Bringing the DarknessComplications Ensue
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Friday, December 26, 2008

I'm watching the pilot to ZOS, about which I'll blog more in a bit. But there's a scene in it which is so effective, and so dark, I had to stop the DVD and go help my daughter play with her new dollhouse for a bit.

A lot of the best shows on cable seem drawn to the darkness. SOPRANOS, SIX FEET UNDER, THE WIRE, even MAD MEN seem disinclined to give us too much to be hopeful for in life. Even BATTLESTAR GALACTICA treats hope and faith and redemption as a French chef might treat sugar: it has its place, sure, but it's hardly artful to use it in more than a couple of dishes.

I appreciate the attraction to the darkness. But as a writer, you risk losing a big chunk of the audience. You may be able to stomach scenes in which children are killed, but Lisa won't watch shows that do that. A lot of people, including me, put the script down or turn off the television, when we see animals being hurt onscreen.

I guess darkness is like sex or bad language. All are undeniably effective, and attractive to many. But go too far, and they run the risk of throwing some of the audience out of the picture, or the series. I think you have to ask yourself if the darkness is a necessary part of your story, or if you're just doing it because you can. I think Ron Moore felt that he couldn't do justice to a series about humanity being chased by genocidal robots without bringing the darkness; how do you bring the comedy after most of humanity has been A-bombed to death? He was willing for BSG to pay that price.

And, obviously, David Milch felt he couldn't do justice to DEADWOOD without his particular style of poetically obscene dialogue.

But in other shows, the darkness seems to go farther than the story requires. Did DURHAM COUNTY need to be quite so bleak? Was that crucial to the truth of the story Laurie Finstad is telling? I don't know, because I couldn't watch the otherwise excellent series through. Too dark.

ZOS is a show about peacekeepers in former Yugoslavia. It's a tough show about convincing characters in an atrocious situation, and it goes deeper into the darkness than, say, OVER THERE, another strong show which wasn't easy to watch.

When you're trying to do that, it's a tough call. There were atrocities there -- kids getting blown up by mines, rape used as a policy of terrorism, genocide. So how do you avoid showing that? On the other hand, how do you sit and watch that? I find ZOS to be both effective drama, and hard to watch.

Is there a point at which showing the whole truth makes for a less effective drama, because the audience starts tuning it out? I heard the opinion of one concentration camp survivor of SCHINDLER'S LIST: "It was good, but he only showed the nice parts." Spielberg didn't go as dark as he could have. But would the audience have followed him further into the darkness -- both literally, into the movie theater, and also emotionally, once they were sitting in the darkness?

I feel that there's a point at which darkness becomes spectacle, not storytelling. That's the point at which you're showing more darkness than you need to show us the story. There are ways of conveying the truth that are more effective for showing less. Quint's story of the sharks eating the survivors of the USS Indianapolis arguably conveys more of the horror than actually seeing a historical flashback on the screen -- because it doesn't throw you out of the picture.

My personal favorite in both the darkness and sex departments is ROME. ROME was a seriously cruel show, with lots of sex and shocking language. But it was not a bleak show. Almost all of the violent characters were trying their best to do the right thing; I can't think of any violence that didn't have a point to it. And the sex scenes were pretty much all character scenes. Clausewitz called war "a continuation of diplomacy by other means." In ROME, sex is a continuation of dialogue by other means.

My feeling is, show only as much of the darkness as you need to tell the story. Beyond that, you're indulging yourself.

At least, if my pay cable series goes, that's the standard I hope to apply.

UPDATE: To be clear, calling ZoS "hard to watch" isn't to say they've crossed the line into spectacle. I don't think they do. And if you don't find this stuff hard to watch, you're probably not watching with your heart.

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"[S]ex is a continuation of dialogue by other means." Yes, exactly! There's a lot of sex in my work, but it's always indicative of character.

By Blogger MeiLin Miranda, at 8:05 PM  

I totally agree with your view points. I think the root is an attractiveness of something we know we can't or shouldn't have. Film and Video allows that avenue to be explored but to what degree does the darkness affect society? Two topics of advice or wisdom, 1- You'll believe a lie if your told long enough. 2- Practice doesn't make perfect, it makes permanent. Filmmakers help shape the future!

By Blogger Jeff Whitley, at 8:11 PM  

I don't know, Alex. I get uncomfortable whenever you go to this topic. Because it's always the same trigger with you. It's stuff to do with kids.

It shows a myopia on your part, as in the past where you've claimed that people who don't have kids can't write certain scenes as well as people who do.

OF COURSE, you should only use as much violence as you need to tell your story. But how is that any different than you should enter a scene as late as you can and leave it as early as you can? Or that you shouldn't overwrite dialogue? Or that you should only use as much comedy as your tone can support. All of these truths are supposed to be self-evident.

What isn't is the trigger that gets you to write a post like this. You have to understand that that's your trigger. We all have them. Some people can watch Jack Bauer torture a man for two full acts, but slap a woman across the face, or suggest that a dog is in harm's way and they can't watch. I have a friend who's a 40 year old mother of two who has to leave the room whenever a gun or a hint of violence comes up on TV. Yes, she leaves the room a lot.

So whose standard do we write to? Yours? The Parents Television Council? My 70 year old father, who'll watch violence all day long but still recoils at every use of the F-word?

The truth is that the only standard a writer can use is what feels right to them. Either they're in step with a larger audience, or they're not.

