Archive | January, 2012

TV Drama Script Writing: NYPD Blue’s Plot and Scene Structure

11 Jan

We are coming to the end of the workshop, where we move from big questions about story telling and the technology of television to the small questions about format and plot. Today, I want to focus on the first and fourth episodes of the second season of NYPD Blue, wich first aired in October and November of 1994. The first episode is a perfectly written episode according to the classic pattern. The fourth episode is less perfect, but there was a reason for that. The show’s main actor, David Caruso, had decided to quit, and so the writers of the show had to figure out a way for him to plausibly leave the story. Then, episode five had to bring in a new character, played by actor Jimmy Smits. We will discuss episode five at our next workshop on Friday, and our textbook Writing the TV Drama Series includes an analysis of that script.

But for today, I want to focus on the relationship between the central plot and the subplots and the four-act structure of television. According to Robert McKee’s book Story, which we have been reading for the past two weeks, movies need at least three acts, and what constitutes an act is a significant turning point. In McKee’s opinion, the turning point is the key element of the act. However, McKee is talking about movies, which are somewhat different from television. In her book, Writing the TV Drama Series, Pamela Douglass points out that American television typically has four acts because the television networks want to have four commercial breaks. It is important to realize that this structure is simply an effect of the need for commercials. If the broadcasting station is run by the government or some other entity (such as cable television or nonprofit television), then the act-structure will be different depending on the delivery system. Another difference between movies and television is that movies usually come to some sort of resolution at the end, but television must continue on indefinitely, always somewhat open-ended. Nevertheless, what both television and movies have in common is that the subplots and central plot must reinforce each other. Subplots can simply function to elaborate the setting and characters, but more interestingly, they can do one of three things: they function as a contradiction (or counterpoint) to the theme of the central plot; they can resonate or repeat the theme of the central plot; or they can create complicating context or present obstacles to the drive of the central plot. These subplots have a different pace than the central plot in the three-act or four-act structure, but they all have various turning points, and the final act is always quicker. In addition, unlike novels, each scene of television must contribute to the development of the plot, and each beat must contribute to the scene. What constitutes a “beat” is typically an action and reaction between two characters.

So, let’s look at NYPD Blue. In every episode, the first act always presents what McKee calls an “inciting incident” and always begins either at a crime scene or at some intimate personal scene. Either a crime is the inciting incident that begins the plot of that particular episode, or a personal interaction between two major characters is the inciting incident that develops the longer central plot of the whole season. This opening first act must function as a lure to keep the audience watching. It must present a clear problem that needs to be resolved. Then the show rolls the credits and theme song, and then there is a commercial break. After the commercial, act two of NYPD Blue usually begins at the police station with a scene that includes several “beats” between different characters that develop the central plot and various subplots. The advantage of locations such as police stations, court rooms, and the front desk of an office is that these are locations where many different characters mix together. Characters enter and exit frequently, so many different plots can be developed easily and quickly.  All television shows have such a location where this happens. Historically, in Renaissance drama from sixteenth century such as William Shakespeare’s plays, this location was usually the king’s court, but in later plays, after modern capitalism and commodity culture began to develop in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, this location was often a coffee house or tavern or some other public space. (By the way, the philosopher Jurgen Habermas discusses this historical change in his famous book, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere.)

The first episode of NYPD Blue’s second season is about the theme of police corruption and the complicated, contradictory motives of the characters. The central plot for the whole season is the court case involving Officer Janis Licalsi’s shooting of the criminal mafia boss Marino. The dilemma for Detective John Kelly is whether to lie in court in order to protect Licalsi. So the theme of the episode is the problem of police corruption and the moral question of whether it’s every OK to lie in order to protect someone. The two subplots of this particular episode present a counterpoint to the theme. One subplot is the discovery by Detectives Kelly and Sipowicz that two other cops are stealing from drug dealers in an apartment building. These cops are obviously corrupt, and their motives are selfish. In contrast, John Kelly’s corruption and his motivation for lying appear somehow right, selfless, and even noble. The role of the Internal Affairs Bureau (I.A.B.) is interesting here. In the case of Licalsi and Kelly, the I.A.B. appear to be the antagonist as it investigates the possible corruption of Licalsi and Kelly. But in the case of the bad cops who steal from criminals, the role of the I.A.B. appears to be the ally of the protagonists Kelly and Sipowicz. The contradictory role of the I.A.B. presents a beautiful counterpoint that presents a deeper, ethical contradiction that the audience must think about. So, here, the relationship between central plot and subplot is a “contrapuntal” (a counterpoint.)

