Longmire and the myth of the crime drama procedural

Recently, I have been enjoying the television drama “Longmire” through my Netflix streaming service. Longmire is a good show, set in the fictional Wyoming county of Absaroka within its principle (also fictional) town of Durant. Featuring interesting and complex characters, the series engages the viewer in a way that is peculiar to television—giving us people and places we come to know and love over a long period of time.

Unlike a film that dazzles and can create lifetime memories during the two hours or so it commands our attention (how many of us remember vividly and still quote lines from The Princess Bride?), a television series can be a slow addiction, comfortable as a neighborhood watering hole.

If only the writers and producers would credit audiences with interest in the ordinary dramas of life! Notwithstanding that the setting is one of law enforcement—the show’s eponymous title refers to Sheriff Longmire, who is surrounded at work by three deputies, Vic, Branch, and Ferg (each important characters) and secretary Ruby, and in his off hours by best friend Henry Standing Bear, grown daughter, Cady, and a handful of other characters. As in life, sometimes these characters cross the lines of work and leisure, making them the more interesting for it. Not to mention the gorgeous landscapes of New Mexico subbing for Wyoming, and the fascinating mix of cultures old and new: cowboys and high tech mining; horses and SUVs; Native Americans on the “res” and in swanky offices; tribal customs by the fire and golf practice from the mountaintops…the list is endless and provokes the most compelling cultural tensions I’ve seen since Witness.

But no, the show’s writers feel that human drama among this ensemble and the ordinary affairs of back country law enforcement on and off the res are not enough and instead produce a gruesome murder in almost every episode.

Having reached the halfway point of Season 2, and observing that the Longmire murder rate continues apace, it occurred to me that this sparsely populated corner of the Western United States has a murder rate that would put Honduras and Guatemala to shame.

According to the most recent data (2012), the annual murder rate in the U.S. is approximately 4.7 murders per 100,000 people. In the state of Wyoming, the rate is about half the national average, at 2.4 per 100,000. So for a weekly series to feature a murder per episode, i.e., something on the order of 52 murders per year, you would need a population of approximately 2.1 million, or roughly four times the state of Wyoming’s entire population, never mind one rural county.

Stuff and nonsense. No wonder the U.S. has such a reputation for guns and violence. Between news media and television fiction, it’s all we project. Nor am I convinced that it is necessary for ratings. Eventually, even viewers who want to suspend disbelief and enjoy the show might find the body count more laughable than dramatic.

To my way of thinking, the Longmire writers should consider peering over the transom at a comedy series, Brooklyn 99, for inspiration on how to write a great law enforcement show. Though admittedly a comedy that isn’t trying to engage with tense music, dramatic scenes, and impressive scenery, Brooklyn 99 depicts law enforcement activity we can believe is real. Actual murders are few and far between—and this is in a borough of the country’s largest city. Yet when we see the law enforcement moments between comedic lines, it is done with an equal or greater amount of entertainment value. How? Because it feels real, and we rejoice in both the comedy and dramas of human existence.

These writers know that while viewers may think they are interested in plot, it’s rarely true—or at least rarely important enough to either retain or discourage a television audience. We consume episodic television for its characters. Plot is simply an excuse for characters to act a certain way, and daily life may cause them to act with equal or far greater intensity. Longmire’s most dramatic moments involve friendship, traditions, family, personal sacrifice, and true love. Did anyone mention The Princess Bride?

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Rebecca — DVD commentary by critic Richard Schickel off base

MGM’s Rebecca arrived in my mailbox recently, compliments of a twice-per-month DVD delivery from my Netflix queue. The Rebecca disc is part of the Alfred Hitchcock Premiere Collection, and the 1999 compilation by Anchor Bay Entertainment for MGM included a commentary track recorded by film critic Richard Schickel.

While the overall commentary was interesting, I found mistakes in it that were disturbing. I can appreciate the difficulty of finding enough things to say while recording commentary on a lengthy movie. However, Mr. Schickel seemed more interested in director Alfred Hitchcock and the rivalry between him and producer David O. Selznick than in author Daphne du Maurier. He seemed not to have read the book—or if he had read it, unable to recall its pivotal moments.

That’s unfortunate.  Although Mr. Schickel’s insight into the producer/director spat was illuminating, he missed an opportunity to comment on a work that is surely a masterpiece of suspense.

It was also his job via the commentary to further inform and entertain viewers who may have been interested in both the original story and its differences on film. Moreover, he was disparaging of the book, calling it something like a “woman’s novel” or “women’s fiction” (can’t recall his exact words) in a tone of voice suggesting it was of a lesser literary quality. Seriously?

I cannot understand why the DVD-commentary errors and insults have gone uncorrected for so long. Does no one listen? Or don’t they care?

In the first of the factual errors I noted, Mr. Schickel credits Hitchcock with the idea of having the loathsome Mrs. Van Hopper extinguish her cigarette in a jar of cold cream by the side of her bed.  Mr. Schickel waxes on about this touch and how Hitchcock did something similar elsewhere. I won’t argue as to whether and/or when Hitchcock may have employed this image, but readers of Du Maurier’s Rebecca will recall that Mrs. Van Hopper does in fact put out her cigarette in this way. It happens at the beginning of Chapter 5, as the young narrator returns to Mrs. Van Hopper’s bedside from a secret rendezvous with Maxim de Winter:

“‘The trouble is with me laid up like this you haven’t got enough to do,’ she [Mrs. Van Hopper] said, mashing her cigarette in a jar of cleansing cream… taking the cards in her hand she mixed them in the deft, irritating shuffle of the inveterate player, shaking them in threes, snapping the backs.”

I have always loved the image Du Maurier creates of this woman, describing her as not just placing, but “mashing” (a stronger and more colloquial verb) her cigarette into the face cream. In fact, Du Maurier repeats the image later by having the narrator, in her uncertainty over her relationship with De Winter, look ahead to the return of her dismal duties in Mrs. Van Hopper’s hotel room, with its “mashed stubs of cigarettes…everywhere, in cleansing cream, in a dish of grapes, and on a floor beneath the bed.”

So self-indulgent and vivid are these images, we seem to smell, as we turn the pages, the stale cigarette smoke mingled with scents that would otherwise have been wholesome. The words tell us everything we need to know about Mrs. Van Hopper and set up a natural sympathy for the poor orphaned heroine of the story, who flies into a marriage with Maxim de Winter not only from girlish infatuation, but also to escape her current predicament.

It turns out we will need that sympathy and more as the events of the story unfold and we learn that our gauche and frightened heroine becomes so obsessed with the glamorous image of the dead first wife Rebecca—and consequently dependent on her husband for approval—that she loses all sense of reality. In fact, she is so relieved at Maxim’s confession that he never loved his ex-wife, she chooses to overlook a few important facts, i.e., that he 1) murdered Rebecca in a fit of passion over the family honor—even thinking she was pregnant at the time, 2) dumped her body at sea, 3) sank her boat and lied about it, and 4) deliberately misidentified and buried someone else’s body in the family crypt as a cover up.

Wow.

Never mind that Rebecca was a classic bully who provoked him into it. In the end, it is the gentlemanly Maxim de Winter who pulls the trigger and then isn’t brave enough to face the music. Like many a bullying victim before and since, he had clearly buried his feelings of impotence and shame under Rebecca’s domination until he could no longer contain his rage, and finding a loaded gun in his hand at a pivotal moment, unleashed his pent-up emotions in a fatal act. It is part of what makes the book timeless—evidence of this same psychology can be seen today across all elements of society. We hurt for him and with him even while we are unable to condone his behavior and know that he must be punished.

The other commentary error is more serious. During a climactic scene in which the action takes us to Dr. Baker’s office, Mr. Schickel spins a tale that in order to please the censors of the day, the plot of the movie was changed from the book’s abortion plot to a cancer story. This is a serious error that must not go unchallenged.

As readers of Rebecca will recall, the heretofore unknown diagnosis of Rebecca’s aggressive terminal cancer is essential to the book’s plot—a big reveal that changes the understanding of why a confident, life-loving, possibly bi-sexual and definitely amoral woman would provoke the husband she despises into giving her the gift of sudden death. This provocation is posited as Rebecca’s ultimate act of revenge, that she is able to manipulate the dutiful Maxim into letting her avoid an ugly and painful wasting away under morphia, while in all probability sending him to the gallows for his trouble.

Quite the lady, this Rebecca. No wonder readers instinctively want to cheer when the cancer reveal gives Maxim a shadow of hope. The diagnosis will also serve to explain Rebecca’s apparent suicide to a skeptical public unsatisfied with the conclusions of the inquest.

We all know, of course, that Rebecca did not commit suicide and that Maxim has gotten away with murder. The cancer story is essential to Du Maurier’s attempt to preserve what is left of Maxim’s good character and justify his honor killing. To anyone morally opposed to murder under any circumstances—and particularly to denying not one but apparently two victims a proper burial—the cancer excuse and Rebecca’s deliberate needling of Maxim is insufficient. Maxim the man may be forgiven but his acts cannot be.

