The Drama Business

Posted in Screening Room by - October 09, 2017
The Drama Business

Last season was a pretty mixed bag for Supergirl. While there were some great moments throughout the year, there were plenty more problems that held the show back from the level of quality it had achieved in its first year. But in particular there was one head-scratching moment from the season premiere, and the ramifications of it were felt down to the finale. Season one set us up with a familiar romantic arc; Supergirl loves Jimmy Olsen, Jimmy Olsen has feelings for Supergirl but also someone else, nobody wants to properly express themselves until the worst possible time, etc., etc. After a year of “will they, won’t they,” they finally got together, and the romantic subplot had been solved… Until the start of the second season. Very, very quickly in, Supergirl decides to break it off with Jimmy for reasons that are never made particularly clear, unless you count the show’s desire to set her up with a new boyfriend as the explanation.

This didn’t sit well with fans, both for shipping reasons and for more general reasons of wanting the show to make sense and for characters to behave consistently. And at SDCC 2017, producers Jessica Queller and Robert Rovner were asked in person why this happened (link: One fan commented thus: “Mon-El is a controversial figure. One of the reasons is that after a season of buildup, Kara and James’ relationship was written off without a whole lot and he was essentially replaced with a man who was not only a white guy but also a slave owner. That is something that has not been addressed within the show or behind the scenes, can you speak to that controversy?” Queller replied, “We felt dramatically that once they were together, they were two characters who were both so noble and heroic that there wasn’t a lot of drama once they were together and it was more dramatically rich to put her with a flawed character that would give her a lot of trouble. We’re in the drama business.”

This answer is not entirely satisfactory. On the surface, this answer is somewhat rote and basic, but when you look at it deeper, it gives us a glimpse into the creative process behind this show’s last year, and, to a degree, the process behind this whole TV universe of superhero shows. And there’s a lot to unpack.

The Drama Business

First off, it’s worth acknowledging the question the producer was responding to: at its core, the question was why the writers chose to break up a romance they had spent a whole season teasing within an episode of it coming to fruition, just to return to square one with a new relationship. And that’s a good question, but there was a little more to it than that. The interviewer used some pretty leading language when it came to their description of Mon-El and his unfavorable comparison to Jimmy Olsen. Yes, there are some good points to be brought up as criticism of the writers’ choices surrounding the character, but by sneaking in a complaint about a prospective suitor in the form of a question, what could have been an objective criticism of a legitimately clumsy plot point is partially transformed into a subjective shipping complaint, and here’s the rub; from that perspective, the writers’ choices are, on some level, defendable.

Both the writers and the audience consider Mon-El to be a flawed character; this is on purpose. While there is debate as to how flawed exactly, the bottom line is that those flaws are supposed to be there because they allow the character to grow beyond them on his journey of becoming a better character. The heart of storytelling, after all, is conflict. If everything went well for the characters, it would be predictable; a character setting out to accomplish a goal and then accomplishing it is not an interesting story, it’s only when obstacles present themselves, and the protagonist begins to fight against them that the story becomes interesting and therefore worth telling. When writing romance as a part of the story, something similar is involved: two characters need conflicts between them that they are forced to overcome for their story to be interesting as a plot of its own. This applies to outer obstacles, but also inner conflicts; personality flaws the characters need to fight against and resolve.

So Mon-El is screwed up at the beginning of the season. Certain members of the audience may criticize what he’s done wrong, but the intent behind his arc was always that he sees the error of his ways, fix the error, and make amends as a better, stronger person. This is everything, from his lack of respect for Kara’s boundaries to his royal family’s unethical institutions like social classes and slavery. His personality flaws (as obnoxious as they are) and the past sins he was party to (as distasteful as they are) are all things that he recognizes as bad and takes steps to fix; they are all part of his journey of redemption.

This is not the problem.

The problem is that while the writers may have the right to justify the specific issues, audiences have with this particular character (whether or not you agree with their defenses is up to you), their creative process regarding conflict creation, in general, is deeply flawed. When one romance has reached its resolution, the writers undo it to start a new one; when the characters have reached a point where their issues no longer stand in the way of their future, the writers break them up to pair them with significantly more flawed individuals. This is what they mean when they say they’re “in the drama business.” And yes, when stories end one conflict, they need to find new ones to proceed, but what these writers are overlooking in their constant quest to keep the characters in a perpetual state of conflict is the point at which the stories lose their sense of urgency, also known as…

The Point of Diminishing Returns

Think about how a typical, standalone romance story is structured; the old ‘guy meets girl, guy loses the girl, the guy gets the girl back’ routine. There are endless permutations of how this story can be handled, of who or what specifics can fill in those vagueries, but this is the structure at the heart of every story where romance is the end goal. And that’s just it, the end goal. Conflict and therefore story is in the overcoming of obstacles, and the point at which the main couple professes their love for each other, or get engaged, or even just kiss represents the moment those obstacles have been overcome and we no longer need to pay attention to the story. It’s over. We’ve experienced these characters’ struggles for an hour and a half, or 200 pages, or whatever metric is used to measure the length of this story, and now it’s done.

