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Thursday, September 24, 2015

TV writing has a disease at its core. It is the tyranny of the core cast member.

Lisa and I have been binge-watching season 4 of Homeland. Homeland is originally an adaptation of Prisoners of War a very gritty and naturalistic Israeli series about Israeli solders who have returned after years of captivity among their enemies. One of them may have been brainwashed. But what is his plan?

What sucked us into the first seasons was fraught situations, plot twists, characters with strong but hidden and possibly changing motivations, long story arcs and intelligent writing. Moreover, I felt a sense that the writers had consulted people who knew something about spy craft. It was a bit like Aaron Sorkin's years on West Wing, where things happened that bore some resemblance to what happens in the White House, as opposed to John Wells' years, where things happened that bore some resemblance to what happens on E.R.

HOMELAND SPOILERS FOLLOW

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We're about six episodes into Season Four when everything starts to go to hell, in the sense that the writers start making random stuff up to be dramatic. Saul, the former head of the CIA, is tricked into entering an Islamabad Airport bathroom where he's knocked out and spirited off to the tribal areas. (Never mind that no one would send the former head of the CIA to any airport, let alone Islamabad, without a platoon of security.) No one notices that he didn't make his flight. Then, just as Carrie Mathieson, the CIA station chief, is about to order a Hellfire missile fired at a top Taliban leader, it turns out the leader has Saul prisoner. She orders the shot anyway. Her sidekick nixes it. The soldier at the controls doesn't fire.

Now, there are all sorts of things wrong with this. TV writers regularly ignore chain of command in their writing, even though they are acutely conscious of chain of command in their own career. If the station chief order the shot, the soldier takes the shot. Moreover, it is obviously the right decision. Saul knows too much. He's going to be tortured for his information. He himself would order the shot.

But, you see, Saul is core cast. He can't be killed.

There is a long TV tradition of risking the lives of the many to save one person that the star knows well. In real life, Saul is a dead man, but before he dies, he will give our mortal enemies weapons to use against us, and dozens or hundreds of people will die. But no, we can't kill Saul, because Carrie cares about him, and so do we.

What's tedious about this is that Carrie killing Saul would be really interesting. How would she live with herself after blowing up her mentor and father figure? Who would she turn to for emotional stability? She's become really hard and badass in this season; this would be her hardest and baddest moment.

Indeed, one of the strongest moments in Homeland is when Damien Lewis's character Brody actually does die and she can't save him.

The season goes downhill from there. After Saul escapes, and makes Carrie swear that he won't be taken alive, she betrays him, leading him into a Taliban trap, so that he won't blow his own head off. The consequences are a prisoner exchange in which the Taliban gets five top commanders back, which leads to a truly ridiculous series of events I can't even stand to outline. (Let's just say that no, when an RPG hits your car, you do not survive with a cut on your scalp, and no, under no circumstances does anyone send all the Marines out of the Pakistan embassy.)

As a writer watching this, I feel like two things are going on. One, the writers are choosing the biggest drama rather than the truth of the situation. Big Emotion is riding roughshod over the story. (The first season, the adage goes, the stars are working for the showrunner. The second season, they're working with the showrunner. After that, the showrunner is working for the stars. Actors like to big up their emotions. Is that what's going on here?)

But two, the terrible tyranny of core cast -- under no circumstances can Saul blow his own head off unless it's at the end of a season and he's leaving the show.

This kind of crap goes on all the time in American-told stories. American heroes regularly put the lives of many at risk to save one person. Captain Kirk will always ignore regulations in order to save a friend. If Homeland were on Japanese TV, I don't doubt that Saul would indeed blow his head off to prevent his government from giving up five top Taliban commanders -- and Carrie Mathie-san would have a beautiful moment with him on the phone, wishing only that she could be the one killing herself in his place. Hell, even on Canadian TV (see Flashpoint).

I sometimes wonder if it is only a reflection of the American character, or if the flaws of the film and television media actually feed back into American culture. What am I saying? Of course they do. After generations of heros saying "never tell me the odds," and "we have to risk it" and "I don't care what the experts say," you wind up with yippee-ki-yay foreign policy driven by politicians who haven't actually been to war, but have seen it on TV. We think of ourselves as invincible, because we think of ourselves as core cast. That's how we end up invading Iraq.