The other long subplot throughout the first and second season of NYPD Blue is Sipowicz’s struggle with alcoholism and his romantic relationship with the District Attorney (D.A.) Sylvia Costas. The first episode of the second season includes a short subplot whose theme is similar to the long subplot. The short subplot is the case of an abusive husband whose wife is afraid to bring up on charges. We can see that the two subplots mirror each other. Both are about a man struggling with alcoholism and a violent temper, but in one the man is good, and in the other the man is bad. This subplot of the abusive husband also relates to the story about Kelly and Licalsi in that both plots demonstrate the limits of the legal system in light of the personal conflicts in people’s daily lives. In this subplot, Sipowicz wants to help the abused wife, but he can’t because the legal system won’t let him. Likewise, in the case of John Kelly and Janis Licalsi, the legal system seems to punish them for their actions which might have been right or necessary. In this sense, rather than be a counterpoint, this is a case where the subplot that resonates (as Robert McKee puts it) with the central plot.

But beyond the question of how the subplot relates to the central plot, the more difficult and fundamental question is how to structure the story. Notice that the first scene of act one and the last scene of act four are mirror images of each other. The symmetry is perfect, which is why I said that this is a perfectly structured episode. In scene one, Janis Licalsi and John Kelly are at Kelly’s apartment, discussing the dilemma — the dilemma of whether Kelly should lie in court. They are uncertain how to protect each other, and they are afraid to have a romantic relationship. By the end of the show, in the final scene, back at Kelly’s apartment again, after the court drama, they are committed to each other and decide to begin again their romance. What happens in between these two scenes that causes the characters to change, and how do the various subplots contribute to the development of the main plot?

Act two includes several scenes each of which function to develop the main plot. The first is the court scene where Kelly lies about his knowledge of Licalsi’s actions, just as he said he would do in the opening scene. The next scene is back at the police station where I.A.B. is investigating Kelly and also where all the subplots mentioned above can be introduced. As I mentioned above, the show always develops the second act at the police station. Notice how specific “beats” within the scene at the police station all contribute to more than one plot. The case that Kelly and Sipowicz plan to investigate creates context for the central plot by showing their character and their job. The case of the abusive, alcoholic husband creates an opportunity for Sipowicz to talk to the D.A. Sylvia Costas, which develops the romantic story between them. This case is also a useful counterpoint, since Sipowicz’s own relationship is affected by his alcoholism and his temper. As I mentioned above, television dramas often have a single public location that allows various characters to mix and develop several subplots quickly and efficiently, and that’s what happens here. But the real dramatic action never happens at this location. It always happens somewhere else. At the end of act two, Kelly goes to a restaurant, has a dramatic fight with someone who accuses him of lying, and then ends his relationship with a girlfriend (a short plot arc developed at the end of season one) by revealing that he is still in love with Janis Licalsi. This is a major turning point, so of course the commercial break happens at the end of the scene, which is indicated by the music. Turning points in television are usually planned to occur right before the commercial break, so the audience will have a minute or two during the break to wonder what will happen next. Act three follows from the turning points at the end of act two by presenting several confrontations (or “beats”) between characters. Each “beat” creates another turning point as the characters are now in the position of having to deal with the issues presenting in the previous act. Finally, act four offers a resolution, first when Sipowicz confronts the abusive husband, second when he and Kelly catch the bad cops, and third and finally when Kelly and Licalsi decide to start their romantic relationship over again.

