Mar 8, 2011

Misleading Entertainment

Character Misleads. I want more.

I heard a great story on This American Life. A small-time Lawyer is trying to free an Innocent Man from prison. The Lawyer invites a paroled, convicted Murderer into his office (actually, his meager apartment home), so he can interview the Murderer and maybe learn something that might help exonerate the Innocent Man. You see, the Innocent Man is in prison for the same killing that the Murderer committed.

gangsta-suitWhen the Murderer arrives, he's dressed like a hip-hop star or perhaps a successful drug dealer, wearing in an extravagant suit, hair perfect, fingering a firearm, driving a Mercedes. He comes shouting up the stairs an hour early, "Yo! Where's the lawyer!" When interviewed, he boldly tells his tale, acting-out how he shot the man in the back of the head, using his pointer-finger on the back of the Lawyer's neck to demonstrate the way it was done.

But then -- when the Lawyer asks the Murderer why he let the Innocent Man do time for his crime, the Murderer begins, "I was only 15..." and a dam of regret and remorse busts open. The Murderer openly weeps. He is ashamed of what he did to the Innocent man. It eats him up inside. The Lawyer hugs him.

Out of nowhere, we're blind-sided with the Murderer's  humanity. We'd been lead down the garden path, made to believe that he was a crass, self-involved jerk. And sure, he very well may be a crass, self-involved jerk. But he's also a human being.

This is a great scene. I want this.

Paxton-Whitehead_10519This is something that Aaron Sorkin does frequently, particularly in The West Wing. He introduces characters, and then he leads us to dislike them, before finally pulling away the sheet and revealing a vulnerable human being. For example, the White House art curator Bernard Thatch is shown to be a snob. He mocks the President's taste in a work of art he selected for display, and even belittles CJ's clothing.

But then, when he later  meets the rightful owner of the same painting that he mocked, the daughter of a Holocaust victim, he is kind. He offers to continue hanging the painting at the White House -- to increase its value for her. He is shown to be good and selfless. And the fact that his true nature only showed itself in a meaningful situation makes the fact that he is good and selfless meaningful.

This switch makes it stick with us. Makes it resonate. Had he been polite from the start, there would be no depth, no sense of discovery. We'd quickly forget this stale, two-dimensional nice-guy. But we don't forget him, because he surprised us.

The question is: do we enjoy the reverse just as much? Do we enjoy seeing a charming person shown for their shallowness, selfishness,  and cruelty?

Are bad surprises just as engaging as good ones?