I think it's crazy that you didn't watch Durham County because you thought it was too dark. Then again, you said the same thing about BSG a few years ago, and now you seem to have climbed on board that train a bit.

The truth is -- based on the standard of most cable shows being made today, the threshold of darkness is a little further down the road than your personal comfort level, for whatever reason.

That's fine. And that sensibility can inform your writing and set it apart. But as far as extrapolating your taste out into a guideline for all to follow -- I think you're on dicey ground.

Can I interest you in a CBS Procedural? :)

By Blogger DMc, at 11:17 PM  

I may indeed be a wuss as a viewer, Denis, as you suggest in kinder words. But the reason for the post is that I think darkness is something that writers sometimes indulge themselves in, as directors (rarely, I think, writers) indulge in gratuitous sex. And when you're writing for a mass audience (even cable is a mass audience) you have to be aware that your particular tolerance of darkness, sex, bad language, violence, adult situations, etc., may be further than other people's. And you are leaving people behind when you write only for people who have a high tolerance.

In TV it's less of an issue because you're usually writing to a network's standards and practices, and even pay cable won't cross certain lines.

By Blogger Alex Epstein, at 10:04 AM  

Same comment, different frame Alex. You're not saying anything new here. The exact same argument you're using could have been used to caution against showing white and black people kissing thirty years ago, or boys and boys kissing fifteen years ago.

Cable was born to push that audience -- and so it has, even for the networks. And it's generally been a good thing.

In this case, I think your lens causes you to often default to an argument that you probably wouldn't make across the board in equivalent contexts where your buttons haven't been so roundly pushed. That's all I'm saying.

By Blogger DMc, at 11:20 AM  

I have a fondness for dark material and movies ... I find, however, that since having my son (well, actually, my wife had my son, but I was there, I was an important part of the process) I'm now extremely sensitive to violence to children in stories onscreen or anywhere ... I had to recently stop reading a Stephen King short story because it dealt with that topic (though Cujo never bothered me decades ago when I first read it, I don't think I could now) ...

It's fascinating on one had, because it has completely changed my appetite for entertainment ... though I still like dark stuff, there are limits ... but I can recall when I was positively gleeful about certain cool things in the past.

In fact, I could never get why some people wouldn't like it.

Just part of the ongoing human evolution, I guess.

One man's butter is another man's bitter.

By Blogger Joshua James, at 12:12 PM  

Absolutely, people change over time. But where you go down the bad road is in getting solipsistic about it.

There are plenty of people who have the same reaction as you and Alex once they have children. But many, many others don't.

What's the difference between this argument and someone who just got divorced saying, "I can't watch anything about couples who are cruel to each other?" You might nod and understand why that person felt that way -- but it's hardly a universal rule.

And P.S. -- music isn't getting worse. We're all just getting old!

By Blogger DMc, at 1:41 PM  

And those kids ... they're messing up my lawn!

Hey! You kids! Off my lawn!


Seriously, I get it, though ... in a way, it's worse because I (and Alex too) have a wicked imagination ... it's not too hard to take a hop and skip to a place too close to home when I'm reading / watching something ...

But interestingly enough, I still have a somewhat savage appetite for dark twisted stuff, it's just skewed a bit ...

But I hear ya ... actually it's the newspaper these days that's harder than anything ... there be much violence in the world on the news than anything I see on TV.

But I'd note, of child violence, there's a LOT MORE of it on TV ... L&O, CSI (that's six shows right there) and numerous others ... there's simply a lot more, and it's in a different context than, say, I'm going to see a rated R movie about a serial killer ... this is public broadcast television and quite often we follow detectives into a coroner's lab and there be a dead body on the table, and that dead body is not that of an adult.

I'm not delicate, not by a long shot, but the context of seeing that on CBS or NBC when I'm just flipping channels is jarring to me, as opposed to when I put in a movie.

Does that make sense?

Same is true when I pick up a King book (his or his son, Joe Hill) I have an expectation and I'm prepared for it (or the excellent SHARP OBJECTS) but, and I'm not old or grumpy, BUT ... television has gone much, much farther than it used to ... and it's jarring when you've been watching a show for 15 years (L&O) and it goes there.

I'm not complaining, per se ... I'm pointing out that it's not just me who has changed, but the medium as well.

By Blogger Joshua James, at 5:59 PM  

Lots of bad stuff happens to kids in Slumdog Millionaire but if you walked out you missed a hell of a good story.

And the highs wouldn't have been as high if the lows weren't so damn low.

By Blogger Michael F, at 8:30 PM  

c'mon the thing is a black comedy... there is just as much funny stuff in it as there is dark stuff.

By Blogger Frank "Dolly" Dillon, at 3:27 PM  

and a little more seriously. the show was set in a part of the world after a conflict occurred where the term "ethnic cleansing" entered the general parlance. i would say that it was very tame compared to actual atrocities that occurred and that in this case it certainly adhered to "only as much darkness as the story warranted".

By Blogger Frank "Dolly" Dillon, at 3:39 PM  

Hey there Frank -- I'm on Ep. 7 of my preview discs and I almost don't want to watch the last two I'm enjoying it so much.

By Blogger DMc, at 8:07 PM  

It depends on the show. I loved Dexter, but always felt like I had to throw up afterwards.

By Blogger Lisa Hunter, at 1:58 AM  

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