…then why does nothing happen in ‘character-driven’ shows?
Oh, how I want to like Breaking Bad! It’s a brilliant idea, it’s got at least a couple of the most interesting characters on television… But isn’t it just, well, really, really slow? Don’t we all spend whole episodes wait for something to, well, happen?
Some television series have their pace set for them by their genre. An episodic detective show like Morse or Castle has a murder at the beginning of each episode, and an arrest at the end, with the process of getting one to the other spread fairly evenly throughout the episode. A medical drama follows one or more acute cases from admittance to recovery – or not.
But the shows which garner the most critical attention tend to be the ones without a set episode structure, the ones which are essentially ongoing serial dramas. An episode of Breaking Bad might involve a meth-cooking session or a drug deal gone wrong, but it might just as easily revolve around a family barbeque or a tough day teaching chemistry. There’s no set template, no typical episode – and clearly that unpredictability is what audiences are responding to. They’re tuning in precisely because these shows aren’t template-driven formulaic dramas.
“Ah yes,” people say, “we like them because they’re character-led. We don’t need a plot. We’re so interested in the characters that we’ll watch them whatever they’re doing.”
Okay, I sort of get that. And with this quality of acting, I’m almost convinced. But isn’t there actually an important question here, one that goes beyond any individual show? A question about the relationship between character and plot?
Character is plot. Whatever screenwriting guru you like, whichever books you read and whatever ‘system’ you use, they all essentially say the same thing about that. It’s your characters who give birth to the plot, and the uniqueness of your character is what makes your story unique. A James Bond movie unfolds the way it does because James Bond is who he is, and makes the choices that he makes. If Captain Jack Sparrow, Superman, or Agent J from Men In Black took his place in that exact same situation, you’d have a very different film in each case.
So if character is plot, doesn’t that mean that, the better-written the character, the more plot they should create?
A well-drawn character has power within the world of your story, even if they don’t use it consciously. Like a supermassive black hole, they warp the world around them, dragging other characters into their gravitational field and massively affecting the events and the moral tone of their world.
Dexter Morgan, Sarah Lund, Tony Stark, Stringer Bell, Vic Mackey, Ellen Ripley – great characters who create plot everywhere they go simply because of the kind of person they are.
But I don’t see this happening in Breaking Bad. Instead, the characters are pushed here and there by external concerns – a need for money, a wife’s suspicions, a trailer that runs out of gas – and are constantly scrambling to get back on an even keel. They’re reactive rather than active. They’re not black holes, imposing their gravitational will on others – they’re asteroids, continually bumped out of the stable orbit they crave and spun here and there by hardly-seen forces.
“Ah,” you say, “but that’s real life, isn’t it?”
Yes, it is. But drama isn’t real life. It’s life condensed, life distilled, life re-imagined in a hyper-intense form. That’s precisely why we love it – and precisely why I can’t quite bring myself to stick with Breaking Bad…