People On TV Are Weird

Another thing I’d add to Ken Levine’s rules for writing a procedural (see below) is that you should make sure everyone except your main characters seems to come from an alternate world which is close to our own, but somehow doesn’t quite seem right. This is something I’ve noticed in a lot of procedurals and noticed again last night, when watching The Killing, a long-form procedural.

The scenes with the main character usually ring true; this show substitutes intense looks and grim dialogue for the snappy banter that characterizes other procedural heroes and heroines (and we can all be grateful for the substitution), but she has her own way of talking and behaving. The victim’s parents also do, to some extent. But when the show portrays the world of politics, or teenagers, it’s a bit weird. It’s not terribly unrealistic in any particular detail, but taken together the scenes can make one wonder, Who talks like that? Like for example the mayor on The Killing dragging Ancient Rome into the conversation, or the scene where the councilman offers a plumbing contract in exchange for the endorsement he needs. The not-quite-right feel of these scenes, if they continue, may turn out to be a bigger issue than the use of TV crime-show conventions. (Like all crime procedurals, The Killing has people walking into a scene just at the right time, media reports being on just when they need to be, videotapes turning up at the right point in the episode. None of these things are a problem, but if the rest of the show doesn’t feel at least somewhat “real” to offset the familiar conventions, then that can be a problem.) I haven’t found a subtitled version of the original, where the political issues involved were different – references to coalition politics had to be changed for the U.S. version, since that wouldn’t work with the U.S. system. But I’m told it had a similar feel: great central character, but a somewhat generic portrayal of the world she lived in.

These scenes on The Killing do remind me, in a some ways, of a CBS type procedural. (It has a certain kinship with the dour Criminal Minds, though The Killing is much less exploitative and mean-spirited. Anything is. Still, the “teenagers are monsters who capture their depravity on video” idea is one that would fit right in on those shows, and frequently does.) It’s not down there with those awful prologue scenes on shows like the new Hawaii 5-0, where we meet guest characters who don’t seem like actual human beings in any way. But there is a resemblance at the margins. These shows research whatever area of the world the cops are going into this particular week, so there are realistic details sprinkled throughout the episode, yet few of the “outsider” characters ever talk like people: when they threaten each other, or negotiate with each other, or just discuss the crime, they wind up sounding like space creatures who haven’t quite learned English, or Mark Trail.

This is probably somewhat hard to avoid in a TV series, where there’s only so much time for character development and most of it goes to the person solving the crime, not the suspects. One way to avoid it is to make the suspects eccentric and give the entire show a stylized feel, so the question of whether the show “rings true” doesn’t even come up. This is the Twin Peaks way; create a heightened, satirical reality, and give suspects verbal tics or other unusual things to characterize them — try and make everyone an individual, no matter how weird, just so they don’t come off as Exposition Guys.

Another method is to spend most of the show’s time with the cops in general, and the main character in particular, like Prime Suspect; they don’t venture too far away from the few characters who are fully fleshed out. The Killing, wanting to tell a big story in a dark and downbeat way, has neither of these options, so if it’s working overall, it’s probably best to leave it alone and not second-guess it. But it is difficult to build a large, convincing world in TV without humour, stylization, or scrupulous attention to realism. Maybe this show can do it by the time the first season is over.

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