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[personal profile] matociquala
Screw it, I have brain squirrels again. Not sleepy in the least, and it's already 3:14.

So I'm going to write a long post about narratology and thematic union, using a popular TV show as an illustration, because that's what was running over and over in my head while I was lying there Not Sleeping, and you're going to be thrilled to read it, I'm sure.

Right. So I mentioned a couple of days ago that I've been watching the CBS show Criminal Minds and enjoying it. And the first season just came out on DVD. I had missed a bunch of episodes what with moving and going to the UK and stuff, so I sat down and pretty much watched them all back to back. Which they stood up to.

The show, as I've mentioned, has some flaws, most of which are related to outclevering itself on the murder mysteries, or trying to cram both plot and character development into 42 minutes. The interesting thing is that I find I really could care less, even as I recognize them, because I'm too interested in what it's doing right and the way it's kicking me in the squids.

For those of you who haven't been following this thing, it's YACD*, the twist this time being that the team of agents involved work for the FBI's Behavioral Analysis Unit, which is to say, their job is generating psychological profiles of criminals. (I had a more than passing interest in this stuff in college, and actually gave some consideration to going into forensic anthropology at one point.)

Anyway. The real BAU is about thirty people, and they don't have a private jet, and at least one of Our Heroes is a bit too young to actually have gotten that far in the FBI (becoming an FBI agent is really. hard. work. if you didn't know.) but by Hollywood standards, the factual accuracy of the show isn't too bad. (At least, unlike Las Vegas Metro PD's CSI unit, the BAU is made up of actual sworn officers. :-P) They play a little fast and loose with forensic procedure (where are your gloves, man?) and the cases tend to be time-collapsed to a high degree (things happen in hours that would take weeks, and the targets of the investigation are always escalating and decompensating at an unlikely rate just before the commercial break) but fuck it, it's TV. If I can survive an episode of ER without throwing anything at the television, I can survive this.

None of that is what interests me.

What interests me, what's holding my fascination, is the long-term thematic discussion that the show is engaged in. Which is one of the coolest things I have seen in visual media ever anywhere, and it's totally calculated to kick me right in the squids. (Well, that and the knights-of-the-table-round riff doesn't hurt either.) Now, theme, and the ways one establish and work with theme, are really hard to discuss, because theme is the part of a narrative that does what Ursula LeGuin describes as "using words to talk about things that cannot be discussed in words." And usually, thematic elements, expecially in television shows, tend to be simple and binary and easy to digest. Banal. There are good guys and bad guys, and the good guys are right and the bad guys are in their way.

This show is not doing that. It does, in fact, have a thematic discussion rather than an ideology, and the discussion is expanded and reflected back on itself every week. And they've even managed to explain the discussion in the title of the show. (More on this below.)

The emotional focus of the show, most interestingly, isn't on the protagonists so much as on the survivors of the crimes they investigate. That weight falls on the guest stars, in other words. We're not afraid of the emotional impact of failure here, and we're not scared of trauma--the characters are all who they are in response to their trama. But the difference between the good guys and the bad guys is that the good guys are not defined by their damage, and the bad guys are. (The victims, the ones who survive, we're left to wonder about. Some of them are obviously broken. Some of them might make it. Some, you don't know.)

The slush readin' me is exhausted with binary themes. The TV-watchin' me is exhausted with us-versus-them. This has complex and layered things going on, and moral ambiguity, and it all comes back to that central thematic argument--

Because a great deal of what goes on in the program is an exploration of evil, and how people become evil, and whether anything can be done about it when sometimes it obviously isn't their fault, and whether, in fact, we have any free will at all. With examples. And counterarguments. And balancing discussions. And a pretty savvy understanding of neurology and psychology. This show somehow manages to talk about serial rapists and spree killers and compulsive arsonists without demonizing them, with compassion and also with necessary ruthlessness.

...and the setup for this is that it's becoming evident--has been evident, in fact, since about halfway through the first season, but they're doing a slow reveal--that every one of Our Heroes is somebody who could have gone the other way. They are all driven, and damaged, and as near as I can tell every single one of them has been somehow savaged by life. But here's the cool thing: it's handled in this light-fingered manner, where a revelation about a character's past that would be the focus of a Very Special Episode of many lesser dramas is something that's used in service to the plot. The damage isn't romanticized, either, and in every case where we're shown something, we're shown how it could have been very different for that character, and how easily it could have changed.

