People can change, and do, on TV

The theme of whether people can change, and especially whether Martin and Louisa can change, has occupied many of our discussions. DM is not the only show in which this theme has been prominent and in which the answer appears to be that people can change. I think we have all concluded that with desire, therapy, and effort, people can change the way they react to situations and relationships. The one caveat is that people don’t always change for the better.

Another outstanding show of recent years is “Breaking Bad,” and it, too, addressed the question of whether people can change. However, the overriding arc of that show was the monumental metamorphosis of Walter White from a milquetoast into a highly respected presence in the drug world. Essentially the show followed his relentless progression from quiet, law abiding high school chemistry teacher to amoral and ruthless manufacturer and seller of methamphetamine. There’s no question that writer and creator Vince Gilligan was arguing that people can change, and will, under certain circumstances. In the show, we also witness a “ne’er do well” work hard to maintain his principles while being enlisted to help White. This young man, Jesse, may be lacking in ambition, but Walter shocks him over and over as he descends into pathological behavior. Against all odds, Jesse manages to survive, although he is anything but unscathed.

The spinoff show from “Breaking Bad,” “Better Call Saul,” has just completed its first highly successful season. It, too, includes the theme of whether people can change, and makes some very interesting points about it. I was a tremendous fan of “Breaking Bad” and I confess to being an equally avid fan of “Better Call Saul.” (If you read this blog, you know I’ve mentioned “Breaking Bad” several times because of its excellent writing and acting, including their design of making the main character an anti-hero. He’s given all sorts of convincing and justifiable motives for converting himself into a criminal while maintaining many decent and admirable qualities.)

As a recent recap in the NYTimes states: “In ‘Better Call Saul’ we’ve seen another lead character evolve, though less dramatically — from scam artist to earnest plaintiffs’ attorney, with the occasional moral lapse.” The writers of “Breaking Bad” posed the question of “Can people change?” and then demonstrated how that can happen. In the new show, they add another dimension to this question and show that some people don’t change. The next to last episode depicts the main character’s brother, Chuck, as unable to imagine that his brother, Jimmy, has shed his earlier traits as a con man to become a respectable lawyer like him. Oddly enough, Chuck becomes the scam artist while Jimmy earns our admiration due to how he treats his clients and his brother. As the article notes, “Jimmy is a force for good, if we can judge by his ventures in elder law. But now he can’t have a perch at a corporate firm and the respectability that it confers.”

This episode “deals with identity, conceived here as a combination of what you do and what you, and others, think about what you do. Jimmy is a nice guy whose brother thinks he’s a menace.” The character for whom the show is named has not appeared yet. We will presumably find out that Jimmy becomes Saul, a slick manipulator of the law, and basically reverts to the “Slippin’ Jimmy” that he used to be known as because he rejects the world of corporate law.

In “Breaking Bad,” Walt had developed a reputation of a dedicated and competent chemistry teacher as well as a devoted father and husband. They even loaded his home life with a teenage son who was born with cerebral palsy and handicapped. In the beginning of the show, Walt drives his son to school and tries to keep strong ties to his son despite knowing that teenage boys are always testing and experimenting. We first get to know Walt as someone we admire. Therefore, we have sympathy for him and realize how hard he has worked to be the upstanding father, husband and teacher everyone has come to know. As he changes, it’s hard to jettison our earlier impressions of him.

How does all this relate to DM? In my mind, we are also dealing with characters who have to find a way to reconstitute themselves as different from how others have always perceived them. Can Martin Ellingham not only try to become a better husband, but also become a person Louisa and others view as being a less introverted version of who he has been? Will others be able to believe that he really wants to be more ungrudging about the somewhat tangential information patients want to talk to him about? Will Louisa be convinced that he’s voluntarily expressing his inner thoughts to her? Can the various residents of Portwenn stop seeing him as, and calling him, a “tosser?”

Will Louisa find a way to reject her first impulse to leave whenever she’s upset about something at home and become a woman who tries to listen and probe and tolerate? How much will she be able to overlook or accommodate?

And, at the risk of repeating myself too much, would the show be too different if all of the above happens? Whereas “Breaking Bad” was literally devised as a show about a man’s evolutionary deterioration, “Doc Martin” was not originally about a doctor who wants to become more likable or better at being a husband and father. Our enjoyment of the show stems from much of the behavior that makes ME so difficult.

