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March 2017

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writing rengeek magpie mind

narratological layering in popular television shows (or) why I am obsessed with this program



The narrative bone I am currently chewing is the layering of the very obvious surface narrative with a secondary true narrative, which is presented but never explained.

(spoilers)

For example : in the episode entitled The Popular Kids, the surface narrative has Cory giving himself away when he shows up at the LOD house and his manipulation of Morgan and Reid becomes transparent to anybody. But upon a second viewing, note the reaction shots of Morgan and Reid after he speaks up in the meeting at the police station.

That is when they're sure. After that, they're working--independently--to get him to hang himself. That's why Reid is so reluctant to allow Morgan to send him off. Because he knows Cory is the unsub, and he isn't sure Morgan knows. And Morgan knows, and thinks Reid might not.

For second example, the most recent episode, entitled Revelation, has a couple of fabulous moments. The one that really clicked for me is in the last round of Russian roulette. On the surface, it's a fairly standard thriller situation. One of Our Heroes is captured and forced to choose which of his friends will die. The villain has already extablished his credibility by making evident the consequences of a similar game, earlier, and his apparent object here is both making Reid further complicit, while humiliating him in front of his team and breaking any trust they have in Reid.

On the surface, it looks as if Reid first protests, tries to sacrifice himself, and then at the last moment figures out a way to save himself and get a clue to his friends.

But watch that again.

I think Reid's first shocked reaction--kill me!--is genuine. It's an outburst. And then he calms down and starts thinking.

Looking at it from a character perspective, this is a young man whose major established heroic character trait is an egoless willingness to risk himself, for his team-mates and even for mentally ill criminals. He's so courageous he's stupid with it. And this is something we see again and again and again: Derailed; Somebody's Watching; Fisher King Part II; Sex Birth Death. Reid may not look like much, but he's a fearless little bastard, and absolutely vicious in a fight. (In fact, it's how he got himself into this situation in the first place.)

It is a mistake to assume that Reid is in any way, shape, or form an innocent. He may be inexperienced, even naive in certain limited ways... and generally gentle, soft-spoken, and insecure... but there are no accidents of characterization in this show. And the man's a card sharp. Who cheats. And a fair amount of the time, that flinchy stammering is a put-on designed to lower someone's defenses.

Looking at it from a narrative perspective, the unsub, like the Goblin King, has no power over him. He can threaten the team, but they are all together, aware of what he is doing, aware of what he is doing to Reid, and all of them (except Garcia) are profoundly competent to defend themselves. And once Reid realizes that, and gets over the shock of the earlier murder which he was forced to participate in, his demeanor changes completely. He goes from animated to composed, almost steely.

Poker face.

And he's staring down the barrel of that revolver from under eighteen inches of distance.

POP QUIZ! Which of these four revolvers is loaded

Yep. From that point on, when he gets past his reflexive offer of self-sacrifice, he is buying time. Raphael loaded the gun with a single live round, no blanks. Reid knows what chamber the bullet is in. He can see it advancing. And he knows exactly how long he had to arrange a convincing moral failure.

Watch his face each time Raphael pulls the trigger. He doesn't flinch. But the first time Raphael tried this game, at the beginning of the ep when his sight was blurry and he was disoriented, he cringed away from the gun.

And the fourth time Raphael squeezes the trigger, when he discharges the shot that Reid has avoided into the wall, he flinches too.

He's got nothing at risk but his own life. Which was at risk already.

And the narrative doesn't bother to *tell* the viewer any of this. There is no hint that the surface narrative is not the only thing going on here.

And they do this sort of thing consistently.

I am so trying to learn to do that.

I'm also fascinated by the layers of characterization, and the consistency of characterization. The way we are presented with characters who seem to be stereotypes. And then again and again have it demonstrated how they are not, and the levels and layers come back and echo and built. The very structure of the show encourages the audience to play the same detective games the characters play, to build profiles and consider implications and try to figure out what people are hiding. The weekly episodes are just an engine, the surface boom that keeps you tuning in while they play these incredibly complex narrative games.

We are encouraged to assume that Gideon is divorced, for example. The stereotype of Gideon is divorced. (Like the stereotype of Reid is innocent and physically incompetent, and the stereotype of JJ is the perky cheerleader, and the stereotype of Hotch is ambitious and consumed with his own career goals (and again and again, people make the mistake of assuming that Hotch is his stereotype, much to their eventual chagrin.)

