I began this project with the assumption that television, while differing in structure from film, is based on a morale premise and that the morale premise can be seen in each episode and each character. In my research paper, The Foundation of Story, I hypothesized that the “Premise is the Promise.” I therefore sought to identify, by analyzing a first season of one episodic television show, the premise and how it was proven within each episode and over the season. Additionally, I expected to see how subtext was used to elevate the premise and contribute to the essential elements of each character that drive story. My goal in doing this was to have a model to which I could refer, if not exactly emulate, when it comes to writing my own television series. I also wanted to understand the ‘buttons’ that inspire binge watching.
Initially, I had thought to analyze Orphan Black, a sci-fi show produced by BBC America. Upon second viewing of the show, I considered it too niche for my purposes and switched to Scandal, an American political thriller created by Shonda Rhimes and broadcast on the ABC network. Orphan Black follows a clear ‘desire line,’ as John Truby writes in his article ‘Why TV is the Future and How to Write for it’. On the other hand, Scandal contains a story within each episode while maintaining multiple storylines over several episodes, which is more in keeping with the type of show that I have in mind to write.
My methodology was to break down each show by beat and chart it in an Excel spreadsheet. What I actually did was break down each show by scene, meaning that a beat can carry over several scenes. Following the suggestions of Ellen Sandler in The TV Writer’s Workbook (2006), I paid attention to such as details as whether the protagonist walked into a scene, walked out, who was assembled within a scene, who had last word, etc. This proved to be minutiae that, ultimately, did not serve my purpose. Or perhaps, having identified that Olivia pretty much always walked into a scene and walked away while delivering the last word, I quickly got it and needed to move on. The other thing that I was paying attention to was the set pieces. In typical sitcoms and serial dramas, there are two sets with the occasional swing set. In Scandal, there are a number of sets in which the action regularly takes places – the White House, the office of Olivia Pope Associates, Olivia’s apartment, the DA’s office – as well as many others, the morgue, Press Room, parks, clients’ homes, etc. Clearly, the producers spare no expense on production values. They do, however, utilize every minute of screen time with no time wasted, for example, sitting in cars driving across town. They utilize the technique, which in my spreadsheet I call “DC Pics,” of a montage of three to five stills accompanied by the old-fashion click of cameras going off to change locations. This technique is not only expedient and time saving, given that the subject of the show is spinning the media, it is also very apropos.
On reflection, I should have been paying attention to different things, not that the spreadsheet is entirely useless, simply that I will want to break it down into index cards and color code them so that they can be manipulated as necessary. This was a technique I used when writing my feature film MISMO, which tells parallel storylines about three characters whose lives inexorably connect.
I also should not have made the assumption that Scandal contains a morale premise. While there is a morale dilemma in every episode, this is not the same as the show being founded on a morale premise, and if it is, it’s one that I failed to identify. Initially, I thought that the premise was “Who you love shouldn’t have to be a secret,” which, trying to meet Stanley Williams’ requirements, I turned into,” A person should be allowed to be themselves and love openly because such secrets lead to scandals.” Realizing that this wasn’t quite the “Vice leads to Defeat, but Virtue leads to Success” equation, I struggled further and in the end resorted to McKee’s theory of “What if?” as a guiding tool. So in Scandal that might be turned into “What if a man and woman who love each other cannot declare their love openly in the world?” which definitely is the basis of each episode. Now that I’ve thought of that, I will have to go and reflect further on each episode and see how this drives each character and the story. I think it just might work!
Which goes to show that constant analyses and reiteration of a problem can lead to different results.
I don't know if that's a Little Uh Oh! or an Ouch! but I have one last episode to examine, so let's see whether it holds true.