But a show is different. A show keeps going, as long as it can, and in doing so they have a choice to make when it comes to the end goal the characters are hoping to achieve; they can either let the characters achieve their goal after a satisfactory amount of obstacles and then find a new goal to put the focus on, or they can keep the goal perpetually out of reach, adding new obstacles as older ones are overcome. Now, there is a time and a place for both, but look at how these CW shows have been structured; seasonal arcs, with a set plot and theme and villain per season that is expected to be resolved within the 20 plus episodes the show gets in a year, and the characters will face a new one when we get back from summer break. This is, in part, because superheroes are and have always been based around episodic storytelling. Comics begin and end new stories every month, and the characters are built around the idea that a new author can pick them up and tell a new tale with them at any point. The shows were smart to recognize this and not try to replicate the storytelling structure of, say, Lost or Samurai Jack by telling us the end goal for these characters at the beginning and keeping it permanently out of reach.

The problem is that there are huge aspects of these shows where they’ve decided this structure doesn’t work, and they try to keep audiences engrossed in the characters’ ongoing plights by reverting to the ‘perpetual obstacle’ method, but in a series that is still built episodically. The result is a weird hybrid between the two, where we spend a whole season waiting for the resolution to a plotline, only for the resolution to be undone or circumvented so that we can return to the status quo of absolute drama. Because that’s what these writers want: absolute drama; they don’t want just regular relationship drama, they want ‘opposites attract’ drama; they want constant ‘will-they-won’t-they’ drama. This is why Jimmy and Kara immediately break up after finally getting together; this is why Mon-El and Kara have to be separated immediately after they reach a point of stability. The writers keep promising us that next year’s story will go into where Mon-El went and how he comes back, but everything we’ve seen so far tells us that by the end of the year some new obstacle will be contrived to prevent this story from reaching any conclusion. This is the pattern across most of these shows; over on The Flash, Barry and Iris have been the relationship the show is aiming towards since Barry’s guest appearance on Arrow before his pilot ever aired. But when Barry and Iris are getting close, Barry goes into a coma; when Barry wakes up, Iris is engaged to another man; once Iris is single, Barry randomly gets into a relationship with another woman, and to this day it just keeps going. If the first couple of those sound familiar, that’s because over on Arrow, Oliver went through the same structure. Currently, Andrew Kreisberg says season four of The Flash will finally see Barry and Iris get married, but, and I quote, “then it’s going to be: Can they stay married with everything that’s coming up against them?”

And this isn’t limited to the romances, either. This is how the basic plots are structured: ever notice how rarely the heroes manage to save the day at the end of the season? Arrow’s first season ended with Oliver’s failure to completely prevent the disaster he believed was his mission to stop, and at the time this was an interesting and, amongst superhero stories, rather unique way of keeping him motivated to continue saving the day as a superhero. But season finale after season finale has arrived with Oliver just barely eking out a victory over his opponent, and huge amounts of death and destruction are happening anyways. The fallout from his failures has been key plot points in future stories. The show has positioned its central premise as being about whether or not he can shed the dark persona he crafted on the island, but five years into the show and there’s been very little momentum on that thread. This isn’t a slow burn; this is stagnation.

Similarly, on The Flash, the show opens with Barry’s goal to solve his mother’s murder and get his falsely accused dad out of prison. When he beats the true culprit at the end of the first season, he finds his proof, but his newly freed dad immediately leaves everyone behind to go camping alone somewhere in what is, to this day, one of the most baffling decisions of any character in these shows. When he’s ready to come back and join Team Flash, he gets murdered by the new main villain within an episode. The first season finale gives Barry the chance to change the timeline and stop his mother’s murder, but instead, he accepts things for how they are and opts to move on. A season later, apparently having not moved on, Barry takes a whole episode to go on a semi-mystical emotional journey to reach a point of acceptance over the whole thing. By the end of that same year, Barry backtracks again and screws up the entire timeline trying to save her. The entirety of season three is fallout from that decision. Despite the opportunities for stories to end and begin, Flash has chosen to sit on the same issues for three solid years. It feels like they’re not even trying to…

