Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Thoughts on theme

Now isn’t the time to say much about “Treme.” If HBO decides to move forward with David Simon’s new drama series, it won’t be ready for the public until 2010.

But being that Simon and co-creator Eric Overmyer spoke about “Treme” at a recent literary conference in New Orleans, and being that they threw my name in the mix (read this news report), I feel entitled to share a thought or two about the art of writing for television.

Eric had me saying that “Treme” is about “the triumph of the human spirit,” which sounds like such horseshit. I actually didn’t phrase it that way.

I said the show is about the human impulse to rise after being knocked down. Which I don’t characterize as “triumphant” (or any more “triumphant” than a cat trapping a mouse or a monkey climbing a tree). It simply describes what is.

Bigger question: Does it matter if a TV series has a theme?

Many successful dramas don’t have an overarching theme. “ER” didn’t have a theme. (Or, if it did, nobody told me what it was.) I don’t believe “Homicide: Life on the Street” had a theme.

But “NYPD Blue” definitely did. In that show, David Milch’s theme was how we, the public, want the police to break the rules in order to keep us safe... even as we harshly punish those cops who get caught breaking the rules. Call it the dilemma of modern urban policing.

Milch put his heroic detectives – Sipowicz especially – right on that tightrope. And he got America to root for a cop who smacks suspects around. (A cop with racist impulses to boot.)

That was an amazing feat for network television.

Theme operates at a submerged level in storytelling. You don’t need to be aware of David Milch’s thematic intent to be entertained or moved by an episode of “NYPD Blue.” But it’s in there. And the experience of the story, I believe, is richer for that.

Milch also had a theme in “Deadwood”: the evolution of law, or how human society moves from chaos to order. (He originally wanted to explore this theme in a show about ancient Rome, but HBO already had “Rome” in development, so he did it as a Western.)

David Simon had a theme in “The Wire”: the inevitable defeat of the individual by the institutions which he serves. Again, you didn’t have to perceive this theme in order to enjoy the crime stories. But I’m sure the theme grounded Simon throughout his story-making process.

Even “Kingpin” had a theme. That show was nowhere near as serious-minded as “The Wire” or “Deadwood.” But it was important for me to have a handle on what the story was about... at the deeper levels.

It was about the dual nature of man. Which sounds like such horseshit. But nothing is more interesting about human beings than our capacity, at any given moral crossroads, to do wrong or right. It’s always a coin flip.

My drug kingpin, Miguel Cadena, was a man who decided to do evil... without accepting the definition of himself as evil. His soul was ruined and he didn’t even know it. If Miguel ever reconciled his deeds with his ideation of self, he probably would’ve commited suicide.

Nothing profound about that. Just explaining my mental process in telling a story.

I found my own personal handle on the theme of “Treme” during a location scout of a still-wrecked neighborhood in New Orleans... a location suitable for a second-line parade scripted by Simon and Eric. The juxtaposition of a joyful brass band and that devastated landscape... that was it, that’s the thing. This show is about the human impulse to do that.

Further, it’s about the impulse to get together in groups and do that. Even if the nuclear bombs drop, there will still be in us a need to gather... to find comfort and meaning in collective traditions that supersede the individual.

That plus fucking. Plenty o’ fucking. Hey, it’s HBO.

28 comments:

estiv said...

Thanks for that. I remember learning somewhere the analogy with a skeleton: nobody sees your bones (unless you have a compound fracture) but without them you'd be shapeless and inert. Some sort of central premise needs to be present in a TV series, movie, novel, play, epic poem, hip-hop album, etc., if it's going to be worth anything, really. And it's best if it's never directly expressed.

Anonymous said...

So, do you like how the pilot turned out? Strong writing is always a great thing. I hope HBO sees that.

onefinemess said...

I find it hard to get into TV shows these days - especially ones that aren't re-broadcast on Hulu (which makes me wonder how the big pay channels are dealing with the net-tv market...).

BUT. Good luck with it - we could certainly use a show about something as powerful as Katrina.

Kellybelle said...

I agree with estiv, I think a show should have an uber theme. Otherwise you get junk like "How I Met Your Mother" or "Brothers and Sisters." A theme allows a show to go on for years and still have the same kind of impact as a mini-series like "Roots" or "Thornbirds." Ugh--does that make sense?

Break a leg with your show. I'll subscribe to HBO if it's picked up, because my car will be paid for by the time it airs and I can splurge on premium channels ;-).

lawegohard said...

@UBM this is such an honest post. I love it! It even makes me think of what is the theme of life? After "we" meet our basic needs, I believe everything boils down to f*cking.

Michael Murray said...

But is it tell me you love me type F******* or NYPD blue type F*******

Sam said...

Great insights. Thanks

Mon-sewer Paul Regret said...

While they may converge, I wonder if two questions are on the table? Does a writer need to have a theme on which to focus their efforts, and does an audience need a theme to, well, focus their efforts? So many series today are based more on extended narrative structures ... today's audiences are used to series that ask us to consider the long haul, not just the standalone episodes. Themes, in such occasions, are nice, because they ground us as we follow the complexities of the overall arc.

I'm guessing that you, as a writer, need a theme that works in a similar fashion, as a grounding device. Not thinking so much of Kingpin, where you were the showrunner, but things like The Wire, where you were brought on board because of your obvious talents, and, I imagine, given some freedom as long as you hit key plot points. It would seem that knowing the overall theme of The Wire would make your job as a writer easier, or at least, more clear.

blackink said...

Merci beaucoup, David. I dig this, man. I really do.