So ... what about Game of Thrones, you say? Or Sopranos? Yes, well, that's HBO. They mean it when they say, "It's not TV, it's HBO." About the only person you can be sure will survive to the end of The Sopranos is the point of view character, Tony. I suspect Tyrion Lannister will make it through to the end of Game of Thrones, because he's so much fun, but I never thought they'd kill off Jon Snow, what with him having a whole backstory set up for him where he was the Hidden True Heir and all. And they did.

And isn't that more interesting? When Joss takes away Jenny Calendar's immunity, or Tara Maclay's, doesn't that make us much more engaged with his other characters?

But more importantly -- isn't the story what's important?

Well no, not on TV. I interviewed Ron Moore about Battlestar Galactica in Banff years ago, and I asked him about some of the sillier permutations the cast of the show went through -- where fighter pilots became politicians and so forth. His answer was that, for him, the show is the core cast. Call it Battlestar Galactica all you like, but the show is not "things that happen relating to a warship," it is "things that happen to some people who were on a warship when the show began."

This is the tyranny of the core cast. I hate it. I hate it because when I watch TV, I know the writers are going to betray the characters and the story any time the alternative is killing someone with a season contract. That puts me in a foul mood all day.

Every medium has its flaw. In games and film, the hero has to motivate everything and make all the choices; you can't have a passive protagonist like Ishmael in Moby Dick. Plays, well, everything has to be resolved by talking.

But boy, I wish Carrie had taken that shot. 

6 Comments:

Great analysis, Alex.

Man, I wish there'd been a second season of CJ. There was so much more I could've learned from you "Canadian" boys.

By Blogger Dennis Venter, at 1:02 AM  

Why do writers set themselves up for this? Granted they have the constraint that they can't kill their core cast, why do they put themselves into a position where that's the only way out, so they then have to deus-ex-machina themselves out of it? It reminds me of the scenes where someone is falling, and they've clearly fallen like 40 feet, and then someone reaches out and grabs their hand - you don't need to do that. Or two things are speeding on a collision, and it's clearly established that they're going to crash in another second, and then 5 seconds later they narrowly avert. Sure, it's exciting the first time, but then you utterly lose faith that what you're watching won't just be taken back a few seconds later, and all excitement fades. It seems to me that writing the main characters into a hopeless situation then pulling them out by magic is the same basic thing - it's just lying to your audience.

So do you really think that the problem is the core cast, or do you think it's being dishonest with the audience? They want certain emotions, and instead of building them up honestly, they just cheat. If you want to kill a character off, why not do the work of bringing in a guest actor for most of a season, building them up, make it look like they're going to become core cast, then kill them off.

I don't know about you, but the moment it becomes certain that a core character is going to die, I lose interest, because I know that the writers are just going to cheat, so I might as well be watching a dream sequence.

By Blogger Chris Lansdown, at 2:27 PM  

Chris, I couldn't agree more. Joss calls this "schmuck bait," meaning only a schmuck would think that the core cast member is in real danger.

I think the writers are cheating, yes. And I think you're right that the solution is either to not put the character in a situation where their life is in danger, or make the episode about something else. I might be interested in how the character confronts what to him is a life or death situation. But don't expect me to worry about Mandy Patinkin's character unless the episode is announced as ONE of the CORE CAST MEMBERS is going to DIE. And even then I won't really believe it.

By Blogger Alex Epstein, at 4:37 PM  

Jenny Calendar or Tara dying never made me think the core cast was in any danger. Calendar was a pretty minor character, and Tara was a latecomer. Neither of them were remotely as important as the core four.

Not that I disagree with your overall point, but I don't think this particular example supports what you're saying it does.

On a related note, have you seen The Originals? In it, the main characters are uber-vampires who can only be killed through some hilariously specific magic McGuffins, and they often point this out to other characters and act accordingly. There's a great scene where the lead kills a vampire in a place where that's punished by death - but as he points out, he can't be killed. And just like that he has undermined the local ruler's authority. The show has its flaws, but I love it for that explicit acknowledgment that almost all main character mortal peril is fake drama.

By Blogger Stanoje, at 2:16 PM  

Why in the name of Fuck (P.B.U.H.) did you announce that you were spoiling Homeland but forget to announce that you were spoiling GAME OF THRONES. WHY? You've ruined a huge moment for me. I hate you. Tell me where you live so I can vandalize your shit. Darth Vader is Luke's Father, jerk. Yeah, he is. I speak unto you, Bleh! Upon you and all your future generations to the end of time. Bleh, I say. Bleh.

By Blogger Person of Interest, at 7:03 AM  


A fair point, and eloquently put. I have put the said spoiler in white text.

By Blogger Alex Epstein, at 12:15 PM  

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