Conflict is drama. Anyone who’s ever read a screenwriting book or been to a seminar knows that. But what is conflict? Not arguments between characters. Not troubles at work. Not political battles, exam pressures, or inheritance struggles. They’re not conflict, and they’re not drama. Sure, you need them, but drama, really compelling drama, the type of drama that gets us in the gut – that kind of drama only comes about when characters are at conflict with themselves.
Thus, the most important element of a successful television show is a cast of characters with varied world views. That variation will provide grist for the storytelling mill as characters respond to events in vastly different ways. This is the challenge facing the producers of next year’s new dramas Canal Road (Nine) and Packed To The Rafters (Seven) as they put together shows that will hopefully attract and hang onto audiences.
A renowned LA script guru once talked me through Grey’s Anatomy (back on Seven next year, probably Sundays at 8.30pm) using the world view theory. On the surface, five young surgeons working eighty hour weeks in the most competitive program in the country could all be called ambitious. But are they really all like Macbeth? Or Hyacinth Bucket of Keeping Up Appearances? Or David Brent of The Office? These characters see life as something to be conquered. They crave respect, adoration, status. They don’t care much about power or influence, only that others see them as powerful and influential.
So… back to Grey’s Anatomy. Five young surgeons working eighty hour weeks in the most competitive program in the country. But ambitious, we will see, is an inadequate description.
Number One, Meredith, is there because she wants to be special – she sees life as drama, as passion, as pain. Being a surgeon offers her opportunities to do and feel things that are out of reach for the rest of the world.
Number Two, Christina, is there because she sees life as a puzzle to be solved. To her, medicine gives her a reasoned, rational explanation for the way the world operates. She learns it, she understands it, and she has the answers she needs.
George, Number Three, is there because he thinks life is about sacrifice, about putting others first. And that’s what being a doctor is all about.
Number Four, Izzy, believes in loyalty to herself and to others – she’s there because she is driven to get the most out of her abilities as possible.
And Number Five, Alex, sees life as one big joyride. He’s there because he gets off on the pressure and the excitement of saving lives.
Five young surgeons working eighty hour weeks, but now we can see that they’re there for very different reasons. Hopefully next year’s shows balance their casts as well as Grey’s does. If they do, they will find opportunities, through artful storytelling, to push and pull the characters by placing them in situations that test their very different core values in very different ways.
And that’s what drama is all about.