Episode four is somewhat different from episode one. Its big idea or basic question is whether it is right or wrong to cover something up. The central plot is the I.A.B.’s investigation of Kelly’s lie in court to protect Licalsi. The subplot is Sipowicz protecting the reputation of an older cop who died of natural causes in the bed of a prostitute. Both are situations where a bad thing is covered up, but the central plot is serious and tragic in contrast to the subplot which is a comic counterpoint. Meanwhile, the driving action of this episode is the accidental death of a baby and the efforts of Detectives Sipowicz and Kelly to discover the truth about the killers. This plot contributes to the major plot because it shows that Kelly is a good detective, even though the I.A.B. has decided to end his career. Hence, the three plots all reinforce each other, but in different ways, either as a counterpoint or as context. Each act of the episode will include scenes to develop these three plots, and each plot contributes to the development of the other plots.

Act two — after the credits, theme music, and first commercial break — is structured to move back and forth between serious and comic scenes. The serious scenes are the investigation of Kelly by the I.A.B. and the interviews with the dead child’s mother Sandy and her possibly criminal boyfriend Duane. The comic scenes are the efforts of Sipowicz to move his old friend from the prostitute’s apartment to the friend’s car. This back-and-forth between serious and comic scenes is an example of counterpoint that I mentioned above.  These scenes develop the problem introduced in the opening scene — the dead baby and the dead cop. Act two develops the dramatic tension when Detective John Kelly and Duane have an argument about what really caused the baby’s death. The question is raised about the truth of what happened. We the audience want to know what the truth is, and of course it is exactly at this moment that the commercial break happens. Then, after the music, act three begins with a turning point — the answer to the question, when Sandy sees her dead baby, becomes upset, and confesses the truth. This important turning point changes the plot of the story, because now we know what really happened. The next scene after this dramatic moment is back at the police station where the dramatic turning points can be developed. And as I said before, notice that the real dramatic scenes are always in some private space (e.g., bedroom, hospital room, interview room) or in an open space (e.g., the street, battlefield, etc.) where conflict can happen intensely. I call these locations “turning point” locations. In contrast, the details are always developed in more neutral public spaces (e.g., the police station, the front room of an office, or a cafe.) I call these “plot development” locations. Act three concludes dramatically when the police arrest the criminals who killed the baby, and of course, after this dramatic turning point, there is another commercial break.

But of course, arresting the criminals is not the conclusion of the whole episode. Although it is the conclusion to a subplot (the question about who killed the dead baby), this subplot is not really the important idea of the episode. The previous acts developed a theme, and the theme is about when people lie or disobey the rules in order to cover up a problem or accomplish a goal. So, the final act after the last commercial break is one long scene that includes a series of many “beats” to resolve the theme. All of the beats take place in the police station, and each of them is a short conversations between two characters. First, Detective Martinez talks with the prostitute Sandy about what to do. Then he talks to Kelly about how to help Sandy. Interestingly, Kelly advises him to obey the rules and not help her. Immediately after this scene, Lieutenant Fancy reveals to Kelly that he will lose his job. Ironically, he is losing his job precisely because he didn’t obey the rules as he advised Martinez. Then Kelly reveals the development to Sipowicz, who then challenges the police chief. Meanwhile, Martinez does not take Kelly’s advice, but in a sense does what Kelly would himself do rather than what Kelly said to do. Finally, Kelly says goodbye to Martinez and walks out of the station. His walking out of the station door is an obvious metaphor for the end of his career and also the end of that actor’s role in the show. I summarize all these short beats because each beat in the scene contributes to the conclusion of the episode and the development of the thematic tension. I also want to show that each beat is an interaction between two characters, and this interaction involves some conflict or difference of opinion between them. A good show presents contradictions, not morals. Morals are for politicians, priests, and children. In contrast, real life has contradictions, dilemmas, and tension. A good television program for adults will present contradictory or opposing views (counterpoint) on the same theme.

