Wednesday, April 25, 2007

The Mysteries of 'Lost'

Does it matter that the writers and creators of Lost came up with mysteries to which they had no solutions at the time?

Does it matter that the writers and creators of Lost came up with solutions to the mysteries only after they saw that the show actually had a future and that people would, you know, really like to know what's going on?

There is a difference between mysteries that are planned ahead of time and mysteries that are unplanned. There is a difference in the solution we eventually see, there is a difference in the way the suspense of the mystery keeps building up, and there is a difference in the rewarding feeling the audience gets when each step of the puzzle is revealed.

In short: Dang it, we’ve been bamboozled. Here’s how.

The first element of a good mystery is that there has to appear an underlying logic to it. The audience doesn’t know what that logic is, but the feeling that one exists has to be clear to the audience or it simply loses interest and fails to suspend its disbelief. Last week, I mentioned the importance of this when talking about Medium. Now let’s see the slew of mysteries that got Lost’s ball rolling:

A haphazard group of people on a normal flight from Australia managed to inexplicably survive a plane crash in which half their plane was literally ripped up in mid-air. They shouldn’t have survived, and yet, here they are. Now, that could easily have been a fortunate coincidence. But maybe there was something behind it? Maybe there was a guiding hand? Maybe there was some logic behind it, a force we know nothing about that had to do with the island, the plane, the people in it or maybe even a specific person that hadn’t been born yet?

Next, there was John Locke. Of the survivors, he was certainly the most competent, with great survival skills. But then, around episode 4, we found out that this man had lost the use of his legs quite a few years ago. And yet, right after the crash, he stood up, and then began to walk. A medical miracle that cannot happen. There had to have been a reason for it, right? There has to be an underlying logic to this supernatural phenomenon. Why him? Why now? For the audience to buy into this mystery, it has to believe that there actually is a logic behind everything.

Next up, the mystery of Hurley’s numbers. Back in normalsville, Hurley won the lottery by guessing a few numbers. Once he gets the money, bad things begin to happen to him and all those dear to him. A strange feeling begins to creep in that perhaps there’s some kind of ‘curse’ behind those numbers. Now, it turns out that he hadn’t actually come up with those numbers, but got them from someone. When he checks out the origin of those numbers, it turns out that anyone’s who’s been in possession of those numbers had suffered from an awful spate of bad luck. Now Hurley is stuck on some unknown, uncharted island. And then he finds out that a certain bunker in the ground has these exact numbers etched on the outside of it...

The obvious implication is that there is a logic to this. The more certain we are that there is a logic there, the better the mystery.

So, the first steps of the mysteries of Lost are actually pretty good, but now the writers have to take the next step in the mystery. And if the puzzles aren't planned, things begin to fall apart. Rather than look at how things slip and get away from the writers, let’s take a look at puzzles that are actually constructed well and ahead of time, and compare. The ultimate puzzle-construction was in a show called Babylon 5.

Babylon 5 was a ground-breaking SF show in the nineties, created and mostly-written by J. Michael Straczynski. Straczynski wrote the show in the heyday of Star Trek: The Next Generation, in which it was the accepted thought that everything SF had to look like Star Trek. Straczynski created a show that originally fit the Star Trek frame and slowly and diligently changed it. Babylon 5 broke many barriers and opened the door for everything that had come later, including the current version of Battlestar Galactica. Sadly, Babylon 5 is now outdated by everything it had opened the door for.

Babylon 5 was about something. Straczynski is a history buff, and so he created a show on an historic scale. The price of secrets was a motif that kept appearing in the show (“How many lives is a secret worth?”). The real-life motion of politics was the show’s blood. Babylon 5 was a station with ambassadors of all known races. And so, every little motion important to one race caused ripples in all other races. And, as in the nature of ripples, the waves came back to their source, changed. Another attempt to make the story ‘real’ was Straczynski’s attempt to show that in history, even though one story's done, the story always continued (It wasn't 'the end of history' when the Soviet Union fell). Continuing a story after it was done and starting everything anew didn’t really work in the last two seasons of the show. But it was an impressive try.

We’re going to concentrate on the first two and a half seasons of the show, which include the best-built puzzle in TV history yet. Straczynski planned the puzzle in such a way as to make almost everything you saw part of the puzzle whether you realized it or not. The fact that the puzzle was planned obviously helped the first step in a good mystery: there was a logic and a reason behind every piece of it.

