Thursday, September 06, 2012

What the fuck is happening here?

Been spending the week catching up on shows I had DVR’ed while on the road. Mostly cable hour dramas. (What else is on in the summer?) I’m starting to notice an annoying trend that is beginning to concern me – shows are trying to be way too clever for their own good.

Case in point: caught an episode of WHITE COLLAR. The plot involved a spy ring from the Revolutionary War that has reformed. Along the way, people were calling each other by numbers based on which Revolutionary War hero they were a descendent of. There was a McGuffin (an original American flag), twists, turns, and red herrings. And to make matters worse, somehow the existence of this spy ring tied into a main character trying to reconcile his relationship with his absentee parents. It was part DA VINCI CODE part MALTESE FALCON part ANNIE. All in forty-something minutes because the hour was loaded with commercials and desperate pleas to visit their website. 

What it really was was a complete utter mess. The story was impossible to follow. Pages and pages were devoted to exposition trying to get the audience on board but the explanations were even more arcane than the action. There were coordinates, codes to be broken, treasure maps, clues, and the whole while I just kept saying, WHAT THE FUCK IS HAPPENING HERE?

Then there was an episode of PERCEPTION with Eric McCormick. In this plot a man’s wife disappears. At first it’s thought the Russian mob was behind it. Then we learn the husband had an affair. Then we learn that the husband was having the affair with his wife but didn’t know it. Then we find out the wife wasn’t the person murdered. Then we find out that the wife became the housekeeper and someone else posed as the wife. It was this friend, who was in cahoots with either the real wife or the real housekeeper who died. Tossed in for fun was a scene where someone from the Russian mob threatens McCormick to get off the case or else, and we learn he sometimes has hallucinations. So that scene was just in his head. Again, I’m crying out WHAT THE FUCK IS HAPPENING HERE?

I applaud that showrunners are trying to tell ambitious intricate stories, but there is a real danger that you can overdo it. The trap writing staffs fall into is that they discuss these stories for days and weeks. So it’s not confusing to them (hopefully). They try their best to lay in the exposition. And on paper it all makes sense. The problem is they’re too close to it.

The viewer is coming at it fresh.  The scenes and explanations fly by so fast nothing lands.  And if the viewers are baffled they eventually go away. Maybe not at first if they like the characters but keep doing it and eventually they’ll throw up their hands and say it's not worth the effort. In the case of PERCEPTION that’s me already. I’ve jumped off the train.  And I like Eric McCormick. 

Look, I've been guilty of that myself.  The CHEERS "Bar Wars II" episode about the Bloody Mary contest can only be followed if watched in slow motion.   Hopefully, in the subsequent Bar Wars episodes we learned our lesson.

I’m not suggesting you do stories so mind-numbingly simple even the cast of JERSEY SHORE can follow. Keep trying to find unique areas (if there really was a Revolutionary War spy ring I didn’t know that and find it interesting), but maybe leave out the last seven twists. At least the last four.  There's enough gunfire in these shows without having to shoot yourself in the foot. 

Remember, the USA Network’s slogan is: CHARACTERS WELCOME. It’s not WHAT THE FUCK IS HAPPENING HERE?

31 comments:

Michael Fox said...

The plot to my own proposed TV series is complicated, set over several time periods. I've been struggling myself with how to tell the story without too much reveal, while making sense to the viewer. I'd rather not have my audience cry out WTF?! Thanks for an enlightening article!

MomQueenBee said...

That was the exact episode of "White Collar" that sent me to my DVR's menu to delete future recordings. "Perception," though, hasn't lost me yet although they're trying hard to kick me off the trail.

Jeremiah Avery said...

That episode of "White Collar" did annoy me as well. Though I've enjoyed the show for awhile, some of the characterization seems to be shifting in a bad way. Peter used to be a lot more savvy but now he leaves a big map in his house with Neil's location having a big red circle around it.

Also, Mozzie's conspiracy theorist schtick was quirky at first but now it's very, very annoying and the episode you mention, Ken, just helped justify his idiotic ramblings.

"Perception" has been a mixed bag for me.

While it's great to see some shows trust the audience to be able to figure things out or to follow along a complicated plot thread; some just seem to want to show off at the expense of telling a good and coherent story.

deanareeno said...

