Colony Bay TV

2012 Production

December 31, 2011 James Riley

The year 2012, for me, if all goes well, will be something like the year 1771 for Silas Rhodes and his trusty band of freedom fighters.   For those of you who know how cranky and dismissive I am about most modern media, I guess I have a surprising admission to make:  there’s a lot of really good television drama out there.   By “good,” at the outset, I don’t mean I share the world view of the producers of Breaking Bad, or Sons of Anarchy or Walking Dead, but I do think there’s a lot of attention paid at HBO and AMC to the rules of engaging story-telling.

Take the weasel-smart lawyer in Breaking Bad’s second season, “Saul Goodman,” played by Bob Odenkirk.   In a world of utterly remorseless drug-dealing, scabbed over meth addicts, and death-worshiping Aztec drug lords, he becomes both savior and slime-ball in the same cheap suit.   He’s so corrupt he’s trustworthy, even weirdly big-brother like, and these contradictions along with his decidedly politically-incorrect banter provide the guilty giggle you need to walk the story’s high-wire narrative with a chemistry teacher turned meth King.   The key here seems to be both surprise (no line you have ever heard before) and tension (silver suited assassins who kill with a mirror-finished timber axe.)

Surprise and tension.  Surprise and tension.   Eat that up.  Breath it.  Live it, if you want to hold your audience.    At one point, DEA agent Hank Schrader (Dean Norris) awkwardly cajoles a squad room full of agents into a half-time chant.  “Find Tuco, Find Tuco.”   When the room reaches a fever pitch, agent Schrader holds up his hands, touch down style and then leaves the room with his partner.  “We’ll never find him,” he says.

Surprise can be structural or juxtapositional like this, but it’s also in the language itself. Most of our language is boring, dominated by approved associations.  Apples are always red or green, never mango or pine.   Babies are sweet or demanding, never bookish or imperial.   During a mob negotiation, Phil Leotardo foregoes “oranges” and responds to a comparison by saying “apples and bowling balls.”

If you find yourself losing interest in a story, it very well might be because the writer hasn’t given you the courtesy of a surprise, not one during the whole first act.   That’s his job, to provide little dashes of the unexpected, to tell the same story in a different way. That’s one of the reasons you have a hard time finding something to watch, because surprise is a bit risky for the writer, and most writers want to be liked.  You sometimes have to risk writing something that will be ridiculed or deemed politically incorrect or irreverent if you want to keep the audience from going to sleep.

And I need to remember that in 2012!

Do something surprising on that front: remind me.

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