But then, Straczynski made sure that when he ‘solved’ one piece of the puzzle, he actually revealed that it was all part of a bigger puzzle and that the mystery goes deeper than you think. Whenever he solved something, he actually left you with more questions than you had before. In addition, the fact that he planned everything ahead of time, allowed you to see that everything you had seen from the beginning and thought was par for the course was actually a clue and/or part of the bigger picture. That is a rewarding mystery.

Let’s take a look at two examples from Babylon 5. We’ll tackle a few steps along the way, but won’t show you the solution of the puzzle.

In the pilot, Commander Jeffrey Sinclair hunts down a rogue Minbari (the Minbari is an ancient alien race that once, in a war, almost defeated the entire human race, then, in the midst of complete victory, suddenly and mysteriously surrendered, and now the two races have a peace treaty). When the Minbari commits suicide rather than get caught, he looks at Sinclair and in an F-you fashion, says to him, “There’s a hole in your mind.”

Later it turns out that there is, indeed, an inexplicable ‘hole’ in Sinclair’s mind. He was one of the soldiers fighting the Minbari in that final battle for Earth. Somewhere along the line, he lost a few hours which he does not remember. And when he came to, the war was done. He has no recollection of that time, and thought it was his own little secret. But now, how would a rogue Minbari know about it? How many Minbaris know? Why would they know? What happened? Sinclair decides to investigate.

A few episodes later, we find out that, just as they were winning the war, the Minbari decided to take and examine a human. They took Sinclair (and later wiped his memory). But what they found during his examination caused them to stop the war. What could they possibly have found? What happened during his imprisonment? What is his importance?

We won’t go any further with this puzzle, so as not to spoil it. But you can see that each step opens more doors than it closes.

Let us look, now, at the mystery of the Vorlons. The Vorlons are an even more ancient race and are treated as gods by everyone, including the Minbari. No one has actually seen a Vorlon to best of human knowledge. They walk around with armor that hides their entire bodies, and it is rumored that people who get to see Vorlons go insane.

As the episodes go on, we learn that the Vorlons have taken an interest in human affairs, because there is a war coming for the sake of the galaxy itself, a war of good versus evil, they tell us. And they are the good, the Minbari assure us.

Then, one day, in an emergency, a Vorlon is forced to reveal himself to save one of the main soldiers in the upcoming war. The Vorlon sheds his armor, revealing the body of an angel that takes flight and saves the soldier. Finally, we know what the Vorlons look like. This is mysterious enough. But later on, we learn that where we saw a kind of human angel, other races present saw angels that fit their legends and their races. Everyone saw something else. In addition, Londo (a character who to the ‘evil’ side) saw absolutely nothing although he looked straight at it.

Are the Vorlons gods? Or are they somehow manipulating us to make us think they’re gods? Did they visit all our planets way back when so that they would be able to manipulate us? We thought we finally learned who they are, but now we’re not so sure.

Again, that isn’t even half the puzzle as far as the Vorlons go. And all the puzzles in the first two and a half years of Babylon 5 fit together like a glove.

When puzzles are planned ahead, they can be done well and become rewarding. One puzzle will lead to a bigger puzzle. When they are created by whim and are solved on the fly, then, dang it, we’re being bamboozled.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Why Are We Scared?

Medium is the scariest TV show we’ve seen in a long, long while. The question is: Why?

Let’s get rid of the obvious: It’s not the music, since there is no scary music. It’s not the dark lighting, the shadows, or the fact that most things happen at night, since most of the show happens during the day. It’s not because people are constantly screaming or are found in panic, since no one hardly ever screams in the show. It’s not because characters are confronted by killers or scary ghosts or any other allegedly-frightening unnatural phenomenon, since that doesn’t happen in Medium, either. It’s not because we meet scary beings or masked actors or CGI – there’s none of that in the show, either. And lastly, it’s not because of the gore, since there are no slashed bodies, dismembered heads, or whatever else you might find in the usual horror flicks.

So everything that is found in abundance in other horror flicks or even in current supernatural shows like Supernatural or Ghost Whisperer is not found in Medium. And yet these first two, which have all the elements mentioned above, are not scary (except when the music is scary), and yet Medium is. So the question is, what is it really that really keeps us scared?

The same thing that scared away our sleep when we were kids scares us today.

