And they call themselves friends?

on February 11, 2010

Last year it was Cherry Adair. We were both at the Emerald City Writers conference and she told me about this new show called FRINGE and I absolutely had to watch it. Those of you who know Cherry understand that excuses are not accepted, so she really didn’t pay attention when I explained I didn’t have time to add a new show on my watch list. And I was admittedly intrigued by the concept. It took me awhile to buy it on iTunes. Half the season was over. I thought, okay just one episode.

Now I’m waiting weekly for the new episode. Rumors of it being cancelled because of low ratings has me panicking.

Then it was Anna Stewart, my friend and president of the Sacramento Valley Rose chapter of RWA. This time it was CASTLE. (Anna also turned me onto VERONICA MARS but I started watching it after knowing it was canceled so I went in knowing there were only three seasons.) At the same time Anna recommended CASTLE, our Toni said I had to watch it. In fact, there was a buzz among the writing community because Rick Castle is a writer on perpetual ride-along with a NY City detective.

Initially, I enjoyed the premise and since I love Nathan Fillion (the idiot Hollywood move to in canceling FIREFLY is second only to the idiot move of canceling VERONICA MARS) I had to watch. But they lost me after five or six episodes for many of the reasons former cop Lee Lofland mentions on his humorous and stinging blog. But my mom said season two was really good, so I caved and bought it, and she was right–it was much better than season one. There are still many problems with the stories, but for me it’s a guilty pleasure. I mean, Nathan Fillion! And I love his relationship with his daughter.

Well, blame Toni this time. She emailed me a week or so ago about a canceled show called LIFE. Two seasons, that’s it. Not too much of an investment in time. On her recommendation, I downloaded season one.

One week later I had finished watching all eleven season one episodes and downloaded season two.

(Damn you Toni!)

Among my other current favorite shows are HEROES, SUPERNATURAL and LAW & ORDER SVU. I have the first episodes downloaded for WHITE COLLAR, FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS, and THE PRISONER to see if these are shows I would like . . . but I hesitate to start watching them. I’m also intrigued by THE GOOD WIFE. I loved the defense attorney show MURDER ONE (again, canceled after two seasons–a total shame) and have been waiting for another good one, and THE GOOD WIFE has an intriguing premise (wife of corrupt and adulterous politician who goes to prison and she has to reclaim her life for her children by going back to her former career as a defense attorney at a prestigious firm.)

I was thinking about why these shows all intrigue me. CASTLE with it’s bad police procedure and FRINGE with it’s oddities. HEROES has had some ups and downs–but mostly ups.

It comes down to one thing. I could say the cool premises, but those are just hooks. A cool premise is nothing without a good story to back it up. I could say the actors–I mean Nathan Fillion and Joshua Jackson and Milo Ventimiglia and Jared Padalecki! What’s not to like? I would be close. I could say the writers–and I would be closer. The writers of the shows I’ve mentioned are truly talented–the stories are by and large compelling.

But the single common denominator in all these shows is Character.

The talent of the actors plays a role as does the skill of the writers and creativity of the story creators. But all that together combines to give me the one thing I have to have when I invest time in a television series.

Good characters.

The movie AVATAR confirmed this truth for me. AVATAR had a cool premise, absolutely incredible CGI, fantastic music, and some good actors. I did appreciate the movie for the visual and auditory theater. The world building was fantastic. But–and this is a big BUT–the characters were weak. Sure, there were a few other irritating aspects–like with THE DARK KNIGHT, I was intensely frustrated during the last 25 minutes when the writers felt the need to beat the moral of the movie over my head. I got it already. I’m not an idiot. I suspect that SUBTLE is not in any of the writer’s vocabulary. But the single greatest problem with the move was with character. Every damn one of them a stereotype. The tortured hero (literally–he had no use of his legs); the villain, a military commander who promised surgery if the hero helped feed information back about the Navi (the native people)–a villain who was so rotten to the core that he became comic. The brainless soldiers just following orders–like NO ONE questioned the guy? At the climax I would have been much more satisfied if half the soldiers (all American soldiers) turned on their obviously insane commander and refused to follow orders of annihilating an entire race of people. Seriously, if the guy was charismatic or had a soft side or gave a compelling argument as to why they needed the minerals under the Navi’s home tree, then I could understand EVERYONE following him. But it was all “we have to kill them because they’re like animals.” Pul-eeze. More stereotypes? The noble, smart, tough scientist. (Played by the very talented Sigourney Weaver.) The tough female pilot who is the ONLY ONE who seems to have a brain questions the morality of genocide. And then there’s the Navi themselves–the heroine, who’s the daughter of the head chief of the tribe. The warrior she’s supposed to marry (but of course she falls for the hero.) The shaman character (the heroine’s mother.) There was not one character that wasn’t a two-dimensional stereotype.

It was after seeing AVATAR on Saturday that I realized what I need in every show I watch–at the movies or on television. Characters. Real characters, people who I believe exist. In film this means a symbiotic relationship between the writer, the actor, and the director. All needs to come together to create someone I believe could exist. Rick Castle–he’s real to me. While I need to suspend disbelief on the premise of the show, he makes it easier for me to do just that. I mean, what if Lee Child wanted to play ride-a-long with NYPD? I can totally picture it 🙂

HEROES is another fantastic example of over-the-top but real characters. Peter Petrelli is the “hero” of the show (in my mind)–he’s the moral core. He has flaws, namely acting without thinking, but he always acts for the right reasons (as he knows them.) He makes mistakes, but at his core he is a good person. Everyone else is on the scale of good to bad, but I can see why they do what they do. Their goals, motivations, and conflicts are REAL. I believe them. Even with all the over-the-top scenarios and the fantastical elements, at the core the show is about how ordinary people deal with extraordinary talents.

LIFE, my newest “acquisition,” seems to be low budget and other than the premise (cop goes to prison for 12 years for a crime he didn’t commit–he’s released with a huge multi-million dollar settlement–yet goes back to work. A great twist on THE FUGITIVE.) But the character of Charlie Crews is so compelling. He’s so controlled, due to his years of reading and listening to zen tapes. He is quirky–his obsession with fruit, his huge house without furniture, his odd comments–and you wonder how he could be so calm after spending 12 years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit. Then he does something spontaneous–but totally in character–like tossing the zen tape out of the window of his fast-moving car. He’s walking a fine line as he breaks laws and rules to find out the truth about who framed him and why. The other characters are good as well, though perhaps a little on the stereotypical side. Charlie Crews (Damian Lewis) carries the show. His partner is also good. I thought she was going to be a stereotype, but over the first season she grew into something more.

Characters become friends . . . and enemies. We become attached to them, we care about them. We love them, we hate them, we bite our nails because of them. But we CARE. We want the bad guys to get what’s coming to them, we want the good guys to win, we want justice for victims and hope for the future. And we want that because we care about the people involved. And in fiction? That means character.

Who are some of your new favorite characters?