I’ve been watching a lot of TV dramas lately, because I’m struggling with character development and those long-form dramas can be great examples of how to get it right (or hilariously wrong). Isaac likes political shows, so we’ve dipped into both House of Cards and Scandal. Both are solidly made shows with one gaping flaw, and I think that looking at where each one went wrong is helpful to me as a writer.
Scandal puts all its energy into developing absolutely fabulous characters. Olivia Pope is one of the most-loved women on the small screen right now, and for good reason: her flaws are believable, her courage is admirable, and her life is at once glamorous and completely fucked up.
But Scandal’s insistence on making sure that every character has an interesting arc comes at the expense of a logical plot. The courtroom scenes are nonsense to anyone with even a passing knowledge of the law. The whole secret spy agency plot goes off the rails quickly and ends up deep in whackadoo territory. There’s apparently only one investigative reporter in all of DC, and also he works in the White House press corps. No one seems that interested in telling the FBI about the network of secret assassins. Huck has been going to AA for years without getting a sponsor.
None of this is immediately apparent when you’re watching the show, because the interactions between the characters are always perfectly tense. Every moment that Cyrus and Mellie are in the same room is absolutely electric. I would watch a Scandal spin-off of those two anger-leaning at each other and whispering intently. It’s only after the episode’s over that Fridge Logic kicks in and you go, “Does the Chief of Staff not have a security detail, or is his security detail so incompetent that they regularly let known freelance assassins come to his house?”
On the opposite end of the Spectrum is House of Cards, which is tightly plotted by design. Frank Underwood is spinning an intricate web indeed, and he’s drawing his friends and enemies into his bid for power.
To keep the plot chugging along, the main players sometimes have to act wildly out of character. Claire disappears with an artist for no real reason; her free-spirited turn doesn’t fit with the business-minded woman she’s supposed to be, and she ends up looking flaky rather than genuinely conflicted. Zoe’s career ambitions are interrupted by bizarre fits of moodiness and spats with Frank. Remy appears to be the one lobbyist in all of Washington. Frank decides to shove Zoe in front of a train himself instead of sending his far more competent staffer to do his dirty work. Janine is built up to be a ballsy reporter but immediately crumbles under pressure. There’s that completely out of left field threesome. Some side characters, like Zoe’s sort-of-boyfriend, get no memorable traits at all.
Which is fine, because the plot is interesting enough, so the show doesn’t need a cast of stellar characters to hold the viewer’s attention. But you don’t come away from watching it with the sense that bad things have happened to people you care about. There are few explosive moments; even when Frank is building up to committing murder, you don’t feel like someone’s holding a match too close to this powder keg.
Of course, both shows are good enough to attract a significant fan base, so neither bizarro-world plotting nor inconsistent character development is a fatal flaw in the hands of a qualified team of writers. I’d like to see a political drama that combines consistent characters with a believable plot, but neither show is without merit—just occasionally an example of what not to do.