Monday, October 19, 2009

Good writing

This blog is a space where I purposely don't write about my work. Instead of writing about the things which are central to my life, I write about the peripheral things. Of course sometimes that means that the peripheral things get driven off the mental desktop entirely, when life gets busy. One of the big things I had on my mind is now off my plate (an article for a journal which had to be turned around in editing very quickly in order to go into the special issue that's Coming Soon, I hope), along with a Giant Pile of Midterms (tm) which had to be corrected over the weekend. As a result, I've had more than two brain cells to rub together, for a change, and I've been thinking about television writing.

We've been watching the show "Castle" on ABC recently, and enjoying it a lot - it's a fluffy show, but it has tremendous ensemble appeal - great chemistry between the principal characters, including Nathan Fillion as a crime writer, Stana Katic as the NYPD officer he's partnered with, and an actor whose name I've forgotten as Fillion's smart teenage daughter. His eccentric actor mother, who lives with them, is also a great character. Even the staff of the police station where much of the action takes place have real substance and character. There would have been a time when I would have just sat back and enjoyed it, but I'm now married to a guy whose critical faculty is always in gear, so I find myself taking a page from him and starting to think about why the show works so well. Specifically, I'm wondering about the interplay between "chemistry" and writing.

It's obvious that many members of this cast have great chemistry: Fillion and the women who play his daughter and his mother, Katic and her supervisor, Katic and Fillion etc. When I think of "chemistry" I think of a kind of alchemical mix of personalities - like these are people who like each other and work together well as colleagues, and it comes through in the show. I have no idea how true this is. Then there's the writing, which Rex thinks is definitely key to this show. And it's true that it's very sharp and witty (in one recent episode, the case kept taking a turn for the weird, and every time it did, Fillion's character would say "!"). Fillion's character, a writer, often annoys his partner by trying to solve cases by arguing from narrative consistency or other literary principles, which sometimes works and sometimes doesn't, but which makes for a particularly endearing personal quirk. The only thing that comes close to becoming a kind of narrative tic is the scene where Fillion's character, who plays an endearing and slightly doofus single dad, has a discussion with his very perceptive teenage daughter in which she says something insightful which causes him to suddenly realize something crucial about the case he's been working on. (This is charming, but kind of repetitive.) But mostly the writing is really smart.

I think that somehow this is the combination of things that attracts me to a television show. It's rare that I become a "fan" of a show - I'm too fickle and busy to be a fan of anything, really - but others I can think of (the X-files, Buffy, 30 Rock) have what seems to me to be something of the same qualities of chemistry between cast members and smart, witty writing. But what is the balance between them? Now, one of my oldest friends (hi M!) is a successful television writer, who has been on the writing staff of a number of major network shows. So she's probably going to read this and think "What a noob." Fortunately, this won't be the end of the world. What do you think? Has anybody seen this show? What is the relationship between chemistry and writing?


Melinda said...

This is very meta for me, since I go to your blog to think about your life and a different world from mine, and then not only do I get a shout-out, but an actual hello on the blog! :) I would say that the chemistry of the actors is in fact more important than the writing. (E.g., post-Duchovny X-Files, though Robert Patrick did the best he could. Or, if you check out the Mentalist on CBS, or House on Fox, you'll see that the right central actor can elevate any ensemble and material.) I'm glad you like Castle, since I have a couple of friends writing for it. I like that show too, and I think you gave a very good analysis of it.

SEB said...

Heh, I'm glad you chimed in, I really wanted to know what you thought about it. We are really loving Castle - just getting the first season on Netflix. It just continues to be awesome, and I heart Stana Katic.

I want to try the Mentalist too, if I ever remember to program the TiVo to record it.