If the truth is uncomfortable, the American audience would much rather not hear it.
Truth that’s uncomfortable? Truth that’s unseemly? Truth that’s ugly? I’d prefer a story with a happy ending, thank you.
The two top TV writers over the last couple of decades, David E. Kelly and Aaron Sorkin, have had unique relationships with truth-telling. Let’s take a look.
Sorkin and truth-telling
Sorkin had Toby. In The West Wing, Toby was the truth-teller. And quite early in the series, he justly calls himself “the kid in the class with his hand raised that nobody wants the teacher to call.”
Toby was the guy who said the bad things out loud, because he couldn’t stomach lies or self-delusion. Toby stared the truth in the face even when it hurt him.
The first time we saw Toby’s inability to keep his mouth shut was in the middle of a basketball game with the president of the United States, “Oh, this is perfect, you know that? This is a perfect metaphor. After you're gone, and the poets write, 'The Legend of Josiah Bartlet,' let them write you as a tragic figure, sir. Let the poets write that he had the tools of greatness, but the voices of his better angels was shouted down by his obsessive need to win.”
How many people in life do you know who will tell you your faults to your face? Are they loved? Are they shunned?
When Toby’s twins are born, Toby shares his feelings with Leo.
“I don't know,” he says. “For nine months, you're hearing how this is gonna change your life, and ‘You've never loved anything like this’, and ‘My God, the love’ and ‘Nothing's gonna be important any more.’ It just never really felt to me like I was someone who had the capacity for those feelings. Plus, you know, I like what's important to me. I want it to stay important. I want to be able to do it well.”
Leo says, “What do you mean, you don't have the capacity? Of course you're gonna be a great father. Of course you're gonna love your kids the way you're supposed to, the way other fathers—”
Toby interrupts him, “My God, Leo, we look around, we see that's not true. It's not automatic.”
Some parents don’t love their kids, and Toby knows that. Some parents treat their kids horribly, and Toby knows that. Some mothers feel bad that they don’t love their kids right away, not knowing it’s a process, and that it takes time. Toby doesn’t fall for that and even dares to admit that he is very different from what a father is supposed to be.
Another time, the president and Josh were shot. The president was all right, but Josh’s condition was critical. It was iffy if he would make it out of surgery.
Donna, Josh’s assistant who cares deeply for him, rushes in to the hospital, only knowing the president’s been shot. In a room full of friends, only Toby speaks, and says, “Donna. Josh was hit.”
“Hit with what?” Donna says.
Toby: “He was shot--in the chest.”
C.J. adds, “He's in surgery right now.”
Donna is in shock. “I don't understand. I don't understand, is -- is it serious?”
And the truth-teller gives it to her straight, without sugarcoating it, “Yes, it's critical. The bullet collapsed his lung and damaged a major artery.”
How many people do you know who don’t – and won’t – sugarcoat the awful truth for us?
Sorkin, of course, also knows how to make fun of it when he wants to. Because Toby isn’t only a truth-teller, he is a pessimist. Andy, Toby’s ex-wife, now pregnant with his child, says that she’s worried about how Toby will raise the kids.
“I do worry about the kids,” she tells him. “Because instead of showing them that the world is for them, you're going to be telling them that they have to work hard in school so they can bone up for a life of hopelessness and despair.”
Toby, not backing down, responds, “Wouldn't it be ironic if our kids were the only ones who were properly prepared?”
When Sorkin left the series after four seasons, Toby stopped being the truth-teller.
Kelley and truth-telling
Kelley’s palette of truth-telling is greater than Sorkin’s. Whereas Sorkin, in writing The West Wing, Sports Night, and Studio 60 only had Toby as a truth-teller, almost all of Kelley’s characters are truth-tellers at quite a few points of their lives.
But Kelly does us one better than that. He doesn’t let the need for everything to be resolved well get in his way. Whereas Sorkin ended the scene quoted above (in which Toby shared his worries about his being a bad father) on the best side possible (Leo tells Toby, “I’m not talking about everybody. I’m talking about you and I’m telling ya, it’s a mortal lock. It’s guaranteed”), Kelly tends to do the opposite.
