There's a BBC America series that we have both fallen in love with called "Coupling" - and if any of you can get it, watch it, it's great stuff. Neither of us understands why it's so furiously funny, but for some reason it stays with us and we quote lines at one another for DAYS after we've seen an episode and chortle at them all over again. It's probably a combination of good acting, good directing, and damn fine writing - but these characters, zany as they are, somehow come across with real people with real problems (which just happen to be funny as hell when THEY have them). And then we kind of took it further, and I dug into a drama series we liked - "Judging Amy". ANother example of fine acting, fine directing, and damn fine writing. Less laugh-out-loud hilarious, obviously, but the reason that it worked so well was, again, the characters.
Perfect predictable people in most TV stuff these days live their lives according to the script, no less, no more. They never reach for things that they may not quite be able to achieve - and fail; they never do idiotic things for no particular reason; they never sit back and glare at the Heavens and yell, "What now, GOd - your timing SUCKS!" And if they do any of these things, in an average TV show, they are usually shown as somehow managing to bypass taht initial failure, there turn out to be good reasons for the idiocy in the last five minutes of the show, or God answers with a pat on the head and everything turns out OK. And all of it serves as part of The Message. One show particularly heavy handed with The Message is Seventh Heaven, which delivers three sermons a minute on a chosen topic ("Drugs Are Bad!" and "Teenage Pregnancy Is Bad!" were just a couple of recent ones that we somehow failed to avoid seeing). I particularly dislike using character actions - the thing the makes the plot happen, carries the storyline - as no more than a clue-by-four to deliver an authorial fiat about something. I want to watch - well, read, too, but I seem to be talking about TV a lot right now - a real story about real people.
That is precisely why Babylon 5 worked so well. Those characters were all real people. THings happened, and they dealt with them and went on - and sometimes they were really bad things, and they changed the people who were afflicted by them in measurable ways, and the people STAYED changed.
Back to Judging Amy for a second - the example I used in this morning's conversation was Amy's brother VIncent. I had a certain empathy for him anyway because, well, he was a writer [wry grin]. He had his ups and downs. He had an early success, a phenomenal one, having won a prestigious award very early on in his life - and he didn't necessarily take that success and build on it and develop a fairy tale life where he finally wins the Pulitzer Prize, gets the trophy wife and lives happily ever after. What he did instead was run away. From everything. From the success. From the weight of expectations that success had piled on him. It was years later that he came back and obsessively wrote The Novel, the novel that got published,... but, again, did not cause a total stir and win the aforementioned Pulitzer. Like many such brilliant novels it languished in bookshops with little fanfare until the (predictable) low sales caused the beancounters to pull it. Vincent withdrew into a bubble and abandoned words altogether. He got into trouble for it - the advance paid for the second book he never wrote had to be paid back. But in the meantime, he did a lot of living - he met a girl he liked, he fought the attraction because he thought of himself as a loser who shouldn't saddle a nice girl with himself, got disabused of that notion right smart by the girl in question, and yet another cliche situation was being kneaded into shape right before our eyes until Real Life happened. Just as the two of them begin discussing moving away to where she would be woriking on a brand new job, she is diagonosed with cancer. VIncent does the noble thing and stands by her. They go away anyway, to the place where they were planning to go. And you think our writer is now all grown up, with a wife he needs to support (in every way) and all that. But, a season of the show later, VIncent returns to his ancestral haunts. ALone. Turns out his wife is in remission. Well, they're kind of separated. Well, she's kind of living with her oncologist. What you don't find out until MUCH later is that it isn't SHE who left, it was VINCENT - dealing, once again, with things he cannot handle by running away. This wonderful character, hugely sympathetic, hugely flawed, is having a very real life, and learning how to deal with it one day at a time. By running away, sometimes. By learning that it is possible NOT to run away. By learning.
Stories aren't just inventions. They are, or should be, slices of living, preserved under a magnifying glass that can sometimes make them seem larger than life - but never BETTER than life. A sense of reality does not depend on the setting or the dateline of a story - hey, I spoke of Babylon 5, how realistic is the premise that it all happens inside a floating tin can of a space station with artificial gravity and wormhole travel through hyperspace? And yet Babylon 5 is in that transcendent sense far more real than anything you would care to name and that you could tie down to a precise location in, say, Brooklyn. A space station can be a far more believable place than the most familiar of neighbourhood streets.
And it's characters that make it so.
Oh well. ENough.
Happy Thanksgiving, everyone.