TV Drama Script Writing: supplemental reading

9 Jan

Some trainees in Ethiopia have expressed interest in other reading materials beyond what’s on my syllabus for the workshop on TV drama script writing. In my blog posts previously, I have often included hyperlinks to the books on the syllabus and to other sources of information. In response to the interest of the trainees, today I want to add some more readings here. First, on the syllabus is the important textbook book The Screenplay: A Blend of Film Form and Content by Margaret Mehring, who discusses a lot of the things I mentioned in my January 5th blog post about how the peculiar technology of film and video camera affects the way a story is told. In earlier blog posts, I have already included links to the books Story: Structure, Substance, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting by Robert McKee and Writing the TV Drama Series by Pamela Douglas that we are reading for the workshop.

There are some other sources worth mentioning. Syd Field wrote a book called Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting. Based on that book, he made a useful film entitled the Screen Writing Workshop. You can click on the hyperlinks for his website, his book, and the workshop film, but here also is the first 15 minutes of that workshop on YouTube:

In addition to these practical guides for writing screenplays, there are numerous books of a more theoretical nature. For example, there are the classic essays of the most important and influential filmmaker, Sergei Eisenstein, which have been translated and collected in a book entitled Essays in Film Theory: Film Form. Another is the important book by the film critic and theorist Andre Bazin translated from the French, What is Cinema? One of the classic works of feminist film criticism is Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema by Laura Mulvey. I couldn’t find the entire text of that book on the internet, but her shorter article that summarizes the whole book is [here]. One of the most famous Africa film critics is Manthia Diawara. His book African Cinema analyzes the history of its development. These are all foundational, classic works. In addition, in my blog post of January 2, I included a YouTube video of the famous philosopher Slavoj Zizek talking about film. His books Looking Awry and Enjoy Your Symptom! are useful introductions to thinking critically about movies and television. For my “Introduction to Film Studies” course that I taught last year [syllabus], I used a new textbook by Bill Nichols entitled Engaging Cinema, but unfortunately this is not available yet on-line.

My blog post today is just a beginning, but in my opinion, more important than reading these textbooks and theoretical books is to watch films and TV shows critically and to practice discussing and writing about them. Writing is like a sport — practice, experiment, practice. Meanwhile, if anyone has any other suggestions for reading or useful hyperlinks, please let us know by posting a comment!!!

TV Drama Script Writing: the technology of the sound-image

5 Jan

My previous blog posts for the TV drama script writing workshop in Ethiopia [syllabus] have focused on character and plot, but now I want to focus on the technology of story telling. All media has its own specific form of technology. This is obvious enough, but what is less obvious is the effect of that technology on the character and plot of a story. The technology of theater is the stage, which amplifies the voices of the main characters, so the primary way the story is told is through dialogue between those characters. The technology of a novel is the printed page, and so the main character of any novel is the authorial voice of story-teller. This voice can be the actual voice of the author or the fictional voice of a persona, but either way, it is this authorial voice that is on every page, not the voice of any of the characters. In that sense, the sort of story and way of representing characters in a novel is clearly different from a stage play. In contrast to novels and plays, the technology for movies and television is the motion picture camera. Only the camera is in every single scene, insisting on its point of view for each and every image. Therefore, when one begins to write for television of film, one must consider that the most important character is the camera itself.

The idea that the camera is the most important character might bother some people who believe in the humanity of fictional characters, but it is the camera-as-character that gives television and movies not only its power but also its greater humanity. In terms of power, the director of plays controls the movement of the actors on the stage — where they stand, where and when they enter and exit, which direction they are facing, how they relate to each other, etc., but the audience is motionless. The director has no control over the audience. However, for television and movies, the director also controls the camera, and the viewpoint of the camera is also the viewpoint of the audience. Therefore, if one considers that the most important character in film or television is the camera itself, then one must conclude that the character of the camera is in a very visceral sense the audience. Because the directors of a motion picture control the point of view of the audience, they are almost like a gods, and that is the magical power of the motion picture. But the machine of the camera has the potential to possess even more humanity than the make-believe characters of a novel or stage play, because it represents the audience.

