Rhyme, Reason, and Random Terrible Things

I would pretty much always prefer to watch shows where nothing bad happens to the folks who are minding their own business. I get enough reality in the world without having random terrible things happen in my entertainment to bring home to me how easy it is for random terrible things to happen. I feel similarly about characters humiliating themselves – it’s not an experience I want to have vicariously as part of my leisure time. I think that’s why two of the shows I’ve been enjoying watching lately are season two of Fargo and Brooklyn Nine-Nine.

At first glance it doesn’t seem like they have much in common, and aside from both being very well done maybe they actually don’t. They both have cops as main characters, but where Fargo is a slow-moving, artistically shot cross between crime drama and comedy of errors, Brooklyn Nine-Nine is a wacky single-camera sitcom that flirts with parody. The connection my brain has made between them, though, is that there’s an underlying realistic note to the characters that the writers aren’t willing to sacrifice to get a laugh or advance the story. In two genres where it’s very easy to turn people into caricatures, these two shows don’t.

Season two of Fargo does begin with a senseless act of violence and the casualties are bystanders, but it’s the event that sets a whole chain in motion and it’s part of a trajectory for one of the characters which started before the story began rather than something that actually seems to come out of nowhere as a means of advancing the narrative. You know how there are some shows where you see the potential for something unpleasant and that’s inevitably where it goes? Well, despite coming from the universe where one of the characters decides it’s a good idea to put a corpse through a wood-chipper, Fargo’s not the kind of show where unexpectedly terrible things happen on a regular basis. What often plays out is the less predictable but honestly more likely scenario where it actually doesn’t go wrong, or at least not in the way you’d expect it to. For instance, quite a number of situations that in another show would probably have ended with someone getting themselves shot end up being polite conversations or missed connections instead.

Don’t get me wrong, a lot of people do get shot in season two of Fargo, but generally they’re the ones who have either made choices that are likely to get them in trouble or picked law enforcement as a line of work. There are a few who get caught in the crossfire, but most of the people who live in the areas where the events take place have nothing to do with them at all, and the kind of violence that happens in the narrative is clearly not a normal part of their lives. They’re just a backdrop of folks doing regular things like walking down the street, getting their hair cut, and planning their vacations. A lot of the humor in Fargo comes from casting the protagonists as regular, calm people who have the quality of spectators watching incredulously as an increasingly bizarre confluence of events unfolds in front of them.

The main characters all seem to have trajectories that start before the show begins and extend out ahead of them, intersecting with one another without ever seeming like they’re just there to serve a purpose in the narrative. They have their own intrinsic motivations, and the action and conflict come from the interaction of their desires and attempts to sort out their lives. The scale is more dramatic and involves a good deal more killing than average, but the ways that people go about dealing with their problems and trying to get what they want are basically the same. It’s easy to end a character’s story when they’ve played their part in the larger arc, but we don’t get off that easy. As long as you’re alive, you have to keep dealing with the consequences of your actions, they don’t just end. I appreciate how it feels like the characters in Fargo had a life before we showed up and started watching them, and are on their way somewhere without us.

Brooklyn Nine-Nine is in some ways the opposite of Fargo. The protagonists are the ones creating the series of bizarre events that drive the action, and everything else that goes on around them is basically a prop for playing out all the things that they cause to happen to themselves and each other. The characters have the potential to be caricatures and on one level they are. Their flaws and the situations their flaws get them into are exaggerated for comic effect, but like Fargo, there’s often an obvious place that the story could take them but doesn’t. Brooklyn Nine-Nine is a comedy that has the potential to draw its laughs from the characters humiliating themselves, but in the end the way they solve their problems rounds them out as people. Genuine relationships are often a casualty of humour, but honesty, friendship, and doing the right thing consistently win out over the insanity that drives the comic action through the rest of the show.

I think it’s successful in part because they’re like the embodiment of common base human emotions. The
immature detective plays out the ways we’d really like to respond to being asked to surrender the fantasy, take responsibility for things and grow up. The type A teacher’s pet detective represents the rabid desire to always be the favorite and never feel out of control. The narcissistic slacker admin assistant is the ideal combination of not wanting to have to make an effort at anything we don’t really care about and not feeling guilty. I simultaneously can’t relate to them at all because I’d (basically) never act like any of them, and relate to them all completely because I feel like them on a regular basis.

Maybe the common thread is that what I’m looking for isn’t realism in the narrative so much as a fundamental emotional realism in the behavior of the characters combined with an underlying rhyme and reason for the events. Real life clearly feels no obligation to offer rhyme or reason, but feel like you have to work a little harder as a writer because you do actually have the amazing power to make what happens make sense. Also, if you don’t, your audience thinks, ‘psht, that would never happen’ even if it totally would and just happened to you last week.


alex MacFadyen wants to know: do you prefer rhyme or reason?

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