Polarized Ensemble

Rulebook Casefile: Head-Heart-Gut in “The Good Place”

It’s been a while since we talked about head-heart-gut polarization. To review, in some stories every character is three-dimensional, and that can work well, but it’s not the only way to tell a great, sophisticated story. Just as often, if not more often, the three main characters are polarized so that one is all-head, one is all-heart, and one is all-gut. (Sometimes this only applies to the three sidekicks and the main character is three dimensional.) In other stories, with bigger casts, some of these body parts are split up further. Sometimes, if you have three gut characters, they can be dived into spleen, stomach and groin.

The “Good Place” pilot has only three main characters and it’s a great example of classic head-heart-gut polarization. Eleanor is all gut: Hungry, horny, raunchy, selfish, insulting, etc. Chidi is all-head: An ethics professor, he overexplains and overthinks everything. Michael is (or seems to be at this point in the show) all-heart: a glowing, angelic, open-hearted lover of life and the world, bestowing care and affection wherever he goes.

This creates classic comedy and significant meaning as well. We see ourselves in all three, and different parts of our own 3-dimensional personalities identify humorously and painfully with each of the three in turn, thinking “Yes, I can go to that extreme sometimes and it’s so embarrassing when I do!”

Any polarized story is ultimately about how we need to integrate ourselves to evolve, and each of these three end up going on (or seeming to go on) a season-long quest to discover their missing elements. Eleanor tries to learn to be a smarter, more compassionate person. Chidi tries to learn to trust his gut and fall in love. (It’s telling that dealing with Eleanor gives Chidi a stomachache, as she reminds him of his missing organ.) Michael explores what it means to be human, especially in dealing with Eleanor, the first non-angelic human he’s had to deal with.

This show will soon expand to become a six-member ensemble, and it’s interesting to see where the new ones end up:

  • Janet is clearly a second head: an actual repository of all knowledge, unable to understand human emotion. Why isn’t she too similar to Chidi? Because her serenity is so different from his neurosis.
  • When Jason is revealed, he will clearly be a second gut. He will become stomach/groin, and Eleanor will become more spleen/groin. He’ll have some heart to him, too, though.
  • But where does that leave Tahani? Her main character note is “snooty”, which usually lines up with head (Think Fraiser or Winchester), but she’s not a therapist, doctor, or intellectual. She’s sort of a fake-heart, as her background is revealed to be an effective but smugly-self-satisfied philanthropist. Ultimately, she doesn’t fit well into this dynamic. What do you think? Where would you put Tahani?

“The Good Place” is a deep and sophisticated show. Like “Star Trek”, it’s a journey into inner space (and inner conflict) as much as to other worlds. By embodying our three-part personalities in three extremes, each episode re-creates our inner debate as we deal with ethical dilemmas in our own lives.
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Head-Heart-Gut (aka How to Create a Polarized Ensemble): The Archive

Here you can follow the development and maturation of this idea over several years.  A lot of this made it into the book, but I regretfully couldn’t include my obsessive diagrams, such as the one above.  I used to put so much time into these things!
And here’s where I actually define it if you just want to skip to here:
Oh why not, here’s one more diagram- I loved making these things:
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Rulebook Casefile: Assembling Gut, Heart, and Head in The 40 Year Old Virgin

Like Dorothy Gale, Carrie, Dr. House and Hannah Horvath, Andy in The 40 Year Old Virgin is a three-dimensional character with one-dimensional advisors who roughly correspond to Gut, Heart, and Head. In this case:
  • Jay (Romany Malco) is a classic Gut character, advising Andy to be animalistic, “All you doing is using your instinct. That's it. Tackle the gazelle.”
  • David (Paul Rudd) is all-Heart, still hung up on an old relationship and constantly imploring Andy to pursue old-fashioned romance.
  • Cal (Seth Rogen) as Head is the least obvious of these three, but, like many Head characters, he is both a would-be novelist (this is more clear in the extended version) and the Jewish member of the group. His advice is all about head-games, employing a strategic “ask questions” method.
This movie’s unique premise sends Andy on a coming-of-age journey at 40 years old, belatedly going from a proto-person to a fully-realized adult, so we get to see him build his adult persona from the ground up, first trying Jay’s method (picking up Leslie Mann), then David’s (Attempting and failing to call Trish), then Cal’s (hitting on the bookstore girl).

