempts to take his revenge against the judge who wouldn’t admit evidence against the murderer because of a technicality. There is also the character nick-named “4B” — a lawyer who lives in apartment number 4B in the same building as Kelly’s ex-wife — who takes revenge against the man who robbed him in the basement laundry room. The title of the episode is “4B or Not 4B” which is a pun that alludes to the famous quote from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, “To be or not to be,” which Hamlet says during his meditation on whether he should take his revenge against his evil uncle. Hence, this episode of NYPD Blue presents the audience with four separate revenge plots. Each character experiences a gap between expectation and result, but more importantly the minor plots contrast with the major plot. The minor plots are examples of how revenge might be wrong. In contrast to these examples, the major plot Kelly’s vengeance seems to the audience more like legitimate justice. In other words, the main character only seems good to the audience in contrast to other characters who are worse.

TV Drama Script Writing: Why NYPD Blue?

29 Dec

For the workshop on TV Drama Script Writing in Ethiopia [syllabus] that I mentioned in my first blog post, I have chosen to focus on the first and second season of the show NYPD Blue, a drama about the New York Police Department that started in 1993. In this post, I want to explain why I chose it and then analyze its very first episode in order to explain why it is a good show.

I looked at many different shows and talked to many different people before deciding on NYPD Blue for this workshop, and I chose it for two simple reasons. The first reason is that the textbook Writing the TV Drama Series by Pamela Douglas includes interviews with the writer and the producer of that show (David Milch and Steven Bochco) and includes an analysis of the script of one of its episodes. So, it’s convenient, and the writing workshop will read that analysis of the script on the last day, January 13th. The second reason is that not only did the show win many awards and significantly influence television, but also it follows some of the basic, classic patterns for TV drama. Therefore, it’s useful for teaching those basic, classic patterns. To be honest, it’s not my favorite show. My friends and I used to make fun of NYPD Blue by calling it “NYPD Butt,” because it was the first show on American network television to frequently show men’s and women’s butts. My favorite show is The Wire. But in contrast to shows such as NYPD Blue and Law and Order, which follow all of the classic rules for TV drama, The Wire breaks all the rules. What I wish I could do is first run an introductory workshop on NYPD Blue where we learn the rules and learn how to make a good show, and then at some later date run an advanced workshop on The Wire about how to make a truly great show.

So, let’s look at the very first episode and try to understand why it’s good. According to Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting, a well-known textbook by Robert McKee, a good story must have meaning, and what gives a story meaning is structure. He defines structure as “a selection of events… composed into a strategic sequence to arouse specific emotions and to express a specific view of life” (page 33). Somewhat differently from McKee’s idea, one can also think of structure as the relation of various characters, settings, and events to create meaning (and the meaning is precisely in that poetics of relation).  The important point that I see in McKee’s book is the argument that the event is the key to a good story.

Some might argue against McKee and say that the key to a good movie, TV show, or play is a well-developed character, a provocative idea, or an important moral or political message. For instance, considering the political and social aspects of each character’s identity, the selection of characters in NYPD Blue is not random or accidental. Each character comes from a different ethic background: Detective Andy Sipowicz’s ethnic background is Polish, Detective John Kelly’s background is Irish, his ex-wife Laura’s is English, District Attorney Sylvia Costas’s is Greek, Detective  James Martinez’s is Puerto Rican, Officer Janice Licalsi’s is Italian, and Lieutenant Arthur Fancy’s is African-American. The show is not about ethnicity, but it is clear that in the 1990s, producers felt they needed to appeal to a diverse American audience, and the ethnic and racial identity of the characters was a central issue in some episodes. I suspect that Ethiopia has a very similar situation since its audience consists of Amhara, Tigray, Oromo, Somali, Gurage, Afar, Sidamo, and many others, so I imagine that a succesful television program in Ethiopia ought to include strong characters and cultural elements from those different backgrounds. But the main idea of NYPD Blue is not cultural background. Rather it is the moral ambiguity of police work. What makes police drama as a genre so compelling and so popular on American television is that the line between good and bad is sometimes unclear. On a simple level, the cop wants to catch the criminal, but the cop also has to respect the rules and the rights of citizens which sometimes prevent him from accomplishing his goal. This is the “meaning” of the police drama, which usually focuses on the complex and ambiguous relationship between cops and ordinary citizens. Thus, in any police drama, there needs to be “good cops” and “bad cops” so that the audience can think about the contrast, and the central characters need to struggle with internal conflict — conflict between their loyalty to the public good, their loyalty to their fellow officers, their loyalty to the government that employs them, their loyalty to their own moral principles, and their own self-interest and their personal lives. We see such conflicts in the main characters of NYPD Blue‘s first season: Sipowicz, his partner Kelly, and Kelly’s lover, Licalsi.

For McKee, however, more important than character or message is the “story event,” which is an event that sparks a series of other events that create problems for the characters and force them to make tough decisions. NYPD Blue begins with a rather small, seemingly insignificant event that quickly escalates into a larger, terrible problem. By means of these events, the show is able to communicate a lot about the characters and the moral ambiguity of police work in just a few short scenes — in just 20 minutes. Scene one is at the courthouse where we see Detective Sipowicz and District Attorny Costas lose their case against the mafia criminal Alfonse Giardella. Sipowicz’s response to the situation indicates his character when he loses control of his emotions. Because of the event, the audience quickly learns that he is a “bad cop” who breaks the rules in order to do his job. The event also quickly shows a contrast between him and his partner Detective Kelly, who is calm, good-looking, and in control of himself. Scene two is the police station, where we learn the cause of Sipowicz’s failure — his alcoholism. The effect of this knowledge is that Kelly faces a moral dilemma. How can he be loyal to his job, to his partner, and to the public when these loyalties seem to conflict with each other? The third and fourth scene move from the public lives of the officers to their private lives: Kelly is getting a divorce from his wife and Sipowicz is getting drunk. The action becomes more intense in the fifth scene when the public space of their work and the private space of their personal problems explosively come together. In this scene, Sipowicz drunkenly attacks Giardella in a restaurant, which leads to disciplinary action, and he loses his job. Sipowicz’s reaction to his problem is not surprising, since the show has already established his alcoholism. The criminal Giardella predicts that Sipowicz will get drunk with his favorite prostitute, and Giardella uses that knowledge to attempt to kill Sipowicz. The intense scene marks the end of the first “act” of the show, and we can see how the first act was simply a movement from a very small failure to a larger failure. Each event (or each scene) presents the characters with situations about which they must make hard decisions.

The conclusion of the first act when Sipowicz gets shot by Giardella also signals a turning point in the story. In the textbook Story, McKee notes that a good story must have several turning points, moving from positive to negative (page 123). McKee claims that turning points move the story from positive to negative or from negative to positive, and they always relate to the main theme. In NYPD Blue, the main theme is the moral ambiguity of police work. So, Kelly of course feels responsible for everything, because he suspects that his decision to end his partnership with Sipowicz is what caused Sipowicz to attack Giardella. Now he becomes emotionally involved and begins to break the rules. His actions are risky, as he harasses the mafia and has sex with Officer Licalsi.  In other words, after his partner is shot, then Kelly’s character becomes more like his partner’s character. So, in terms of the theme of a police officer’s moral ambiguity, the story moves from a negative representation (Sipowicz’s failure) to a positive representation (Kelly’s success) of similar behavior. The second act is a mirror of the first act, but with a positive instead of a negative aspect.

The second act climaxes when Kelly’s ex-wife catches him with Officer Licalsi. This event signals a transition to the third and final act, which must in some way resolve the dialectic between positive and negative — between good and bad. Giardella arrives at the police station with his lawyer, then the mafia boss Marino proposes a deal with Kelly which Kelly heroically rejects, and next he comes to an understanding with his ex-wife. The various problems and dilemmas are starting to get sorted out, and the positive and negative behaviors are coming to some meaningful resolution. Finally Kelly visits Sipowicz in the hospital. In this concluding scene, the audience finally learns Kelly’s deep emotional connection to Sipowicz when he whispers, “you’re like a father to me.” This especially has meaning since we know that Kelly’s real father died in that same hospital, and it also explains the second act. Metaphorically, the events of Sipowicz’s life generate (like a father generates a son) the events of Kelly’s life.

The important thing to realize here is that character matters, and the moral message matters, but for television, more important than character and message is the organization of events that make the story work. It is the story event that matters most because it sheds light on both the character and the meaning of the show. NYPD Blue was famous for being a “realistic” police drama, but in actuality, most of the events are not realistic at all. What makes them seem realistic is that the episode begins with a small ordinary event that is realistic (Sipowicz’s failure in the courtroom and his alcoholism), but this leads to a series of events that magnify the problem which gets bigger, less realistic, but more exciting and compelling.

