Conflict and Classic Television

In an effort to reduce ongoing monthly expenses around the Grey Cottage, Chris and I finally dropped cable television a month or two ago. We’d already dropped Netflix over the summer, because the kids were making us nuts replaying the same 6 episodes of iCarly, Wizards of Waverly Place and Big Time Rush endlessly. (I admit I did miss Phineas and Ferb a little).

We’re not huge television watchers in the first place. The couple of shows Chris and I really enjoy are all network shows. The Boy is really more interested in video games, and has been too busy with homework and drama club to watch much TV anyway. The Girl has become obsessed with Pixie Hollow, an online Disney Fairies game which has basically taken up her TV watching time.

Both of them have developed a surprising affinity for Fat Albert, which is on one of the local digital channels we can pick up with our antenna. One day we were watching an episode about teen motherhood. The Boy said “That’s kind of heavy for Fat Albert, isn’t it? No pun intended.”

At any rate, I was excited to see that the local channel that plays mostly old classic syndicated shows is going to be starting Bewitched soon. Bewitched was probably my favorite show as a kid. I’ve always been interested in classic and contemporary fantasy. It was the show that taught my inner storyteller that magic doesn’t solve all your problems. It just makes life interesting.

If you ever plan to write fantasy, that’s an important lesson to learn early. Because plot is built around conflict. If something like magic makes any kind of challenge or conflict moot, you’ve got a very big problem.

I confess that one classic television show I’ve never liked is I Love Lucy. Yes, I recognize that it was ground-breaking for it’s time. Yes, I recognize that Lucille Ball was incredibly talented. But I don’t enjoy that kind of slapstick comedy plot structure. (For what it’s worth, I never liked Laverne & Shirley, either, for the same reason).

A classic hero’s plot arc is, ordinary guy or girl faces either an extraordinary challenge, or a series of related and escalating challenges. Your protagonist goes through the try/fail cycle a couple of times, and eventually succeeds. Then the loose ends are wrapped up in the denouement.

Another variation on that is you have an extraordinary protagonist, who faces extraordinary or escalating challenges, goes through the try/fail cycle, and succeeds. There’s a character development payoff in both those plots. For the ordinary character, it’s usually that they are capable of more than they realized. For the extraordinary character, it might be greater humility or the understanding that they’re not so different from ordinary folks.

Every I Love Lucy episode, Lucy is faced with an ordinary challenge. But it’s always Lucy’s own flaws that escalate the situation, and instead of succeeding eventually, it generally ends with an even more spectacular failure, from which Ricky would have to rescue her.

That can be funny, but you’re always laughing at Lucy, never with her. You can’t root for Lucy, because your payoff is to see her fail as comically as possible (which is probably what makes me feel icky watching it). You never get the sense that she’s grown as a character, because she makes the exact same mistakes in every episode. She has to, because Lucy is never the Hero, she’s perpetually the Fool.

The Fool’s Journey is, actually, a type of plot structure. But as with the Hero’s Journey, it still usually ends with a character transformation of some kind. In episodic situation comedy, the Fool is not really allowed to develop or have that character arc, because that essentially ruins the premise. If Lucy ever developed decent judgment, you wouldn’t have a show anymore. She’s not on a Journey, she’s just a Fool, on a really frustrating treadmill.

What about you? Do what kind of conflict makes your skin crawl? What types of plot structure do you find most satisfying?

And what classic television show do you love or absolutely hate, and why?


  1. ·

    I think this is the best explanation of why I never was a fan of I Love Lucy, even though I grew up watching it in syndication. In isolation, the episodes can be spectacularly funny, but together they can be almost painful.

    Mind you, I really respect how Lucille Ball took control of her own career.

  2. Kat French

    TS – I completely agree; I admire Ball’s overall talent, chutzpah and accomplishments. I just can’t stand to watch more than an episode or two of that particular show.


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