So far, we've found out that pretty much everybody on the team is carrying some sort of post traumatic stress. Among them number adult survivors of child abuse, a guy who's a visual savant but possibly borderline schizophrenic and possibly working out of a pretty good case of high-functioning autism**, a sexual assault survivor, a smart hacker who's on the right side of the law these days but maybe wasn't always, and so forth. And of course the people they're after have the same kinds of damage, and maybe everybody's at the mercy of their childhood programming and their fucked-up endocrine systems.

Or maybe they're not, and there's some room in the universe for choice and personal responsibility.

And when I say thematic discussion, I mean discussion. Because the program's not coming down hard on any side. Except that it's all a tragedy, everything goes back to root causes, and you have to kick at the darkness until it bleeds daylight.

And they're mostly quite impressively complex characters. The acting is very understated and the responses are very underplayed (which is, personally, my preference--I'd rather figure out for myself than have it explained what the emotional impact of a moment is) and any of them could prettily fall into a stereotype. But they don't.

I think my case in point for this is the team leader, Hotch, who's played by Thomas Gibson, and who is portrayed as a buttoned-down, pansy-tassles-wearing, three-piece-suit, by-the-book, clipped and polished "We're gonna need some more FBI guys" ambitious career FBI guy who would generally be caricatured into an absolutely loathesome individual and an obstacle that the rest of the maverick team had to get around to get anything done.

I love Hotch. I want to take him home and feed him oreos. He's funny and sharp and his discipline is leavened by intelligence and wit, and he exists as a person, not a foil. He's got his own damage, and he makes mistakes, and things freak him the hell out sometimes. And that's the pivot, actually, that the thematic discussion hangs on.

Our Heroes are allowed trauma. (One thing that's very cool is that they're not allowed dignity, though. Or, more precisely, they are allowed the dignity of their convictions. But they make absolutely no bones about prostrating themselves before necessity if that's what it takes to save a life. You know what? I take the word dignity back. What the narrative does not allow them is pride.) They're allowed to cry. They're allowed to get mad and helpless. They're allowed to make mistakes and they're allowed to lose.

Sometimes their mistakes get people killed. Sometimes they're put in situations where there is no good answer. I am not sure I've seen another prime time network show of this nature that had the balls to put a character into a situation where he had a choice between two evils, and let him make that choice and then live with the consequences. Do you let a self-aware martyr die, knowingly, to protect another innocent? Is it worth your career to kill somebody who really desperately needs killing?

Sometimes, in fact, they crack. Sometimes they turn into bad cops.

The line is very thin, and what's going on here is far more complicated than It Takes A Thief. The Criminal Minds are all the minds, those of the protagonists and those of the villains, and the focus is on the ways they obey and betray us, how they adapt to trauma, how we adapt to trauma. How we adapt to life.

And there's a lovely little riff woven in, over and over again, about the surprising resilience of the human spirit. And how a bad day, a failure, a death, a rape, abuse, alcoholism, mental illness, a fatal sickness, a betrayal, a lie, a broken heart, a broken marriage, isn't necessarily the end.

And that is how theme works, when it's done well. By example, not by explanation, not by forcing the narrative in a particular direction. By showing parallel circumstances and their outcomes, by showing the different ways the dice can fall. By showing the patterns, picking them out of the noise of everyday life, and holding them up where you can get them into the light and get a good long look at them away from the shadows and distractions.

And now it's 4:18, and I think, since I am after all still up and nobody else in the world appears to be, I am going to go work on the damned novella some more.

*Yet Another Cop Drama

**I take that back. I was wrong about Reid. He's not Asperger's-lad at at all. Asperger's-lad would, in fact, be the stereotype (again) and they got me with the snap judgement.

Reid *gets* people just fine. He's just scared of how they will judge him.

Also, I think Gideon is a clinical or possibly subclinical borderline personality. He's got that streak of malice, manipulation, and egocentrism, doesn't he?

Date: 2006-12-14 09:37 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
we stopped activiwly watching after the first five episodes of season two's arc, because i was just so ANNOYED by what happened there.

Anyhow - another show that you might like then is Medium. It's much more about a family and also about coming to terms with stuff, but what I especially like is the visual metaphors and different story-telling they take - it feels very fresh and interesting as a narrative each week.

(vagur spoilers)

Date: 2006-12-14 01:15 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
*g* I loved that particular plot development. People break. I thought it was rather ballsy.

Most shows just kill a character when the actor wants to leave.

"Medium" is not for me, I'm afraid.

Date: 2006-12-14 12:33 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
I once had a novel (unpublished, and likely to remain so without a rewrite I probably won't invest in) go rather badly astray, in part because of the main character's damage. Some of the other characters in that novel are now asking me if they couldn't pretty please have a scene where they tell Leonard point-blank that his damage is no excuse for sitting on his ass and doing nothing, like he wants so very badly to do.

