It’s summertime, and the television is empty. We’ve had season finales of the current shows that I watch and so I have been cruising Netflix looking for something to watch with dinner in the evenings.
I really like the television format as a medium for storytelling. A series of individual episodes, each one able to stand on its own, yet each building on the proceeding episodes allows for a very large canvas. When it’s done well it can be used to tell stories with both a breadth and a depth that other mediums simply don’t have space to tell.
Sadly, it so seldom seems to be done well. There are a number of reasons for this, I suppose, some dealing with the economics of the production companies, others more tied to the preconceptions of the writing staff. Paradoxically the same attributes of the medium that in theory allow the filmmakers to experiment and take risks with the narrative structure often, in practice, discourage innovation and reward reversion to trope.
After spending much of yesterday sampling the first quarter hour or so of a number of Netflix’s crop of archived programs, I have identified a number of common scenes that are both endemic and emetic–that is to say, they are everywhere and they make me gag.
I am not saying that any of these things will necessarily make me click the remote and move on to the next show, but when I see these same bits showing up within the first few minutes of starting a pilot I grow very discouraged.
Damn, This Shaky Camera Is Heavy: Someone is running through a scary place, which might be a) the woods at night b) a series of dark alleys at night or c) an inexplicably poorly lit empty office building at night. We don’t see who it is, we just see the landscape blurrily bouncing by with heavy breathing on the soundtrack. Seriously, guy, put down the freaking camera, you’ll make much better time and we’re not going to learn anything from watching this.
Perky Yet Practical: She’s young and pretty, with designer clothes, professional hair and makeup, and an hour-a-day-at-the-gym body. She’s the newest member of the team, a rookie, an intern, or a student. She’s been sent to work with the old master because her teachers recognize her enormous potential. In order to prove that she’s not just there to give the old men some eye candy, her introduction to the audience must involve her just happening to know the one fact that the old master doesn’t.
I Will Now Explain What The Show Is About: He’s a charmingly eccentric middle-aged man who doesn’t follow the rules because he cares too much about what he’s doing to follow anyone else’s procedures. Naturally he teaches the advanced graduate class in whatever it is, in a classroom conveniently located three lines of dialogue down the hall from his brilliantly messy office. After trading quips with the hidebound administrator who hates his methods but loves his results, he comes (late) into the classroom to deliver a stirring introduction to his subject, explaining in words of one syllable what it is that he does. The class–who evidently have been napping during the first seven semesters of their schooling–listen in rapt fascination. (This may explain why perky yet practical has been pegged as a genius–she’s the only student without anterograde amnesia .)
You’re A Sensitive Man? Wow, I’m A Sensitive Man, Too: Here we meet two members of the team, one of whom is probably Black. They are rough and tough and hard to bluff, but deep down inside they are both vulnerable and caring people. We know this because we see them in the locker room or the break room talking about their feelings. This will involve a woman that one of them (probably the White one) wants to ask out or a woman that one of them (probably the Black one) is scared of losing. This scene will be interrupted by the old master gruffly charging into the room and ordering them both to saddle up.
I Always Hated Those Guys: It’s the big mission briefing for the team and it turns out that there is some kind of problem at either a secret research facility, isolated warehouse, or corporate headquarters of Big Evil Company, Inc. The old master, of course, knows all about Big Evil Company, Inc., since he either used to work for them or has been trying to get them shut down, or both. Usually both. This will involve explaining to perky yet practical just how evil Big Evil is, with the old master trying to be fair minded and stick to the facts and one of the other team members (one of the two above, or both together) explaining the unproven accusations.
The Only Person In The World Who Can Do This Job Is Your Ex: No. Just no. Great big steaming heaps of no drizzled with a tangy no sauce. As part of an on-going series that I already like I am willing to grit my teeth and accept ex-spouses who are in the same business being forced to work together on a limited basis (yes, Agents Of Shield, I am looking at you here) but as part of the series setup in the pilot? No. I’m out of here, as soon as I move these cases of no out of the way of the emergency exit.
Look, I understand that writing for a television series is highly competitive business. There is a lot of content out there and a series has to pick up a lot of viewers out of the gate to make it past the mid-season cuts. You want to give the viewers some hooks to keep them watching. There is a lot of pressure to be all things to all people–exciting, funny, dramatic, tragic, what have you. You have to give the people what they want or you’re on the next bus back to Burbank to do continuity on The Home Shopping Network.
There are better ways to do that. Give me characters who are interesting and sympathetic on their own before you start filling the studio with puppies to kill. These aren’t dramatic twists any more, they are painfully predictable.