So I'm going to write a long post about narratology and thematic union, using a popular TV show as an illustration, because that's what was running over and over in my head while I was lying there Not Sleeping, and you're going to be thrilled to read it, I'm sure.
Right. So I mentioned a couple of days ago that I've been watching the CBS show Criminal Minds and enjoying it. And the first season just came out on DVD. I had missed a bunch of episodes what with moving and going to the UK and stuff, so I sat down and pretty much watched them all back to back. Which they stood up to.
The show, as I've mentioned, has some flaws, most of which are related to outclevering itself on the murder mysteries, or trying to cram both plot and character development into 42 minutes. The interesting thing is that I find I really could care less, even as I recognize them, because I'm too interested in what it's doing right and the way it's kicking me in the squids.
For those of you who haven't been following this thing, it's YACD*, the twist this time being that the team of agents involved work for the FBI's Behavioral Analysis Unit, which is to say, their job is generating psychological profiles of criminals. (I had a more than passing interest in this stuff in college, and actually gave some consideration to going into forensic anthropology at one point.)
Anyway. The real BAU is about thirty people, and they don't have a private jet, and at least one of Our Heroes is a bit too young to actually have gotten that far in the FBI (becoming an FBI agent is really. hard. work. if you didn't know.) but by Hollywood standards, the factual accuracy of the show isn't too bad. (At least, unlike Las Vegas Metro PD's CSI unit, the BAU is made up of actual sworn officers. :-P) They play a little fast and loose with forensic procedure (where are your gloves, man?) and the cases tend to be time-collapsed to a high degree (things happen in hours that would take weeks, and the targets of the investigation are always escalating and decompensating at an unlikely rate just before the commercial break) but fuck it, it's TV. If I can survive an episode of ER without throwing anything at the television, I can survive this.
None of that is what interests me.
What interests me, what's holding my fascination, is the long-term thematic discussion that the show is engaged in. Which is one of the coolest things I have seen in visual media ever anywhere, and it's totally calculated to kick me right in the squids. (Well, that and the knights-of-the-table-round riff doesn't hurt either.) Now, theme, and the ways one establish and work with theme, are really hard to discuss, because theme is the part of a narrative that does what Ursula LeGuin describes as "using words to talk about things that cannot be discussed in words." And usually, thematic elements, expecially in television shows, tend to be simple and binary and easy to digest. Banal. There are good guys and bad guys, and the good guys are right and the bad guys are in their way.
This show is not doing that. It does, in fact, have a thematic discussion rather than an ideology, and the discussion is expanded and reflected back on itself every week. And they've even managed to explain the discussion in the title of the show. (More on this below.)
The emotional focus of the show, most interestingly, isn't on the protagonists so much as on the survivors of the crimes they investigate. That weight falls on the guest stars, in other words. We're not afraid of the emotional impact of failure here, and we're not scared of trauma--the characters are all who they are in response to their trama. But the difference between the good guys and the bad guys is that the good guys are not defined by their damage, and the bad guys are. (The victims, the ones who survive, we're left to wonder about. Some of them are obviously broken. Some of them might make it. Some, you don't know.)
The slush readin' me is exhausted with binary themes. The TV-watchin' me is exhausted with us-versus-them. This has complex and layered things going on, and moral ambiguity, and it all comes back to that central thematic argument--
Because a great deal of what goes on in the program is an exploration of evil, and how people become evil, and whether anything can be done about it when sometimes it obviously isn't their fault, and whether, in fact, we have any free will at all. With examples. And counterarguments. And balancing discussions. And a pretty savvy understanding of neurology and psychology. This show somehow manages to talk about serial rapists and spree killers and compulsive arsonists without demonizing them, with compassion and also with necessary ruthlessness.
...and the setup for this is that it's becoming evident--has been evident, in fact, since about halfway through the first season, but they're doing a slow reveal--that every one of Our Heroes is somebody who could have gone the other way. They are all driven, and damaged, and as near as I can tell every single one of them has been somehow savaged by life. But here's the cool thing: it's handled in this light-fingered manner, where a revelation about a character's past that would be the focus of a Very Special Episode of many lesser dramas is something that's used in service to the plot. The damage isn't romanticized, either, and in every case where we're shown something, we're shown how it could have been very different for that character, and how easily it could have changed.
