Irony of Character

As we get closer to choosing scripts for the next round of this year’s Red Planet Prize, I thought it would be useful to go over what makes a good TV series idea. Does it have that golden ingredient: ‘irony of character’? Let me explainz.

At a Red Planet Prize workshop, Tony Jordan mentioned something about how to generate an idea for a successful TV series.*

He said the protagonist should, ideally (and I’m paraphrasing here), have something in his characterisation that directly contrasts with the situation he finds himself in. Or, an ‘irony of character’, in other words.

Tony didn’t dwell on this too much, and almost mentioned it in passing, but it stuck in my craw and I’ve been giving it a lot of thought since then.

What I think The Guv was getting at was this:

The idea and central character should generate an amusing or intriguing irony (‘irony of character’), which then also suggests the kind of thing we’d expect to see very week (re: format of the show).

Let’s run this ‘irony of character’ notion through a couple of successful shows from The Guv’s stable.

Life on Mars: a pedantic cop from the 21st century finds himself in the political incorrectness of 1970s cops, and desperately wants to find a way back to his own time.

This presents a format where John Simm’s character tries to get back to his own time while cracking 1970s police cases with Gene Hunt and his team. That’s what we see every week. The irony comes from his 21st century politically correct approach as opposed to Gene Hunt’s raucous non-PC habits.

BBC’s Death in Paradise (born out of the Red Planet Prize) has the perfect ‘irony of character’ (a stuffy English cop is sent to the relaxed Caribbean to solve murders), which makes it an easy pitch. Plus, the series has got potential to run and run.

Want to play the game? Think of your favourite show, or a hot new series, and see if it has an irony of character.

Homeland? A US marine returns home a hero after 8 years of captivity in Iraq but a driven CIA officer suspects he might now be a terrorist. There’s a definite strong irony there which drives the series (is he? isn’t he?) but for those who may argue that Claire Danes’s character is the lead, then her character is a talented but highly unstable officer who’s desperate to make up for previous mistakes. She’s not just a straightforward CIA elite who can do no wrong.

Breaking Bad? A modest high school chemistry teacher gets diagnosed with cancer so he starts making crystal meth to ensure his family have enough money after he dies. A delicious irony there, and a neat hook.

Of course, not all shows have an ‘irony of character’ at its heart, but it’s certainly a useful thing to consider when you’re developing, or have written, a pilot script.

* Another tip I picked up from John Yorke was to have a central gang for a show.

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