So, something I've been thinking about for some time now, but I finally put it together in my mind a few weeks ago. The idea stuck with me so strongly that I made it my first Tweet (sound of gagging, insert here).
"The essence of real drama is good people making bad choices. If a writer can make this work, they will never go wrong."
There's a reason I watch the television I watch. I like most of the original dramas on FX; The Shield, Nip/Tuck, Rescue Me, Sons of Anarchy, Damages, Justified. I also like Californication, Dexter, and Weeds. I'll leave the HBO historicals (Rome, Deadwood, Carnivale) for another time.
The common thread that runs through most of these shows is: Good People Making Bad Choices.
Firemen, doctors, lawyers, police officers, federal marshals - all "authority figures" who, in a better world, would be uniformly considered "pillars of the community". But in these shows, they are all flawed creatures who in one aspect of their personalities, are Good People, but because of their flaws, make Bad Choices. Even the darker characters in shows like Sons of Anarchy or Dexter are not necessarily Evil People, but rather people who have made Bad Choices in their lives and are dealing with the consequences and making the best of a bad situation. Even the troubled writer in Californication and the suffering soccer mom of Weeds are Good People at their cores who have made Bad Choices and trying to set their lives straight.
What is it about this concept that appeals to me? Well, the way I see it, you have four choices in writing. First is Good People Making Good Choices, which can work for a while, but then gets either unrealistic, tiresome, or both. Next you have Bad People Making Bad Choices, which, well, works for Bret Easton Ellis, but not for most other people. There's also Bad People Making Good Choices, but if you're not just constantly re-inventing the Redemption Story, eventually your Bad People become Good People and they need to start making Bad Choices in order to keep things interesting.
Which leaves Good People Making Bad Choices. In my mind, this combines two strong pulls for the reader / viewer. First off, most of us consider ourselves - or at least WANT to consider ourselves - Good People in some sense of the term. We might grumble about the cost of something in a store, but we don't just go and steal it. We squawk about "the crooks in government", but we still pay our taxes and vote. We shake our fists at the idiots on the road, but we're not welding armor plate on the front of our cars and bolting a .50 belt-fed to the roof.
Second, we all make Bad Choices. We tell lies from time to time that get us into trouble. We score some beer for our underage brother, we cut someone off on the freeway because we're having a bad day and cause a minor accident, we drink too much, or touch when we should just look, or any one of a hundred "Ooopsies!" that haunt us for the rest of our lives to one degree or another and for which we must constantly atone.
So yeah, maybe we're not a LA homicide detective who makes deals with the devil of urban crime in order to keep it spilling further into the streets, getting more and more entwined with the criminal activities until we don't know which way is up. But we've all had times where one bad choice leads to us needing to make another bad choice to keep the first choice from blowing up in our faces...and so it goes. It's not the actual characters and situations that draw us in, it's the dramatic friction that we can relate to in our own lives. Vic Mackey is, at his dramatic core, a good man who trades in lesser evils to prevent greater evils, and struggles to hold together a family while at the same time paying the emotional price for his secrets. Looked at in that light, his nature and circumstances become a lot more approachable to the average viewer.
At the end of the day, we all have our preferences for fiction and the kinds of conflict and drama found within. But for me, characters who are good at their core, but suffer for their transgressions and live with the consequences are the most interesting.