... or "The Little Sidebar that Grew."
Those types of shows are essentially shows about emotions. People in conflict, or breaking down. End of day -- as Wells et al have nimbly shown -- you can drop a conflicted group of humans into any high-stakes setting and reap the entertainment crop of angst. Breaking Bad is about temptation and sin -- Walter didn't have to make Meth. But the drug world is a great, high-conflict/high-risk crucible for an amazing staff of writers to use to show what happens, how a man breaks bad. Joss Whedon's shows are about identity, responsibility, family and failure -- it doesn't matter what setting he's in, it's just that sci-fi allows one to create extreme circumstances so to best draw out extreme choices and extreme consequences.
And then there are shows about systems. Specifically, systems in conflict, or breaking down. Law & Order is the platonic example, although most mainstream crime procedurals live somewhere in here. Disorder has come, sickness has come, corruption has come, and we crave the system to be set right. We are there for the riddle, the puzzle, the "click" of the solve. "Ahh, that's the solution." "Ah, clever."
I am not saying there are only two types of television -- and even these two are very crude models. But I would say that these two paradigms dominate. Even co-mingle. One could call it the Squee/Clever Continuum. All viewers and writers fall somewhere along the Continuum for what they like to watch and write. Modern mainstream shows try to walk the middle of the continuum -- enough plot to engage, with characters charming enough to invite back into your house every week. You're trying to flip back and forth just a little every episode.
Its a very fine line. You can't do emotional stories without characters and situations changing. All "character" stories are about change. Too much change, and it's not the show you started watching. You lose the people who want to see their favorite "type" of show. Too little, and the show stagnates. You lose the people who are compelled by emotional change.
This is even trickier to manage because writers and audiences rarely agree what the show is about. Hell, define "about."
-- sidebar within sidebar. If you want to know what the creators intended a show to be "about", you can usually go back and watch the last scene of the pilot. In E.R., it's Noah Wylie sitting on the sidewalk, exhausted but changed. It's going to be a show about how people survive this tumultuous, draining situation, and how it changes them. I won't spoil the last scene of the Breaking Bad pilot, but it's stunning in its prescience right down to the final line of dialogue. (Seriously, it makes me want to kiss Vince Gilligan on the mouth.) The last scene of Leverage is Nate explaining the physics of Crime World, and how he and his crew are going to fuck up The Man. This show is about those people punching rich guys in the neck. Because they have Sinned, and Deserve It.
What's really kind of interesting is to go back and watch the Lost pilot. (Remember, the end of the pilot is the end of Ep 2*.) It ends with Charlie asking "Guys ... where ARE we?" That sets up the mystery of the show. But is that really, eventually, what the show's about?
I'd argue that's what so infuriated many people about Lost by the end of it. (Full disclosure: I really dug the show, and am show-business friends with a fair chunk of the ex-writers). Was Lost "about" the people on the island (emotion), or "about" the mystery of the island (the system)? I'd guess for the writers it was about unravelling those castaways' stories every week. And sure, for a big chunk of the audience, that's what got them emotionally invested. But mysteries demand solving, and as soon as the system of the island was set up as a mystery it became part of the contract with the audience. "Oh, there are mysteries! Puzzles! I'll pay attention over here, too!" But if you don't then satisfy the puzzle-solving part of the relationship -- God help you. Audiences are hella-smart. Even if they're not conscious puzzle-solvers, the lizard brain knows it isn't getting what it wants. That frustration feeds back into the character side, and before you know it fans are frustrated with both parts of the equation, because they're feeling that ...
... ahh ... you know the best thing I ever heard, the thing I wish someone had told me when I was 20?
"Every criticism is the tragic result of an unmet need."
I think it's important when working in television to understand we are in the emotional need business. The audience has needs, wide ranging and diverse, and ultimately impossible to satisfy universally and long-term. So, in the end, all writers can do is write the show they need to write. Most of our conflict with executives comes from the fact that their job is to get us to write the show the audience needs (which is, as we just discussed, unknowable). Sometimes you get lucky and hit a primal need, and sometimes you get very clever indeed by realizing that there's an entire chunk of the audience out here that needs simple. (That's not an insult. Simple is also elegant. Just go read The Glass Teat and assume the "Agnew-ization of televison" is the preferred form of entertainment for a lot of older viewers in a morally unsettling world.) Like politics and religion, both extreme ends of the Ahh/Clever spectrum are fertile places to recruit, with eternally unchanging disciples.
Even more muddling is that the writers themselves often don't agree what the show's about. Leave aside the individual variations of the staff writers who've come and gone. Downey doesn't see the same show as I do, as Dean does. I would say Leverage is about authority, how susceptible we are too it, and how it needs to be checked no matter what. I'd say Leverage is a show about CrimeWorld that happens to have broken people forming a family in the middle of it. Dean -- and we've been friends long enough, I don't think he'd disagree with this -- Dean always pitches from the gut and would say that Leverage is a show about broken people forming a family that happens to be in Crime World.
Downey and I have the closest alignment on what Leverage is "about". Yet we manage to have one top of the lungs barn-burner every year on just that subject. There's a running joke that his least-favorite episode from S3 is one of my favorites, and my least favorite is on the top of his list for that Season. And we're the showrunners.
The kicker is the show benefits by all that tension.
All this to say: the most emotionally charged, romantic episode of Leverage S4 -- which Wells or Whedon or Shonda Rimes would have spent ages building to -- was a total goddam accident.
Which we will get to in the next post.
* FWIW, the end of the first broadcast episode of Lost is also a Charlie question. We're looking at the airline pilot, snatched away by an unseen monster, now a bloody mess in an impossibly high tree branch. Charlie asks "How does something like that happen?" Another mystery question.