If I ever do rewrite that novel, I'm pretty sure that one of the big changes will be to move it more explicitly to an ensemble cast, rather than its current awkward state of two other characters going their best to hijack (and thereby save) the story out from under Leonard's damage-ridden ass. Because the man really needs some support, some foils, and some good kicks in the teeth.

Date: 2006-12-14 01:25 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
*g* yeah. Of course, these are the stories I love the best, personally. The ones about broken people and personal responsibility....

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Date: 2006-12-14 12:45 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]

I'm going to have to watch that now. This is facinating.

Date: 2006-12-14 01:30 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Fair warning, though. This is not a TV show that exists in a just universe.

Actually, that may be what's getting me. Because I think the last network TV show I remember watching that consistently existed in an unjust universe was Hill Street Blues.

Criminal Minds isn't by any means that level of quality. But it's consistently interesting. And I think it's a lot lighter-handed and more interesting than a lot of critically better-received shows.

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Date: 2006-12-14 01:40 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
... god damn it. I didn't need another television show to watch.

God damn Netflix for having the first season, too.

Date: 2006-12-14 01:43 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
I will warn you: the show is exposition-heavy. Probably because, every episode, they're forced to find ways to explain again what it is profilers do and why its interesting and how it works.

They generally manage to keep it pretty snappy, though, or at least I was never bored.

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Date: 2006-12-14 01:50 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Hah. However, this will give you an idea of the senses of humor of the people involved:

(Yes, the fact that the actors are as geeky as the characters does influence my liking for the show.)

Here;s a promo that gives some of the flavor of the show, though it misses my favorite character--Penelope Garcia, The Hacker Girl In Leopard Print Slides.

Date: 2006-12-14 01:53 pm (UTC)
laurel: Picture of Laurel with Garibaldi cardboard standup (tv picks)
From: [personal profile] laurel
Excellent look at Criminal Minds. I've only recently realized how much I really and truly like it, just based on how happy I am when I have a new episode on my TiVo. During season one, I was unsure for a while and there were a couple or a few episodes that were a bit too gruesome for me (will I ever be able to hear the hymn "This Is My Father's World" again without thinking of that one episode?)

I think they have veered a little into "very special episode" territory this season, but they've been well-done and made sense so I'll forgive it. Though last night I couldn't help but think "this will be Shemar Moore's episode to submit to the Emmy awards."

Have you tried Bones? It's not as good as Criminal Minds, but it has a smart and interesting team and has really grown on me. Interesting group of characters and a different spin on investigations. The show is (rather loosely) based on the life and books of Kathy Reichs.

Date: 2006-12-14 02:00 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
I haven't. *g* I'm only allowed two TV shows at a time, you see....

And yeah, Mr. Moore certainly proved he could act. There's a great bit on the DVD extras where the producers are kind of shamefacedly admitting that they more or less hired Moore and Gubler because they were pretty and looked the parts... and they can act! Who knew they could act?

I mean it's subtext, but there ya go.

Date: 2006-12-14 01:56 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Yes. What you said about it. It's a surprisingly complex piece of television. Though they dropped one thing last night: the perp would have known the name of the first victim. They could have put his name on the headstone.

Date: 2006-12-14 02:01 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
If he admitted it, yeah.

Of course, there's a thematic closure you get from the John Doe staying a John Doe....

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Date: 2006-12-14 06:25 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Hi! Came across your post while skimming the friendslist of [ profile] criminalxminds, and I just have to say thank you for summing up everything I love about this show. It's more complex than it seems, and I love it that way.

Date: 2006-12-14 06:36 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Yeah, exactly, I love it for the underplay.

Thanks for stopping by!

I might do a post tomorrow on how one goes about building themes, if I have time.

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Date: 2006-12-14 07:14 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Awesome post, Bear. :)

I'm sorry about the brain squirrels.

Date: 2006-12-14 08:19 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
That's it, I'm sold. Time to convince Jeff.

Date: 2006-12-14 11:56 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Yay! Another one bites the dust...uh, I mean...