But I think Gideon's wife is dead. (The clues are in Riding The Lightning and Blood Hungry and What Fresh Hell, if you care to go look for them.)

And then there are the meta-narrative games. The thematic discussion it undertakes, about the nature of free will and personal responsibility, which alone is brilliant. The way it deconstructs its own genre--the thriller--in a number of interesting ways. (The Person In Peril often rescues him or herself. The Person In Peril is fairly frequently male. The Villains... aren't. They are often terribly pathetic people who have been brutally betrayed, time and time again. The Question of Evil.) The lovely lovely dissection in The Big Game and Revelation regarding violence-and-shock-as-entertainment, in the middle of one of the most viscerally horrible hours of network television I have ever seen. Not because the violence was graphic, or extreme, but because it was real violence, and heartbreaking with it. It was, in fact, far less graphic than many things I've seen on TV.

And it hurt so very much more, because it was pathetic.

Individual episodes, especially on a plot level, can be heavyhanded. But this is the show that can humanize a terrorist at the same time it demonstrates just how evil he can be, that is shockingly responsible and humane in its depiction of the most nauseating things they can get away with on prime time, that allows characters to break, and fail, and to be wrong, without becoming villains. 

And that does this layered thing that captivates me, and that I am coveting greater skill in, so effortlessly and without explanation that you could miss that the understory even exists.

If you're watching the magician's patter, you may never even see the magic trick.


If you're new here, don't worry. This is how my brain works. It will absolutely fix on some element of narrative and worry it to death for a while, and then give it one last shake and snap its neck and on to the next obsession.

Sadly, I never give up on the old obsessions. They just layer up.

However, over time, this does begin to present the illusion of being a well-rounded person.

There's a reason I have this as my default icon.

Comments

You? Are smart.
Thank you.

I am loving giving my brain a workout.
Aha!

That's incredible. You might have just now gotten me into that show. Is it out on DVD?

On a sidenote, this is exactly the same thing I've been doing when I watch TV. A sort of narrative analysis, seeing how it plays out on screen and how it might play out on the page. I was just never articulate enough to blog about my musings.

But a lot of the things you talked about, I see personally, in The Shield, one of my personal favorites as far as a TV series goes. A lot of the stereotypes are actually plays on stereotypes. So that when you see the sorta bumbling, socially awkward detective get a serial rapist to rat on himself in an interrogation, it's an absolutely glorious moment, 'cause stereotypical bumblers aren't supposed to succeed on purpose. But this one does.

I'm really gonna have to pick up Criminal Minds when I get the chance.
First season is out.

Second one is airing.
Yeah, by the way? Damn your eyes for getting me hooked on this damn show. Dammit.
*g*

I am a bad bad bear.

And not guilty at all.

How's it working out for you so far?

Also, iconloff!

because I'm avoiding the freelance job on my desk....

Hrm. I never saw Reid as either innocent or incompetent, from his very first moment on the screen, and especially watching his interactions with Gideon. Gideon may think that he's shaping Reid, but I always got the sense that Reid is honing himself on Gideon. The 'boy' knows what he is, and what he's good for, and his only question is how far he can go. "Too smart for his own good" was coined for types like him.

Hoch is the same thing, only from a different angle: despite the hero-ic facade, he is very very damaged at a root level. His connection to the 'real' world (his family) is carefully prescribed and protected from the person he is on the job, because he too knows what he is, and what he is good for. He also knows that it's pssible to go too far, something Reid may not ever learn.

I think, in that way, they're far more honest than Gideon, who has delusions of still being not-alien. As you have pointed out, he's good with the justification.

I haven't gotten a handle on the rest of the team just yet; it's going to be interesting to see how JJ's cracks shake out, and how long the team can protect Garcia's relative innocence....






Re: because I'm avoiding the freelance job on my desk....

Hotch is *badly* broken. Prentiss is too, by the way.

I finally twigged to just how badly this last ep. Back a while, when she lit into Hotch about how politics destroys family? That was clue one.

Clue two was JJ and Hotch commenting on her affectlessness. That's another kind of PTSD symptom, of course; just more rare than the hypervigilance and nightmares and emotional jagged edges the rest of the team collects.

I am gonna hazard a guess that when we find out how Prentiss was brutalized, we are also going to find out that her mother hushed it up.

Gideon?

Yeah.

