29 August 2011

The Art of the Ensemble

Greetings, Kittens!

We had some fabulous posts this month on the characters we’re all drawn too and I appreciate you all joining in here at Beyond the Veil! For September, just in time for the introduction of the new Fall Season, we’ll be exploring the theme of television; from current guilty pleasures to the classic shows we grew up on, and everything inbetween. Here at Beyond the Veil, we cover the spectrum from those who don’t watch much TV at all, to those like me, who watch more than enough to make up for everyone else! With only three days left in the month, and having already had my chance at talking about character crushes, I thought I’d combine the topics and both introduce our next theme and speak about the television characters that move me.

First I’ll answer the obvious question. We’re authors, so why a television theme? Well, if you ignore the unscripted reality television phenomena—as I try to do all the time—you get down to the heart of television, which is the scripts. As the strike of 2008 showed us, you don’t have television without writers. The characters we love and the actors we praise, they touch us, thrill us and become our fictional friends because folks around a table put words on a page and made us fall in love. I’ll save my insights as to why television, (and movie watching), is vital insight into fiction writing until my September post, for now let’s talk about that process of falling in love...and of saying goodbye.

I have a thing for geeks, I’m unabashed in that affection and more than anything I think geek love is true love! I even have the t-shirt! *grin* A well crafted character who is brilliant instead of brawny, will get me every time; and I’ll take the Artistic Male over the Alpha Male any day of the week. But what I truly love in a show, (and what’s so hard to do on the page), is an ensemble cast that has the perfect mixture of geeks and gunmen, artists and alphas. To that end, I’d like to share two of my favorite casts of characters and their relationship to one another.

NUMB3RS is a show that I discovered just after its cancellation was announced. For every season before that, it ran in opposition to established shows I watched and I simply never got the chance to see it. Netflix, god of television that once was, gave me the opportunity to find out what I had missed all these years. I cannot say enough about how well this show was crafted and cast. The contrast of mathematician Charlie Eppes and his brother FBI agent Don Eppes, managed to show the strengths and weaknesses of their niches without ever devaluing the roles they each filled. There was true growth in the two main characters, and delightfully enough, in all of the secondary characters.

David and Colby were male friendship done right! They were independent, interdependent but never co-dependent. They trusted each other on a level incomprehensible to those of us who don’t get shot at for a living and never have to take a bullet for a friend. That friendship and trust was earned and allowed to mature over time without the rush television is known for. Like any couple, they worked through joy, despair, betrayal and forgiveness and were believable in every moment of it.

Liz and Nikki had a less specific journey to cover to reach trust. Nikki’s later addition meant earning her place with the entire unit, especially with Don. Those growing pains made her later easiness with everyone all the sweeter. With Liz in particular, they were allowed a camaraderie that women don’t get as often in ensemble shows. As women of Color, they were able to pass both the regular Bechdel test and the variant test for Characters of Color, (with the stipulation that any perceived violation of the rule was in the course of speaking about work). There was never a sense of competition between the character, or any of the women on the show and they were given equal weight to their interactions that allowed character growth to shine as each found her place in the department.

In the end, David and Colby, Nikki and Liz, Amita and Larry, each pairing played a perfect reflection of the relationship between Charlie and Don, allowing an innate understanding of what it meant to have their relationship grow from siblings to adult friendship. In turn, Charlie and Don allowed the audience to look at those six characters and to see that point where friendships become family. Genuine closeness was displayed and explored in every configuration of the cast in a way often overlooked by other shows, and the end was as satisfying as it was sad. (Despite how it ended, in my heart David, Colby and Nikki ended up together, as did Don, Robin and Liz!)

CRIMINAL MINDS has topped my favorite ensemble list for years. As with other great shows, I found this several seasons in and went back to watch every episode until I caught up. This last season upset me due to executive decisions, but the writing and portrayals have remained true and sincere throughout.

Dr. Spencer Reid is similar to the character of Professor Charlie Eppes, in that both were “baby geniuses”, excelling in their fields at ages where their peers were still picking out colleges and figuring out what they wanted to be. Reid stands out as an FBI agent not only due to his age, but his social awkwardness and obliviousness of popular culture and interaction. This is a stark contrast to his ability to profile criminals and analyze patterns to solve violent crimes. It’s a wonderful contradiction to see in a character and it’s delivered with a wonderfully nuanced performance.