Date: 2006-12-15 02:56 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
I just got the LSD poisonings episode -- and to illustrate that the weighting is lighter than most cop shows, my mother wasn't entirely convinced the survival of the managers *was* a happy ending :) But as in 'Derailed' there's a deal less of the 'this person is a nutter' in CM and a far more interesting tightrope walk which considers motivation without presenting a conclusive excuse. And yes, I may be putting way too much significance into random script elements, but I found the way the father was viewed -- yes he'd been drugged against his will, yet the violence was a result of his own supressed rage -- an interesting mirror to the revenge poisoner and his imposed external stressor. (And yes, it's a squid, and so of course I have books that travel to some similar places)

I also love a series that doesn't have a soap-opera plot but can carry over small incidents from episode to episode -- so when Gideon destroys the peace of Garcia's cubbyhole and barely notices, the following week Hotch has sent flowers in Gideon's name, but Gideon had also bought a gift and now worries that Garcia may think he likes her. It's a neat continuation, characterisation, etc but also plays into the choice-interconnectedness discussion from another direction. (And makes me think I'm dealing with smart and deliberate rather than accidental.)

Oh, it's also amusing. And that's what makes the show so good -- it does clever things and makes me think big thoughts while I drool over hot boys, and smile, and am a little sad.

Date: 2006-12-15 03:56 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Yes. And yeah, the saving of those people--they are evil men, after all--is not something one can feel good about.

On the other hand, the fabric of society does not support vengeance killings....

There's a bit in season two that I won't spoiler for you, but suffice it to say the question of, do you let the bad guys walk or do you take the law into your own hands? comes up again--as it did with Hotch, early on, and as it does in this one.

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Date: 2006-12-15 05:49 am (UTC)
ext_6848: (gideon/hotch)
From: [identity profile]
Here via a friend's rec... *waves*

Thank you so much for this post. I think CM is a terrific show, and find the characters complex and fascinating. I'm constantly surprised by the negative remarks I hear from people watching it, and the negative reviews like the one in EW last month. I keep getting that what show are *they* watching? feeling.

I fell for the show immediately. I adore Gideon, Hotch, Reid, and Garcia, and finally warmed to Morgan around the middle of last season, after finding him a bit of an obnoxious, macho bully at first. The women have been a harder sell. I like JJ okay, and it's nice that she's had more to do this season. Elle eventually grew on me, and I thought they handled her meltdown and exit really well. Sadly, I've not yet warmed to Prentiss, who's just a little too Mary Sue and OTT for my taste (I prefer subtlety and emoting to in-your-faceness). I actually loved the two eps they did after Elle left, and before Prentiss showed up; I thought the team was tighter and more efficient that way, and actually wish they hadn't replaced Elle at all. But I loved that Hotch was pissed to have her foisted on them. *Very* Hotch.

Shutting up now. *g*

Date: 2006-12-15 01:35 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Welcome! Nice to meet you.

Date: 2006-12-15 11:38 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Fascinating. I wish I were as good at putting these things into words as you are! I've been worriting about this show and why I like it for ages. I mean, really, you know, on a rational level the plots are dumb. TV does that.

I've been concerned about Hotch too. I think it's pretty obvious he's headed for a some sort of trouble.

I really really really last week's ep, with the young boy and Reid. Reid's line, "I know what it's like to be afraid of your own mind," just absolutely, yes.

In most of the things I've read, both fictional and non, about profiling, the profilers themselves are very very aware that they are all too close to their prey.


Date: 2006-12-15 11:44 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Yes. Television plots are by their very nature oversimplified.

Oh, yeah, that was a very good episode. The bit at the end of that one, where he's snapping orders and bellowing for the medics and just about losing it, was fabulous.

That was Reid suddenly behaving like a grown up and capable FBI agent, which we've seen him do once or twice before, but... he's funny. He's so deferential, until he's in charge.

That ep, "Derailed," "Somebody's Watching." Anytime you put Reid in a situation where he's dealing with somebody in mental crisis, you get goodness. (I love the bit in "Somebody's Watching" where he's talking the stalker into pointing the gun at him, not at the civilian.)

When watching television, I find I have to be ready to translate the genre conventions, much as when watching stage plays. "Okay, time is collapsed, so when they say a week they mean a month."

Seacoast of Bohemia all the way.

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Date: 2008-09-02 10:34 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Coming way back to this and speaking to the second footnote, AS someone with high-level ASD: you can get people just fine on an analytical level, and even be able to talk to them when they need it the most, and still miss all of the cues, the little things, the every-day-things that everyone else understands that would make your life a little less . . . . hellish, and then occasionally you trip over the really big thing and you fall down and you realize that no, really: other peoples' brains don't work like this.

I see a LOT of that ASD in Reid. But it's very much the invisible kind, the kind that gets you hell through your whole life, and then after you figure out what's going on gets you told that you're not really like that, you're just weird, and looking for attention.

Date: 2008-09-02 10:39 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
The problem is, he doesn't really do that--he reads people very well.

Well enough to save his own life and that of his coworkers by reading those little cues and following when they mean.

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