04 Conflict Avoidance: The Drama of Freaks and Geeks

Article excerpt

INFLUENTIAL screenwriting advisor Robert McKee dictates The Law of Conflict: 'Nothing moves forward in a story except through conflict'. (1) In most American and Australian television drama, characters' feelings of internal conflict are regularly expressed in the form of interpersonal conflict. 'Reality TV' from The Jerry Springer Show to Big Brother is also founded on these conventions of conflict. However, some recent programs have shown that good drama can come from unconventional conflict. Freaks and Geeks (formerly on Channel 7, now showing on Fox 8) does not rely heavily on outward conflict to engage audiences and drive dramatic narrative. Freaks and Geeks was a short-lived American teen drama, nostalgically set in the early 1980s. The main characters are Lindsay and her freaky friends, and her younger brother Sam and his band of gawky geeks. An unconventional approach to character conflict underlies the teenage friendships at the core of this drama.

While Freaks and Geeks seems like an ordinary teen drama, it does not resort to outward character conflict where audiences would typically expect it. When Neil Schweiber, a young geek, discovers that his father is cheating on his mother, we expect this storyline to culminate in spectacular family conflict: yelling, screaming, doors slamming. However, the episode climaxes with Neil and his friends aimlessly riding their bikes around suburban streets for several hours, searching in vain for Neil's father. In the following episode, Neil begins acting out at school and against his father, with the help of his ventriloquist 'figure'. The very reason Neil is upset about his father's infidelity is because he assumes it will cause outward family conflict; however the confrontations that ensue deny a conventional climax. When Neil tearily confronts his mother with his guilty knowledge, she admits that she has known about her husband's unfaithfulness for years. She doesn't cry, or raise her voice or smash kitchenware, but simply hugs her son. 'It's OK,' she says, and calmly explains that she and her husband are working on it. This is a highly dramatic scene, which avoids expressing family anxiety through interpersonal clashes.

This kind of drama opens up new possibilities for character and narrative. The strategy of conflict avoidance creates a sense of realism: the characters seem more real because they avoid conflict in the way that real people often do. The storylines of Freaks and Geeks are not bound to conventional plots of goal attainment, and stories often develop through passionate and enjoyable interpersonal interactions such as games of Dungeons and Dragons. …