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.