January 24, 2011

The conservative hero

Kate commented a while back (also here) about what makes a good hero:

1. The hero is confident in a nonchalant way.
2. The hero has a sense of humor.
3. The hero respects women without putting them on pedestals.
4. The hero know himself.
5. The hero is loyal and [can be counted on to] stick around.

I'd like to add one more to the list:

6. The hero is a conservative.

Now, I don't mean in the "votes Republican" sense, though as with Michael J. Fox's Alex B. Keaton and William Shatner's Denny Crane, that can work in the hands of a talented actor, even if he's a liberal at heart. I mean in the William F. Buckley sense:

A conservative is the fellow standing athwart history yelling "Stop!"

The hero knows there are things in life—from the past as well as the present—worth conserving: institutions and relationships, beliefs and traditions, manners and protocols, the way things are simply done. And these do not easily yield to fashion, trends, or political correctness.

The reason that cops, lawyers and forensic scientists populate television dramas is that these professions are inherently conservative. They have traditions and procedures, the scientific method and the rule of law. And following them can at times put the hero at odds with his ideals.

But violating them will definitely get him into trouble with society, the people who sign his paycheck, and his conscience.

For all his free-wheeling ways, House is a tenacious—even fanatical—empiricist. Every cause has a discernible effect. All consequences can be traced back to a set of precipitating actions. "After eliminating the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, is the truth."

And no matter how grudgingly, he goes through channels, even if he has to lie and cheat to do so. He can only do the work he wants to do in the institutional setting of a hospital. Rock, meet hard place. But as Kate puts it, "It actually is harder to color inside the lines." Conflict!

Captain Picard always seems to me to be bucking for a job as U.N. Secretary General. But he does have a irrational devotion to the Prime Directive. Lo and behold, conflict! Though I wish the writers would have made Picard pay a much bigger personal price for this devotion.

Finally in First Contact, Patrick Stewart showed that with the right material he could chew through the scenery like the good Captain Ahab he should have been all along.

No man is a machine. The educated mind wars with mindless instinct. Freedom battles with the rule of law, improvisation with by-the-book, the truth versus the facts, what is legal versus what is right. Perhaps this tension is best summed up by FBI Special Agent Seeley Booth:

I love this country, you know, but I'll tell you something. If I was working law enforcement back in the day when they threw all that tea in the harbor, I would have rounded everybody up and we'd all still be English.

Consider the Stargate episode where the team encounters a Guns of the South situation (in which apartheid-era South Africans travel back in time to arm the Confederacy with 20th century weapons). Except in this case SG-1 runs into them during one of their expeditions.

At first, arguing that sure, they're SOBs, but their our SOBs, Colonel O'Neill insists that the needs of Earth outweigh the moral compromise (the ends justify the means). This creates conflict with Carter and the politically-correct Daniel Jackson, who take the high ground.

O'Neill comes around in the end (there really isn't any doubt). But if O'Neill's initial position isn't convincing made, and Richard Dean Anderson couldn't deliver it in a convincing manner, the drama would have ended up as a mush of shallow moralizing with strawman opponents.

Writers can't fall back on the institutional conservatism and forget that the hero has to internalize these values to a certain extent in order to survive (or become a functioning sociopath, which gives us Dexter).

One reason I think Emily Deschanel and David Boreanaz are given producer credits on Bones (besides revenue sharing) is so they can defend their characters from writers who would try to turn them into conventional liberals who, you know, think the same way hip Hollywood writers think.

It's the "I don't know anybody who voted for Nixon" syndrome (when Nixon won by a landslide). At least this is my explanation for those awful, politically correct scripts that pop up every now and then on NCIS.

But NCIS remains the most popular one-hour drama on television precisely because it gets one thing exactly right: Leroy Jethro Gibbs as the personification of Semper Fi conservatism.

Even a well-defined supporting character can help stave off these pressures. For example, Linda Hunt as Hetty Lange on NCIS: Los Angeles alone makes the series watchable, as an aging cold warrior adapting to modern times but not leaving the past behind.

Danno on the new Hawaii Five-0 is cast as an old school, Miranda-respecting cop there to steady McGarrett's loose cannon (though that looseness is losing me). The original CSI still has one great ace up its sleeve: Paul Guilfoyle as Captain Brass, a gruff, misanthropic, by-the-numbers cop.

Rex Linn fills a similar role CSI: Miami as Sergeant Frank Tripp, but not quite. For some reason—maybe they didn't want him harshing Horatio's mellow—Tripp is Horatio's subordinate. Thus the institutional check is lost. And so it's pretty much all id all the time.

Even if nobody can be too rich or too thin or too underdressed in the Hollywood version of reality—your protagonist can be way too cool to be believable.

As Margaret Thatcher said, "The facts of life are conservative." A hero—even in the most fantastic of fantasy lands—must be a stubborn realist about life and human nature.

Related posts

Angsty angst ruins everything
Writing to be read
Good books don't have to be hard
Dramatic conservation

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# posted by Blogger Kate Woodbury
1/24/2011 4:38 PM   
I figured out House's conservatism at the end of the first season in the awesome episode "Three Stories". Talking to a group of students, House says, "I'm sure this goes against everything you've been taught, but right and wrong do exist. Just because you don't know what the right answer is - maybe there's even no way you could know what the right answer is - doesn't make your answer right or even okay. It's much simpler than that. It's just plain wrong."

Wow! Talk about a breath of fresh air. When I heard that, it was like my brain came alive. Wow! I mean, finally, a show where people actually are willing to defend stuff. Wow!

It really is incredibly refreshing to have someone arguing, whether it's House (at least initially; I haven't seen House much lately) or Booth or Bones or Gibbs or Plinkett, that there ARE bad guys/bad ideas and that some guys/solutions/ideas ARE better/have more credence than others.

And, yeah, these kind of arguments more often than not are founded on "traditions and procedures, the scientific method and the rule of law" (for example, there are rules of plotting that are traditionally better than others) making them inherently conservative.

For example, Bellisario is a liberal (an old-fashioned liberal who thinks JFK was a good idea), but I forgive him a lot because he clearly respects the military so gosh-darn much. NCIS is one of the few shows on television where the underlying ideology is that you OUGHT to stand at attention when someone walks in wearing a medal of honor. Not engage in some loathsome debate about education v. bombs.

I also agree that this comes down to being "a stubborn realist about life and human nature"--that is, having a fundamental respect for the reality of human behavior (no matter how much money people spend on education, there will still be bombs). Maybe it's just wisdom. Maybe P.J. O'Rourke is right and everyone gets more conservative as they get older.

Whatever it is, I agree, it creates better drama and less ridiculous characters.

(For a show that combines old-fashioned liberalism with warm & fuzzy "I can see both sides" relativism WITHOUT being totally obnoxious, check out Numbers. I think the reason Numbers works is that the writers argue their "relativism" intelligently with a hard-headed look at the reality and CONSEQUENCES of life. And the brothers both believe in things that mean a great deal to them and will defend those things. Charlie follows rules of logic and math; Don follows FBI procedure and feels actual guilt when he breaks the rules.)