Scripted programming, if successfully executed, creates the illusion that it is unscripted.
I thought I was personally above that befuddling hocus-pocus, largely because, for three or so decades, I was one of the people creating that illusion.
You would think I’d have known better.
But I didn’t. Until I recently, belatedly, came to my senses.
It was only with this overdue “awakening” that I came to the realization that it is not just what H.L. Mencken called the “Booboisie” who believe what they are watching is actually real, but that I too, on occasion, have succumbed to a similar subterfuge myself.
Let me be clear about this. It is not that I believe, like viewers I have met believe about comedy, that “the actors make the jokes up themselves.” If that were true, I‘d have gone home a lot earlier than the following morning on rewrite nights. It seems to me we were making up something.
I understand the writers write all the dialogue. I also realize, having spent arduous sessions hammering them out that the writers originate – or adapt in the case of the “ripped from the headlines” series – the episodes’ stories as well.
Still, with Law & Order, the specific terrain of my recent illumination…
Watching with baited breath – whatever that means – I have found myself regularly behaving as if I believed the juries’ “deliberated verdicts” were actual, deliberated verdicts, cheering enthusiastically when I agreed, and slapping my hand to my forehead when the jury egregiously messed up.
Law & Order had a misleading “Crack the case!” promotional billboard. A more appropriate descriptive is, “Guess the verdict!”
In typical Law & Orderfashion, the defendant has already confessed to the charge, leaving no case left to “crack.” The determining issue in question, championed by their defending attorney is,
“Which of you ladies and gentlemen of the jury would not under similar circumstances have done exactly the same thing?”
Translation: “They killed them but send them home anyway.”
The show’s prosecuting Attorney’s delicate counter-argument is,
“You may empathize with the defendant but what they did is still murder.”
The thing I enjoy most about Law & Order, which made me a reliable follower since its 1990 inception is that such moral conundra – don’t underline it in red, computer – “conundra”: the neuter plural of “conundrum”; am I the only one around here who took Latin? – anyway, where was I? Oh yeah.
The thing I enjoy most about Law & Order is that the arguments are carefully balanced. For Example: Can companies that make legal guns easily converted into dangerous assault weapons be legitimately charged with murder?
(In that one, the “Compassion Factor” favored the prosecution. But they lost anyway. Actually, they won, but the judge overrode the jury’s decision. Man, what a surprising switcheroo!)
Which leads to my belated “Wake-Up Call.” Thirty-eight years watching the show, and the proverbial penny finally dropped last Tuesday.
As the climactic decision is about to be announced, which – the arguments, being carefully balanced, could reasonably go in either direction – I watch with heightening anxiety, as if the “Final Decision” is up to the jury, forgetting during that tense moment in the proceedings that the “Final Decision” is not up to the jury.
The “Final Decision” is up to the writers.
The “jury” is just actors. (They’relucky if they get to speak at all. ATTORNEY: “Your Honor, I’d like to poll the jury.” “JUROR NUMBER SEVEN: “Great! I’m getting a line.”)
It’s allfictional. The actors play fictional characters. The cases are fictional cases. The arguments are fictional arguments. And the “Final Decisions” are fictional decisions.
… it recently occurred to me.
What thencomes to my mind is – because it’s not Perry Mason, who won every case from 1957 to 1966 – with the trial’s week-to-week verdict entirely up in the air, how do they decide whoexactly wins when?
As with all fictional decisions, the determining outcome is in the hands of “The Creatives.” Which the “Prop Man” then writes on a slip of paper, which the jury Foreperson reads aloud.
The question is,
With the arguments ably supporting either decision, how do they decide what will be written on that slip of paper?
(Peripheral Wondering: Did an indignant “Prop Man” ever “throw” the writers by altering the verdict before delivering that slip of paper to the Foreperson? INDIGNANT PROP MAN: “I know it wasn’t my place, but it just seemed so wrong.”)
If the determining decision is, in fact, entirely up to the writers, on what basis, I wondered, was that determining decision ultimately arrived at?
And when, it subsequently occurred to me, did they make it? You want the scriptwriter to write as even-handedly as they can. Could the show runner, who specifically makes the determining call, keep them in the dark about the outcome?
(I can imagine the finally apprised episode writer fuming, “‘Not Guilty!” Come on!” And the show runner reminding them, “Relax, Larry. It’s a television show.”)
The “jury’s” decision couldbe entirely separate from the particular case. Maybe there’d been two “Not Guiltys” in a row, and the show runner didn’t want his prosecutorial protagonists to suffer an ignominious “Hat Trick.” Maybe it’s as simple as, “I’m the boss. ‘Not Guilty.” Who knows? Maybe they just flip a coin.
And to think I took this ersatz ersatz manipulation so seriously.
“Madame Foreperson, has the jury reached a unanimous decision.”
“We have, Your Honor.”
“On the charge of ‘Being a Clueless Sucker Who Should Really Have Known Better’, how say you all?”
(Postscript: The case, scheduled for appeal, offers little chance of a reversal.)
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