When we were kids, there were monsters in the dark, hiding in closets. Sometimes the monsters were hiding under our beds. We did not know what these monsters looked like. We simply knew that we did not know everything there was to know about the world (and so some form of monsters could exists) and that there are dark corners in our bedroom that we knew nothing about, either.

“What could possibly be there?” was the basic thought that led to many intangible possibilities in our minds. The possibilities didn’t have to be fully realized or fully imagined. In fact, the very fact that they weren’t, kept more possibilities alive. We were faced with an overabundance of unknown possibilities, and therefore an overabundance of scary possibilities.

It’s the unknown that scares us. And the unknown exists in a wealth of possibilities (That’s why realized monsters, like the ones in Supernatural, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, and most horror movies are simply not scary: their unknown nature has been stripped from them). Wealth of possibilities doesn’t necessarily exist in the dark, not when we’re grownups. Wealth of possibilities exists in a truly original story. That is because in an unoriginal story we can more or less guess the overall gamut of the nature of events that are going to take place. In a truly original story, we have no idea what might be happen next or where things are leading or what might be driving these events. And that might be scary.

Let’s take a look at a few examples.

Medium is about Allison Dubois, who happens to possess psychic powers, which are not in any way under her control. Occasionally she can see ghosts. Many times she has dreams which foretell events in the near future, the far past, or even the present someplace else. Allison is haunted by these powers, and yet she does her best to use them to help. She advises the DA, keeping her abilities a secret from the public. Her husband is a scientist. And their three young daughters are... well, three typical young daughters.

One day, Allison, who hasn’t slept in a long while, takes a break from work and goes home to sleep. Later, it’s discovered that she had gone to the bank and taken out all their savings: $15,000, which she then put in a bag. Allison doesn’t remember any of it, and yet that’s her signature, and the money is in her bag.

Her husband tries to take the money back the next day, and in the bank they tell him that she’d originally asked for 15 million dollars, and only after exasperating explanations, did she agree to change it.

Allison is sleepwalking, and her husband is afraid that she’s going to do very strange things. Since during last time she drove the car to the bank, he hides the keys when she sleeps.

Late at night, he wakes up to some strange noises. Allison is turning the house inside out, looking for the keys. And her voice, when she says that she must have the keys, is primeval and guttural (that’s called acting, not special modifications).

Later on, her husband will see that there’s no other solution. Another night, when she sleepwalks again, he lets her in the car as he drives to see where this would lead them.

Allison, in her primeval persona, tells him to stop in the middle of nowhere, on the edge of a cliff. She walks out of the car, and tries to walk off the cliff. Her husband stops her. She then leaps at him, without reason, trying to get past him. Saying he loves her, he tackles her, trying to wake her up.

I won’t tell you any more about what happens in the episode. But note how the possibilities are open before us. We don’t know what’s going to happen next. We’re not certain at all where things are leading the characters or the story. And we’re not certain what the driving force behind it is. As long as the driving force behind everything is written with consistency and logic, that is enough of a recipe to scare the pants off the viewers.

Let’s take a look at another example from an episode that came rather late in the series. The importance of that is that we, as an audience, have already learned to trust Allison’s dreams. And we have also learned that many of the episodes begin with something we soon discover is a dream that ends with Allison waking up with a gasp.

This episode begins with a normal family breakfast. The girls, Allison, and her husband all talk about how the two parents had met way back when, and how they had actually almost met a couple of years before that, but had missed each other. They start talking about what if things had been different... when one of the girls disappears. When Allison panics, no one understands what she’s talking about. And then another girl disappears. And then the last one disappears. And then the husband.

And then Allison wakes up. Except, that it’s not the Allison we know. It’s the teenage Allison, who has just had this dream about her future. This episode is about her. She had not yet met her husband, and the first meeting that ‘almost happened’ originally is but a few days in the future. In this episode her dreams keep warning her of the future we know her to have, and it seems that her dreams are guiding her to change this future, and make sure she never hooks up with her husband and never has the girls...

Again, look at the possibilities that are wide open before us. How many TV series offer you such an open plot? Originality of story and the fact that there always seems to be a logical and consistent reason behind everything is the way to freak out an audience.

Another episode begins in a normal family morning, with normal morning dialogue, except that all the characters are inanimate kids’ dolls. The characters’ voices are heard, but the dolls are dolls. Allison claims that things seem somehow different, but she’s not sure why.

