Sunday, January 5, 2014

The Premise as Promise

The goal of this exercise was to understand the intricacies of how a story is structured over multiple episodes and how it adheres to its premise within each episode and over the season, as well as identify what the buttons are that inspire binge watching.  I aimed to do this by testing Egri’s theory, which states, “If you have a clear-cut premise, almost automatically a synopsis unrolls itself.  You elaborate on it, providing the minute details, the personal touches.” [Egri, 1946, p.15)

Dr. Stanley Williams further elaborates, “Egri calls the controlling idea or theme of a story simply the premise, and for 296 pages defines its central importance.  Egri expounds on why it is the [moral] premise that defines the singular dramatic arc of the story and every character in it.  With detailed examples and practical insight, Egri describes how the outward action of a character has no undergirding motivation without the [morale] premise.  Thought always precedes action.” [Williams, 2006, p.5]

As discussed in my earlier post Egri presented his premise in a simple format that Williams went on to develop into a double-barreled formula, and trying to satisfy this formula may be why I’ve failed to identify the morale premise for Scandal.

It may be why Robert McKee presents premise as an open-ended question that prompts an idea.  In his example, “What would happen if a shark swam into a beach resort and devoured a vacationer?” [McKee, 1997, p. 112]

If we adopt Robert McKee’s approach then identifying the premise of Scandal becomes easier, “What would happen if the President of the United States of America, a married man, fell deeply in love with another woman?”  This raises a multitude of ensuing questions, and when you add the race card it ups the ante, (though this subject is delicately handled), before even accounting for the wife’s response and those supporting his administration.

Other writing gurus talk about theme and emotional through-line and, certainly in Scandal, these are mutlifold: we have themes of the law, doing the right thing; power, its uses and abuses; loyalty and love.  We see these played out through our characters:

Olivia Pope wears the white hat, and with her team of “gladiators in suits,” goes to battle on behalf of clients to save them from being crucified by the media.  We have the theme of always fighting for the good, even if it means bending the law to do it.  With the exception of Quinn (which I’ll discuss later) no-one in Olivia’s team has a personal life.  Since Olivia has saved each of them, they owe their allegiance to her and the emotional through-line is that Olivia always comes first, they protect her.

Fitzgerald Grant III, President of the United States of America, is the most powerful man on the planet.  He is also a hostage to his job, unable to live the life he wants with the woman he loves.  His emotional through-line is that Olivia is the love of his life.  His theme, debatably, is that it’s lonely at the top.

Cyrus Beene, Chief of Staff, has the intellectual capacity to be president, but is lacking the schoolboy good looks and politically-correct sexual orientation.  Therefore, he must exert his power as the President’s right-hand man.  He will do anything to protect the president and see that he remains in power.  This, invariably, puts him in morally dubious situations.  

Mellie, the First Lady, will also go to any lengths to see that her husband remains in power.  In many ways Mellie is a martyr to the cause, but the cause is also self-serving as she has no intention of giving up the lifestyle to which she has become acquainted and may have political ambitions of her own. 

David, the DA, will go to any lengths to uphold the law.  He is the law.  And in the next season, we will see how the law turns against him, as it inevitably must, and to what extremes he will then go to defend his white hat.  The emotional through-line between Olivia and David, as they jockey over who wears the white hat, is that of friendship.

In certain ways, our characters are all martyrs and, if nothing else, extreme, or as Egri would say, contain strength of will.  “These characters are vital, full of fight, and they will easily carry the play to a crescendo” [Egri, 1946, p.78] or, in our case, over 100 episodes.  

So while I may not have identified one tidy formula, we have a set of themes and one potent “What if?” question that fulfills the promise for viewers each week.

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