However, when we look at how the voting for favorite episodes turned out on, we can’t help but notice that it was those episodes in which Martin and Louisa have the most romantic scenes that came out on top. I have to assume the people involved with the show have noticed that too. Thus, they have the demanding challenge of trying to satisfy their audience while keeping the characters believable to us. We, and the residents of Portwenn, know them as particular types and might have trouble accepting too much change in them. They also know each other as having certain dispositions. When Martin calls Louisa “darling” in S6E2, both we and she look at him quizzically. It’s very odd to hear that term of endearment coming out of his mouth.

We also deem it necessary for them to work on their relationship so that their marriage can flourish, and we expect that to be a significant facet of S7. Just how they balance the requirement to change with what’s important to keep the same will be the key to the success of this next series.

Originally posted 2016-05-22 14:47:01.

12 thoughts on “People can change, and do, on TV

  1. Linda D.

    I have not seen Breaking Bad nor Better Call Saul but now that you have piqued my interest, I will have to try to find and watch them. Today I saw, for the first time, how the word milquetoast is spelled! Thanks for this post Karen! I was suffering withdrawals without the blog! It seems many of our “regular posters” (and most skilled and knowledgeable) are off on travels. I will be in “Portwenn” May 25th as part of my England trip and am so excited about that! We are staying at The Slipway Hotel- how perfect is that?????

    As for the expected “changes” for S7, I agree that the writers must carefully preserve much of the dispositions of the characters while enacting ways for their relationship to repair and flourish. What you say about the original premise of Doc Martin was interesting and true. Martin HAS to be somewhat difficult because if he turns into a total marshmallow in the end, it will not be believable. Louisa must still find Martin’s behaviour somewhat objectionable and call him on it. That is often where the humour played in. The original ideas have changed a lot. The writers may not have anticipated the strong desire to see Martin and Louisa become a couple and become parents when they first started writing scripts. I also noticed that it was the most romantic episodes which topped the polls in the survey on Portwenn Online. There were so many really powerful episodes besides these that I was a bit surprised at the final results of the survey. I guess it goes to show that the fans are romantics at heart! We have all been spellbound during the many comings together and tearings apart of Martin and Louisa. I dare say, many a TV screen has been screamed at! I suppose when we examine all the main characters, we see other examples of how important romantic coupling became. There is Bert and Jennifer (which was left strangely dangling), Al Large and his efforts to win the heart of Elaine, then Pauline, and now Morwenna, Mrs. Tishell’s infatuation with the Doc, Roger Fenn and Maureen Tacey becoming a couple and having twins, The Danny/Louisa thing, The Edith and Martin (non-event), and maybe others I have not thought of. I am personally hoping they tie up some of these lose ends if the show is coming to it’s end.
    In S6 E2 – Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner, Martin calls Louisa, “Darling” in front of Dennis Dodds because she urged him to try to be more sociable. It was a very funny moment – both hearing him say it and seeing her reaction. That was “classic Doc Martin” as was the very funny discussion upstairs which Dennis and Karen overheard on the baby monitor. Martin’s reactions to this event were also “classic”. I hope that we see more of this in S7 which could be dark and sad like S6 if they don’t interject some humour into the proceedings. I think it might be quite hard to do given the situation they find themselves in. Their issues are hardly funny and most viewers were bereft at the end of the season. It became so serious and dark that bringing back the humour of earlier seasons might actually be seen as bad taste if they are not very careful. But, I think we all want to laugh more so it will be interesting to see how they deal with that, especially if this is to be the last season.

  2. Santa Traugott

    I agree, Linda. They have a very tricky writing task for S7. It may be difficult for many of us to find a lot of humor in Martin trying to win back Louisa, after being through such a wrenching season. I can’t find much funny about his sadness at being in that situation. They will have to tread very carefully.

    I would like to see them making progress through the series, where they build to a point where we can believe that they now have a solid foundation for a renewed commitment to their marriage, building on the many strengths of their relationship. But please, don’t have them bicker and make each other miserable for 7.75 episodes, staging a last minute change of heart for Louisa.

    In S4, to which this season may be analogous as it plays out, we could watch each one of them move through most of their anger at each other to some realization of how much they wanted to be together, even if they feared rejection from the other.

  3. Post author

    Santa, your comment makes a good segue to a discussion of Edith and the role she plays in S4. Then we can move on to this couple’s strengths, which I think have been developed as fairly potent and persuasive.

