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Friday, March 18, 2005

I've been working on my book. Here's a section on the attractive fantasy:

If a hook gets us watching, what keeps us watching?

We watch some shows because the characters are in a situation that we'd like to be in. In The OC the characters have personal problems we can all relate to (romance, family, money), but they're young and slim and beautiful, and live in spectacular houses. Most of us have the problems without the spectacular houses. We feel we could be them; and by watching the show, we get to enter into their lives. We're right there with them.

In E.R., the characters save lives; in Homicide, the characters catch killers. Like us, they worry about making the rent, and falling in love. But their jobs are immediately, viscerally important. We get to step out of our lives and into theirs.

On Sex and the City, four thirty-something women get to live in the most glamorous part of the most glamorous city in the world. They wear fabulous clothes and they have fabulous apartments. (Everyone in New York has a fabulous apartment, on TV, even if they work at a coffee shop.) They not only have time to go out and breakfast, dine and party with each other several times a week, they all like each other enough to do it. Does anyone over twenty really have friends like that? We wish ... and by watching, we step into their world, and they become our friends too.

That's the fantasy that attracts us to the show's world and keeps us coming back to spend more time there. That's why I call it the show’s "attractive fantasy."

A show can also have a "negative fantasy." The characters are dealing with problems like the ones we face but worse.

We watch The Sopranos because our family is just like that, but at least no one's getting whacked.

We watch Oz because at least we don't live in a maximum security ward, where we can be murdered at the first misstep. We can step outside any time we like.

We watch Lost because it's exciting to think about being stranded on a mysterious and dangerous desert island, so long as you know you can change the channel at any moment, and the beast is not actually going to chase you.

Comedy is often based on a negative fantasy. We watch Seinfeld because Jerry and his buddies are just like us, only even more shallow and selfish. On All in the Family, Archie Bunker was a worse redneck bigot than most people's parents, and Edith was much more of a ditz. If we can see the comedy in their lives, we can laugh at our own.

There are often elements of attractive and negative fantasy. In Buffy: The Vampire Slayer, the characters are usually in immediate mortal peril, but they also have skills and powers we don't have. The attractive fantasy is that Buffy gets to save the world; the negative fantasy is that she has to.

What both fantasies have in common, of course, is that everything on TV is exciting. TV is compressed time -- life without the dull bits. Trying to get a promotion in your own job may involve years of work and politicking, much of it irritating or boring. There's no scutwork on TV. On The Apprentice, within a dozen hours, someone is going to win the job and the rest are going to get fired. Immediate gratification or suffering.

You can't really choose whether to have an attractive fantasy or a negative one or not. It's inherent in the premise. But understanding what the attractive fantasy of a show is enables you to deliver the goods for that show. If you're writing an episode of The OC, remember that people are watching at least partly because it's set in one of the beach communities of Orange County. If you're not selling that fantasy at least a little, you're not delivering the goods...

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