One time, in Chicago Hope, Alan Birch, the hospital’s lawyer, appears before a committee that holds the future of Chicago Hope in its hands. It doesn’t go well. He gets blindsided and his ass is handed to him. When he comes back to the hospital to prepare for the next session, Dr. Phillip Waters, his boss, reads him the riot act. Later on, Birch appears before the committee prepared, legally beats the aggressive committee to a pulp, and wins the day.
That evening, Dr. Waters comes to Birch’s room, to mollify matters (as usually happens in most American shows). Birch is busy working. I get it, he says. I’ve proven myself a hundred times before, and yet every day I have to prove myself to you as if I’m starting from zero. I get it. You would never have treated any of the surgeons this way. I get it. I’m not one of the guys. I get it. I’m just your lawyer.
And as Birch says these things, he leads Dr. Waters out of the room. For a second, Waters is standing with his back to the open door. He opens his mouth and turns around, only to find the door gently closing in his face.
He then leaves.
Birch was right, and David E. Kelley wouldn’t write a sappy ending just because it's the expected thing to do. Any other writer on any other show would have let Walters come into the room again and ‘explain’ things and show how everything is actually okay. But it isn't. Kelley leaves the painful truth hanging there, for us to see and feel.
Kelley in his truth-telling, does us even one better than that: He goes out and seeks the truth, showing us what really exists behind our actions.
Here are a couple of secrets that Kelley outed during his run on Picket Fences.
One time, Jimmy Brock, the sheriff, and Jill Brock, his wife and a doctor, are having Jill’s father over along with Max, one of Jimmy’s deputies, for dinner. Jill’s father, a professor, keeps making jokes at Max about the ineptness of policemen. The great career as a surgeon that Jill had given up to live as a doctor in this town is also mentioned in passing.
Spirits are heated and things are said. Jill’s father accuses Jill of having grown distant from him, of never calling, of never talking the way they used to. When things get more heated, Jimmy tells him that it’s all his fault. The second Jill met Jimmy, she started to feel her father’s lack of acceptance. Jimmy’s not the intellectual she deserves; he’s a stupid policeman; she could do better. And that, says Jimmy, is why Jill grew distant from you.
Jill’s father is shocked. He turns to Jill and asks her, Is that true? Did you feel that way?
Jill, feeling like a little girl, nods.
Jill’s father then turns to Jimmy. I can’t argue with what she feels, he says, but she didn’t get it from me. I think you’re the exception to the rule, he continues, you’re one of the bravest and smartest men I’ve ever met. Whatever it is that’s going on here, it doesn’t come from me.
Jimmy’s eyes move from Jill’s father to Jill. He’s right, he says. It does come from you. It’s always come from you.
And he’s right. The disapproval Jill ‘picked up on’ came from her and from her own judgments of Jimmy, the man she eventually married. And she kept feeling like this all these years. And that’s an ugly and terrible truth for a married couple to learn. (And if you want to know what happened next, watch the series.)
Another time, Jimmy’s ex-wife comes to town with a surprise: She wants to have another kid, and she’s been trying to get pregnant for quite a while. Unfortunately, it turns out that she has a special genetic disease that allows her to conceive only with genetically-compatible men - only one out of about 75,000 men is a viable candidate (“And how many have you tried?” asks Jill.) And so it turns out that by a freak coincidence Jimmy is one of those men (since they have already had a daughter, Kimberly, who is now a teenager). And she wants his sperm.
Jimmy’s ex doesn’t even want to have sex with him. A few years ago, they had frozen his sperm. She just wants his okay.
When Jimmy says no, she looks at him, squints her eyes, and says, You know what, I don’t need your approval, I’m going to do it.
As you can guess, a big brouhaha ensues, at the end of which she decides not to go through with her plan. But then, standing by her daughter near her car, she admits her true motive: With Kimberly going to college soon, she won’t have a reason any more to come and be in Jimmy’s life. And she wanted and needed a reason to still be around. She is, after all those years, still in love with him.
Now, who else would tell you such truths?