But lastly, because this is television and not a movie, the show has to give the audience a reason to watch the next episode. Suddenly, at the very end, the audience learns that Andy might recover, and suddenly the audience learns that Officer Licalsi is not who she originally appeared to be. She is working for the criminal Marino. As I explained in my previous blog post yesterday [here], movies are like sex, and notice that the two climactic moments in NYPD Blue are a failed, negative sexual encounter when Sipowicz gets shot and a successful, positive sexual encounter between Kelly and Licalsi. But television is like marriage, so the climax is not the end. The relationships between the characters and with the audience must continue.

TV Drama Script Writing: Becoming a Good Writer?

28 Dec

What does the word “good” mean, and how does one become a good writer? Does the word “good” mean something unique for television that is different from what it means for the movies, live theater, or novels? These are the questions for my first post to my Film and Media blog.

Why am I asking these questions? Right now, I am sitting alone in a classroom at St. John’s University in Minnesota. It is 8:00 a.m. in the morning in the middle of winter, just a few days after Christmas, and nobody is here because the school is on vacation. A few thousand miles away, a group of people in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia are sitting in a classroom at 5:00 p.m., watching a classic TV drama from the 1990s, NYPD Blue. After they watch and discuss the show, they and I are hoping to have a conversation via Skype about writing scripts for serial TV dramas. This is the first workshop organized by Sandscribe Communications on the development of Ethiopian television. This blog that I am writing now is meant as a supplement to the workshop and also as a backup in case the Skype connection does not work. If you want to see my syllabus for the workshop, click [here].

Before I get to the question of what the word “good” means, I want to get to the question of how one becomes good. The metaphor I like to use is the metaphor of the marathon runner. Writing is like running a marathon. To be a good marathon runner, you have to practice a lot. (Actually, to be honest, I’ve never run a marathon, but I have done several triathlons, and I had to run, swim, and bike almost every day.) Most of the time, marathon runners are not running races. They are just practicing. To become a good writer, one must also practice. Most of the time, you are not finishing scripts. You are just practicing. Anyone can run a marathon if he or she practices enough. But if you stop training, even if you are the most talented runner, you will be unable to finish. Your muscles will become weak and will forget how to complete that distance. And a good marathon runner is not a good soccer player or dancer. The muscles are different for each sport. Your brain is a muscle, so just like running, when you stop using your brain to write every day, your brain muscle will become weak and will forget how to finish the script. Also, runners get better when they run with other people, not when they run alone. They learn to run faster and farther when they run with others and measure themselves against others. And this gets me to the question of what “good” means.

What is good depends on other people, but for television writing, this is much more complicated than marathon running. When you think of other people, including other writers and your audience, you begin to ask yourself why are you doing this? What is your purpose? Is the purpose to make a political statement? Is the purpose to sell a product, like in advertising? Is the purpose to make the audience happy? Do you want to make people cry? Do you just want other people to like and respect you? Are you writing for Americans, for Ethiopians, or for the whole world? According to the book Writing the TV Drama Series by Pamela Douglas, television is different from movies because the goal of movies is to make the audience gasp and exclaim “wow!” One might compare a movie to sex, as a good movie gradually becomes more exciting and more intense and then reaches a climax and then is over. Instead, television shows make the audience feel comfortable, as if the characters on the show are the audience’s friends or family for an hour each day or each week. So, if one might compare a movie to sex, then one might compare television to marriage. (That was a joke.)

I agree with professor Douglas in some ways, but there is something wrong about her perspective that reminds me of Ray Bradbury’s novel Fahrenheit 451 in which television becomes a government tool for brainwashing the public by giving them the feeling of interpersonal relations without any real relationships — that is to say, television seems almost like a drug that gives people simple emotional feelings without the real emotional connection, without the complex ethical dilemmas, and without the challenging conflicts that we face. For me, the essence of good writing is an honest and respectful attention to the ethical dilemmas of the characters in a way that helps the audience think about how the decisions of ordinary, everyday life connect to the big picture of the whole world. A good story does not start with an answer and a clear sense of right and wrong. It starts with a question (or a dilemma or a problem or even a failure), and relates that individual question to a bigger context. (A good example of this is the book of Job from the Bible, and we should remember that Job never gets a clear answer to his questions from God.)

So, I question professor Douglas’s book, but to be fair, it seems that she also believes as I do that television can be something better than it has been in the past. Television is changing, because the tools for making television are changing, and the world is changing. Here is a YouTube video of her talking about her book:

So, the question I still have for my friends in Ethiopia is not what makes a good TV drama in general. Instead, my question is what makes a good TV drama in Ethiopia for the year 2012? What do you think?