  4. Linda D.

    I think examining Edith’s impact on things will be REALLY interesting Karen! I think I may have said something to you about this before? Santa, I agree that they just CAN”T see them battle with each other through 7.75 episodes. We will be expecting much more and much different because we have seen that tact before. The fans want to see a very strong start with completely different approaches. We know so much more than Louisa about what has happened to Martin. When he opens up about his whole life, this epiphany will rock her world and many things will come clear for her. She will be able to understand him and help him in all new ways. I think coming clean will do a lot to free Martin from his demons. Telling his story out loud and getting it all on the table will mean he has acknowledged what has transpired in his life and it will take away all the hiding and denial that has been such a big part of his persona. He may be surprised to hear it himself and hopefully, it will free him No doubt, he will begin to connect the dots and maybe figure out the cause of his blood phobia. The onset of the phobia was HUGE for him and he has had to give up a lot because of it. He has had to make changes which have affected his self esteem and changed how he sees himself. Of course, if it had not happened, he would not have met Louisa and become a husband and father. Hopefully, he will come to recognize that his move to Portwenn was a blessing in so many way and allow him to see himself in a positive light in his new roles there. Of course, we want to see him HAPPY and fulfilled in his work and with his little family.

  5. Post author

    Edith was definitely your idea Linda.

    A word of caution: never forget we’re talking about ME, who will never appear truly happy. He has seemed content, satisfied, pleased, but I don’t expect to see him laughing or smiling broadly. Maybe we will get to a point where he is at least gratified.

  6. Linda D.

    So true. We probably would not recognize or like Martin as a smarmy, smiley guy or “funny Daddy”.
    If he is ever gratified, it will be evident in very subtle ways, no doubt. You are that we have seen him content, satisfied, and pleased, usually in connection with a good and loving connection with Louisa. He has a soft, loving way with James. I find it hard to believe that that little boy’s smile at his Daddy does not bring at least a grin from Martin. It must be a difficult task for an actor not to succumb to that sweet little face.

  7. Post author

    I bet MC smiled at the little guy when not on camera. It was a very serious scene after all.

  8. Santa Traugott

    As Karen knows, part of my fascination with Doc Martin is in the skill with which it is put together. I keep wondering, how do they do this so well? what is their craft? So yesterday, I took a book out of the library called Writing Screenplays that Sell. The first chapters are about what makes a good screenplay –and here’s a lovely quote directly relevant to our discussion about change, which is: “The character’s transformation from someone stuck in his inner conflict to someone who has found the courage to overcome it, is his arc. It’s an arc from fear to courage, from inner conflict to true self-worth.” (p. 83) This is what I hope we see in S7! “Stuck in his inner conflict” seems to me to be a very apt description of Martin Ellingham, at least up until the last minutes of S6.

  9. Santa Traugott

    Oh, this is such fun! Here is a link to an online article by Hauge on “the hero’s journey.”

    Here’s the first 3 paragraphs: (I think this is fair use)

    “At the beginning of your screenplay, your hero should be in a state of inertia — settling for a life that may be emotionally safe and tolerable, but that lacks passion, risk and fulfillment. Her life might be filled with activity and even give the illusion that she’s striving for something, but all this effort is ultimately going nowhere. In other words, your hero should be stuck.

    The reason for all this spinning in place is that the hero is living in his or her identity — the emotional armor we all carry to protect us from our deepest fears. This is your hero’s persona, the false self she presents to the world to avoid feeling vulnerable and terrified.

    Some wounding event or situation from the past has left your hero unconsciously terrified of experiencing that pain again. So she’ll do just about anything to avoid facing that fear, even if it means living a false, limited and unfulfilled existence. Then, through the course of your screenplay, your hero must gradually confront and overcome that fear in order to achieve whatever goal she’s pursuing. To get what she desperately wants, the hero must abandon her emotional armor and risk standing up for who she truly is. Simply put, this transformation from living fully in her identity to living fully in her essence is the character’s arc.”

    I don’t see how there could be a more apt description of our story. (Perhaps others will enlighten me, though.)

  10. Post author

    I apologize for not responding more quickly. What you have found is very close to a formula for how to write a successful screenplay and really describes well what we have seen take place in DM. Perhaps this accounts for why you have begun to think the storyline in DM is becoming forced. In a screenplay everything is compressed into a two hour format, but a TV show needs to find a story that will hopefully be expandable over years. The longer the show stays viable, the more it is considered to be a success and celebrated.

