Tag: television

Next Stop: Dysfunction Junction

  One of my favorite TV series is “Midsomer Murders,” the British cozy-cum-police procedural set in small town England, now in its twentieth season. Other, newer favorites include “The Brokenwood Mysteries,” a darker cozy-cum-police procedural set in small town New Zealand, and “Hinterlands,” so dark it’s actually Scandi-noir masquerading as village fare, set in small town Wales. All three shows share commonalities. They focus on police investigation of crimes in rural areas with adjusted per capita murder rates that rival Chicago’s. The biggest difference between the three is the degree of dysfunction in the main characters. Midsomer’s DCI Barnaby is an ordinary guy, a well-adjusted everyman with a well-adjusted wife and daughter. His home life is ordinary, if not outright idyllic. The drama and trauma occur on the job. Brokenwood’s DSS Shepherd, on the other hand, is a man with a complicated past that includes several ex-wives and at least one dead one. You get the sense he’s experienced a lot of unhappiness in a life accented by the show’s country/alt rock soundtrack. Hinterland’s (the darkest of the shows) DCI Mathias makes Kurt Wallander look like the president of the pep club in comparison. Devastated by the death of one of his children, he’s lost his wife and home and spends as much time battling inner demons as he spends tracking murderers.

Dysfunctional protagonists seem to be the “thing” in modern books, TV, and movies. The damaged hero is often as “messed up” as the villain. It’s gotten to the point where you wonder if there’s an unofficial competition to create the world’s most broken protagonist. I’ve heard authors admit to “piling on” the trauma, going out of their way to load down their character’s pasts with as much tragedy and affliction as possible. I’ve read some books where the author went so far with the dysfunction device, the protagonist (and most of the supporting characters) ended up being a walking collection of problems that bogged the story down more than advanced it. The dysfunctional hero trope is so common it’s now used to comic effect. Wreck-It Ralph, a hilarious movie about the secret lives of arcade game characters, explicitly describes one as “being programmed with the most tragic backstory ever”. The Ref, a hilarious movie about a home invasion, plays on the idea that the victims are so screwed up, the “bad guy” ends up becoming their counselor.

I’m not opposed to dysfunction in film and literature on general principle, as long as the dysfunction is an integral part of the story and not just something glommed onto a character in an effort to be trendy. Some of my favorite characters have issues. I’ll add Det. Bobby Goren to the ones mentioned above. A schizophrenic mother, a uninvolved stepfather, and a serial killer biological father certainly put the quirky star of “Law and Order: Criminal Intent” high on the screwed-up life list. But I do think dysfunction has been overdone. It’s so prevalent, it’s become humdrum. Take a pill, already, see a therapist. Some authors (including authors of screenplays) don’t even try anymore. They grab a psychopathology textbook and saddle their protagonists with a laundry list of complexes and personal problems, occasionally throwing in a physical issue or two for variety, and call it a day. They assume that’s all that’s required to create a character worth sticking with for a couple hundred pages or a couple of hours in a theater or past the first commercial break. But “effed up” is not a synonym for interesting. I admit syrupy-sweet, “perfect” characters with charmed lives are annoyingly Pollyanna-ish. Average characters, however, are not. At least they don’t have to be. Don’t we all know at least one “basically normal” person who interests us? A dysfunctional background is not a prerequisite for drama and conflict. And well-adjusted doesn’t mean nothing bad ever happens. Bad things happen to good people all the time. Look at the 1956 remake of The Man Who Knew Too Much. James Stewart and Doris Day epitomize middle-class normality on vacation. Then they witness a murder. Then their daughter is kidnapped. Bad things. Not boring. In Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt, an average, well-adjusted girl must confront the fact that seemingly normal, well-adjusted Uncle Charlie may not be. The ordinariness, bordering on banality, of the people and the town heighten the suspense and terror in the film. The devil comes to visit Norman Rockwell. In Suddenly, Frank Sinatra’s hitman holds an average family hostage in their ordinary home as part of his plot to assassinate the President. Nothing dull about that. The Slender Thread offers “regular-guy,” college student Sidney Poitier as a crisis hotline volunteer who must locate the suicidal woman who calls him before the pills she swallowed have their intended effect. Plenty of drama. Normal is not a synonym for snooze-fest.

Unbroken heroes can carry a story as well as broken ones. They can confront the same danger, conflict, and obstacles. What differs is how they handle those things. A protagonist from a happy, or at least functional, background is already out of her comfort zone when she’s unexpectedly faced with a crisis or put into dangerous circumstances. Instant drama. A character from a dysfunctional background is used to trauma, expects conflict, approaches the world from the assumption that rotten things are more likely to happen as not and life kind of sucks. They’ve developed survival skills to get them this far, survival skills they can call on to help them through the next trauma, which doesn’t come as much of a surprise in their hyper-vigilant existence. But a character who’s never experienced adversity, never had to learn to cope? Someone who, like the subject of the Mighty, Might Bosstones’ “The Impression That I Get,” has “never been tested”? They have no survival skill set to fall back on, no ingrained coping mechanisms. The “untested” hero faces a steep learning curve in the “deal with it or die” game. How would someone who led a charmed life cope when that charm wears off? What does someone do when their basic assumptions–that life works out the way you want it to, that the world and people in it are basically good, that terrible things only happen to nonspecific “others”–prove wrong? When life which seemed so pleasant and harmless rears up without warning and smacks them upside the head? Then kicks them in the teeth? Do they crumple, unable to dip into their reserves and find a way to fight back? Do they rail against the injustice about to crush them, angry that they did all the right things and got sucker punched anyway? Lose faith because they didn’t get what they thought they deserved? Or do they rise to the challenge? Show their resilience? Draw on strengths they didn’t know they possessed–or borrow strength from others–and overcome the obstacles? How do they change, knowing the world isn’t really the warm, safe place they once believed it to be?

