Tuesday, January 10, 2012

TV's master of healthy conflict

Posted By on Tue, Jan 10, 2012 at 1:43 PM

click to enlarge Parenthood.jpg

Television, almost as a rule, is about dysfunction. Drama is conflict and fomenting conflict is all the easier with characters prone to betrayal, deep greed, out-of-control pride, drug addiction, revenge, or even, increasingly, incest.

But as entertaining as that sort of drama is, it doesn’t do much to genuinely speak to the realities of healthy middle-class families. When those families fight, they don’t do it walking through corridors spouting arcane statistics or allusions to Gilbert and Sullivan. They rarely threaten each other with guns or blackmail, or develop elaborate schemes to manipulate the relationship, or argue about their meth-cooking business.

Shows from Jason Katims, meanwhile... As the creator of both Parenthood and Friday Night Lights, he managed to create two shows that not only feature relatively healthy families that have relatively healthy conflict in relatively healthy ways – but makes it interesting.

And yet, the families of Parenthood and the central family in Friday Night Lights argue in very different ways.

When football coach Eric Taylor fought with his wife Tami on Friday Night Lights it was a quiet sort of tension. He’d look away, rub his nose with frustration, and say, something like, “You know what, I’m done talkin’ about this right now” in a clipped Texas drawl. Then Tami would turn to him later that night in bed – no exiling him to the couch – or she’d look up at the ceiling,and they’d genuinely talk it out. They’d discuss their own feelings, goals, and frustrations, you know, the way happily married people do, and the directors would let the raw improvisational work, close camera angles, and flickers of facial expressions to score undercurrents of the conflict.

The extended family in the Parenthood is a little more troubled, with a lot of past annoyance built up in their histories. Here, the conflict is more stated, with the occasional bout of yelling and an almost invariable tendency to talk over each other.  They prod old wounds, they throw their hands up into the air or storm out with exasperation. And then they heal. It’s usually not with the trite tie-up or monologue voiceover you see at the end of sitcoms. Sometimes it takes several episodes. But here, too, the facial tics, body language, rises in volume, and shifts in tone feel so real that the argument, at every moment deepens the nuance of the characters.

Ironically, the relatively small size of the stakes – this is about the health of a relationship or the happiness of a daughter rather than a death or betrayal – make watching the conflict much more engaging than in a more melodramatic show like revenge. Because it feels real. The actors and writers onParenthood and Friday Night Lights both understood their characters, their relationships, their personalities and motivations on a deep level. Far too often arguments on television turn into characters transforming into mouthpieces of the writers’ philosophical and political beliefs. The characters begin to sound entirely like David E. Kelley or Aaron Sorkin, or worse, straight dumps from the writers’ room outline.

Creating captivating conflict, in other words, doesn’t depend on plot twists,or deep dysfunction or even writerly eloquence: All it needs is realcharacters that fight the way like your mom and dad, or your brother and sister, or your pastor and his wife.

(Parenthood airs Tuesday nights at 10 pm)

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