And I can't wait to see the finished product. I'm usually not much for scripted dramas but I get the feeling that you and Simon will do right by New Orleans.

Alan Sepinwall said...

“ER” didn’t have a theme. (Or, if it did, nobody told me what it was.)

I would say "ER" had a theme, and one not too dissimilar to "The Wire": about people trying to do their best to help people within the confines of a deeply broken institution. Now, "The Wire" was vastly better in its execution of that theme, but there were so many instances of the "ER" doctors butting their heads against the limits of the system that I think you have to call that the series' theme.

Andrew said...

I'd say Homicide's theme didn't really have anything specifically to do with cops. It was just good old-fashioned Catholic guilt.

There's nothing inherently wrong with the phrase "triumph of the human spirit." The problem is that the phrase has been co-opted by a bunch of shitty Disney movies that think the emphasis should be on the "triumph" part of the phrase rather than the "human spirit" part.

Undercover Black Man said...

There's nothing inherently wrong with the phrase "triumph of the human spirit."

I dig what you're saying, Andrew. But if we're being totally real... the impulse to fight, kill and destroy is also part of the "human spirit." Wouldn't that make war a "triumph" of the human spirit?

Undercover Black Man said...

I would say "ER" had a theme, and one not too dissimilar to "The Wire": about people trying to do their best to help people within the confines of a deeply broken institution.

Thanks for commenting, Alan. You are, and shall ever be, my blogfather.

But I don't think "ER" was about a "deeply broken institution" at all. All we ever saw on that show was first-class medicine being practiced by heroic and compassionate doctors. It was an advertisement for the health-care system, not a critique of it.

To the degree that there was head-butting going on, I think that was only to serve the week-by-week demand for dramatic antagonism.

Like I said, that doesn't make "ER" any less good as a show. The medical action plus workplace melodrama -- both executed at the highest level -- were enough to keep storyteller and audience plenty busy.

Undercover Black Man said...

But is it tell me you love me type F******* or NYPD blue type F*******

"Sopranos"-type F******, Michael. This is HBO!

Undercover Black Man said...

I'd say Homicide's theme didn't really have anything specifically to do with cops. It was just good old-fashioned Catholic guilt.

Ah. Well done... though I'd call that a motif, not a theme as such.

Undercover Black Man said...

I agree with estiv, I think a show should have an uber theme. Otherwise you get junk like "How I Met Your Mother" or "Brothers and Sisters."

You remind me, Kellybelle, that the "theme" thing can also apply to sitcoms... though not as readily.

Two great sitcoms of the '70s -- "All in the Family" and "M*A*S*H" -- had very powerful themes.

"All in the Family" was about a man being left behind by changing times. Archie Bunker was a tragic character in that way. Tragic and comic at the same time.

"M*A*S*H," of course, wore its theme (the folly of war) on its sleeve.

Michael Murray said...

"Sopranos"-type F******, Michael. This is HBO!

I guess you didn't watch "Tell Me You Love Me" which was a show on HBO that had the most graphic sex scenes (short of something with Lexington Steele)

http://www.hbo.com/tellme/

Undercover Black Man said...

^ Aw hell... Not only did I never see that show, Michael, I didn't even get your reference. I thought you were talking about real-life love!

Anna said...

Homicide originally had a theme. "Being murder police is about using your head, not a gun and a car chase."

Unfortunately, to appease the NBC bosses, this theme was abandoned..

Undercover Black Man said...

^ Thanks for commenting, Anna. But that's not what I mean by theme.

A theme says something larger about society or about human nature.

Another way to think of it is: If "Homicide" weren't about homicide detectives, what would it be about?

If "Deadwood" weren't about the West, it would still be about the evolution of law.

If "The Wire" weren't about Baltimore, it would still be about the individual vs. institutions.

If "The Sopranos" weren't about mobsters, it would still be about the emptiness of power. ("Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown.")

And if "Treme" weren't about New Orleans, it would still be about the human impulse to rise after being knocked down.

The theme is what's left after you strip everything else away.

Andrew said...

The theme is what's left after you strip everything else away.

Buy isn't your stated theme for NYPD Blue something that can only apply to cops and not anything broader?

Undercover Black Man said...

^ The theme of "NYPD Blue" is specific to policing, but in a way that's broader than the mechanics or the process of the job. It's about society's unspoken demand upon cops... so in that way the theme speaks about the larger culture.

Undercover Black Man said...

^ In other words, it's as much about us as it is about cops.

SJ said...

Good post. Was pleasantly surprised to see them mention you when I read that piece a day or two back.

Do you think HBO will be ok with Treme getting The Wire-like ratings? Because I can't see it getting higher ratings.

Undercover Black Man said...

^ The way "The Wire" is selling on DVD (internationally, at that), I hope HBO knows it ain't all about ratings.

Rod Emelle said...

I'm glad you feel its not about the so-called "triumph of the human spirit blah-blah-blah". Because it is about getting up despite the situation. I live in Los ANgeles, but my folks stayed with me initially after Katrina. And setback after setback would come at them. They would get upset and I'd tell them it's not abot getting upset it's about getting the best solution possible within a fucked up situation (though I didn't use those words with them). Man, you are so correct that is what it's about.

Anonymous said...

And that New Orleans is one of the few (if the only) U.S. city where this ingrained into the culture.

Mr. Obie Joe said...

...And Baltimore, true, too. Perhaps a theme can act as the moral, or larger lesson, so that the series has a momentum, detected or not.

On a side note, I hope you won't be scared with the feedback of those in Treme. Just like Baltimore, we take exception with the bullshitters who like to stereotype (not that this has happened before...)