I’ve said before that anyone can be a hero, but nobody can become a hero by doing what anybody would do. A hero must choose to take the road less traveled, and that must make all the difference.
In TV dramas, our heroes represent one way of solving the problem but they can’t represent the only way, or else we have no reason to root for their way to succeed. We’ve talked about the need to create a team of polarized protagonists, who represent different ways of tackling the problem, but this is different: there must also be a countervailing force that represents a competing point of view, against which our heroes are defined...
- “Oz” wasn’t just order vs. chaos, you had another potential source of order represented by the Muslims competing with the warden to win the hearts and minds of the prisoners, which made it a far more interesting show.
- House’s team of assistants is polarized into head, heart and gut, but Cuddy represents a countervailing force: the more-ethical-but-less-effective status quo that House and his team are all competing against.
- Sometimes, the institution you’re writing about is competing with another, bigger, possibly less ethical competitor: Gary’s Old Time Tavern on “Cheers”, County General on “St. Elsewhere”
- On “CSI” the competitors are the shoe-leather detectives, who rely on their own dubious instincts instead of paying attention to the evidence. Our lab-coated heroes aren’t just solving the cases, they’re making the case for a certain way of looking at the world.
- Sometimes there are multiple countervailing forces: On “The X-Files”, Mulder was competing against his bosses who wanted him to be by-the-book, local law enforcement who wanted to explain away the paranormal anomalies, and the pentagon who wanted to destroy all the evidence he collected.
- On “Hill Street Blues”, the public defender’s office challenged the cops’ methods on ethical grounds, and the street gangs competed against the cops as another source of street justice.
This was really driven home by watching the pilot of “NYC 22.” Our heroes are hapless rookies cops who don’t have any competition. At one point they’re doing a “stop and frisk” and one of the targets makes a brief protest about the dubious nature of this tactic, but it goes nowhere, because ultimately, there’s nowhere else for these people to turn: the cops are the only representative of “order” and everybody else (including gangs and that lone complainer) just represents “chaos”.
The heroes of “NYC 22” are a force for justice, but they should also represent a philosophy of justice, and that philosophy should have competition, which would give the show some thematic bite. This brings me to the idea of a show’s statement of philosophy and/or theme, which we’ll tackle next time…