Tom Shales has an interesting column on character assassination, when television shows, often fueled by desperation (and in HBO’s case, the imprimatur of the edge), beat up on their characters. Specifically, he points to Six Feet Under and its recent carjacking episode (which I also ranted about). Shales suggests that the edge is as much of a blessing as a curse. On one hand, it can give us genuine moments into subcultures that Standards & Practices would fly into a ridiculous uproar over. But Shales also implies that the edge gives the writers too much breathing room to resort to their worst impulses.
What Shales fails to point out (along with Joy Press in the Voice last week) is that when we are given recurring characters and they fail to live up to the character traits that they have been established with, this is the part that kills. Because an audience, particularly an audience that cares, does pay attention. They are attuned to the little moments, even if it’s only an instinctive meshing between audience and creators. One egregious example that comes almost immediately to mind is the disappointing ending of Birdy. Beyond the anticlimactic letdown (which I won’t give away), there’s the implication that the character is too intriguingly complex to do something that puerile. Or the final act of Cymbeline (famously rewritten by George Bernard Shaw) in which all of the characters are supposed to stand about on stage, interjecting when a subplot needs to end, after exhibiting so much life.
To offer a personal example, in an early draft of my play, Wrestling an Alligator, I had a character commit a horrible action. I wanted to illustrate this character’s brutality and how this sort of thing is encouraged in the business world. I made every effort to make the moment as horrible as possible — to not hold back from my own personal feelings and convictions, to operate on the edge that the good people at the Fringe were so healthily advocating. When this draft was circulated and received comments from some very helpful souls, I was then forced to justify this action and reassess why it was there. These conversations were very beneficial and resulted in rethinking the moment, rewriting, and finding the right tone. It was not really a question of how far I could go, although I did want to ensure that the moment was lively and different. But, above all, my concern was to find the right moment for the character. As it turned out, when we staged the scene last week, the tailored moment hit close to the emotions without really compromising the giddy intent.
I’m pleased to report that Six Feet Under has begun to rebound from its slump, although, in my view, it’s trying a bit to hard to recapture its momentum. And I would argue that, had the show trusted its audience a little more, it wouldn’t have to try nearly as hard to discard or modify the wishy-washy arcs. In the case of the carjacking episode, I don’t believe the writers seriously asked themselves whether the moments were all justified. This, more than anything else, is why the ratings have dropped.