Allison comes to the conclusion that they’re all dolls, and the entire family (of dolls) thinks she’s overreacting. Everything is as it’s always been.

Then one of the daughters says, “Mommy, you’d better be quiet. If you make too much noise, he’ll hear you.” And when Allison asks who ‘he’ is, a kid’s hand comes from above and takes one of the girls. Then we see a four year old child pick up the rest of her family. Last, he picks up Allison and begins to shake her.

Allison wakes up, normal as always, and to the same morning dialogue that took place in the beginning of the dream. Later that day, she’ll see the kid from the dream in the supermarket...

Do you know what’s going on? Don’t look now, but there’s a monster in your closet.

Meme Roundup - April 2007

One of my criteria in writing a Storytellers column is that there should be at least one new meme per column that, perhaps, is new to most readers. If a person has read the column, a single sentence should be able to evoke the entire theme in the reader’s mind.

For the convenience of those who have read the columns and for the convenience of those who hadn’t yet, here are our memes so far.

* David E. Kelley’s humor makes us marginally smarter.
* The ‘domino effect’ exists in writing, too.
* Nostalgia vs. science fiction.
* The nature of evil.
* Showing us how things should be done is constructive satire.
* You can put a soul in a TV show.
* Racism can be served hot or cold.
* How to write politically and avoid both spin and political fallout.
* “You! Are! Fired!”
* Racism is to the adult mind what poop is to a child’s mind (a.k.a.: Racism is poop.)


Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Racism (3): Racism Can Be Fun

Racism is poop.

I do not mean by this that racism is a poop-y thing, although it certainly is. I mean that racism to our sophisticated adult minds is what poop is to the minds of five-year-olds.

As any parent of young kids above the age of three will testify, poop is very very funny. It is hilarious. If someone just says ‘poop’ or ‘ass’, that is comedy that can make a kid roll on the floor laughing for an hour. Hitting someone on the ass? Comedy gold.

Poop stops being funny the older we get. For the most part. Still, the mere mention of poop is certainly not as funny as it used to be. But although the subject has changed, the mechanism has remained the same. And the mechanism is all about the forbidden, the taboo, that which shouldn’t be mentioned but causes no harm if it is.

Let’s take a look at a recent example from the writers of The Daily Show (who like to throw poop a lot), and see if you notice how they keep saying aloud that which society believes shouldn’t be said.

A couple of weeks ago, Jon Stewart turned to the camera, and said: “Here with more on the Obama candidacy is our senior black correspondent, Larry Wilmore. Larry, thanks for joining us.” After the intro, Stewart got to the question: “I am also hearing that the African-American community is not supporting him because his father is Kenyan and not American.”

Wilmore: “It’s true, Jon. American blacks love African art, African clothes, African music, we’re just not that crazy about Africans. [...] So, for blacks to support Obama, he’s got to make up his mind: Is he African or American? Because he can’t be both. That doesn’t make sense.”

Stewart: “But, obviously, an American of African descent, wouldn’t that just make him...”

As Stewart trails off, Wilmore finishes his line for him: “...Some kind of unspeakable hybrid? Exactly, Jon.”

Stewart stares at Wilmore, uncomprehending. Then, “So, you really believe this affects his chances?”

“Oh, yeah, absolutely. Right now, only 20% of black voters support Obama. That’s bad. But, is it bad enough for him to win?”

“I’m sorry, bad enough to win?”

“Yeah, look. The last thing a black candidate wants is to be seen as the black candidate. [...] Look, it works like this.” As he speaks, a visual goes up, sporting the headline ‘VOTING RACIAL PATTERNS’. The visual has five white men and three black men. “For every three black votes,” explains Wilmore, “you scare away five white votes.” And, indeed, as he speaks, the white drawn men vanish off-screen, screaming. “Do the math. Black support is really worth three-fifths as much as white support.”

Recognize that little statistic? Ever think you would hear someone say it with conviction? As the audience laughed during this bit, it couldn’t believe that it was hearing what was being said. And it laughed harder because it couldn’t believe someone was actually saying that. That’s poop for ya.

Let’s look at another piece from The Daily Show. A recent “investigative report” by the team of Wilmore (“our chief black correspondent” again) and Oliver (white and British), had the two sit down to talk with New York City Councilman Leroy Comrie who wants us not to use the N-word.

