Friday, October 12, 2007

“The Desert has Lost Its Favorite Rose”

If you recognize that phrase you are probably an avid watcher of the popular Animal Planet show Meerkat Manor. I’m not a loyal fan, but I’ve seen it a few times. The program essentially takes a reality show approach to a wildlife program. Cameras are placed throughout the meerkats’ territory and down in their burrows. A narrator tells us what’s going on with whom.

The Meerkat Manor world was recently rocked by the death by cobra of the matriarch of the meerkat clan, Flower. The audience reaction was profound. There are comment boards on Animal Planet’s website full of grief-stricken comments. Viewers have posted numerous videos of Flower on Youtube. Flower is truly the Princess Di of the animal kingdom. There’s even a vaguely conspiratorial undercurrent to the comment boards. Why didn’t they administer anti-venom when Flower was bitten? Why didn’t they stop the cobra?

If you’re not a fan of the show, you're probably puzzled about all the fuss. Meerkats are more or less prairie dogs with the moral compass of Britney Spears. They breed like rabbits. They leave kids laying around unattended. They dig holes in the ground. They eat whatever crap they dig out of the ground. Scorpions are a big favorite. In other words, they’re more or less vermin. But millions of people were deeply stricken by the death of their favorite character. Why?

Good writing. If you watch the show, you have to wonder how much of the storyline is simply constructed out of pure fiction. Everything we know about the characters: backstory, play-by-play, and context, is told to us by cuddly Hobbit narrator Sean Astin. The writing of the show of course also dictates how the stories are constructed and presented on screen.

What was the writers’ strategy here? While the narration is guided by a kind of wildlife ethic, there’s also a level of Entertainment Tonight. Imagine David Attenborough narrating an evening with Paris Hilton or an episode of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia.

But deeper than that, the writers have worked to build all kinds of assumptions into the story. There’s a strong episodic nature to each of the storylines. We ARE watching a soap opera. And we’re rewarded for buying into that structure.

The writers have also thought good and hard about their characters. Any screenwriter knows that you must worry about character sympathy. Character sympathy is more than simple sympathy; it’s the reason the audience has for engaging your characters on an emotional level. It could be the promise of entertainment. It could be a strong conflict. It could be opposition to a stronger force (the underdog). In all circumstances, your characters need one trait above all: consistency in their flaws. And meerkats are most definitely consistent in their flaws.

The show’s creators know this, and exploit it to the maximum benefit of their story. I’m not saying for a minute that Flower wasn’t a heroic matriarch who died so her cubs could live (so no hate mail, please). But I am saying that Flower’s backstory, character flaw, and arc were created using the same guidelines you’d learn in most screenwriting classes. They don’t make the story ‘unreal’. They just bring out the power that’s already there. And so, yeah, I'm down about Flower dying. But my hat is off to the show's creators. They did exactly what every writer hopes to do.

No comments: