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Joss Whedon: Master of Character

As I re-watch Star Trek: Deep Space Nine I find there are a lot of character building episodes where a character faces a personal challenge and overcomes it. The further in the show I go, however, I realize that these character building episodes result in no real character change whatsoever. By the next episode, the character falls back into their normal personality and rhythms.

This is like false character building, in that the character goes through the process of changing, but never actually changes. While these aren’t bad episodes and are even fulfilling, we as an audience respond more strongly when we get to be party to a character changing, from their beginning state, to the conflict, to the character that emerges. There’s a deeper connection to this kind of character building. But so far, Deep Space Nine is missing that kind of character building.

As I thought about this, I realized other shows skimp on character building too. To help illustrate how character building is done properly, I decided to contrast some poor examples of character building episodes with a few episodes from a master of character building, Joss Whedon. While a couple of the Whedon episodes I mention are written by other writers (Steven DeKnight, Marti Noxon, and Douglas Petrie) many of the character threads that lead to these character building episodes run throughout the season, and for the purposes of making the title of this piece more simple, I’m giving the works of Whedon the nod here, rather than the man himself (though I suspect he had input on these character arcs).

Here are three examples of shows that did character building poorly, and three more examples where Joss Whedon shows did it better.

Westworld: The Cracks of Humanity in its Pristine World

The first episode of Westworld paints with two brushes. With the first, it carefully paints a future that is so advanced and devoid of danger that the Westworld institution is the only way people can experience excitement. As if Westworld’s simulated, rugged western frontier is somehow more alive than the real world. With the second brush, Westworld paints small, passionate strokes that threaten the precision the first brush is trying to create.

I believe the initial canvas Westworld creates in the first episode is simply the emotionless foundation upon which more and more cracks of humanity will seep into until it fractures. I think Westworld intends to have a discourse about humanity and this fractured painting is how it is going to do it.

Here are five ways Westworld tries to portray a controlled world and the cracks of humanity we see seep out.

The Ever-Present Theme of Privacy in Mr. Robot

The show Mr. Robot subtlety adjusts our mindset to think about privacy as we watch the show. In most cases when we’re introduced to an important character that furthers the plotline, we see an intensely personal moment for that character. Because Mr. Robot is about hacking, I believe that it wants to remind the audience that nothing is safe or private in Mr. Robot‘s world — that it is all at risk of being revealed.

In traditional storytelling, you don’t reveal something unless it will have importance later. Mr. Robot, however, plays with this concept in that it will show you something intensely personal about a character that provides insight, but its true purpose is to show you what is intimate and vulnerable about that character.

Here are five ways that Mr. Robot keeps privacy at the forefront of the audience’s minds:

Top 10 Survivor Seasons

A few years ago I started getting back into Survivor and was looking for a good season to watch. I’m fairly certain this was before the Survivor Reddit community ranked seasons and certainly before the other resources you can easily find today. At the time I found a┬áblog (that I can no longer seem to find) that I used as my guide to watching seasons. It had a starry background reminiscent of old web designs, and while it was fairly in line with my own Survivor tastes, it sometimes recommended seasons I didn’t enjoy as much as others and often revealed who won the season in the write-up. I actually don’t mind knowing who wins since a lot of what makes Survivor great is how a winner got there and all the crazy strategies and players along the way. But at the time I wished there had been a “Best Seasons of Survivor” list more in line with my own opinions that didn’t reveal the winner of the season. And so here it is.

I’ve broken it down into overall top ten, and marked the seasons with returning players in case people either don’t want spoilers for other seasons or just prefer seasons without returning players. Then, I’ve added four seasons to supplement those returning player seasons in case you don’t want to watch them (look for the line separation).

Here are my top ten Survivor seasons (in no particular order):

Revealing Heart: 4 Ways Stranger Things is About Friendship

Stranger Things has a rare quality you don’t often see in TV and film — it feels alive. There are many things that help create this quality, like its overwhelming love and appreciation for the 80’s, the small town setting that allows us to experience the events on a small scale, the desperate, frantic desire for a Mother to find her son and for a police chief to finally save a child after losing his daughter, and the phenomenal soundtrack. But I think the heart of Stranger Things is the friendship between the boys and Eleven.

Here are four ways in which Stranger Things reveals friendship as its heart. (Please note: I will be discussing the series as a whole, so if you haven’t finished yet, please do not read until you are done. Major spoilers ahead.)