It’s only after he’s tried each version on its own and found each one wanting that he realizes that he has to integrate them into one method, and thereby integrate himself into a whole three-dimensional person, surpassing each of his former mentors.

In the commentary, Apatow cheerily points out that, though he and Carrel are the only credited writers, almost every scene in the finished movie was not in the original script, and instead came from jokes pitched by various actors in the movie, and even by some who aren’t in the movie. For instance, he keeps crediting gags to, of all people, Garry Shandling, One of Shandling’s suggestion was, “Once the virgin has sex, it has to be better than all the other guys’ sex”: This led to the wonderful finale in which Andy can only describe his deflowering by leading a jubilant performance of “Age of Aquarius”.

Shandling’s point, it seems to me, is that Andy has combined his friends’ incomplete parts into one whole, and achieved a level of fully-human experience that is denied to them.
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Rulebook Casefile: Real Life Head-Heart-Gut Trios in “Humans of New York”

And here’s the last one:
I found this gratifying: more than once on the site, Brandon discovers genuine polarized ensembles wandering the streets of New York!  Even when advocating such trios, I usually stress that they’re more common in fiction than they are in real life, but it turns out that they’re more common than I thought.

First we get a Heart / Gut / Head (in that he’s risk-averse)

And a Heart (in that his goal is more childlike) / Head / Gut (with an extra gut tagging along...)

It’s simple enough to differentiate characters by giving them different responses to a question, but an even better way to establish their personality is to have each one interpret that question in a fundamentally different way, showing us that their brains are hard-wired differently, and so they’re inevitably going to create conflict.

So that’s it for HONY week.  I urge you all to haunt the site as I do, gleaning more insights into human nature and tools for establishing a blast of personality right away.  
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Rulebook Casefile: Polarization Meets Reality in “Deliverance”

I’ve written before about how James Dickey’s book (and later screenplay) “Deliverance” was based on a real canoe trip he took with three other businessmen from Atlanta…but in real life the mountain folk who found the men just gave them a nice meal and a lift back to town. Dickey didn’t base the story on the worst thing that had happened to him, but on the worst thing that could have happened to him.

I was aware of that story because the Burt Reynolds character was based on Lewis King, a great guy who died last month, after a long, good life.

I knew Lewis because my mom was his friend and financial advisor, and now she’s helping handle his estate. While getting his papers on order, she was shocked to discover that Lewis had no insurance on any of the commercial real estate that he owned, but I reminded her that in the very first scene of Deliverance, Reynolds finds out that Ned Beatty’s character Bobby is an insurance agent, and snaps: “I’ve never had insurance and I never will…There’s no risk!”

Anyone who knew Lew and watches the movie can see that Dickey copied his friend’s persona very faithfully…but wait just a second—the fourth member of the ensemble, Drew, was played by Ronnie Cox, who had this to say:
  • I mean, we used to joke about it, because the four characters are all these four aspects of Jim Dickey. There’s a lot about him as that sort of “outdoors macho-man challenging everybody, and everything’s a competition” in Burt’s character. And there’s the thoughtful, almost timid advertising man, the everyman that was Jon Voight’s character at the beginning of the film. And then there’s the buffoonish, klutzy Bobby. But then Jim Dickey was also a poet and a guitar player who loved to play music, and all of his artistic aspects were in Drew.
So which is it? Is “Lew” based on the real Lew or on Dickey? We need not resolve this, because there is no contradiction. It’s always a good idea to base a character on someone you know, but that character must also be based on yourself, because that’s a well that you can peer much deeper into. Lew had the sort of larger-than-life personality that writers love to appropriate, but Dickey could not have written him well without finding part of Lew in himself.

