Podcast

Wednesday, October 07, 2015

Rulebook Casefile: The Effortless Moment of Humanity in the “Scandal” Pilot

Olivia is the main character of “Scandal”, so they pilot gives her a bad-ass hyper-competent “I want to be her” introduction, but Quinn is our POV character, so she also needs a great intro, and unlike Olivia, Quinn’s intro should be something more off-hand and relateable. Something that makes us say, “She’s fun, like me.”

When rewatching The Fugitive, I marveled at the fact that we basically love Tommy Lee Jones after he says one (personality-filled) sentence: “My my my my my my my, what a mess,” but I asked myself if that line would be as appealing in the mouth of someone other than Tommy Lee Jones, and I can’t tell for sure.

Rhimes, on the other hand, had created a name-brand of appealingly snarky dialogue that can be hand-crafted for every actor and situation. She makes it looks effortless, but it’s actually a very tricky business:
  • You don’t want it to sound canned, as if you stayed up all night thinking of the perfect line.
  • You don’t want the other character to helpfully set-up the witty retort, or it’ll seem too easy.
  • It needs to sound tossed off, without the character putting too fine a point on it.
  • Most importantly (and this is what most shows get wrong), you don’t want it to be totally lacking in empathy. As the always-great David Wong points out here: most “witty banter” actually just consists of incomprehensible cruelty and the audience is simply supposed to ignore that.
Rhimes is more sophisticated than that. She gives her sympathetic characters a tart-but-not-bitter wit that doesn’t alienate us. Here’s a shortened version of Quinn’s introduction:
  • Harrison: What are you drinking?
  • Quinn: I can't stay is what I'm saying. I don't do blind dates.
  • Harrison: My parents met on a blind date. They've been inseparable ever since.
  • Quinn: I'm happy for your parents, and for you, because it means you exist, but I don’t do blind dates.
  • Harrison: This isn’t a blind date.
  • Quinn: What?
  • Harrison: It’s a job interview. What are you drinking?
Quinn remains vulnerable and nervous, and Harrison maintains control of the scene, but Quinn’s quick automatic  “because it means you exist” convinces us that she’s our type of person: naturally funny and willing to stand up for herself even when she’s feeling awkward. This type of dialogue is literally worth millions.

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