Wednesday, June 27, 2012

"The Mystery Of Writing Police Dramas - Take Two"

I tried writing this yesterday, but I got sidetracked. 

I have an inordinate amount of admiration for people who can do things I can’t.  This perspective serves a dual purpose.  It allots deserved respect to people who possess talents that I do not.  And it keeps me envious and unhappy, a condition that seems necessary for my wellbeing, the way houseplants need watering.

Even within the narrowly circumscribed modality of writing, I have found myself heartily impressed by the writers of drama.  I have no idea how they do it.  I regularly watch, as part of my television-viewing regimen, the Westerns Channel, and I have to tell you, that even the lesserly lauded series, like Lawman,

The Lawman came with the sun
There was a job to be done
And so they sent for the badge and the gun
Of the Lawman…

tell stories that are carefully constructed, the suspense is effective – “How is Marshal Dan ever going to get out of this one!” – and the outcomes are believable, and not at all Deus ex machina (heavenly resolved.)

Some comedies are not funny.  Dramas always seem to be good.  Even the not great ones.

But as I mentioned yesterday, however, there is one spot in police dramas – which otherwise make reasonable sense – that, to me, seems entirely arbitrary. 

As with drama, the first step in developing a comedy script is to work out the structural “beats.”  The difference is that, in comedy, you are not just constructing a story, you are telling that story in the funniest possible way, making comedy – brag, brag, – twice as difficult to pull off.  (Let someone else be envious for a change.)

I spoke yesterday about the comedy writer’s “inner mechanism”, which evaluates the possibilities, and signals – based on “comedic instincts” (which are at least partly learned) – what to put in, and what to leave out. 

Let me unequivocally stipulate that I am lacking a dramatic “inner mechanism.”  Especially in regards to police dramas, and most especially in regards to that element in police dramas I call – and they probably do too –  “the chase.”  What’s “the chase?”  Allow me to quote myself from yesterday:

The detectives arrive to arrest the suspect. The suspect escapes.  The detectives give chase.  The suspect is eventually apprehended.

The problem is the “eventually.”  How long is “eventually”?  And what exactly is going on while the “eventually” is taking place?

In comedy, I would know.  In police drama?  Not a clue.  So to speak.

I imagine myself at a writer’s meeting for a police drama.  The show runner says,

“We want a chase scene here, of say, thirty seconds.  Put in anything you want.”

I would have no idea what to do.

My first question would be,

“Do we have to have a chase scene?”

Which is not as stupid, or “wheedling out of it”, as it sounds.  From a “story” standpoint, no chase scene is actually necessary.  The detectives could come for the suspect, and the suspect could say, “Okay.”  It is not mandatory for the suspect to run.  It fact, in some cases, it is not even a good idea.  For example, if the suspect didn’t do it, they is better off not running, because running creates the distinct impression that they did

The show runner listens patiently, and then says, “Do it my way.”

You’re the writer.  You are stuck with a “chase sequence.”  How do you know what it needs to be good?

Since we are not dealing with break-the-bank Bourne-franchise budgets, you are pretty clear on what not to propose. 

The Yankees just won the World Series, and the suspect is apprehended during the parade.

You cannot stage a “Yankees Win The World Series” extravaganza.  A scene like that could only be shot if the Yankees won the World Series, and you filmed it during the actual parade.  Ditto for the Mardi Gras

“We’ll get floats, and girls, and a lot of feathers…”

No.  That is way too expensive.   

What you are left with, as options, are low-tech, budget friendly alternatives.  And it has to be believable.  There is no, “Obama is in town, and the suspect accidentally crashes into him.” 

Apprehensions or that nature are extremely rare.  Plus, the Secret Service blows the guy to pieces.

Here’s what I’ve come up with.  (With italical evaluation.)

The suspect trips, and the detectives run him down.

Blah, and anti-climactic.  Thirty seconds of running, and a stumble?  It is hardly worth the trip.  So to speak.

The suspect runs down an alley, and it’s a dead end.

Hackneyed and overused.

The suspect runs into the subway, vaults the turnstile, but when he gets to the platform, the train is just pulling out.

Marginally comedic.  So, no.

The suspect ascends to a rooftop, and leaps a wide gap to the next building. 

How do they catch him?

A detective, anticipating the jump, proceeds into the next building, and is standing there, waiting for him.

Anticipating the jump?  What is he, a Mind Reader?

The suspect jumps into a cab, and a detective shoots out the tires.

That’s “lawsuit by a cab driver.”  They would never do that.

The suspect in on crutches.


The suspect is buttonholed by a street-corner evangelist, and is nailed, listening to his spiel.

While he is trying to escape?

They are very persuasive.

I don’t think so.

The suspect has bad allergies, and when he runs through the park, he gets a sneezing fit.

You’re a drama writer!

The suspect spots a hot air balloon, and climbs aboard, as it ascends from the sidewalk.

What world do you live in?

No, really, it would be great!  The detective fires at the balloon, and it comes floating down to earth.  The suspect is handcuffed, read his rights, and is returned to the detectives’ vehicle, the detective holding the top of the suspect’s head as he assists him into the car. 

Fade Out.  End of sequence.

Go back to comedy.

Wait!  Wait!  The suspect momentarily looks behind him, and runs into a pushcart, where he is found pinned under an overturned umbrella, covered in falafel?


I told you I couldn’t do this.  I just haven’t got the knack.

1 comment:

Zaraya said...

Dear Mr. Pomerantz; I suspect it's not a Lack of Knack, but rather your Comedy Skill winning the Battle of Easier.