On the other side of the equation is Special Agent Jennifer Jareau. JJ deals with the family and with the public, crafting press releases, and speaking with reporters when in the best interests of the case. She is socially receptive with a keen mind and insight that is played against a sense of innocence that seems both authentic and deceptive at once.


Reid and JJ are often paired together and complement each other greatly. Their individual personalities, as well as their partnership, is given contrast in the characters of ultimate alpha male Agent Derek Morgan and alpha female Agent Emily Prentiss. Morgan and Prentiss are both strong, confident, sometimes stubborn and aggressive characters that act on emotion in ways that end up to their detriment as often as to their benefit. They are as slow to trust as Reid and JJ are quick to see the best in everyone, yet all four characters integrate into a cohesive unit that doesn’t function well without all the pieces present.

This foursome is even further given a mirror image in the characters of Unit Chief Aaron Hotchner and Technical Analyst Penelope Garcia. Hotchner and Garcia are two characters meant to be all things to all people. Hotchner can work a crowd, navigate the press, console a family, profile a criminal and analyze victimology, all while coaching his son’s soccer game. That’s why his door says Chief. But despite his jack-of-all-trades skill set, Hotchner lacks JJ’s connection and empathy, Reid’s innate curiosity and philosophical way of seeing the world, Morgan’s emotional drive to save the world, and Prentiss’ ability to equally see her part in both the problem and the solution. Hotchner’s skills allow him to understand and nurture his team, but he could never replace any one of them.

Garcia, isn’t a profiler, but her connection to each character is a direct mirror of Hotchner. Everything he is technically as a leader, Garcia is emotionally as a friend, and both create a support system for the unit. Garcia’s technical expertise gives her an affinity for Reid’s awkwardness. Her intense empathy makes her a natural extension of JJ. Her desire to see the world as lighter than its darkness, allows her to be a balance and uplifting presence for Prentiss and Morgan. And her open admiration of them both pushes Prentiss and Morgan to live up to that viewpoint. The flirtation and open crush that Garcia has on Morgan remains unrequited for shallow and complex reasons alike.

Garcia is one of the few plus-sized characters on television who isn’t played for a joke. She’s a colorful, larger-than-life character, who holds the dark void of the work she does at bay, by refusing to be less than who she is. Morgan’s taste runs to the supermodel type and that’s an immediate disconnect that keeps him from taking her interest seriously. If she were the size of JJ or Prentiss, they would have consummated that attraction a long time ago—both at the fault of the character and the writers. However, there is more at work here.

Morgan’s background is one they make Lifetime movies about. His childhood abuse gives him an inability to trust completely and a need to prove his worth on a constant basis to those around him and to himself. Garcia’s attention is flattering on the surface, but beneath that is a sincerity and hero-worship that places Morgan on a pedestal he feels he neither deserves, nor could live without. No one came to rescue Derek as a child and he grew up to become Agent Morgan so the he could rescue others. When he looks around at his co-workers, he’s constantly working to prove he belongs there and he can make a difference. When he looks at Garcia, he doesn’t have to work, she’s already convinced. In her eyes he’s become everything he wanted to be and where Derek was a victim, Agent Morgan gets to be Superman and Garcia is the one that can see his cape! He doesn’t want to risk that—no matter how much the audience may want him to!

Examples like the above are the reason I love television as much as I love reading. Authors have thrilled me with lengthy, involved series, but not a single one of them will be able to write fast enough or long enough to immerse me in their world the way I truly wish to be. When I’m lucky, an author will take me back to their reality for 250 pages, every six months, most likely every twelve. Television takes me back every week for 22 episodes and then comes back and do the same next fall. I can become invested, and I can watch on the screen those things I want to capture on the page. For me, it’s not an either/or. Both reading and television recharge me and make me want to capture the ephemera of imagination and breathe into it the complexity of mass and momentum.

What more can you ask for?

Ramble Done, Kittens!

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