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Plot is the candy coating

Scratch the surface on a TV show, you can find a hero's journey or a treatise on government.

August 18, 2007|Maureen Ryan | Chicago Tribune

Jane Espenson, a former writer on "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" who's now penning scripts for "Battlestar Galactica," has written a typically thoughtful piece for the New Republic online on why many sci-fi/fantasy TV shows fail despite the fact that such fare does well on the big screen and in book form, as the Harry Potter sales numbers have proven. There is a way to get fantastical fare onto the small screen -- by structuring it as a "Hero's Journey," she says.

"It's told over and over again, and it works, over and over again," Espenson writes in her article. "Dorothy Gale, Buffy Summers, Harry Potter, Charlie Bucket, Luke Skywalker, even Peter Parker, they all fit a very specific pattern. They're living a life, sometimes a fine one, often a troubled one, but certainly one governed by ordinary rules, when suddenly the curtain is pulled back and a whole new world, or a new set of rules of this world, is revealed. And what's more -- and this is the important part -- in that new world, they are something special. They are the Chosen One."

She has a point, and NBC's "Heroes" is a perfect example.

Espenson eloquently explains why Harry Potter's Chosen One journey fits into a paradigm that readers, moviegoers and TV watchers have responded to with great enthusiasm. But I think she makes an excellent larger point: Sometimes what's most interesting about a tale is disguised or hidden or deliberately lodged under the surface.

Yes, Harry Potter's story follows an eventful, epic battle of good versus evil -- but underneath that, it's a textbook example of the Chosen One tale. And many TV shows similarly have an interesting, well-told "cover story" -- and a subtext that's just as intriguing, if not more so.

This "TV disguise" is something I've thought about a lot -- many of the cleverest shows on TV use it to great effect.

For instance, I think "Battlestar Galactica" isn't just a satisfying tale of survivors on the run from extermination. It is that, on one level, but wrapped inside that overall structure is a meditation on governing, power, the tension between the military and civilians, and an exploration of what human beings will do to each other -- and for each other -- when the "normal" restrictions of human society are taken away.

Likewise, I've always thought the Fox network's "House" is really a weekly ethics seminar.

What is moral behavior? What constitutes brutal disregard for others and what constitutes selfless adherence to well-defined ideals? What's the definition of violating a person's individual rights, and when is it OK to ignore those rights in order to save a life? Those kinds of discussions and arguments between Dr. House and his staff, or House and Dr. Wilson, could be taking place in a graduate philosophy seminar. Lucky for us they take place within a tightly constructed medical mystery.

"The Sopranos"? A gangster's tale, to be sure, but also a deeply resonant examination of materialism and what the definition of manhood is in the 21st century.

Would you believe that I think "Deadwood" is, on one level, a treatise on government as well? After all, if you put aside the boozing and the swearing and so forth, the show's really about how people on the edge of a lawless frontier choose to rule themselves.

I've often thought that the smartest TV writers find an idea or a set of challenging ideas that they want to explore, and then find a TV-friendly format that will allow them to do that.

After all, a TV executive who gets a pitch on a "weekly morality seminar" is pretty likely to pass. "A cranky but charismatic doctor saves lives in an unorthodox way" -- sold!

And nobody would buy a series centered on the possibility of redemption -- if it were pitched that way. Well, maybe a cable network.

But the "Lost" guys probably played up the polar-bear/love-triangle/adventure stuff a bit more in their pitch meeting with ABC. And I can't say I blame them.

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Maureen Ryan is television critic at the Chicago Tribune.

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