Deliverance has the sort of four-part polarization that you see here: Head (Voigt), Heart (Cox) Stomach (Beatty) and Crotch (Reynolds): when you add them up, you get a complete human being, as Cox observed. But each character must also be a believable human being in his own right.

“Deliverance” works as both an inter-personal drama, creating a harrowing conflict between four believable characters, and an intra-personal drama, dramatizing the internal debate a person goes through when faced with a traumatic situation. To do so, Dickey combined specific details from the lives of his friends (such as Lewis never buying insurance) with the polarized aspects of his own personality.

The results are tremendously powerful: We utterly believe in the reality of this situation, and yet we also feel that the work has invaded our psyche, exposing our innermost fears and insecurities.
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How to Create a Polarized Ensemble, Conclusion: Partial Polarization

We’ve looked at lots of ensembles that are clearly polarized into head, heart and gut, and contrasted those with non-polarized ensembles on such shows as “The Wire”. Now, for the conclusion of the series, we’ll look at the middle ground: partially polarized ensembles.

One of the most sophisticated American TV shows of recent years was, oddly enough, a basic cable Saturday morning cartoon, “Avatar: The Last Airbender”, which I belated discovered in the last few years. The ensemble eventually expanded to four and then five, but let’s limit ourselves to the three core members: The young master of the elements, Aang, and the bother-sister team who help him find his destiny, Sokka and Katara.

When I tried to divide this cast into head, heart and gut, I realized that they were neither 1-dimensional nor 3-dimensional, but rather 2-dimensional:

  • Aang is usually either Heart or Gut, but almost never Head 
  • Sokka is usually either Head or Gut, but almost never Heart 
  • Katara is usually either Head or Heart, but almost never Gut 
In order to chart this, we’ll abandon the silhouette iconography we’ve been using and switch to circular continuum:

The show had some of the benefits of a classically polarized ensemble, such as heightened conflict and philosophical meaning, but it also allowed the characters to be more complex, to shift positions dynamically as situations escalated, and to grow and change over time. If you can pull it off, this is perhaps the best of all possible worlds.

Now let’s look at another 3-season cult favorite with an even more complex polarization: Dan Harmon’s late, lamented “Community” (soon to be replaced with an apocryphal non-Harmon version, but let’s not speak of that).

In the beginning, disbarred lawyer Jeff Winger was on an open-hearted quest to become a better person. To help himself, he formed a seven-person study group, with three partially polarized characters and three classically polarized head-heart-gut characters. (Incidentally, the show’s biggest flaw was that the fully-polarized characters, Britta, Shirley and Pierce, tended to be too shrill, exemplifying only the negative aspects of head, heart and gut.)
But something interesting happened over time. Jeff largely gave up his attempts to change and became increasingly heartless, retreating to his home base of head/gut. Meanwhile, the show’s oddball, Danny Pudi’s uber-nerd Abed, who had originally been head/gut in a very different way, increasingly overcame the limitations of his Asperger’s syndrome, until he became a three-dimensional person, and the new heart of the show, in every sense of that word.

The neat thing is that both versions of the show worked. Fans were disappointed in Jeff for his failure to change, but it was certainly a believable failure and well acted by Joel McHale. Meanwhile, that disappointment was more than made up for the happiness we felt at the growth of Abed.
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How to Create a Polarized Ensemble, Part 3: Maintaining The Ensemble

Maintaining a polarized ensemble for years can be a tricky proposition. One problem is that all characters have a natural tendency to become more three-dimensional over time. This is inevitable and not entirely bad: as audiences fall in love with characters, they want to see more sides of them, and actors certainly appreciate the chance to play more than one note.

But it can also be a problem. Fans of the TV version of “M*A*S*H” complained that, as the show went on, the characters had become too even-keeled and less funny as a result. Characters like Houlihan and Winchester, who had once been outrageous antagonists, had become likable characters, resulting in less comedic escalation.

Another problem with maintaining a polarized ensemble comes when you have to replace cast members. If you’re replacing more than one character at a time, you can theoretically flip the polarization of their replacements, but most shows only replace one character at a time, so the creators must find a replacement character who fills the same emotional role as his/her predecessor, which can seem overly formulaic.

Nevertheless, this usually works out better than the alternative. Let’s look at two cast changes on “Cheers”. When the great Nicholas Colasanto died suddenly at the end of the third season, the producers were in a bind: The show had two heads and three guts, but only one heart character, so they had to somehow replace Colasanto’s “Coach” with a very similar character.

They solved the problem elegantly by creating Woody Boyd. Superficially, he was entirely different from Coach: a young Indiana farmboy instead of an old Greek baseball coach, but he had the same heart, so the ensemble didn’t lose a beat.

Unfortunately, the next time they had to replace a cast member, they tried to get more ambitious. When essential co-star Shelly Long left after the fifth season, they decided to go a different route. Here’s casting director Jeff Greenberg from an excellent oral history of “Cheers” that appeared recently in GQ: “The producers wanted the opposite of Diane, someone who was grounded and not flighty.” Unfortunately, their choice was too grounded. Kirstie Alley did her best, but she was stuck with a less-than-extreme character that didn’t fit in with a polarized ensemble.

A more recent example is “The New Girl”, whose producers had the bad luck to have to lose a cast member before their second episode. Damon Wayans Jr. starred in the pilot because he thought his other sitcom “Happy Endings” would get cancelled, but when it got a last minute reprieve, he had to bow out.

From what we saw of him, Wayans’ character was extreme and very funny: an overzealous personal trainer (a “spleen” character, if you will).  I get the feeling that the challenge of replacing him was probably exacerbated by concerns about race sensitivity. The producers seemed to feel that they were caught in a trap:
  • If they recast the role without re-shooting the pilot, that might seem to imply all black people look the same…
  • But if they added a new character with a very similar personality, that might imply that all black people act the same…
  • For that matter, if they replaced Wayans with a black character who was polarized in any way, that might imply that all black people were 1-dimensional caricatures. 
Pity the poor writer navigating America’s racial minefield! (But not as much as, you know, actual victims of racism, who have it a little worse)

As a result, they felt that they had no other choice but to pull a Rebecca and add an even-keeled replacement to the polarized ensemble.  Luckily they cast a funny and likable actor in the role of Winston, and the show’s excellent writing staff have found plenty of ways to integrate his laid-back character into the show’s dynamic… but Winston still seems somehow vague compared to the rest of the cast. Whether he polarizes more over the course of the show will be interesting to watch.

Let’s look at one final example: “How I Met Your Mother”. When the show began, we had a tightly-knit, classically polarized four-person ensemble, and a fifth character who was a somewhat cryptic object of desire. Robin wasn’t really a character, she was just a mystery for Ted to solve. Once their relationship had run its course, Robin kept hanging around, somewhat awkwardly. Like Rebecca and Winston, she was an even-keeled character who seemed out-of-place in a polarized ensemble.
But these days she fits in just fine. This isn’t because her character polarized but because the rest of the ensemble de-polarized: Ted learned to trust his gut, Barney grew a heart, Marshall became more responsible, etc. As with “M*A*S*H”, the sharp edges fell away. Now we have five un-polarized characters. On the one hand, that means less potential for hijinks, but it also means that the audience feels gratified that our emotional investment in these characters’ growth has paid off.

Okay, we’ve got one more piece that spills over into next week, in which we look at another type of odd beast: the partially polarized ensemble…
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How to Create a Polarized Ensemble, Part 2: Two-Way and Four-Way Polarization

Not all polarized ensembles are neatly divided as Kirk, Spock and McCoy. There are lots of other ways to slice and dice a group. Let’s look at a couple of ways to polarize a four-part ensemble. In the most classic version, you have a fairly 3-dimensional lead character with three polarized advisors to act with the characters uses as sounding boards, representing his/her own head, heart and gut, as seen above.

Despite their protestations to the contrary, the scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz is clearly head, as the tin-man is heart and the cowardly lion is gut. As for “House” there was actually an episode where Dr. House had to make a diagnosis on plane without his interns around. He realized that he couldn’t think straight without three advisers, one of whom was brainy, another who was caring, and a third who was self-interested, so he appointed three random people on the plane to play those roles!