Oliver (who is white): “So, Leroy, you want to ban this word... um... Larry?”

Wilmore (who is black): “Nigger.”

Oliver: “Thank you. What he said. Is the word, um...”

Wilmore: “...Nigger...”

Oliver: “...Offensive to everyone or just to...”

Wilmore: “...Niggers?”

At which Oliver jumps, “No, no,” and explains that he paused for effect.

It’s funny because it’s wrong. But at the same time, it easily makes a point of how ridiculous it is to be offended by poop. It may stink, but it does no harm.

Here is another way in which Stephen Colbert (who is white) from The Colbert Report made a similar point. His guest was the author of a book called The N-Word, Who Can Say It, Who Shouldn’t, and Why.

Says Colbert, “Alright. First question. Did you want to name the book The N-Word, and they said, no, you gotta call it The N-Word? Or did you say, I want to name this book The N-Word and they assumed you meant, you know, The N-Word, when in fact, you meant The N-Word?”

After receiving an answer, Colbert asks, “This raises another interesting subject to me, is that the N-word has become so synonymous with the N-word. Is saying the N-word pretty much like saying the N-word? Because I would never say the N-word. But I don’t want somebody to think I’m saying the N-word by saying the N-word.”

To poop or not to poop, that is the question. Colbert was being both naughty and nice, and the sharp-eyed readers will also note that he and Stewart used a tactic mentioned in the previous article about racism and brought to the fore questions and issues we’ve closed the book on, leaving it to us to think about them without any spin.

Last and certainly not least is the funniest racist of them all, Archie Bunker from All in the Family. Archie, a sweet white racist, has learned that Mike, his son-in-law, a.k.a. Meathead, is eligible for a position on the other coast of the U.S., which means that Archie will be far from his daughter, Gloria. Archie has also learned that competing for the same position is a black man. Archie suddenly finds himself fighting for the rights of the black man.

Archie stands in Gloria and Mike’s living room, and accuses Mike of being a bigot.

He’s a bigot?!” Gloria is on her feet.

“A bigot, yes. And that’s the same guy that used to be marching in all the peace riots. That’s right. That bigot over there won’t give an even break to a spade.”

Mike then learns that he’s probably got the job. That’s when Archie really gets going: “Listen to this. I can’t believe my ears. A white guy standing there, bloating over taking a job from a colored guy. That ain’t the American way, buddy. No sirree! Listen here, professor, you’re the one that needs an American history lesson. You don’t know nothing about Lady Liberty, standing there in the harbor, with her torch on high,” and as he says it, he mimes it, and his voice goes up, “screaming out to all the nations of the world: ‘Send me your poor, your deadbeats, your filthy!’ And all the nations send them in here. They come swarming in like ants. The Spanish PR’s from the Carriboo there, your Japs, your Chinamen, your Krauts and your Hebes and your English fags!”

And he’s not done: “And all of them come in here. And they’re all free to live in their own separate sections, where they feel safe, and they bust your head if you go in there. That’s what makes America great, buddy!”

This great speech is funny because it crams in many varied forms of poop and because while Archie tries to take the equal-opportunity side, he only proves how big a racist he is. And lastly, it is funny because as he tries to prove how great America is (in that last bit) he shows how far it still has to go. And there lies the statement of the writers, delivered to us through all those jokes.

We all have our own taboos to contend with that are actually harmless when mentioned aloud. Three-fifths of a person and curses such as the N-word are only a few. We have many, many more.

So as I leave you this week with a question: What’s your poop?

Wednesday, April 4, 2007

'300': A Tale of Three Hundred Girly-Men

What Does a Strong Man Look Like?

Imagine with me a strong man, a virile man, a manly man. What would he look like? How would you recognize a real, powerful man walking down the street? If you imagined a man standing on the street shouting “I! Am! Strong!” then 300 is the movie for you.

If you had actually met a man shouting “I! Am! Strong!” in real life, would you think he is strong? If you see him on the street, you would probably think him a madman. Let us change the scenery then, to the gym, where it is legitimate to be strong. Does anyone at the gym stand and shout “I! Am! Strong!” as proof of his strength? Doubtful. Does anyone in a grown-up brawl or in a high-school fight shout “I! Am! Strong!” as proof of strength? Would a godfather, when we imagine mob bosses, shout “I! Am! Strong!” to keep his soldiers in check?