    It is my sense that, unless we are talking about soap operas that are accepted for being repetitious and not as concerned about plot quality, most TV shows have a shelf life of 7 years because it is hard to come up with original ideas for it after that. I think that’s why Vince Gilligan decided to end “Breaking Bad” after 7 years even though it was still so popular. He didn’t want the story to be stale and descend into mediocrity. The same can be said of “The Sopranos” and many other exceptional shows. The benchmark for success is to have the show be renewed for 5 years, all the rest is gravy.

    I know many viewers of DM say they hope it never ends, and I can relate to their enthusiasm about the show. However, I would hate for the show to degrade in quality. Over its lifespan the series has focused more and more on Martin and Louisa’s relationship. That emphasis seems to have grown out of the recognition that most viewers were drawn to the show because of that interaction. What began as a show about a grumpy and anti-social doctor turned into a show about how this doctor became smitten with a beautiful and equally dominant local woman. She, too, was intrigued and captivated by him. To a great extent they were able to devise many comedic events around that and we were all hooked. At some point, however, the constant interruptions in their conversations and the obstacles to their coming together as a couple begin to wear thin.

    What sets this series apart from many others for me is that they address many serious topics that have to do with common life issues, including psychological conditions, and they do it so well because of excellent writing and not so “in your face” situations. Still, there is a natural longevity to any show and to any plot.

    I’m impressed that you have started to research the mechanics of writing for the screen. Thanks for giving us the lowdown on your inquiries. We are all more enlightened by your study of the process.

  11. Santa Traugott

    Thanks for responding to my enthusiasm. Really, the book is quite fascinating, as it goes into optimum structure, roles of other characters (including a “nemesis” and a “reflector”), etc.

    What I think happened to Doc Martin, structure-wise, is this: It was intended to be a kind of hero’s journey of a some kind of healing for a badly damaged man — set in a village with all kinds of opportunity to be exposed to challenges to his defenses. Slowly, over several seasons, we might imagine, we might see his conflicts gradually resolve. But, the love story took over. It hooked the audience. (I think Caroline Catz proved to be a much better actress than they thought when they hired her.)

    So the journey changed, to be one where the hero ultimately wins the girl, by facing up to said inner conflicts and resolving them. But I do think, in order to keep the story going, they had to take twists and turns that a more straightforward “journey” story wouldn’t have done.

    I’ve posed a question about “structure” on Michael Hauge’s website. Low probability that it will get an answer, but I think when I get back from this trip (Iceland!) I’m going to amuse myself by looking more “technically” at DM and see how it exemplifies the screenwriter’s craft.

    I also think the bit about “inner conflict” resonates. From a psychological point of view, you can think about what is wrong with Martin as that he is so conflicted between his own desires for love and intimacy, and his fear of them, that he is really almost paralyzed.

    I can hardly wait to see how this plays out in S7. They are apparently filming the last couple of episodes now.

  12. Post author

    I have a somewhat different sense of what they planned from the outset. My view is that they considered the idea of a vascular surgeon developing a fear of blood highly amusing and that they placed him in a small, remote city near his favorite aunt because that created many options for humor. Then they made him grumpier to further alienate the town from him and provide more opportunities for awkward and funny situations. I don’t really think they had in mind any real inner conflict resolution at first.

    For me, the fascination ME has for LG (and vice versa) begins in the very first episode, on the plane, and then later in the meeting where he is interviewed. How they didn’t see that part of the show developing into something important surprises me, although I do agree that CC made that much more likely. I think, however, that they began to put more emphasis on that interaction once they saw its potential and only added ME’s pathology after they realized it, too, was a great generator of speculation and sympathy.

    I think that creators and producers of shows are always reassessing and trying to figure out where to take their shows. Audience reaction definitely figures into it, but that isn’t to say that they are simply using focus groups and modifying the show accordingly. They have a general idea of what they want the show to be about, then they review every year and decide where to go within that scheme.

    I would venture to say the show became much more serious than they had originally planned. I do think that there is a craftsmanship involved and that we have seen how good writers make use of the conventions related to good TV shows. I like this area of inquiry and will look forward to seeing what you learn that can applied to DM.

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