video of police beating Rodney King

So, let me explain how important the camera is to effective story telling in TV and film by analyzing some scenes from the penultimate episode of NYPD Blue‘s first season, which we watched for our script writing workshop. The theme for this episode is a very controversial issue: police violence. The context is the many cases when police have shot or beat unarmed black men by accident. One of the most famous cases is the beating of Rodney King in 1991. The police officers were acquitted in court, and this sparked riots in Los Angeles from April 30 to May 4 in 1992. This episode of NYPD Blue entitled “Guns ‘N Rosaries” aired May 10, 1994, just two years after those riots, and it is clearly responding to the issue of police violence and racism, and in my view it also very deliberately takes the side of the police. Personally, I find the ideology of the television show troubling, and I don’t agree with it. But in this blog, I want to focus attention on how the camera functions as a character to tell a story about police violence and to control the perspective of the audience.

Let’s look at the opening scene of the episode — the “story event” or “inciting incident” as Robert McKee calls it. After Detective Greg Medavoy tells the receptionist Donna that he is upset because he caught his wife in bed with another man, he and Detective James Martinez go to interview a witness. They are sitting in their car stuck in traffic. There is a lot of background noise because of the traffic, but the audience does not see the street because the camera focuses close up on the faces of Medavoy and Martinez. We only know there is traffic because of the noise and because the detectives say so during their conversation. In the car beside them, there is an angry black man. The black man starts an argument with Medavoy; the argument escalates, and then he raises a gun. Martinez sees this happening, pushes Medavoy out of the way, and quickly shoots the man. Later in the episode, Martinez is upset as he wonders whether or not he did the wrong thing and killed an innocent man. This is the central plot of this episode that communicates the theme of police violence, a theme that is also communicated in the longer plot arc of the entire season about Officer Licalsi’s guilt over killing the mafia boss Marino. In the end, we learn that the gun had no bullets in it, but that the man had been abusing cocaine.

The story ultimately vindicates Martinez, but I argue that the camera plays a very important role in this vindication. Before the man raises his gun, the camera shows us eye contact between him and Martinez. The camera cuts back and forth between close ups of Martinez’s face and the man’s face. This does two things. It helps create tension, and it also helps the audience understand what Martinez is doing when he reacts by shooting the guy. If the director had not cut back and forth from one face to another first, then the shooting would not make sense to the audience. Hence, something as simple as a few camera angles contributes significantly to the story telling and communicates a lot of information in just a few seconds. After the shooting, then the camera backs up and moves from close-ups of the main characters to a long shot of the whole street. It is only now, after the event is over, that we see the setting, and we see that Martinez and Medavoy are in a mostly black and poor neighborhood of New York City. The scene ends, and then NYPD Blue’s theme song and credits roll, and then a commercial break. What if the scene had begun with an establishing shot of the setting first? Usually film and television begins with establishing shots of the setting so the audience can get a sense of the whole situation and then cuts to close-ups of the main characters, but this scene does the opposite. I believe the decision to shoot the scene like that was made in order to emphasize the point of view, humanity, and individuality of the police officers rather than the social context of the event.  In addition, the question that upsets the police for much of the episode is that they can’t find the angry man’s gun, so Martinez doubts himself. He wonders if he imagined the gun. However, the camera clearly showed the audience the gun, and even showed us in slow motion to emphasize its presence. So, while the police are searching for the gun, the audience knows there was a gun. What if the camera had never focused on the gun but left it an open question? After all, it was an open question in Martinez’s mind, so why not leave it an open question in the audience’s mind? Ideologically, since the television show is taking the side of the police, it can’t leave this an open question because that would raise too much doubt in the audience’s mind. In my opinion, the show would be more interesting and more provocative, and also far more controversial, if it had done otherwise. Near the end of the episode, the dramatic importance of the police’s perspective is demonstrated when Detective Kelly points a gun in a journalist’s face and asks the journalist whether or not there are bullets in the gun. His excessively made point is that the lives of police are at risk and they have to make fast and hard decisions without all the facts. In my opinion, the show would be more compelling if the audience had the same doubts as Martinez and community, but in any case, my argument here is that the camera is the most important character, because it is the most important point-of-view that affects the unfolding of the story and its meaning.

