Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Irony of Character

At last year's Red Planet Prize workshop, Tony Jordan mentioned something about how to generate an idea for a successful TV series.*

He said the protagonist should, ideally (and I'm paraphrasing here), have something in his characterisation that directly contrasts with the situation he finds himself in. Or, an 'irony of character', in other words.

Tony didn't dwell on this too much, and almost mentioned it in passing, but it stuck in my craw and I've been giving it a lot of thought since then (especially as we go through this year's entries for the Red Planet Prize).

What I think The Guv was getting at was this:

The idea and central character should generate an amusing or intriguing irony (‘irony of character’), which then also suggests the kind of thing we’d expect to see very week (re: format of the show).

Let’s run this ‘irony of character’ notion through a couple of successful shows from The Guv's stable.

Life on Mars: a pedantic cop from the 21st century finds himself in the political incorrectness of 1970s cops, and desperately wants to find a way back to his own time.

This presents a format where John Simm’s character tries to get back to his own time while cracking 1970s police cases with Gene Hunt and his team. That’s what we see every week. The irony comes from his 21st century politically correct approach as opposed to Gene Hunt’s raucous non-PC habits.

BBC’s Death in Paradise (born out of the Red Planet Prize) has the perfect ‘irony of character’ (a stuffy English cop is sent to the relaxed Caribbean to solve murders), which makes it an easy pitch. Plus, the series has got potential to run and run.

Want to play the game? Think of your favourite show, or a hot new series, and see if it has an irony of character.

Homeland? A US marine returns home a hero after 8 years of captivity in Iraq but a driven CIA officer suspects he might now be a terrorist. There's a definite strong irony there which drives the series (is he? isn't he?) but for those who may argue that Claire Danes's character is the lead, then her character is a talented but highly unstable (psychologically on the edge) officer who's desperate to make up for previous mistakes. She's not just a straightforward CIA elite who can do no wrong.

Breaking Bad? A modest high school chemistry teacher gets diagnosed with cancer so he starts making crystal meth to ensure his family have enough money after he dies. A delicious irony there, a neat hook, and THE BEST DRAMA OF THE 21ST CENTURY SO FAR, even better than Mad Men. Yeah, I seddit. Though I love you, too, Draper, natch.

Of course, not all shows have an 'irony of character' at its heart, but it's certainly a useful thing to consider when you're developing, or have written, a pilot script.

* Another tip I picked up from John Yorke was to have a central gang for a show.


Want me to read your script? Check my consultancy page.


Ana Bee said...

I remember Tony Jordan speaking baout building characters first (story to serve the character, not the other way round) in one of the shooting people podcasts - might be good as a complimentary listen:

(no direct link except to the file, other pods are great too)

good to hear red planet is alive and kicking

Danny Stack said...

Thanks, Ana!

matthewhurst said...

It's a version of fish out of water, isn't it? The main character always going to be out of whack with his environment, so the core conflict is always going to be there in every episode.

Sam Tyler does it by the book. 1970s Manchester policing was a by-word for there being no book. Richard Poole is Mr Efficiency thrown into the laid back Caribbean. Carrie Mathison is a screwed up loner in a big bureaucracy in Homeland. I confess I haven't seen Breaking Bad (yet) though everyone says I should.

Some others: Hot Fuzz - uptight city cop in a laid back English market town; Harry Pearce - spook with principles in a world when ends justify means; Luther - another tortured cop in a bureaucracy; Sherlock and Monroe are similar.