And yet, the muscular heroes in 300 shout “This! Is! Sparta!” or “We! Are! With you!” in exactly the same way the man on the street would unrealistically shout “I! Am! Strong!” The entire movie revolves around that kind of behavior and those kind of men.

When people have power, they don’t need to claim that they do. The more someone has power, the less he has to show it. The more someone blusters about his power, the weaker he believes himself to be.

Does Sigourney Weaver in Aliens need to shout and bluster? No. And yet, she’s a remarkably strong woman (in all her movies). Cate Blanchett in The Good German and in Elizabeth plays some of the strongest women we’ve ever seen in cinema. Does she ever need to resort to claiming it? Harrison Ford, playing Indiana Jones magnifies his weaknesses rather than his strengths. In Air Force One he did what was necessary, and no more. Bruce Willis in Die Hard shouts only after he wins or when he loses. Does The Terminator ever need to assert his strength? Marlon Brando, Al Pacino, Robert DeNiro, the list of strong men and women is long. For that matter, does Trump shout: “You! Are! Fired!” No, he does not. Even he doesn’t need to.

The men of 300 are all muscular girly-men. They are wusses, pussies, weaklings, and crybabies. They are two-year-olds. And now we get to the disturbing part: What does it say about an audience who believes their behavior is heroic? Or even remotely believable?

300 was imagined, created, written, directed, and made popular by men (young and old) who had probably never met or seen a real man in their lives. Women wouldn’t create this fantasy, because women would fantasize about, well, real men. How spoiled and out-of-touch is a society , when its men’s fantasies of being real men look like this?

What 300 Could Have Been About

The movie could so easily have been good. Here are a few options:

The movie could have been about what a hero is. We would have seen how real men become real heroes, by showing us how much they overcome hardships and sacrifice. And then, as the plot progressed, and as the heroes overcame unbelievable obstacles, they would actually achieve superhuman feats. There really have been superhuman feats in history – even in the last few decades – in which real people did the impossible. But if you don’t show real people doing something real to achieve something heroic, then you’re not showing heroes. Had the movie been done this way, it would have been a true epic yarn about heroism.

The movie could just as easily have been about the bad side of being heroic. There are times in human history in which it became necessary for a group of good men to become inhuman monsters, efficiently programmed with the fight and nothing more. Although people actually do this to survive, once it is done, it cannot be easily reversed. In addition, if you release the testosterone monster in men and make it all-important, there would be an immediate price to pay (more in-house violence, rape, and so on). Had the movie been done this way, it would have punched its audience in the gut.

The movie could have been an examination of what it is to be a man lost to war. It would have taken a normal man, and seen how each human part of him must be put aside so that the fighting machine can exist. Had the movie been done this way, it would have been tragic.

The movie could have been about real men who had left real lives behind, and then were killed on the battlefield. Had the movie been done this way, it would have been heroic (sacrificing yourself so that your dear ones can go on living) and tragic (showing men who had full lives back home die).

The movie could have been about how men choose how to die. Knowing they would lose if they fought and lose if they didn't fight, real decisions would have to be made. Had the movie been done this way, it would... well, it would have been a great movie.

The movie could have been about the power of women over men. If the queen had sent the king to a war he didn’t want to go to using her womanly wiles, that would have made a good movie, too. In 300, he wanted to go before he was convinced by his wife.

There are, of course, dozens and dozens of more options. The common denominator would necessarily have to be that they all deal with real people who are in a position that is, today, not real. Another common denominator would also have to be that each of these options reveals something to us about our own nature and our own emotions. Another common denominator would also have to be that all these options evoke emotions in the audience. The only emotion this movie evokes is nostalgia, and it evokes it only in people who have not been exposed to the real world and therefore imagine it to be so different from what it is.

I believe the question bears repeating: How spoiled and out-of-touch is a society, when its men’s fantasies of being real men look like this?

Racism (2): Law & Order and the Problem with Racism

There’s a problem with racism. Most people would agree that racism is bad, and yet most people are racist. It’s always the other guy who’s a racist, you see.

From the writer’s point of view, it’s too easy to go for the cheap shot at racism, the basic point of it being: racism is bad and racists are assholes. Most people would agree with the writer, and he’s achieved nothing but a self-congratulatory feeling in those watching that it’s the other guy who’s wrong. Nothing maintains the status quo better than having people feel good about themselves. This kind of writing doesn’t fight racism, it maintains it.

