Sunday, October 07, 2012

How to Create a Polarized Ensemble, Conclusion: Partial Polarization

We’ve looked at lots of ensembles that are clearly polarized into head, heart and gut, and contrasted those with non-polarized ensembles on such shows as “The Wire”. Now, for the conclusion of the series, we’ll look at the middle ground: partially polarized ensembles.

One of the most sophisticated American TV shows of recent years was, oddly enough, a basic cable Saturday morning cartoon, “Avatar: The Last Airbender”, which I belated discovered in the last few years. The ensemble eventually expanded to four and then five, but let’s limit ourselves to the three core members: The young master of the elements, Aang, and the bother-sister team who help him find his destiny, Sokka and Katara.

When I tried to divide this cast into head, heart and gut, I realized that they were neither 1-dimensional nor 3-dimensional, but rather 2-dimensional:

  • Aang is usually either Heart or Gut, but almost never Head 
  • Sokka is usually either Head or Gut, but almost never Heart 
  • Katara is usually either Head or Heart, but almost never Gut 
In order to chart this, we’ll abandon the silhouette iconography we’ve been using and switch to circular continuum:

The show had some of the benefits of a classically polarized ensemble, such as heightened conflict and philosophical meaning, but it also allowed the characters to be more complex, to shift positions dynamically as situations escalated, and to grow and change over time. If you can pull it off, this is perhaps the best of all possible worlds.

Now let’s look at another 3-season cult favorite with an even more complex polarization: Dan Harmon’s late, lamented “Community” (soon to be replaced with an apocryphal non-Harmon version, but let’s not speak of that).

In the beginning, disbarred lawyer Jeff Winger was on an open-hearted quest to become a better person. To help himself, he formed a seven-person study group, with three partially polarized characters and three classically polarized head-heart-gut characters. (Incidentally, the show’s biggest flaw was that the fully-polarized characters, Britta, Shirley and Pierce, tended to be too shrill, exemplifying only the negative aspects of head, heart and gut.)
But something interesting happened over time. Jeff largely gave up his attempts to change and became increasingly heartless, retreating to his home base of head/gut. Meanwhile, the show’s oddball, Danny Pudi’s uber-nerd Abed, who had originally been head/gut in a very different way, increasingly overcame the limitations of his Asperger’s syndrome, until he became a three-dimensional person, and the new heart of the show, in every sense of that word.

The neat thing is that both versions of the show worked. Fans were disappointed in Jeff for his failure to change, but it was certainly a believable failure and well acted by Joel McHale. Meanwhile, that disappointment was more than made up for the happiness we felt at the growth of Abed.


Daniel Smith said...

I love the information from Avatar. Very interesting. It makes sense to create characters that are almost 3D but missing something. Definitely worth thinking about.

But you've missed a common Four-Way polarized ensemble. Consider Star Gate SG1. In your formulation you'd probably call Teal'c the 'muscle' of the group.

* Daniel (Heart, Emotion, Feeling, Core)
* Jack (Soul, Volition, Decision, Instinct)
* Carter (Mind, Cognition, Thought, Head)
* Teal’c (Strength, Body, Action, Fist)

So, Heart – Gut – Brain – Muscle. It's a fairly common formulation at least in the action and adventure genre.

In many of the shows, the writers divided the team into pairs. This created interesting dialog (because of the focus on only two points of view at any one time) and simultaneously deepened each character as they worked out a solution for their part of the episode's overarching problem. Smart writing in my opinion.

Matt Bird said...

I could have kept this series going for weeks, since almost every show I considered had an interesting variation on the formula. I've never seen SG1, but it sounds like it fits right in.

James Kennedy said...

Another advantage of thinking of characters in terms of partial polarization is that once you're clear on what two polarities the character represents, the third remaining polarity naturally becomes the focus of that character's arc. For instance, Han Solo is smart enough to be a good smuggler (HEAD) and he certainly looks after his own interests and goes with his instincts (GUT); therefore, with almost mathematical inevitability, his "journey" in the story will be that of acquiring the third polarity (HEART) which he does when he saves Luke at the climax. Similarly, Leia is clearly smarter than Han and Luke (HEAD), and her passionate, sincere dedication to the anti-Empire cause suggests her principles and emotions towards others are in order (HEART) but she can't understand or control her own desires for Han; therefore, with mathematical inevitability, her journey will be that of coming in to sync with her more primal desires that she's denied (GUT). Hermione makes a similar journey in the first Harry Potter book; precisely because she's smarter than Harry and Ron (HEAD) and more emotional (HEART), her stumbling block will be that she is alienated from her own authentic desires and urges (GUT), and being with Ron and Harry teaches her how to break rules for her own self-interest, gives her a love interest in Ron, etc. which brings her more in harmony with the gut.

This all seems obvious and perhaps schematic post hoc, but if you're struggling on exactly what a character should be doing in particular scene or for their general arc, identifying the two-of-the-three the character exemplifies will inevitably highlight the third, unassimilated virtue and point one in the direction of what that character's journey or stumbling block will be.