Community and the narrative home base
Over the past few weeks, my wife and I finally caught up on DVD with the first season of Community, a show that absolutely lives up to its reputation—it’s the fastest, smartest, funniest television comedy I’ve seen since Arrested Development. There’s a lot to talk about here, and I hope to dig in more deeply as soon as we’ve finished the rest of the series, but today, I’d like to focus on just one element: the genius decision to confine the action, at least in the first season, to the campus of Greendale Community College. The vast majority of scenes take place in one of a handful of sets—the study room, the cafeteria, Señor Chang’s classroom—and far from limiting the stories the show can tell, it makes the world in which it takes place seem all the more real. After only a handful of episodes, Greendale becomes one of those places on television that you believe in, and want to visit yourself, like the bar on Cheers, the offices of Sterling Draper, or even Downton Abbey.
It’s a brilliant illustration of a powerful tool that I’ve wanted to talk about for a long time, which is the idea of a narrative home base. I can’t find the reference now, but I believe it was Terry Rossio who talks about how, in a screenplay, it’s nice to have a single set or location to which you return repeatedly over the course of the story: for one reason for another, the audience likes to find itself in a familiar place. This is obviously true in television, which often depends on a handful of standing sets, but it’s also true of works of art that aren’t necessarily limited by such constraints. Looking at my own favorite movies, it’s startling to realize how many are built around the repeated use of the same location, with dramatic variations: Rick’s Café Américain, Hannibal Lecter’s cell, the apartments in Chungking Express and Blue Velvet. Returning to the same place gives the action a fixed backdrop to play against over time, allowing the audience to get its bearings and ground itself in the story.
The same thing applies to literary works. The most famous address in all of literature is, of course, 221B Baker Street, but it’s instructive to stop and ask ourselves why. With a few exceptions, notably “The Adventure of the Empty House,” it’s rarely the setting for any dramatic incidents; it’s simply where Holmes and Watson hang out. Yet it’s impossible to imagine the stories without that drawing room, with its cigars in the coal scuttle and Persian slipper full of tobacco, and fans have imagined its location and furnishings with astonishing degrees of obsessiveness. Eventually, it comes to feel like home. And it took me far too long to understand how useful a home base can be for immersing the reader in the plot. The Icon Thief jumps from place to place, and I think it works, but I prefer the approach in City of Exiles, with its repeated use of several key locations. And it’s no accident that I learned this from Mad Men.
This may, in fact, be one of the two great lessons—along with the power of ensembles—that television has to teach us. Setting most of your action in a fixed number of places is a constraint, yes, but it also allows you to focus on what really matters, a form of writerly discipline that will hopefully pay off in the narrative itself. Imagine how much more interesting Smash would be, for instance, if it took place, like Community, entirely in a few locations—the theater, the dance studio, the writers’ office—with details about the characters’ offstage lives sketched in on the fly. That way, we’d pick up information in passing, instead of cutting away to tiresome subplots, and the focus of the series would stay where it belongs. Because focus is what the narrative home base is all about: storytelling is really about creating places to explore, so it’s all the more important, when possible, to stick to the places that count.