Gideon is a man who hadn't called his son in years, and keeps a photo in his wallet of the family of a girl whose life he saved in 1985.

And I think it's interesting and clever that they have given us a bunch of broken characters struggling with their damage, and now they are going to break JJ, the sane one.

I'm more worried about her than Reid. Reid's been broken before. He knows how you put yourself together again.
Hi! I'm new here and I love the way your mind works. You can explain all the layers of this show that I've felt but can't articulate.

I've also believed since at least What Fresh Hell that Gideon's wife is dead. (There were a lot of reasons I chose the name of that episode for my website's name.) I think Charm and Harm also has some clues for that.

Not because the violence was graphic, or extreme, but because it was real violence, and heartbreaking with it.

That's why I couldn't watch those scenes. Reid feels like someone I know after 37 episodes.

This is a lovely, lovely analysis and is a much more satisfying read than all the "baby needs a hug" reactions I've been reading most everywhere else.
Reid is my TV kid brother. I *identify* with him. (I have a great deal in common with the character, I'm afraid, and not all of it nice.)

I started watching the show for Mandy, fell in love with Garcia and Spencer, and by the end of ten episodes was COMPLETELY CAPTIVATED by the entire cast and the narratology behind it.

I think you are right about Charm and Harm.

Also, I think What Fresh Hell has some hints about *how* Gideon's wife died.

And I think it has something to do with waiting. Because at the end of that ep, when the detective is calling for a warrant?

He *snaps.* That is not a reasoned decision he's making there. That is pure adrenaline.

And yes, they were incredibly hard scenes to watch. I *felt* that. And part of it is that Gubler is apparently a freaky genius of physical acting, and part of it is that that is what people who are being tortured look like. No butt-chinned hero enduring in noble sweaty manpain.

Also, your website rocks. *g* The CM icons I have that aren't my caps are all courtesy of you. And thank you for that.

Hi!

This is the only thing I watch, other than Mythbusters and NCIS. (Okay, and Hustle.)

And NCIS is TERRIBLE. But I like the actors. :-P
Fascinating commentary. I've never thought through any fictional characters in that depth.

It never occurred to me that Gideon was divorced; I've always taken it for granted that she was dead. In fact, I haven't seen the characters of JJ, Hotch, or Reid as being the stereotypes that you mention. I have no idea what that says about me, but there you have it.
And what the heck is the matter with Morgan, that he doesn't realize that Garcia is mad about him? Or does he realize it, and he's playing her, taking advantage of her devotion to help him out on cases?
You know, I like Criminal Minds a lot. But the really good part is when you take it apart like this and demonstrate things I'd never have thought to look for.

(I can be a very forgiving - for which sometimes read 'oblivious' - viewer).

And they're all things that get me right where it hurts. :)

I think it'll be very interesting to see how things play out with JJ, after those last two episodes. Because Reid, I think, knows how to deal with damage. JJ? Probably not so much.

This whole layering thing it's doing, where there's the overt thriller plot, and then the subversion of stereotypes, and then a complete other layer of discussion about the damage that the job does to the people who choose to do it - and the nature of damage and experience shaping lives and personalities - is absolutely fascinating.

And it does pretty good thriller, too. :)
Yeah.

It's about *surviving.*

The refrain, the thing we hear over and over again, is "You did what you had to do."

And it'a bout how broken things aren't useless. And sometimes chipped edges are sharper.

This is, of course, the major unifying thematic element of a certain E. Bear's work.

Ahem.

Also, it's about compassion. And ruthlessness.

And how they are two sides of the same coin.
And I still think it should have occurred to them that maybe the "witness" who saw a hooded figure climb over the fence, a figure that disappeared by the time the police got there, was actually the unsub. Or "one" of the unsubs, in the context they're thinking in at that point--because they know that one of the unsubs is trying to blow the whistle on the other. But of course, if it had occurred to them, there wouldn't have been any second part to the episode. Even the best shows get a touch of idiot plot now and then.
See, I think that's a kind of an overstrong expectation, honestly, and not idiot plot at all.

That was the kind of shoe-leather work cops do all the time, often to no result, and Reid got, you note, right suspicious right fast as soon as Dawson's story didn't add up.

1. Yes, yes, a thousand times yes. I wish I had time to say more than that.

2. Novelists gotta/get to do it all on their own. Film and TV (and theater) people have actors -- which can be wonderful, if you have superbrilliant actors, or horrible, if you have bad or dumb ones. CM appears to have supersharp writers, directors, AND actors, all of whom are complicit in the tricky narrative stuff you're breaking down. That's so a) rare and b) impressive.
Yes.

