Not everyone can write a good television drama (I can’t – though, wisely, I’ve never tried.) But something important may be learned by considering what makes a good one. The most promising way to do that is by comparing two shows that are alike in many ways, but which differ markedly in overall quality.
There’s a new series this fall called Men in Trees, which is obviously written as a close imitation of Northern Exposure. Indeed, I don’t know how they can get away with it. When Northern Exposure itself was produced, a writer sued for plagiarism, claiming that the script was based on ideas he had submitted as a pilot years before, but which had been rejected at the time. He won a settlement of something like $7 million, as I recall. (I'm far from sure it was justified.) But here’s a show that is absolutely unmistakably an imitation of Northern Exposure, yet I’ve heard nothing suggesting that the producers might be sued for that. In fact, if it were a good imitation I’d be overjoyed, since I love the original more than words can express.
Men in Trees is another show about a New Yorker living as a fish-out-of-water in a little Alaskan town. However, this New Yorker is a pretty blonde named Marin played by Anne Heche (see photo) instead of a young doctor named Joel, played by Rob Morrow. Marin is a famous “relationship coach” and popular writer who was on the verge of marriage until she discovered that her fiancé was cheating on her. Now she realizes that she’s never been without a boyfriend since she was fourteen, so she’s going to stay in Alaska and learn to be independent in a town where men outnumber women ten to one.
The town called Elmo, Alaska is shot in Squamish BC, but it looks like Cicely, Alaska, which was shot in Roslyn, Washington. The resemblance extends down to the totem poles in a vacant lot in downtown Elmo. Unlike Cicely, however, it has a port. It also has a bar, run by a lovable man and his off-and-on girlfriend, plus a radio station, run by a charming disk jockey, plus an overbearing unmarried female cop, plus lots of wildlife (a raccoon starred in the first episode and a skunk in the third one). Marin immediately buys herself a blue pickup truck just like Joel’s, but classier. There’s an old native guy who dispenses wisdom to Marin in a sauna — or rather a native sweat lodge. Like Joel, Marin gets drunk in the first episode — an angle that did not endear Joel to us, and significantly mars Marin’s appeal, since she carries her bender way too far (giving a lecture while blind drunk) without displaying any embarrassment about it afterward. (Shamelessness is not charming.)
There are a few notable changes from Northern Exposure. The town’s rich guy is the tavern owner and, instead of living in a superb log cabin, his house is elegantly modern. The female with the most common sense and charm is not Ruth Anne, the old lady who ran Cicely’s general store, but a lovely native woman who’s a prostitute. (That’s a big switch. Nothing in Northern Exposure flouted conventional morality much, except that the tavern owner was three times the age of his live-in girlfriend.) The town’s disk jockey is too young for Marin but ripe for picking by a naïve acolyte of Marin’s who admiringly followed her to Alaska to learn from her about relationships. The closest imitation of Chris-in-the-Morning is an anti-social wildlife ranger named Jack who has a charming elusiveness, and who will not be easy for Marin (or any other woman) to catch. Another switch: The town’s bush pilot is not an ex-socialite from Grosse Pointe but a middle-aged, happily married black man.
This ought to be terrific, but it’s not. The only thing that’s missing is good writing. The question is: what’s missing here? I’m sure the scripts have been written for the whole series now and most of them have been shot already, so it’s too late to be helpful, though I wish I could. I’d love to see this show work.
I think there are three mistakes going on. Taken together -- and they naturally do tend to go together -- they are fatal. First, there’s the single-minded focus on the theme of male-female relationships. Second, there’s what I’ll call “plot-heavy” writing rather than the documentary style. Third, there’s the simplistic spoon-feeding of the audience.
The fixation on relationships is not, by itself, fatal – though it would be to me. I never liked Sex in the City, and I wouldn’t have liked it even if it were set in small-town Alaska. Northern Exposure had the advantage that the protagonist could be engaged with medical problems part of the time. By having the protagonist of Men in Trees be a specialist who gives advice on love, while having relationship troubles of her own, the writers constrict the scope of the plots too much.