Similarly, in the following scene after the commercial break, the camera cuts back and forth between close ups of the various police officers (main characters) and the crowd of angry people in the street. This back-and-forth between camera shots creates dramatic tension and antagonism between the police and the crowd which concludes in a fight between police and people. Again, close-up camera shots of the police emphasize their humanity in contrast to the long shots of the crowd. When the fight breaks out, the scene ends with ominous music and slow drums, which are a counterpoint to the fast and chaotic nature of the fight.

This reverse of this incident of police violence and guilt is the exceptional case of Officer Janis Licalsi. Both Martinez and Licalsi killed someone, and both of them express guilt and remorse for what they did. In both cases, the other officers support them. In both cases, the audience is asked to think about the rightness or wrongness of their action. However, in the case of Martinez, he is vindicated, and in the case of Licalsi, she can’t live with her guilt, and she turns herself in. In both cases, the camera plays in important role in telling the story. Let’s look at the scene when Licalsi confesses her crime to a priest.  In this scene, the camera does almost the opposite of what it does in the opening scene when Martinez shoots the angry black man.

In this scene (#5), the camera begins with an establishing shot of Licalsi and a priest walking in the park. We see the park first, and then the camera focuses on their faces. Remember that the earlier opening scene began with close-up shots of the faces and ended with a long shot of the street. Also, in contrast to the first scene of the episode with Martinez which is very chaotic and loud, this scene with Licalsi is very quiet. After Licalsi and the priest walk to a park bench, the camera gives the audience a very artistically composed image of the priest hovering over Licalsi. This image is almost like a painting. In it, Licalsi appears vulnerable because her face is below the priest’s. The arrangement of their faces in the image contributes to the meaning of the scene. Licalsi is upset and doesn’t know what to do. The priest says, “You know what you should do.” But what does the priest mean by that? The audience can’t really know, and the writers of the show wisely do not tell the audience the answer right away. The question is left open, and so the audience wonders what Licalsi’s decision will be. This is good writing. The camera contributes to the meaning by moving behind them. We see the backs of their heads as they sit in the park, looking across the river at the skyline of the city. The audience sees what they see. The camera slowly pulls back to a long shot, and music begins. The music stands in for what the characters are thinking and the difficult decision Licalsi must make. Hence, the camera angles and the “sound-image” communicate the meaning of the scene and asks the audience to think about what Licalsi is thinking. This sound-image ends the second act of the show, with the audience wondering what will happen during the commercial break. The following scene answers that question when Licalsi goes to Lieutenant Fancy’s office and confesses to him. Her former lover Detective John Kelly is wondering what she is doing. He looks anxiously at the window of Fancy’s office, through which he can see Licalsi. The camera then gives us a close up of his face and a close up of her face. This cutting back and forth between viewpoints shows the eye contact through the window between the two characters. This simple camera work communicates a lot of meaning. The relationship between the characters is highly emotional and intimate, but now the window of police bureaucracy and the legal system stands between them. All of this is communicated in just two seconds through the movement of the camera. A good script writer has to keep in mind the important role of the camera for creating meaning, character, and plot for movies and television dramas.

TV Drama Script Writing: minor characters, ideology, and the illusion of depth

2 Jan

In my previous blog post for the TV Drama Script Writing workshop in Ethiopia, I promised to critique Robert McKee’s emphasis on the “inciting incident” and the “gap between expectation and result” as the basis for dramatic action. Although I agree with these two points, in my opinion McKee seems too interested in the authenticity of the story and not interested enough in its illusory qualities. As a result of his bias, the many examples of movies he talks about in his book Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting are mostly straight dramas and suspense thrillers. He has little to say about comedies or about dramas that are self-consciously ironic. In fact, he has surprisingly little to say about humor or irony in general. He also has little to say about the problem of ideology and issues of race, gender, class, and nation when creating characters. The new movie Hugo, by the famous director Martin Scorsese, highlights how the art of making movies is more similar to the art of magic than the art of truth. My argument today is that complexity and depth are illusions. Minor characters play an important role in creating that illusion, as one purpose of minor characters is to give depth to the major character. And this relation between major and minor characters does not necessarily reflect the reality of the subject matter or the biases of the author. Rather, the TV or film aims to reproduce imaginary relations in our daily lives. Such is the ideological aspect of TV and film and the moral responsibility of writers and directors.

