Sunday, January 5, 2014

Characters and Sub Plots

While I’ve identified the main beats of each episode, I still have to analyze how storylines are introduced and interwoven.  The best I can say is that Scandal follows screenwriting best practices: get in late, get out early.

Hence, we jump right into the season pilot with a problem, foregoing background exposition other than “gladiators in suits” and Olivia Pope wears the white hat, which is immediately exemplified by Olivia solving one problem and moving right on to the next.  Like all good movies, you start with an ending.  And while Olivia and her team of gladiators, to whom we are given perfunctory introductions, work on one problem, the real problem, which will develop into the murder mystery thread for the next six episodes, arises 20 minutes into the show.  From this we derive twists and subplots that are riveting and surprising and cause this analyst to ask which came first, the chicken or the egg?  Did Shonda Rhimes know in advance what she was going to do in seasons two and three and build those elements into the first season, or did she build in enough ideas from which could arise any number of variables for subsequent seasons?

Not providing characters with back story is a deliberate ploy on the part of television writers because it gives them the freedom to suddenly introduce grandma out of the woodpile, or in this case a mother who died in a plane crash.  Oh wait, she’s not dead, she’s been imprisoned for twenty years!

While we meet our main cast in the Pilot, we are introduced to a new character each episode.  In episode two, it’s Billy; in episode three, it’s Gideon; episode four, James; five, Charlie; six, Sally.   This technique spoon feeds viewers and gives them time to assimilate each new character and their role in the story.  And then, finally, in the penultimate show of the season we get the backstory on how our central characters came together, their raison d'etre.  Just think, if this had all been laid our linearly how bored our TV viewing audience would be.

The other technique that precludes audience confusion is the clever casting of physically diverse characters and the unique voice that each is given.  An old screenwriting lesson used Unforgiven (written by none other than the great David Webb Peoples) as an example.  The lesson was: if you close your eyes, you can still identify which cowboy is talking by his speech pattern.  Close your eyes and you cannot confuse any female character in Scandal with another, nor male character with another.  Though they deliver equally brilliant speeches, Cyrus and David are distinctly different right down to the vocabulary they use.  Fitz has a habit of repeating himself, especially when he’s talking to Olivia.  For example, he doesn’t say, “I love you,” once, but three times.  He doesn’t say, “You know me,” once, but three times.  He doesn’t say, “Say my name,” once, but three times.  Huck has his stock phrases.  Harrison is our smooth legal talker, Stephen our womanizer, Abbey our bitch with a heart, and Quinn is our quivering, eager-to-please, fish out of a barrel, mess. 

On the subject of Quinn, she is our one character who will undergo a character arc.  I find this interesting as she was the first character we opened on in the Pilot, the only one to have developed a personal life, and the only one who will undergo a radical change.

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