There are different ways of tackling racism.

For one, you can ignore the problem, fearing, perhaps, that talking about it only exacerbates it. But monsters don’t go away when you don’t look at them. Problems like racism fester, in fact, and come to a boil in race riots and other fun and exciting endeavors.

(See how easy it is and how nice it makes you feel? The last half-sentence in the previous paragraph was an example of a cheap shot, the point of which you already knew: race riots are not a nice thing. The real point of the sentence was, though, that ignoring problems only makes them bigger.)

On the other hand, you can try and tackle racism head on. This leads to other problems. Here’s a selection:

Lingering problems like racism – some of which goes back hundreds of years to the time white people had to convince themselves that black people were so inferior and inhuman it was just to treat them as property – do not go away just by meeting them head on. Lingering problems take lingering solutions;

Sometimes, people are simply too uncomfortable facing the fact that such issues exist;

Sometimes, the problem is too close – people don’t want to face the fact that their parents, grandparents, or best friends are/were so wrong;

Sometimes a solution that is reasonable ten years later seems too extreme to too many people at the time;

And sometimes writers know ahead of time that if they talk plainly to the audience, too many politicians will take the chance to make a headline for themselves by turning it into political hay in their favor (like the Survivor brouhaha a few months back).

So, the writer who wants to tackle the problem, and does not want to either sweep it under the rug or to face it head on will go for the indirect option. And here’s when we get to Dick Wolf, the many writers who work for him, and Law and Order. Law and Order usually tackles current issues, and it’s taken on racism and racists more than once. And almost always, its writers use this third option. Let’s see their two main tactics when tackling racism.

Tactic #1: Taking it out of the spin machine.

As a rule of thumb, most politicians want you to agree with them, while most writers want you to think for yourselves. There’s a big difference there, because if one thinks for oneself, one could adopt an opinion significantly different from yours. For politicians, that’s sometimes a death-knell.

The oldest political trick in the book is being in control of the premise of the question through its phrasing: You’re either with us or you’re against us; America, love it or leave it; the spin stops here; talking about racism only perpetuates a problem; and so on.

A way of diffusing that tactic without stirring any ruffled feathers is to make the audience look at the problem again without giving an answer in either direction. Sometimes taking another prolonged gander at a situation you’ve already defined, a gander that’s free of spin in either direction, allows the audience to find new complexity, new solutions, new problems, reconsider their opinions, see that things are not cut and dry, and come to new realizations.

Here are a couple of examples.

Remember the Mel Gibson incident? Within a week or two, it was either the booze talking or his secret opinions; he had been in rehab, which either helped racism or didn’t; he had sincerely apologized, and many Jews forgave him. And so the incident was remembered, but closed.

A few weeks after that incident, in an episode of Law and Order, cops stop a drunk driver, played by Chevy Chase. Chase has blood on his shirt, and so he’s arrested. Chase is drunk, belligerent, and certain that the cops arresting him because they’re Jewish. Later on, he calls one of the mainstay characters “Sugartits”. It turns out that Chase’s character, unlike Gibson, is a has-been actor who actually is a victim of a Jewish conspiracy. When his career began, Chase made many anti-Semitic remarks, the rumor of which passed from one Jewish producer to another, and so very soon he found that he couldn’t get a job. Unlike the Gibson incident, the episode is about murder and dangerous racism that Chase passed on to his son.

The point is that the writers of Law and Order dredge this up from the well-packaged place in our heads in which we’ve stored the incident, and let us take another look at many aspects of it, without saying one thing about Gibson, without taking a stand in either direction, and without any spin doctor to explain things to us as we think about these events.

In another recent episode of Law and Order, Jennifer Beals plays a famous actress, who, a few months ago, had gone to Africa to adopt a black baby. The baby’s real father stirs up trouble and kills Beals’ husband in the beginning of the episode. The deal he makes with the D.A. is that he would confess if he just got to see the baby. Eventually, the baby is brought for him to see. And he, shocked, claims that’s not his baby. And it turns out that he’s right.

The detectives check and see that one of two things happened: Beals returned from Africa with the child, accidentally killed him, went into rehab while the assistant found a replacement black baby, or: Beals returned from Africa, went into rehab, while the assistant accidentally killed the kid and replaced him with another; and when Beals came back from rehab a couple of months later, she never noticed that’s a different black baby.