First, what do I mean when I say that depth is illusory? To give an example, I want to start with one of the most classic early films, City Lights, by Charlie Chaplin. The main story is about a poor, homeless tramp who falls in love with a blind flower girl. At the beginning of the film, she mistakenly believes that he is a rich man. Because he is in love with the blind flower girl, he tries to become the person that she thinks he is. Over the course of the film, he encounters a real rich man who is benevolent to him when drunk, but stingy and cruel when sober. You can watch the whole film by clicking [here], but below I’ve inserted a brief YouTube clip of the famous philosopher and film critic from Slovenia, Slavoj Zizek, talking about it:

What gives the tramp’s character depth and complexity? Is it the real details of his life? Is it his background as a member of what Karl Marx called the lumpenproletariat? Certainly, I think writers ought to do a lot of research to get background information for their characters, but in fact, we see very little realistic information in Chaplin’s film. What gives the tramp depth is not his real background. The details of his life are unimportant. Rather, what gives the tramp complexity and depth is what the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan calls misrecognition. The tramp is consistently in the “wrong place” at the wrong time — first sleeping on the new statue during a ceremony and then being mistaken for a rich man by the blind girl. It is this humorous case of mistaken identity and out-of-placeness that gives him depth. In other words, it is not true identity that gives a character depth; rather, it is the audience’s ironic awareness of mistaken identity and the way other characters react to him that gives him depth. The blindness of the flower girl is a metaphor for the matter of perspective and the instability of identity that is the meaning of the film.

Now let’s look briefly at the first scene of the third episode of NYPD Blue, which we watched for today’s workshop. (If you don’t know the show, you can read brief summaries of all the episodes [here].) Officer Janis Licalsi’s father walks in the door. He confesses to her that he is one of the cops indicted on corruption charges. This is simple enough. But what gives the scene its power and depth is when he then continues to misrecognize his daughter. He believes that she is innocent and good. He tells her that he is proud of her. In response, she falters and can not reveal to him that the mafia has already used her. She can’t say anything because she already knew he was a “wrong cop,” and she knows that because she has also become a “wrong cop” in order to protect him. Her silence and inability to respond to his recognition is what gives her depth. Other moments of misrecognition continue throughout the first act of the episode. Detective Kelly misunderstands Licalsi’s motivation. Later, Detective Sipowicz misunderstands his boss Lieutenant Fancy’s motivation and even blames Fancy’s African-American racial identity. The sub-plot of this particular episode is about a mother who refuses to recognize the truth that her two sons are drug addicts and have killed her next door neighbor while trying to rob her. Each different scene of the first act of this episode shows a different misrecognition. The misrecognition is the “inciting incident” that destabilizes the character and gives the story its drive. The second act develops each of these misrecognitions as the characters attempt to understand each other’s true identities. The final act is the reconciliation when the characters overcome their prejudices and come to terms with each other.

If we think of characterization as an illusion — more like magic than like truth — then one of the tricks of illusion is misrecognition. It produces dramatic irony and causes the audience to want the misunderstanding to be corrected and resolved. It also causes the audience to believe that there is more to the character than the surface. If one character misunderstands another character, and the audience is made aware of this misunderstanding, then the audience suspects there must be a lot more depth to that character. The audience never actually has to find out the details of that depth. The misunderstanding is enough to give the illusion that depth is there.