But to the dazzled young heroine/narrator, Rebecca’s culpability in the matter is enough. Wife #2’s heroic adoration of Maxim can remain intact. Presumably, the couple are now able to live happily ever after at Maxim’s beloved Manderley. Except for one giant punishment yet to come, which for them—and for all of us who love the idea of their glorious Cornwall estate—is a big one, if not a surprise. The narrator has famously told us during the story’s opening dream sequence: “…Manderley was ours no longer. Manderley was no more.

And in this most climactic of scenes, Mr. Schickel doesn’t bother to explain how the film diverged from the book, but instead relates a story in which producer Selznick wanted the smoke from the fire to form the letter R, and director Hitchcock ignored him. That’s fine if you’re into Hollywood trivia, but for serious readers and classic film fans, Mr. Schickel ought to have dug a little deeper. On the DVD commentary track, we have no other voice but his.

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Why journalistic rigor matters in corporate communications

Not long ago, I spent a Netflix evening watching “All the President’s Men,” a wonderful 1970’s film about the Nixon Watergate scandal and the two Washington Post reporters who broke the story. I was reminded that good investigative reporting takes time, patience, and corroboration, and that much of the work relies on detailed notes.

When developing thought-leading articles or case studies as a key element of a marketing and brand strategy, organizations may benefit from the same rigor. In our work, we conduct hundreds of subject-matter expert and customer interviews on behalf of our corporate clients. When possible we make recorded transcripts, but in addition, we still keep detailed notes that are dated and filed with their overall project record. Memos are saved and placed in the project file, along with draft and final versions of published documents. Such record-keeping can be tedious, but the benefits are worth it. When a client calls six months after the fact, we can be confident we have the raw material needed to provide assurance that the names, facts and research in the case are well-founded, citations are accurate, and what was purported to have been said was in fact based on a clear set of notes or transcripts.

If our work was part of a public relations strategy for which articles or studies are likely to be published in the media, this becomes particularly important. Media outlets are more varied than in years past, and many now rely on externally sourced content. But that doesn’t mean that submitted articles and press releases can be sloppy or inaccurate. If an organization wants to be a trusted content provider when working with the media, they have to demonstrate consistently reliable research and reporting. 

Organizations committed to truth and transparency in all their communications soon find that their brands reflect this ethos. Getting there begins by founding those communications in the rules and processes of classic reporting.

 

©2013 STORIA Associates Inc

 

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The art of daily business writing and why editors can help

The savviest of our corporate clients recognize the importance of daily business communications—and the power of a close author/editor collaboration in making them successful.

Today a busy executive does as much communicating in a day through short, bursty texts, email, and mobile media as her predecessors may have done in a week through all their face-to-face and telephone meetings. An observer of a typical corporate floor in mid-town Manhattan would find a working environment almost eery in its silence. Young professionals in partial cubicles reminiscent of slip stalls work shoulder to shoulder, hunched over laptops, saying little or nothing. A pulse of white noise in the background muffles the few voices that can be heard. Those on the phone are largely silent…mostly tending to lengthy conference calls piped through an ear bud while the participant multi-tasks on other projects or text-chats with others on the call. More senior people work behind closed doors, but even they keep eyes focused on screens, breaking only for an absolute necessity, such as a coaching session. Telephones ring so rarely the sound is almost startling, and millennials make appointments prior to a phone call.

This is the ambient work environment of the 21st Century teen years, and it requires an ability to write that many are unprepared for.

Communicating effectively and with sensitivity to the audience has everything to do with success in a professional environment. Politics in and outside the workplace are as critical as they ever were. But the uncanny ability humans display in comprehending muddled speech patterns doesn’t translate to the written word. That’s where the danger lays in the modern workplace. Daily writing is fraught with potential for making enemies, throwing a project off track, and discouraging customers or talent you desperately want to keep.

In our work, we have examined over 300 written transcripts of meetings, telephone calls, and interviews, seeking to understand exactly how people communicate. Even allowing for transcriber error, much of the recorded conversations proved to be fragmented, disconnected, and in some cases almost bizarre when transcribed word for word. Yet in nearly every case, the participants listened avidly, agreed or disagreed based on the salient points they heard—or at least thought they heard—and generally carried on with the meeting, often with enthusiasm. Because of the close human interaction in which these forms of speech occurred, the audience forgave tremendous gaps in logic, circular arguments, unfinished thoughts, poor grammar, and jumps in subject matter. Had the same thing occurred in written form, these communications would not have met with the same success.

Written communications need help to survive the closer scrutiny they will receive over their spoken counterparts. And in truth, all writing improves with a second set of eyes, a cold read, and an editor’s touch. Executives and other professionals concerned about working effectively, maintaining their personal brands, and smoothing the path for others would do well to consider having an editor on their team who can collaborate closely with them—even on the most mundane exchanges.

 

©2013 STORIA Marci Montgomery

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