Here’s two more examples... HBO has made the same show twice: a 3-dimensional New York essayist writes about the post-feminist woes of her generation, taking her examples from her three friends: a naïve romantic, a promiscuous risk-taker, and the smart, responsible one who gets frustrated by the boring men she gets stuck with.  Here’s how “Sex and the City” and “Girls” break down:

Another way to polarize a cast of four is to split the gut role into two: the boorish slob and the cocky, impulsive one.  Examples of this include “The Fantastic Four”, the original cast of “Cheers” (We’ll see how they changed tomorrow), and “The Simpsons.”

Yet another way to polarize a quartet is to add a fourth element floating above the other three: Faith. (Thanks to commenter Mark for pointing out that the Three Musketeers belong in this group. The pictures are from Alex Toth’s animated version of the story):

But what about a show led by two people? 2-way polarization is a bit more unpredictable. As with 3-way polarization, the two characters add up to one whole person, but each pairing is different, split along the lines of a fundamental dilemma that is universal to human nature:

  • Even though “The Honeymooners” had a three member ensemble, it was really just a two-way split. Ralph and Alice respectively represented optimistic ambition and pessimistic practicality. Norton wasn’t really a foil for either, merely serving as Ralph’s sidekick in his get-rich quick schemes. 
  • The “X-Files” heroes personify the divide between skepticism and belief. 
  • On “24”, frenetic super-secret-agent Jack Bauer had every weapon at his disposal except one: moral authority. Meanwhile, subdued president David Palmer had to work under the terms of constitution that gives the chief executive no powers at all except one: moral authority. They could only solve the conspiracies that threatened the country by working together, as two fractured halves of a whole.
Okay, tomorrow we’ll look at the pitfalls that can occur when a polarized ensemble goes through a shake-up...
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Creating a Polarized Ensemble, Part 1: The Pros and Cons of Polarization

Recently I watched the pilot for  NBC’s new “Hunger Games” knockoff, “Revolution”.  Our heroine, “Not-Katniss”, is a bad-ass sixteen-old archer who makes daily hunting trips into the forbidden zone around her martial-law-controlled town, until the ruling militia shows up to take her sister brother.  Being the impulsive rule-breaker that she is, she instantly decides to go after them....but wait, first her doctor-stepmother and a nerdy former internet billionaire insist on coming along.  Not-Katniss indignantly demands, “Why should I bring you two along?” 

They never really explain that in the world of the show, but anyone who’s been reading my posts knows the answer: because these are three one-dimensional characters, representing head, heart and gut, who come together to form one whole person.  I’ve written seven previous posts and done a podcast about polarized ensembles (all can be found here), but my ideas have developed over time, so now I’m going to put it all together. (I apologize for repeating some info)

Once you start looking for this sort of polarized ensemble, you see it almost everywhere, even multiple trios nested within the same show:
Roughly speaking, these are some of the qualities associated with each archetype:
  • Head: “I think”, Smart, analytical, talker, scientist, professor, unemotional, critical, too focused on odds, father, Freud’s ego, stick in the mud, “This is a bad idea”
  • Heart: “I feel”, Caring, sensitive, listener, doctor, worried about human consequences, conscience, mother, Freud’s super-ego, emotional, merciful, frequently a southerner (Dr. McCoy, Kenneth on “30 Rock”, Woody on “Cheers”), “Who will get hurt?”
  • Gut (also spleen and cajones): “I want”, craving, hungry, horny, boaster, coward, self-interested, child, Freud’s id, honest, impulsive, “Wouldn’t it be fun…?”
Other important things to note about polarized ensembles:
  • Any of the three can be the lead character, as indicated by the red arrows above.
  • The best polarization is done impartially.  The point is not to prove the “gut” character wrong and the “head” character right.  They should be equally matched in their debates.
  • Polarized characters tend not to die, because they need each other.  When one of the three dies, the story feels out-of-whack.  
All of this leads us to our first big question: is this a good idea?  Aren’t 1-dimensional characters a sign that the writer has failed?  Aren’t 3-dimensional characters automatically superior?  Not necessarily.  Both options have their pros and cons:

The Cons of having a Polarized Ensemble:
  • You have to accept that your characters will be 1-dimensional, not 3-dimensional.
  • The dialogue will not be entirely naturalistic.  In real life, everyone is 3-dimensional (even if they don’t seem like it right away.)
  • If you have a multi-racial cast made up of polarized 1-dimensional characters, then there is a serious danger that the minority characters will seem to be stereotyped (or reverse stereotyped, which also seems cynical).  There are three solutions to this: you can write a polarized show with only one race (as in most of our examples), you can have a multi-racial ensemble of 3-dimensional, non-polarized characters (“The Wire”, for example), or you can risk accusation of stereotyping and do it anyway, hoping that the audience will see that your heart is in the right place (“30 Rock”, Community”)
The Pros of Having a Polarized Ensemble:
  • Sometimes 1-dimensional characters are more relatable than 3-dimensional characters.  When we watch “The Simpsons”, rather than fully identify with any one character, different parts of our personality relate to Homer, Marge, Lisa and Bart. 
  • While the resulting dialogue isn’t naturalistic, it is still, in a sense, realistic: A polarized ensemble won’t remind us of actual conversations, but it will remind us of the debate going on within our own head.  A polarized ensemble is a way to dramatize our internal debates.  This is why a 3-dimensional lead is sometimes given three 1-dimensional sidekicks to strategize with, to dramatize the debate the lead is having with his/her head, heart and gut.
  • Well-rounded characters, by definition, have no rough edges, and it’s hard to get them to spark off each other.  1-dimensional characters have more extreme views, so they create more conflict. Compare the un-polarized leads of “Star Trek: The Next Generation” with the original show. 
  • That conflict tends to develop in an impartial way.  If you’re pitting head against heart against gut, you’re not posing a no-brainer decision between “right” and “wrong” or “weak” and “strong”, you’re posing a difficult dilemma in which fundamental human impulses, each of which is universal, are pitted against each other.  A head vs. heart dilemma, for example, is not only hard to solve but hard to want to solve, which means that it is a genuine conflict, not just an obstacle.
Okay, this is already getting massive, so we’ll come back tomorrow for part two, where we’ll explore 2-way polarization and 3 types of 4-way polarization.  (I know, I know, you were told there would be math!)
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Another Podcast, The Wire and Dickens, and More Head Heart Gut to Come

It’s happened again, I’ve co-hosted another episode of James Monohan and Cheryl Klein’s storytelling podcast “The Narrative Breakdown”.  This episode is about creating ensembles. 

Inevitably, we talk quite a bit about my “head, heart, gut” theory, which began here and continued here, here, here, here, here and here, but keeps expanding in my mind, so come back tomorrow (and maybe longer) where I’ll try to integrate all those previous pieces for the first time, with some nifty visuals.  


Meanwhile, in the podcast, you’ll hear that we repeat the common wisdom that “The Wire” is Dickensian in nature.  As it turns out, shortly after we recorded this episode, Cheryl was amused to see that Salon’s book editor Laura Miller had apparently heard us and disagreed vociferously.  This was my response to Cheryl:

That’s funny, but I’m not sure I buy it.  She digs for traits that “The Wire” doesn’t have in common with Dickens, but none of these are traits that all Dickens novels have.  If you’re prepared to talk about “Dickens” as one body of work, then you’ve already accepted that you’re going to generalize. 

I would say that the heart of the comparison lies in shared traits she didn’t mention: 

  • An impossibly large cast of resourceful-but-ultimately-tragic characters who are ground up by the wheels of institutional indifference, but find moments of happy transcendence in their everyday lives.  
  • The lack of focus on immediate goals, replaced by the pleasure of visiting and re-visiting members of that cast as their fortunes rise and fall multiple times over many years. Just when you think you’re never going to see a character again, they pop back up in a different phase of their life.  
  • Taking an anthropologist’s joy in replicating the strange and witty jargon of the streets.
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