So far, we've found out that pretty much everybody on the team is carrying some sort of post traumatic stress. Among them number adult survivors of child abuse, a guy who's a visual savant but possibly borderline schizophrenic and possibly working out of a pretty good case of high-functioning autism**, a sexual assault survivor, a smart hacker who's on the right side of the law these days but maybe wasn't always, and so forth. And of course the people they're after have the same kinds of damage, and maybe everybody's at the mercy of their childhood programming and their fucked-up endocrine systems.
Or maybe they're not, and there's some room in the universe for choice and personal responsibility.
And when I say thematic discussion, I mean discussion. Because the program's not coming down hard on any side. Except that it's all a tragedy, everything goes back to root causes, and you have to kick at the darkness until it bleeds daylight.
And they're mostly quite impressively complex characters. The acting is very understated and the responses are very underplayed (which is, personally, my preference--I'd rather figure out for myself than have it explained what the emotional impact of a moment is) and any of them could prettily fall into a stereotype. But they don't.
I think my case in point for this is the team leader, Hotch, who's played by Thomas Gibson, and who is portrayed as a buttoned-down, pansy-tassles-wearing, three-piece-suit, by-the-book, clipped and polished "We're gonna need some more FBI guys" ambitious career FBI guy who would generally be caricatured into an absolutely loathesome individual and an obstacle that the rest of the maverick team had to get around to get anything done.
I love Hotch. I want to take him home and feed him oreos. He's funny and sharp and his discipline is leavened by intelligence and wit, and he exists as a person, not a foil. He's got his own damage, and he makes mistakes, and things freak him the hell out sometimes. And that's the pivot, actually, that the thematic discussion hangs on.
Our Heroes are allowed trauma. (One thing that's very cool is that they're not allowed dignity, though. Or, more precisely, they are allowed the dignity of their convictions. But they make absolutely no bones about prostrating themselves before necessity if that's what it takes to save a life. You know what? I take the word dignity back. What the narrative does not allow them is pride.) They're allowed to cry. They're allowed to get mad and helpless. They're allowed to make mistakes and they're allowed to lose.
Sometimes their mistakes get people killed. Sometimes they're put in situations where there is no good answer. I am not sure I've seen another prime time network show of this nature that had the balls to put a character into a situation where he had a choice between two evils, and let him make that choice and then live with the consequences. Do you let a self-aware martyr die, knowingly, to protect another innocent? Is it worth your career to kill somebody who really desperately needs killing?
Sometimes, in fact, they crack. Sometimes they turn into bad cops.
The line is very thin, and what's going on here is far more complicated than It Takes A Thief. The Criminal Minds are all the minds, those of the protagonists and those of the villains, and the focus is on the ways they obey and betray us, how they adapt to trauma, how we adapt to trauma. How we adapt to life.
And there's a lovely little riff woven in, over and over again, about the surprising resilience of the human spirit. And how a bad day, a failure, a death, a rape, abuse, alcoholism, mental illness, a fatal sickness, a betrayal, a lie, a broken heart, a broken marriage, isn't necessarily the end.
And that is how theme works, when it's done well. By example, not by explanation, not by forcing the narrative in a particular direction. By showing parallel circumstances and their outcomes, by showing the different ways the dice can fall. By showing the patterns, picking them out of the noise of everyday life, and holding them up where you can get them into the light and get a good long look at them away from the shadows and distractions.
And now it's 4:18, and I think, since I am after all still up and nobody else in the world appears to be, I am going to go work on the damned novella some more.
*Yet Another Cop Drama
**I take that back. I was wrong about Reid. He's not Asperger's-lad at at all. Asperger's-lad would, in fact, be the stereotype (again) and they got me with the snap judgement.
Reid *gets* people just fine. He's just scared of how they will judge him.
Also, I think Gideon is a clinical or possibly subclinical borderline personality. He's got that streak of malice, manipulation, and egocentrism, doesn't he?