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.

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