Tuesday, March 04, 2014

How to Create a TV Show, Addendum: Create Sparks

Two long-running shows had their big series finales the same week. As hard as it is to believe now, I still thought “Lost” would pull out of its skid and deliver a powerful, tear-jerking finale…but I had no such hopes for “24”. So imagine my shock when the “Lost” finale just made me want to spit on my TV screen, and the “24” finale actually made me tear up a little bit! It was, of course, this line from Jack to Chloe…
  • “When you first came to CTU, I never thought it was gonna be you that was gonna cover my back all those years. And I know that everything that you did today was to try and protect me, I know that. Thank you.”
As we discussed yesterday, “24” had a big problem: the exposition scenes at CTU were lifeless, putting too much of the show’s burden on Jack’s adventures in the field. Then the show made an unlikely but inspired casting choice, hiring “Mr. Show” vet Mary Lynn Rajskub to play a prickly new computer tech. They probably assumed that, like most other CTU employees, Chloe wouldn’t last a full year, but instead, she proved the value of a livewire character.

We’ve already discussed the value of creating potential energy, the need to have an at least partially polarized ensemble, and the need to have an unsafe space, but now I realize that there’s a fourth factor at the intersection of these three. You need electricity. You need characters that can’t help but spark off each other…or one character who can’t help but spark off of everybody. Here are some ways to do that…
  • The most obvious way is sexual tension: We talked about this in the post on “Potential Energy” but value of romances isn’t just what might happen, it’s to set the floor with electricity from the get go. On “24”, Jack has to work with his ex-mistress, but that doesn’t provide the spark it should because there’s zero sexual tension remaining. Compare this to “Cheers”, where Sam and Diane can’t get one word out that isn’t about sexual rivalry.
  • A polarized pair or trio who can’t resist needling each other: I made this graphic awhile ago showing the difference between the first two “Star Trek” shows. It’s important to have characters with different approaches to their jobs, but it’s even better if they’re electrically polarized: unable to resist sparking off each other with almost every line.
  • A universally abrasive character: And then there’s Chloe and her (much more three-dimensional) descendant, Carrie in “Homeland” (a show co-created by “24” vets). Obviously, you have to make it very clear why these hostile characters are so super-competent that they can’t be fired, but once you’ve established that, audiences will love them, tingling with glee whenever a new blowhard character is about to blindly walk into the buzzsaw and get shredded.
The great thing about Chloe was that she could make whole chunks of exposition interesting: she would deliver dialogue about computers and protocols with such withering contempt that it was fun to watch (and meanwhile told us everything we needed to know.)


Parker said...

This post makes me think of two other abrasive but competent characters who vitalize their respective shows: Sherlock Holmes on BBC's Sherlock, and Sheldon Cooper on Big Bang Theory. They keep the other characters spinning, which is the most interesting part of each show. In fact, in Sherlock, the dynamic relationships have come to overshadow the mystery plots.

Matt Bird said...