Tag: criticism

Prestige Dramas and Tone

Despite the shit I’m about to talk, these are all great shows.

Prestige dramas have been around for a while now (I think most critics consider its birth around the time of The Sopranos and Oz on HBO, although one could argue that they’ve been around longer), which means there are certain expectations for them. This Vulture article and its follow-up do an excellent job of summing up the established tropes of prestige television. And both touch on what I see as the distinguishing factor between the best prestige dramas and the lesser ones: Tone.

As the follow-up article linked to above mentions, prestige dramas tend to lean toward seriousness, straddling the line (or sometimes leaping over it) of melodrama. Humor can be difficult to find and is often reserved for supporting characters that don’t play huge roles in the show. My argument, then, is that the upper-tier of prestige dramas like Breaking Bad and The Wire actively lean into humor. Yes, there are the supporting comic relief characters (Skinny Pete and Badger; Bubbles), but the main characters are often funny themselves, even if it’s unintentionally. Many of the situations Walter White finds himself in are humorous, especially early in the series. Jesse Pinkman is a legitimately funny person. Bunk and McNulty have a relationship that uses humor to feel more organic.

I think this is where a lot of prestige dramas lose the thread. In trying to be taken seriously and seem deep, they forget that humor is what connects us to one another. His Dark Materials has been a tough watch for me because it’s so devoid of humor. Westworld, too. I enjoyed The Outsider, but my favorite episode was the one where the characters spent the entire hour driving someplace and getting to know one another because it allowed us to see them with their hair down a bit. The rest could be difficult to sit through as dour characters talked dourly about dour subjects.

Shows like Justified or Stranger Things, while ultimately serious prestige television, have humor at their hearts and are that much better for it. When a show takes itself seriously, but the characters are allowed to have fun, it feels more like real life. And that, ultimately, is what a lot of prestige dramas are trying to reflect.

The lesson here is that humor and lightheartedness doesn’t undercut drama (unless done poorly, which is another topic entirely), but adds to it. Humor connects us to characters, gives us reason to like them, so that when the story does get capital-S “Serious” the gut punches land that much more effectively.

Drive and Storytelling Through Absence

I rewatched Drive recently. Written by Hossein Amini, directed by Nicolas Winding Refn, and starring Ryan Gosling with Carey Mulligan, Albert Brooks, Ron Perlman, and Bryan Cranston, I was struck by how devoid of dialogue or major actions most scenes are while still being able to connect us to the characters and move the story forward. Aside from the violence, it’s a film of subtlety and nuance, one that strives to connect us to the characters and move the story forward with askew glances rather than big motions or long-winded dialogue.

I think in our search for clarity, to ensure that our audience is following along the path we’ve laid out for them, writers often make things too obvious at the expense of being compelling. Although Drive doesn’t even bother naming its main character and he speaks somewhere in the vicinity of 380 words throughout the entire film, we’re compelled by him. By his relationship with Irene and Benicio. By the situation he finds himself in, first with Standard coming home and then when he gets caught up in a failed heist because of Standard.

When there is dialogue, it’s rare that the characters say what they’re thinking. Instead, everything going on in their heads is communicated with looks, grins, and undertones. Take the scene where Driver first meets Standard. For context, we have spent the first 40 minutes of the film watching Driver and Irene become close in a very sweet, platonic way. There is definitely an attraction there, but neither character has been bold enough to act on it, nor do they need to. Their romance is a pure one. We have a sense that Driver may be dangerous, but aren’t sure how. Standard, meanwhile, has just been released from prison. We aren’t sure what for, or if that means he’s also dangerous. All of this groundwork is the undertone for the scene.

First, Standard says that Benicio, his and Irene’s son, is the one that told him about Driver, insinuating that Irene hadn’t. He also characterizes Driver as someone who’s been “Coming around, helping out a lot,” downplaying his relationship with Irene. Driver doesn’t exactly ignore Standard, but doesn’t engage with him either, instead focusing solely on Benicio and Irene. Standard clearly takes offense to this, repeating himself until Driver answers. Standard then “thanks” Driver in a way that’s more dismissive than sincere. Driver again doesn’t engage, accepting the thanks as if Standard meant it. Through all of this, Standard has held Benicio close to him and kept Irene between himself and Driver, as a show of possession.

Standard tells Driver what he knows about him, that he drives for the movies, again using a dismissive tone. It’s here that Irene steps in to try and defuse the situation, offering to take the trash Standard is holding, ostensibly in the hope that Standard will go back into their apartment. Standard refuses, intent on holding his ground against this man that’s infiltrated his family. Still, he understands what she’s doing and finishes taking the trash to the compactor with Benicio. The clip above ends there, but after this Driver, too, senses an end to the standoff and tells Irene goodnight. As Standard passes by the hallway that Driver has just walked down, he tells him to “Have a good night,” more dismissive as ever.

In less than a minute, with sparse dialogue, the scene paints a vivid picture of jealousy, male posturing, and the complicated relationships between these four people. It doesn’t do so with a big confrontation. There’s no, “So you fucking my wife?” from Standard, no “She deserves better than you,” from Driver. The tension is in the context of what we know about these characters and what we don’t know. That’s brought forward through nuanced dialogue that dances around what everyone is thinking without confronting it head-on.

You could break the scene apart on a technical level, too. The low drone of the music builds the tension. The blocking of the characters illustrates their relationships and power dynamics. The color scheme, lighting, and camera angles all add to the scene’s power. But for me, from a purely writing perspective, the magic lies in what isn’t said.

The entire movie is an exercise in this kind of abstraction and restraint. Apparently, as the director, writer, and actors workshopped the script they purposefully kept cutting dialogue between Driver and Irene, their goal to keep things sparse. It’s a good lesson as a writer that subtlety is often more impactful than not.

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