Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Television Tuesday: Southland – Show Don’t Tell

One piece of writing advice repeated over and over in every medium (novel, T.V., film, etc) is the axiom "show, don't tell". Of course, for most writers (and by that, I mean me) this is one of the hardest guidelines to follow. I talk a lot and if you've been reading this blog for even the smallest amount of time, you already know that the tendency for my mouth to overfloweth translates epically to the page.

This means I'm always on the lookout for examples of "show, don't tell" that I can emulate as a template till I get my groove on. Now, despite my efforts to curtail, lately I've been watching a lot of T.V. You may have noticed as the only blog posts for a month have been Television Tuesday posts. No? Skipped those pearls of wisdom? Huh. Your love is fickle and fleeting, that's all I've got to say.

Back on topic. Where was I? Oh, right, show, don't tell.

Image from www.IMDB.com
I've been watching Southland on TNT. It's a good cop show, though I prefer the ride-along sequences over the detective scenes, especially now that they killed off Kevin Alejandro so True Blood can suck him dry (you know that'll happen eventually; Lafayette is doomed to be alone forever).

At the head of the cast are Michael Cudlitz and Ben MacKenzie as a bitter/experienced trainer and his newest rookie trainee, respectively. You may recognize Cudlitz from his superior performance as Bull Randleman in the Band of Brothers (his spotlight episode is one I never miss when Spike or The History Channel run the full series on holidays). He's also been on just about any show you can think of (no, not Masterpiece Theatre) and he's always great.

But I want to talk about Ben MacKenzie. I've never seen The OC, so I have no preconceived notions about him as an actor or character. I will say that he has played the crap out of rookie cop Ben Sherman, son of a high-powered Hollywood attorney whose scumbag client once broke into their house, raping the mom and beating up young Ben, which is, naturally, Ben's raison d'etre for becoming a cop.

Which brings us to Southland Season 3 Episode 3: Discretion

The man who attacked Ben and his mother all those years ago has been released from jail. Ben is not handling this well. He pulls the man over on a bogus infraction and threatens him. He visits his mother at home and sees an open liquor bottle on the counter at 10 AM surrounded by unpaid bills. He violently takes down another suspect, beating the man badly as an outlet for his inchoate rage. After having been reprimanded by his partner, cautioned by his sergeant, and pleaded with by his own mother, Ben ends his day parked outside his old assailant's apartment, essentially stalking the ex con. 

Cue total implosion, right? Not so quick, my friend. Because knocking on the car window is none other than Ben's mom herself.

Where the bleepity bleep did she come from? Turns out, frightened ex con called her. (This is about the point when I yell at the screen "He has her number? Way to go dumb ass".)

Alas, I snarked too soon. 

What follows is an achingly emotional scene between mother and son. Haltingly, between sobs, she tells Ben the truth about that horrible night. Though young Ben thought he was saving his mother from rape by a drug addict, he actually interrupted what had essentially become a drunken hook up, if initially out of an attempt by the mother to avoid something worse. Ashamed, unable to face the truth, his mother has allowed Ben to believe she was raped all these years. Only now, as the assailant is out of jail and Ben is clearly spiraling towards enacting bloody revenge, does Mom confess the truth to save her son.

Or at least, I think that's what happened, because this was where a good show became brilliant right before my eyes. Too upset and ashamed and afraid, she never overtly spells things out for Ben, never says the actual words. The camera quickly fixates on Ben. As the jumble of words stop and start from his mother's mouth, heartbreakingly inconclusive, Ben's face – oh my glory, his face – tells absolutely everything without him saying a single word. Pain, betrayal, anguish, shame, moment by moment his face encapsulates it all.

It was the very personification of show, don't tell and it completely blew me away.

How do we communicate what's happening in our story without actually telling what's happening in the story? It's a wonky line to walk as a writer;  for sure I'm still working it out and likely will be on my umpteenth novel (oh Lord, please let me get to an umpteenth novel!).
Southland got it right. Really right. The production team could have highlighted the mother as she brokenly confessed her story. Instead they chose to show its impact by spotlighting the son. Like drawing the negative space in art, it's what we don't tell, or in my case, write, that could make all the difference and create that emotional whump in our reader/viewer that keeps 'em coming back for more.

Though, let's be honest here. I'll still probably not, not say it in less than 1000 words. Just how I roll.


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