Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Storyteller’s Rulebook #41: Drama Is How It Is, Genre Is How It Feels

One more thought on “The Sopranos”… I never had HBO, so I finally got to see what all the fuss was about when the first season was released on DVD (which was still a big deal for a TV show at the time, but you kids wouldn’t remember that). I watched the pilot and I had to admit that it was pretty great, but I still had a doubting voice in the back of my head: ‘Who needs to see another show about killing? This show takes itself seriously, but this level of violence and stylization is actually pretty phony, isn’t it?’

Then I listened to David Chase’s commentary track and I had one of those rare “moments of clarity”. He was talking about where the idea for the show came from. He was a successful screenwriter, but he was putting his own mean-mouthed mother in a home and she was heavily guilt-tripping him. He thought to himself “I’m such a monster.” He decided to do a show about what it felt like to be a rich guy putting his mother in a home. Except, in the TV version, instead of the meek TV writer he was, he would portray himself as the monster (aka mobster) he felt like.

Suddenly, I understood the justification for all genre writing. Realism is a fine goal, but it’s not the only way to be truthful. When you make a genre show (and “The Sopranos” was a genre show) you’re telling the truth about how it feels, in a way that realism never can. He was coming clean: this is who I really am— I’m a monster.

Nowhere was this more true than on the other all-time-great show of the late 90s/early 00s, “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”. That show appealed to lots of non-vampire-lovers because it was such a perfect metaphor for adolescence. In reality, high school problems only felt like the end of the world, but here they really were the end of the world. If it felt like a guy was ripping your heart out, here he really would try, and on and on. These things made the show a lot more fun than 90210, but they also made it more truthful. This may not be how it happened, but it sure is how we remember it-- and there’s nothing wrong with that.

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