Which side of the dysfunction junction do you fall on? The more problems the better? Enough with the traumatic backstory already? Somewhere in the middle? No preference as long as it’s a well-drawn character involved in a gripping plot?

 

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Popcorn and Mysteries

Okay, I admit it. This blog is not about writing or reading. It is, however, about something critical to the creative process: what you eat while you watch your favorite mystery. My taste in mysteries and suspense runs the gamut. I have a special place in my heart for the BBC. I’ve watched all 19 seasons of Midsomer Murders. I love Endeavor, Shetland, Loch Ness, Luther, Inspector Lewis, Foyle’s Wars, Wallander, Agatha Raisin, Inspector Lynley, Father Brown, Jonathan Creek, Zen and anything Agatha Christie old or new. I also happily watch Winter and Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries for a taste of Australia. New Zealand has The Brokenwood Mysteries.  Then there’s Elementary, Psych, Longmire and Bosch for something with an American accent. I could go on, but I won’t. While the shows may change, my snack of choice does not. It’s always popcorn. If I’m watching by myself, the topping will be whatever strikes my fancy. If I’m curling up to watch a mystery with my daughter, we tend to top our popcorn with truffle butter and parmesan. If I’m watching with my son, it’s frequently butter mixed with hot sauce from Belize. (My sister-in-law is Belizean and introduced the family to Mary Sharps. Our lives have never been the same.) If I’m making popcorn for the entire family, I usually stick to the classic butter and salt. I find high-fat, cultured butter is best because it has, to my taste buds, the right ratio of fat to milk solids. Vermont Creamery Cultured Butter is one of life’s true pleasures. My salt of choice is Baleine coarse salt ground in a salt grinder, but I’ve had great results with black salt from Maui and pink Himalayan salt, as well. I use an old air popper, carefully drizzling the  melted butter on the popcorn as it drops into the bowl. When all the popcorn is popped, I add eight to ten turns of ground salt and place another bowl on top so that I can shake the popcorn until the butter and salt (or parmesan) are evenly distributed. For me, there’s nothing better. It can be a meal in itself…and has been more times than I should confess. Having said that, I’m always on the prowl for both new mysteries and new snacks. So, what do you watch, and what do you eat while watching it?   

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B.O.A.T.S. (Based on a True Story)

 I heard information today at work that made me say to myself, “That would make a great movie.” (No details here–it’s an active project.) It got me thinking about other true stories that would make gripping fiction. The art world provides a plethora of material suitable for a ripped-from-the-headlines thriller. Art isn’t nearly as sedate as those 6th grade field trips to dim, musty museums led you to believe. A search of Artsy turned up an article about an agoraphobic photographer who uses Google Street View to take screenshots of the people and landscapes she encounters in her virtual world travels. What if she grabbed a screenshot of a crime committed thousands of miles away? What would this homebound woman do? A deeper dip into Artsy’s archives turns up several articles on the hunt for, recovery of, and restoration of Nazi-looted art. What’s been described as the world’s greatest art theft has already inspired novels, movies, and TV shows: Portrait of a Woman in White, Girl in Hyacinth Blue, The Woman in Gold, and episodes of Law and Order: Criminal Intent, Father Brown, and Agatha Christie’s Marple, to name a few. Newspapers and magazines often feature stranger-than-fiction stories. The Telegraph and Business Insider report on professional mourners hired to grieve at funerals. (Rent A Mourner is a legit UK-based business offering “discreet and professional mourners”.) Turns out, this isn’t a new thing. Mourners for hire date back to ancient Greece and are traditional in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East. They’re called moirologists and in 1910, in Paris, threatened to go on strike, complaining of not being paid living wages. Imagine an experienced moirologist noticing something odd about the deceased she’s been hired to mourn. An unusual Mark on the body? A bruise not hidden by the undertaker’s makeup? A face she recognized? I’d be remiss if I failed to mention the Internet and good, old-fashioned eavesdropping as sources for strange-but-true material. Last week I listened, fascinated, as the man at the table next to me recounted how his brother witnessed a massacre during a coup and developed PTSD so severe he suffered violent outbursts that eventually led to a life-or-death fight with the storyteller. Literally life-or-death. Think broken bones, manual strangulation, and bystander intervention. Drama fit for a Man Booker prize. Google “can’t make this stuff up” and get 18 million hits: links to newspaper articles, listicles, blogs, and Facebook pages. Here’s a recent one from FB: a woman breaks into a celebrity’s house (Drake, if you must know) and steals Pepsi, Sprite, Fiji water, and a hoodie. What if an obsessed fan broke into a celebrity’s house and found Nazi-looted art or witnessed his idol committing a crime? What life-imitates-art stories would you like to see fictionalized?

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What makes a good villain?

I hate serial killers, and not just because they murder people indiscriminately–though that’s bad. I hate them because I don’t find them interesting. Uniformly, they have a vaguely disturbed childhood or mental illness that spurs them on a bloody spree. They are as much victims of circumstance, in some ways, as their actual victims; just as unable to control their evil fate.  The best villains, in my opinion, have more varied motives. They kill one person because a combination of threats to their livelihood, sense of self, or personal safety made them act violently. Then, they kill more people to cover up the initial killing.  That’s what made Walter White in Breaking Bad such a great villain. His back was against the wall and he made an immoral choice that promised easy money. Then, he made another and another until he was scarface with chemicals instead of coke.    

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