But what of the role of minor characters? In simple stories, minor characters rarely have depth. So, in the case of Officer Licalsi’s father mentioned above, his character is rather simple, and his function in the episode is to give her character complexity and depth. Hence, the complexity of the main character always requires several minor characters, and likewise, the major plot arc always requires several minor plot arcs. These minor characters and sub-plots help to establish the personality of the major characters. Sometimes a minor plot helps develop the major plot, but sometimes it is just a distraction that gets in the way of the major character and prevents him or her from pursuing the primary goal. However it functions, it should always give complexity and depth to the main story.

The danger is that the relation between major and minor characters is often an ideological relation. Which characters are given depth and which aren’t? Why is one character’s point of view more valued than another’s? We might think of Tom Stoppard’s absurdist play Rozencrantz and Guildernstearn Are Dead that re-tells Shakespeare’s Hamlet from the point of view of two minor characters. Or we might think of Robert Altman’s movie Gosford Park which at first appears to be a typical Agatha-Christie-style murder mystery about upper-class people at a country estate, but instead focuses entirely on the depth of the servants. If we go back in time to the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in American literature, white male characters in novels, plays, and movies were always given the illusion of depth. Often black minor characters functioned only to give depth to the white character. As the Nobel-prize winning American novelist Toni Morrison argued in her book Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination, the black character usually functioned to make the white character look good. In other words, if the author wanted the reader to admire the bravery, intelligence, or kindness of the white protagonist, then the author included a cowardly, stupid, or selfish black character as a point of contrast or object of pity. Morrison argues that centuries of literature repeated such “misrecognitions,” and so such literary stereotypes contributed to a racist ideology. More recently, the Kenyan writer Binyavanga Wainaina made a similar point in his sarcastic satirical essay, “How to Write about Africa” that parodies the prejudices of American and European journalists. Likewise, in Ethiopia, what if all the central and complex characters of a story belonged to one ethnic group, and all the minority characters with little depth belonged to other ethnic groups? Or what if the protagonist was always upper class or always a male, and never poor or never a female?

A good TV drama will overcome such prejudicial stereotypes by drawing attention to the misrecognition through dramatic irony. As I mentioned before, one of the things I like about NYPD Blue is how it shifts perspective from Detective Kelly’s point of view to Officer Licalsi’s point of view. At the beginning of the show, Licalsi is a minor character who simply contrasts with Kelly. Feminist film criticism has often pointed out that female characters function in simplistic, sexist movies as nothing more than complements to the male protagonist. But eventually, because both Kelly and her father misrecognize her, she becomes a truly complex character who struggles with difficult ethical dilemmas. Her out-of-placeness is the “inciting incident” that drives the plot, and as a result she becomes the most interesting character in the show.

Another way to think about this has been beautifully expressed by the famous Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie in her TED lecture, “The Danger of a Single Story.” I have inserted her lecture into my blog here:

Her lecture begins with a story about herself as a young writer trying to imitate European writers. Her lecture exposes a basic misrecognition about her own identity and the identity of “literature” itself. But in the context of television, it also reveals a danger. If the television show uses minor characters only to help create the illusion of depth in the major characters, then it risks producing a dangerous ideology that values some individuals and degrades others. Adichie emphasizes the moral responsibility of writers to tell the points of view of many different people. There are many ways to tell such human stories. One way is through dramatic irony that reveals misrecognition, as I mentioned above. Another way is that the “inciting incident” of a story brings two individuals together who normally don’t know each other. This is the basis for the famous movie The Breakfast Club which puts five high school students of very different backgrounds in the same room, and the audience watches them overcome their prejudices and get to know each other. Likewise, one of the appeals of the detective story genre is that the detective’s job is to cross social boundaries (e.g., class, race, gender, nation, religion, etc.) and discover the truth. Finally, another way to reveal misrecognition is through postmodern irony or parody that draws attention to the illusion of the dominant stereotypes and the artificiality of film in order to make space for alternative stories and minority points of view. The concepts “point of view” and the artificiality of the filmic “frame” and the “sound-image” will be the subject of the next workshop.