Now this situation remains in question, never really commented on, no politician or writer’s mouthpiece there to speechify on the horrible situation and put it into a neat little explainable package for us. It’s just there, for ten or fifteen minutes, in front of our faces. And, inevitably, we think about this for ourselves, and who knows what we come up with.

Tactic #2: Giving us new thoughts and taking no position.

Another tactic the Law and Order writers use is to make a logical leap we may not have made, and perhaps even a politically dangerous leap, and not insist that it’s right. Sometimes, just planting the idea and making sure it sticks is better than planting it and insisting that it’s right. Any parent knows that insisting doesn’t usually work. On the other hand, if I were to find a child and, out of nowhere, tell him that there are no such things as monsters that suck kids’ blood during sleep when the moon is full, it won’t matter how much I deny it. The idea is there, and it’s there to stay.

In an episode a few years ago, a female abortion doctor was shot to death by an anti-abortion zealot. The episode is naturally filled with people of all kinds on the sides of ‘the right to life’ or ‘the right to choose’ (yet another example of a question neatly-framed for our convenience). Jack, the ADA, and Clair, his second chair, are walking down the street, talking about the subject, heatedly.

Jack, Claire says, a woman’s dead because she believed in a woman’s right to choose.

No, Jack says simply, a woman’s dead because someone put a bullet in her head.

And in one second, he has snapped us all out of the ideological framework we’re so used to, and into the personal. A woman is dead, not for her ideals, and not for the murderer’s ideals, but because a man decided to take a life. In an instant we see that most of the ideological war is a cover for something else and is a smokescreen for the real issues. It’s not about politics; it’s all personal.

In another episode, a black woman kidnaps the baby (also black) she had given up for adoption when she was a drug addict, and is caught red-handed trying to leave the city. The case looks sewn up, completely black and white. But then Paul steps into the fray. Paul, a black man, used to be the A.D.A. when Law and Order began. Now, apparently, he’s protecting guilty people. His defense is this: The adoption of the child was racist, and therefore wrong. It seems crazy to everyone, including to a majority of the audience at home. We’ve seen the people in charge of the adoption agency, and everyone’s nice and reasonable.

But when the woman of the agency in charge is put on the stand, Paul gets her to admit that black kids are put in with black families, and white kids with white families. Which means that, on the whole, statistically, white kids get into families that are better off financially and so have better opportunities.

When the audience is faced with that idea, and for a moment it seems that Paul’s point of view is legitimate, then it doesn’t matter what happens afterwards in the story. The idea is in our heads. We’d thought of it as crazy, and now it seems logical.

And here’s an example from Deadline, another Dick Wolf series that was, unfortunately, short-lived. Wallace Benton, an intrepid columnist, does a follow-up about the current condition of crack babies today. He follows a mother, who’s just been arrested after having had her kid, to jail, and from there to court. She has accepted a plea agreement in exchange for a reduced sentence. The judge, however, accepts the guilty plea, but not the sentence. He sentences her to three years in jail or – and here’s the kicker – no jail time at all if she agrees to get herself sterilized. The judge, apparently, is having his own private war on drugs, by keeping more crack babies from being born.

When Benton digs deeper, he finds that the hospital that had admitted the pregnant woman tested her for drugs, something that sounds absurd. He then finds that the hospital routinely checks for drugs in pregnant women and that 200 women have been prosecuted for using drugs while pregnant. Legal precedent leads him to believe that it’s not the health of the babies that worries the judges that had sentenced the women and that “These women aren’t being prosecuted for using drugs,” rather “They’re being prosecuted for being pregnant.” Which leads us to: “It’s a war. It’s a campaign of sterilization against poor, young black women.” And then: “Wars are usually coordinated efforts. You should find out who’s coordinating this one.”

And that one line, that is absolutely true, about wars being coordinated efforts, leads Benton to discover how deep and how high this goes and how long it’s been going on. The concept of wars being coordinated efforts is the concept that sticks in our minds. It teaches us a new logical pattern of thought about the world around us without anyone there to spin it for us.

And now that we’ve seen how the writers of Law and Order do it, we can safely say that the spin stops here. Right?


(This is the second of a three-article series about racism. Next week, we’ll take a break from the heavy stuff and see that racism can be fun.)