Tuesday, October 13, 2020

Verisimilitude vs Reality Part 6 - Show Don't Tell Theme

Verisimilitude vs Reality
Part 6
Show Don't Tell Theme 

Previous parts in Verisimilitude vs Reality

Part 1

Part 2 Master Theme Structure, The Camera, Nesting Plots and Stories

Part 3 - The Game, The Stakes, The Template

Part 4 - Story Arcs and the Fiction Delivery System

Part 5 - So What Exactly is Happiness?

Now in Part 6 we'll look at a TV Series - just one scene out of several seasons of the Netflix Original, MADAME SECRETARY.

I think the scene I'm going to analyze is from Season 2, Episode 5 or 6.

As you probably know, Madame Secretary is about a woman who comes from CIA roots, was a station chief in Europe, and with friends in high places ever rising, ends up working for the Secretary of State because a good friend becomes President and another good friend becomes Secretary of State.  Her kids have grown up associating with the President's son - Washington becomes a family business.  (Oh, and she's married to a former field operative now a Professor of Religious Philosophy and history buff.)

She uses her experience in the spy business to work out problems at the international level, and "wings-it" through complex situations, deeply disturbing career professionals in the State Department.  She becomes Secretary of State when her boss dies in a plane crash and she's next in line.

She discovers her boss, the former Secretary of State, was actually murdered, and there were unsavory money trails connected to that.

As she's investigating the murder of her boss, she solves more international problems. The whole plot-arc reminds me of SCARECROW AND MRS. KING, but instead of applying housekeeping skills to international affairs, she applies CIA spy craft skills.

The whole thing is a Mary Sue, wish-fulfillment-fantasy, superhero Mom TV Series - well produced and very entertaining.

It has a contemporary setting, and is very adroitly RIPPED FROM THE HEADLINES.

Here are posts about ripping story material from the contemporary headlines:

Even if you're sick-sick-sick of the news and politics, this is a very diverting and interested show -- transparently Hillary or not, it works very well.

One reason it works is the depiction of the HEA life.

This show is about a couple years and years into the HEA life -- their oldest kid of three is in college.

The Secretary of State job is high-pressure, fast moving, an emotional jerk-around every day.

You'd think a professor's life would be placid - but unbeknownst to the Secretary, the CIA re-recruits her husband for a spy job.  He confesses the offer to her, and they make the decision together that he will take the job.

Eventually, by this point in Season 2, he has been promoted from field operative to "Handler."  His cover job is teaching international students the history of war.

The Secretary's brother is a doctor working in a hot-zone of the Middle East, lots of shooting, lots of wounded to care for.  He's in a position like Doctors Without Borders.

This episode opens with the doctor, scruffy beard and all, doing surgery on a critical patient when two tough guys, looking like Secret Service in battle gear, burst into the tent where he's improvising through a lack of supplies.

They are there to grab him and exfiltrate him back to the USA -- because there are death threats against his sister, the Secretary.

He goes, reluctantly but cooperatively - and he's steaming mad about it.


He's getting out of a car in front of her DC house as she's arriving and walking to the stairs.  He's still steaming mad and charging at her confrontationally -- all body language, not much dialogue.

Her Secret Service detail flattens him against a car's hood.

She notices, turns and flies to the rescue, "That's my brother!"

They let him up.

Her kid comes skipping down the stairs and wraps a hug.

Escorted inside, there's the big family scene, and how upset he is being dragged back to DC.

The explanation is that he could be kidnapped and used to blackmail her into whatever the terrorists want.

The THEMATIC MESSAGE is encoded in the camera work and dialogue, or lack thereof.

We have the Secretary of State under heavy Secret Service (more than usual) guard, being accosted by a scruffy dressed, bearded man (he's a big man, too).

The Secretary of State has to TELL her Detail it is her brother!

We have Secret Service body guards who don't do their homework to be able to recognize her family, and apparently haven't been looped on the memo about the Secret Service collecting and repatriating her brother a few hours ago?

Why do they wear those little earphone thingies if not to be informed of movements among their outfit? Why weren't they hearing a report as the brother's car stopped?

We have a clear "show don't tell" scene saying the Secret Service is incompetent.

This scene is more vivid because for all the previous episodes, the matter of her predecessor being murdered has been a Plot-Arc.  That murder was a failure of his Secret Service detail.

So on the plus side, the Secret Service flattened a potential attacker -- which is their job, and they did it well.

But find that scene and check out the camera work.

The Detail guys back off INTO THE SHADOWS, the camera slides away from them -- no emphasis on their chagrin, embarrassment -- no supervisor coming up behind them to give them what-for.

The Secretary does not upbraid them for failing to recognize her brother, does not yank out her phone and scorch the ear of the supervisor who didn't inform her detail that her brother was approaching.

Watch that scene carefully and really think about what's NOT there!

What theme do you think it illustrates symbolically.

The absences bespeak some of the themes of this show, the envelop theme about competence in Washington - at the helm of the most deadly government in the world.

Put this brother-arrives-steaming-mad scene in the context of the previous episode where Air Force One is "hacked" and the President, Vice President and Speaker of the House are not available to sit the Oval Office chair.  Madame Secretary gets sworn in as temporary President while they struggle to find out what happened to the President's plane.

Consider all the episodes where Madame Secretary pulls off strategic maneuvers and oddball decisions making everything come out fine when all the professional Washingtonians fail.

It's a Mary Sue.

She's the competent one - everyone else except her husband are fumbling idiots.  But because they are on the scene, the ship of state is on an even keel.

They have three pretty normal children (despite their oddball upbringing), and a very solid marriage.  They communicate.  They co-parent with grace and competence.

They both enjoyed being CIA field operatives, solving problems on the fly, going adventurous places, depending on knowledge and their backup teams working smoothly.

They bring matured skills to the jobs of Washington top-drawer decision makers.

They are in the Happily Ever After -- it is right there in front of the public's eye in one of Netflix's most popular dramas.

And her brother is steaming mad, despises her politics and career choices, and she uses information he provides while they are fishing to destroy a Terrorist (who also smuggles medicine).

Is your Happily Ever After being in a position where you are the most competent person around?  Most of the time, you can get powerful people to make reasonable decisions, but not always.

In a town where even the Secret Service bodyguard details are incompetent, how can anything get done right?

THEME: Incompetence can safely be ignored.

You don't think that's what the "That's my brother," scene says?

What isn't there speaks volumes.

How would you rewrite that episode's script if the theme was, "The USA Secret Service body guards are better than the reputation of Israel's Mossad."

Jacqueline Lichtenberg

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