Character Matters

Quick! What do The WireHannibal and The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo have in common with Apple products? If you said, “an oppressive atmosphere and a casual attitude to death”, you’d be sort of right , and kudos to you, but that’s not really what I’m driving at. There are bigger things afoot.

The answer is that all of these things are purified. With Apple, those famous spare product designs are finally getting a software that suits them. I will now expound ten thousand words on my personal soapbox telling you how great iOS7 is.
Just kidding. I will say this, though: after having hated everything about iOS design for last bazillion years, I’m finally excited about something Apple is doing. Gone are those awful skeumorphic, Playskool-esque designs, where the Notepad looks like a lined piece of paper and the calculator is a rip-off of a Braun calc. Although it will still be infuriating to use in nearly every way, it will at least look nice and modern and less like one of those toy phones you buy in Post Offices as last-minute presents for three-year-olds. Basically I’ll be getting a brand new, less-irritating phone for free in September. That’s something to be grateful for. If you don’t agree, well, I’ll fight you.
But, let’s be honest, that’s not what i want to talk about. To expand on my opening point: Apple software is going through a purification ritual, leaving us with a cleaner, less-terrible product, in the same way that movies and TV shows are going through a similar purification. For the latter, it’s a process that began a long, long time ago. It began with The Wire.
If you’ve never seen The Wire it’s difficult to summarize in a way that makes it sound exciting. It’s a police procedural, right, like The Shield. Except, unlike The Shield, someone doesn’t get stabbed and/or shot every episode. In fact, most episodes of The Wire some guys talk about some stuff, drive around in cars, and then the end credits roll. It’s really, really boring, except of course it isn’t. It’s gripping. It’s brilliant. It draws you in. When Idris Elba shows up and lays down some gangster shit, I pay attention. Even if I have to keep googling Ebonics terms while he talks. Here’s a question: is Ebonics deliberately cryptic for the same reason that underground gays in the sixties used Polari to avoid being locked up? I get the feeling sometimes that when the gangsters are talking it’s a cipher language. But then again I am a wHite-A$$$$ MOFO.
Word. Or whatever it is you say here.

Word. Or whatever it is you say here.

The reason why The Wire is gripping is because it’s a character-driven narrative. You get involved with the characters and that, by itself, draws you in. Like Hannibal, which relies on the dichotomy of Will and Hannibal as the focal point of each episode, pushing the police procedure and mystery-solving to one side, The Wire operates on the assumption that you want to see what happens to its characters. A number of movies have tried this in recent times, and I would consider them among the best of the decade. The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo manages to combine a starkness of approach with glimmers of warmth, in particular the glimmer that exists between Rooney Mara’s Lisbeth Salander and Daniel Craig’s Mikhael Blomkvist. This is a film in which little happens for long stretches.
I own a replica of this t-shirt. I wear it to job interviews.

I own a replica of this t-shirt. I wear it to job interviews.

And then Daniel Craig nearly gets choked to death. Similarly, Cosmopolis, which has yet to receive the recognition it deserves, turns a cryptic and largely unemotional novel about a cryptic and largely unemotional man into a slow-burner. We know that Eric Packer (played succinctly by Robert Pattinson) is travelling to his death. In the end, we neither have to see it or experience it to know it’s an inevitability. It’s the journey that’s the important thing.
The journey being the important thing is a hallmark of character-driven narratives. The prototype of this existed way,way back when Aaron Sorkin started The West Wing in 1999, but I don’t consider The West Wing to be a character narrative de facto because it also had the vicarious thrill of being “inside the corridors of power”, and that was the reason many people tuned in. A pure character narrative can afford to not be set in a situation that attracts people’s interest. Sometimes the scenery can get in the way of the actors, if you catch my drift.
This was often the fault of Lost, which failed spectacularly on a number of accounts, not least because its characters weren’t worth writing home about, but also because it was set on a tropical beach with a pirate ship and a smoke monster and a giant statue and an underground bunker and a boat and a temple and oh god I don’t know what I’m supposed to be looking atLost also suffered from being co-written by Damon Lindelof (grrr) who wouldn’t know a well-rounded character if it smacked him in the face with his Macbook Pro. Fundamentally, as I’ve said, Lost‘s characters weren’t all that interesting, in spite of being the focus of a whole episode each. The enforced “air of mystery” and the “will they, won’t they” love triangle between Kate, Jack and Sawyer got in the way of characters who, if they had at least been given definite reasons for acting the way they did, might have been appealing to watch. Most of the story arc ended up being driven by the FIND OUT NEXT WEEK gimmick, which left the viewer with the sense of chronic frustration that you normally associate with an evening spent trying to take the bra off someone who would rather talk about Hummus. Lost could have worked as a character-driven narrative if it had just been about survival. The more ticking clocks and exploding things you add in, the harder it is to see your characters.
Haha, "see". Wait.

Haha, “see”. Wait.

A more successful example of this kind of narrative is AMC’S Breaking Bad, both critically acclaimed and very popular. Breaking Bad has one serious flaw that I had to watch five series to discover: none of its characters are in any way appealing. Maybe it’s my lack of empathy, but I would be only too pleased to see every character in that show locked in a small room for the rest of their lives (especially this one), although Jesse has his moments. His slow-motion breakdown in Season 4, accompanied by the eerie sounds of Fever Ray’s If I Had A Heart, is the highlight of the season. Go-karting has never looked so tragic.
To get back to the point, character-driven narratives are more important that either whiz-bang special effects or cliffhangers. TV is a grand tradition: it calls on Beowulf, Shakespeare, Mediaeval Mummer Plays and Morality Tales and inherits several thousand years of dramatic tradition. In the Poetics, Aristotle defined the three aspects of the character that make a play worth watching (βελτίονας,τοιούτους, χείρονας) and how it is essential to formulate each character as being dominated by one of these traits. Aristotle, for all his faults, understood that a play only works when it combines an ethos, a mythos and a dianoia (a theme, a story and a spoken reason) and imbues the characters with sufficient depth to keep them enthralled. Character narratives draw on this tradition, from a time when special effects occurred only in the imagination. With stories that rely on well-rounded characters to provide most of the driving force, ephemeral events are not important. Television in these rare moments becomes something pure, something singular and enjoyable.

4 responses to “Character Matters

  1. Man, the way you write is hilarious. “…sense of chronic frustration that you normally associate with an evening spent trying to take the bra off someone who would rather talk about Hummus” – Seems like my exact thought processes. I’m curious, I am a horror finatic, have you written any posts about classic thrillers? I’d be very interested in your (entertaining) opinions.

      • Oh, I have a long list, man. Anything by Stephen King (classics like The Shining and Misery) or even one of the most disgusting movies, Slither or The Human Centipede. A nice thriller that I watched last year was Kidnapped – I love a good twist at the end. But I would be interested in any thriller/suspense/horror movie you chose to write about (if you wanted to please a poor soul and receive a giant virtual hug…).

        • It would be my genuine pleasure. I’ll have to actually watch the Human Centipede first, so this is starting to sound like work. I mean, there’s plenty of gross movies I have seen, like The Thing or The Fly…they’re always fun to talk about. Your virtual hugs will be gratefully received.

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