Second, there’s the plot-heaviness of the writing. I once read a literary critic who pointed out that in fiction, unlike real life, everything you see is necessary and fits together. If, for example, in the opening scene we are shown an antique gun on the wall, you can bet that sometime later, that gun will be used. If the characters are talking about having a flat tire, there will be another scene in which the flat tire becomes relevant. There are no extraneous parts in a well-crafted work of fiction.
Ah, but there were lots of such extraneous parts in Northern Exposure -- which is one thing that made it great. At one point Ed Chigliak, the young Indian who aspired to become a filmmaker, engaged in a mental dialogue with Woody Allen’s grandmother, who was visiting Cicely and watching an Ingmar Bergman film with him. In his fantasy, she advised him to make movies that looked like documentaries.
Like those about animals in the wild? He asked.
Yes, she replied, because that’s what we are – monkey with car keys.
The quality that made Northern Exposure so special was exactly that it appeared to be a documentary, a picture of a real place with people talking the way people really do talk. They were smart people, though, so their conversations were interesting. In every meaningful conversation that revealed an important development in the plot, there might also be a sideline conversation that had no relevance. Ruth-Anne might be talking to a customer about an electronic gadget that kills mosquitoes, making them sound like corn popping. Chris and Joel might be sitting in the bar discussing Dostoevsky’s epileptic seizures. Maurice might be recounting one of his air battles from the Korean War -- or telling Joel that, when Einstein got his great insight about relativity, he felt nauseated and had to get off the streetcar he was riding.
These stories had nothing to do with the plot. They were interesting because they seemed so natural. Of course, not all “natural” conversations in real life are interesting. These conversations inform us and also tell us about the personality of the speaker. They add dimensions to individuals who would otherwise be “cardboard characters.” Contrary to the generalization that I had originally believed, I now see that the greatest contemporary TV shows partly resemble documentaries. We viewers are momentarily relieved from the intensity of the plot. We breathe easily as we watch stress-free conversations of the kind we might overhear in our own lives on a really good day.
Finally, the third failing of the Men in Trees writers is their simplism. They spoon-feed us too much. Actually, there’s a place for spelling out messages in stories, but it’s a tricky thing to get right. You want to make the viewers work to follow the story, which should contain complex characters with contradictory motives that they do not necessarily expose to others – or even to themselves. You want plots that move along quickly, sometimes surprising us with unexpected developments. You want characters to be morally mixed. You want to teach the viewer that life is more complicated than we normally suppose.
Steven Johnson has written a fascinating book called Everything Bad is Good for You in which he argues that television dramas have become more complex and challenging since the 1970s, and that the experience of following them is making us smarter. It is true that anything that exercises the brain also changes its structure, so he may be right. He shows that many TV series today contain three to ten different plots per episode. Also, there are terms used in a complex show that the viewer is not expected to know – but there will be one or two words in the middle of the others that we do need to notice, for the plot depends on their meaning. If you go to the bathroom during one of these fast-paced shows, you’ll lose track of the plot and cannot possibly understand the denouement.
This can be excellent. On the other hand, you may baffle the viewers. Worse yet, you may make the characters so opaque about their feelings and intentions that they cannot convey any interesting wisdom that they gain from their experiences. The place for spoon-feeding is a small one, but it is necessary to give us insight into the characters’ minds and moral dilemmas. Northern Exposure contained some philosophical discussions and certain moments showing personal growth. It was not ideal, but it offered an excellent balance of subtlety, clarity and wisdom.
Men in Trees is slower in its plot development and more explicit in its revelation of characters’ intent. We have no reason to suppose that anyone has hidden or ambivalent motives. They state openly what they are about, and their motives are not especially inspiring. (In last night’s episode, there’s an auction in which the women pay big bucks for a date with the man of their choice, with the resulting interpersonal tensions that any idiot could have foreseen.) These people are dumb, and their inner reflections show it. I would slightly moderate my criticism of this point with respect to the final scene, when Marin walks outside, looks at the stars, and reflects aloud on the positive aspects of being single. It was a little longer and more explicit than required, but it was an appropriate occasion for spoon-feeding us a little insight.
I wish the show well. Really, I do.