Also, they have some kickass camera and editing work for a weekly series.
This sort of thing happens to me as a game master. When I was mostly running Feng Shui, which simulates Hong Kong action films, I’d find myself automatically sizing up places for ideas for fight scenes, and having to keep a straight face at dinner with my parents while my brain was automatically noting where the ninjas could crash in. These days I’m plotting for a Star Wars campaign which starts out with the Sith running the galaxy, and my brain is automatically questioning everything I run into with “How is this affected when the world is run with the ultimate law being ‘The strongest must rule’?” (Today’s latest idea: the Bounty Channel. Kind of a mashup of CNN, America’s Most Wanted, and the lottery.)
Fascinating analysis. You articulated a lot of the stuff I've been mulling, but this show tends to leave me utterly speechless, and after this 2-parter, I wasn't just speechless, I was flailing. *g*

That was some of the best TV I've *ever* seen. Excuse the mini-rant, but can I just say how much it pisses me off that critics continue to bash and/or dismiss CM as just another cop show, and are scratching their heads in confusion over why it's been beating Lost in the ratings? (Incidentally, I just found out ABC pushed Lost into the 10pm time slot to avoid any further pummelling.) Feh. Who needs critics anyway?
Critics are frequently pretty thick.

Especially when confronted with something that appears on one level to be doing one thing and is actually doing another. And, you know, sometimes their surface thriller plots are a little thin. And they're working like mad to make sure that each ep, or each two eps, stand on their own in terms of external narrative arc, which means you don't get these season-long external arcs we've gotten used to lately.

42 minutes is a real short time. On the other hand, I consider how much better they do with that than... NCIS? Which often has the stupidest plots available. And I am willing to give them a little slack for the amount of psychological realism they get in there packed around that plot.

And the way they are taking apart thrillers on a moral level, which is freaking amazing.

And the meta games. I mean, I thought the ending of No Way Out completely stank? But on the other hand, here is a TV show that just used an X-files style nonlinear/experimental episode structure... to present an episode that's debunking an X-file.

I mean, !

!!

That's clever, that is.

(And that ep had several just gutwrenching moments. Reid and Prentiss trying not to lose their collective lunches in front of Hotch, while Thomas Gibson was standing there emoting... at a meat saw. And I mean, our hardened agents, who sort of significantly did not find the dismembered, decomposing bodies in the first scene real troubling, are standing around staring at the room like scared rabbits with their eyes all big and their jaws working.

That gave me chills.

I thought "Riding the Lightning" was one of the best hours of TV I had ever seen, on an emotional level. Our guys lose. *g* And they lose because they choose to respect somebody's autonomy and her privilege to make her own choice if she lives.

That was kind of amazing.

The lack of superhuman, even among these superhumanly skilled people, is awesome. [Spoiler] gets shot because Hotch and Gideon
make mistakes. In Hotch's case, a horrible, boneheaded, careless, I'm-too-tired mistake. In Gideon's case, a calculated risk that blows up in his face.

And the narrative acknowledges that they made those mistakes, and shows them trying to cope with them.

The problem with Lost is that it makes no sense. *g*
Hee. If somebody would pay me, I could so write a book about this show. *g*
This is precisely what I love about this show. Very few things or people really are what they appear to be, on the surface. I'm constantly amazed at the fact that more people don't catch on to things like this - especially some of the professed fans, who seem unable to look beyond things like a stereotypical mentor-student relationship between Gideon and Reid or the fact that when Reid reveals he's been playing the suspected unsub in "The Fox" with his easily flustered and vulnerable bookish persona that he might also be (at least to some extend) playing his colleagues, as well, if for no other reason than to put them more at ease with him through his consistent appearance of harmlessness and awkwardness. Every shot Reid's fired at an unsub in this show has resulted in a clean death, and yet the rest of the team still seems to believe that he couldn't shoot him way out of a wet paper bag and they automatically tend to not take him with them when they go on the raids and such. I find it both fascinating and little bit sad, just how much the characters seem to feel a need to hide a large part of themselves away from each other. They all do it, with the possible exception of JJ, and she may be perfecting a facade of her own, now, given what she went through.
The characterization is in general very solidly built, and delicately handled, which is a nice thing to see.