Reach For the Next Level

One of the reasons why these shows keep doing this seems to be that they have an irrational fear of resolution. It’s as if they believe that reaching any conclusion will mark the end of the show, rather than the beginning of a bold new status quo. It’s easy to see where these issues originate from, just look at what this televised DC universe was initially replacing: Smallville. Smallville was positioned as a show about Clark Kent before he was Superman, and because of that core idea, the show was the moment he became Superman. But you can only tell so many small farming town stories with Superman’s core cast of characters before audiences want to see more, and that’s why the show eventually transitioned to Clark in Metropolis with Lois Lane working at the Daily Planet and fighting crime as a superhero. He fought General Zod, Brainiac, and even Doomsday, but he was never allowed to be Superman until the very end because the central premise forced the show to deny what it had become, a show about Superman. Starting with Arrow, the CW shows looked like they were going to overcome the chief obstacle Smallville gave itself and allow their characters to move forward and take on new roles. Arrow began with Oliver, not in a place where he was Green Arrow yet, but they promised us that this was a point the show was going to reach, possibly sooner rather than later. Sure enough, season four finally gave us an Oliver Queen using the name we know him best by, and yet his central character had not progressed in the ways the series had promised. Five years in and he’s still wrestling with whether or not to kill.

The reason I bring up the Smallville comparison is not just for a history lesson; it’s to demonstrate what possibilities you open up by truly letting the stories progress; where would Smallville have had to go if they’d let Clark finally graduate to becoming Superman? They would have a show about Superman. There are over 75 years worth of comics about Superman; they were not going to run out of stories to tell.

Take a look at the traditional status quo arrangement for superheroes in comics. The reason Superman has those 75 years worth of stories is because comics are designed to go on basically forever, and to this end, there is a set status quo associated with a character, and by the end of nearly every writer’s run on a character that status quo needs to be reset so the next writer has a chance to tell their own story. Superman is Clark Kent, a journalist for the Daily Planet, trapped in an odd love triangle between himself, Superman, and Lois Lane. Most Superman stories begin with this baseline. That status quo can open up worlds of possibilities, but over time it eventually becomes a force of limitation. This is why it’s so rewarding when Superman and Lois Lane are allowed to defy 60 years of status quo to get married finally, and why it was so frustrating for the New 52 to come along and reboot us right back to the same old single status. The idea was to open up new storytelling possibilities, but the result simply alienated readers by forcing us into a no-progress situation.

The funny thing about the CW’s irrational fear of resolution is that it seems to be based in part on a desire to avoid the problems with this status quo scenario. A problem presents itself, but instead of being neatly concluded and things returning to normal, the consequences of this problem stick around for years to come, and nothing feels consequence free. But they’ve taken this idea to an extreme, where the desire to maintain consequences has resulted in the characters being unable to resolve any lingering issues. Problems don’t feel like they have long-term affects as much as they feel like we’re repeatedly dealing with the same unresolved issues. They’ve locked the characters in a state of perpetual agitation and lack of satisfaction, and the results are nearly identical to the traditional status quo: there’s no progress, and any illusion of progress will be immediately undone, except this version is infinitely more frustrating because we’re denied resolution.

The solution to this is to find a balance. Part of the fun about TV show adaptations of comics is that they’re freed from the constraints of leaving themselves open for a new team; a TV show is a medium with a limited lifespan, and knowing that this show will at some point end gives writers the opportunity to truly progress, an opportunity that the comics tend to avoid for the sake of longevity. This means that progress can be made and events can have lingering consequences, but at the same time conclusions can also be reached to long-running arcs. Again, I point to Legends of Tomorrow as a good example here; this last season finale avoided the traditional status quo by presenting us with a new problem for season three caused by the heroes’ actions that were meant to solve season two’s problem. They broke the rules of time travel to win, but even once that victory was claimed, the broken rules result in consequences that will become integral in the next season. However, we still get that win. We still get that sense of victory and resolution, that feeling of satisfaction from seeing a story arc reach its conclusion, even while new problems and new stories present themselves.

And that’s the lesson these shows need to learn. A sense of balance needs to be met in how the problems are presented and concluded because conclusions open stories up for new status quos. Supergirl finally getting the guy doesn’t have to be the moment where the story has ended, it should merely be the answer to one particular question, “Are they going to get together?” Instead of being immediately undone, this should present us with a new question: “What happens next?” Because that’s drama.

This post was written by
He is a staff writer for Kulture Shocked, specializing in comic books and superheroes. Part-time web comic writer and full-time insomniac, he lives in Texas and writes think pieces for fun. Approach cautiously; he is usually very tired and probably isn't paying attention.
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