Oh hey there,
It’s that time of the week again, time to over analyze television in the hopes of writing it better. This weeks discussion “happiness” or more aptly, why Ross and Rachel, Sam and Diane, Leonard and Penny, and Veronica and Logan just never seem to get the damn timing right on their relationship.
Television shows are very fragile ecosystems. What works, works and what doesn’t obviously doesn’t. Audiences like predictability and stability, thus, if you start a show with a concept, that concept must be constant through out the run of the show. Slight changes usually drastically change the dynamic of the show, and risk losing your audience. So what specifically am I talking about? Relationships. Every show is based on relationships. Be they friendships, business partnerships or romantic, the heart of every show is how people interact. All hit shows tap in on this and generate their content because of this. Ken Levine (Emmy award winning TV writer) stated in a seminar that the reason Cheers worked is because it wasn’t about a bar, the bar was just where things took place, it worked because of Sam and Diane, and the relationships between the other characters. The same holds true with everything on the air today, some are way more overt about it, like ABC’s The Middle and Modern Family which are both about family issues in very specific (though varied) circumstances. Other’s are less obvious, like the fish out of water story of NBC’s Outsourced, which is way more about how the Foreigner interacts with the locals in a strange and new place, or community, which is about a group of community college students that form a study group that turns into a small family. These relationships keep you coming back.
Certainly the BBC’s The office (which is great) is more focused on Gervais’s character than the relationship between Tim and Dawn, unlike the American office which in part is almost entirely about Pam and Jim, if anything to dilute the massive doses of Carrell which can be a little much at times. Hours of the show (most notably the wedding and the delivery) are given to these characters, and they are a great example of my overall point here. Once Jim and Pam were married and had their baby, their story more or less ended. Focus has been taken off of them this season, trying to focus in on the now up in the air Andrew and Erin dynamic, who mysteriously broke up during the summer hiatus, and that’s the point. The british show,which is not being fueled by this type of relationship finds itself with a little less to work with. On the bright side the british series format of 6 episodes each with a total of 14 episodes (2 equaling one holiday special) works well with the dynamic set forth.
Much like it took Pam and Jim 4 years to get together, or how Sam and Diane never got the timing right, or how Dharma and Greg only had a baby for two episodes before the adoptive mother decided she wanted him back, all moments of seemingly permanent happiness must be fleeting for our characters. The source escapes me at the moment but I have read that all comedy comes from pain. If you see a man get hit by something unexpected, your first reaction is to laugh, it’s just human instinct (I know that is the lowest level of humor, it’s just for my point, stay with me). The key is the pain can only go so far, if the guy gets hit, falls to the ground bleeding and crying (assuming it isn’t done in an absurd, over the top way), this is no longer funny and becomes tragic. The key to television writing is to know how hard you can punch your characters in the face on a weekly basis. If you take a week off, or more so, like in the Pam and Jim case, you change the dynamic of your show. Pam and Jim are now married with a child. Humor can no longer be derived from their awkward courtship. Tension can no longer be drawn from the “Will they/won’t they scenario because they have, and very few shows would be able to amicably pull off a divorce that would be both humorous and allow us to still care for both characters (Mad about you tried in the 90’s but it was more of a victory lap in the final season). In short, their is no longer any conflict in their relationship, and with out spinning them off into a show about a young newly wed couple with a young daughter (which wouldn’t be a bad idea if it wouldn’t kill the office in my opinion) their story is pretty much done.
In writing for TV (I mostly talk about sitcoms, but as you’ll see in the next example it can transcend into drama) happiness is an end goal. Happiness cannot be achieved halfway through an episode, a season, or in reality the shows run. Things that resolve tension or solve conflicts are the end result. This is why Veronica Mars and Logan Echols are never able to be happy with each other even though they are so obviously meant to be together (and a wedding better be the end of the Veronica Mars movie and they better make that shit before I am 30). Issues always come up, they break up, they get back together, they break up again. Any moments of happiness are fleeting and usually only occur at the end of an episode. By the beginning of the next episode, things are already looking bad again (something that the Veronica Mars writers were great at, usually juggling two mysteries (the episodes and the overarching) with her love life).
The reason “Happiness is not for keeping” is because we need this conflict. We need speed bumps, and road blocks on our way to the third act, and much like our episodes should be broken into three acts (or 5 if you are doing hour long, but that’s a different story) our seasons have to do the same if there is an overarching story.
So my point this week is, yes it’s fun to see things go good for your characters, but if everything always worked out, you would be bored. Nancy has to make the bad decision and sleep with the Mexican drug lord mayor guy, Ted will never actually meet the yellow umbrella woman even though they imply he did (my guess is that we find out he is a crazy homeless guy who has been talking to squirrels in the park this whole time, and not even the same squirrels, just squirrels) and Leonard and Penny will always have some sort of issue about how different they are (unless they are ready to make it the Sheldon show, in which case, Leonard and Penny will get married by the end of next season and it will all be about Sheldon). Conflict drives the world, so think about that on your next spec, or short story.