I haven't seen Perception yet, so this might be an unfair observation, but it seems like yet another show that is trying to pull off the House template (troubled genius solving mysteries, clearly inspired by Sherlock Holmes), which to me is a tired device for a TV show at this point.

Caitlin B said...

Ken, have you ever watched Doctor Who?

Wiggen said...

Couldn't agree more, Ken. Perception lost me after the second episode, and it's not the first. When the plot gets so complicated (see the Ashley Judd show from a few months ago) that it's impossible to follow any more, then it's sayanora from me.

Jon88 said...

There's no shortage of reasons to dislike "Perception" (though I confess I'm still watching it), but "we learn he sometimes has hallucinations" isn't one of them. It's the foundation of the show, and was established within minutes in the premiere.

JasonR said...

I suspect how much people liked the White Collar episode was dependent on how much they like Mozie.

I thought the White Collar episode in question was purposefully intricate to mirror how convoluted Mozie's backstory about his life and parents had become.

White Collar has occasionally strayed into overly complicated plots (how else can you make white collar crimes TV-interesting?), but the spy ring episode was more of an outlier and the show has earned the right to try something a bit different.

RJ Hope said...

Yeah, I agree. I tried to get into "White Collar" but found it a little too difficult to follow for someone who is not a die hard.

Mitchell Hundred said...

There was actually a spy ring commanded by Washington during the American Revolution: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Culper_Ring.

BigTed said...

The most recent episode of "Leverage" told us what actually happened to D.B. Cooper -- so congratulations to the writers for figuring that out! (Okay, it was actually their fictionalized version, and I figured out the surprise twist half an hour before the characters did -- but it was still a fun idea.)

Max Clarke said...

"Inception" seems simple and easy compared to these shows.

tb said...

I whole-heartedly agree with this and you should send it out to everyone, not just in TV but movies too. It's a huge problem that's just getting stupider by the minute.

Ane said...

Compare the post's first photo to this one: http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/shortcuts/2012/apr/11/breivik-lawyers-scandinavian-crime-drama

Just sayin'...

jbryant said...

Ken, the most recent episode of PERCEPTION was equally convoluted. The murder of a campus coed involved a royal playboy, a deluded stalker, a devious chemistry student, and an experimental drug, with the subplot involving plagiarism, a brain injury and McCormack interacting with a hallucinatory version of his college-age self. That said, sometimes these shows need all the bells and whistles they can get to avoid that 'been there, done that' feeling.

The show is basically A BEAUTIFUL MIND as a procedural, so, yeah,the hallucinations were there from the beginning.

Pamela Jaye said...

simple shows, like Chuck, spell the plot out for you in one or two sentences. This usually happens at the same time my roommate walks in with a report on dinner. (or my brain is so wrapped up in trying to figure out where I've seen that actress before, that I miss it)

Almost all season, Once Upon a Time ran in a timeslot that somehow conflicted wth me reading my email. Also, summer existed. So now I have to rewatch the entire thing (I should have done it first - as it turns out, Smash is mid-season and could have waited)

Roommate watches Burn Notice and stuff on Syfy. Luckily those run multiple times. I've been watching network primetime Live for a while now (something I haven't done since I moved my TV to the bedroom in 1999 and watched absolutely everything off VHS). The DVR has been dreaking files on drive 1 - putting holes in episodes that stop playing in the middle. Need to get brother t replace drive (and vacuum out the duck feathers).

So glad I never tried to watch Lost. Soneone tweeted that Clinton was going to explain it last night.

Oh right - the reason i'm watching live TV. We don't have digital cable, but we get digital HD for the broadcast networks over our cable and it's shinier and prettier than analog SD from DVR. Cable networks look prettier on DVR (I figure the TV is getting the crappy end of the multiple split in the signal).

A lot of people explain things, leaving out many important details cause they live with it too long. TV writers shouldn't be among them.

Mike said...

Question, if you have a series and you introduce a new actor to play a character, do you just let it sink in for the audience, or do you do anything special to make the audience comfortable? Any difference for a movie series? I'm wondering how Atlas Shrugged 2 will handle a whole new cast.

Mike said...

@Mike:I'm wondering how Atlas Shrugged 2 will handle a whole new cast.
At the start of the film, an announcement to the audience:
The entire cast of Atlas Shrugged 1 has been fired and replaced by a younger and cheaper cast.
The audience for Atlas Shrugged will understand.

Phillip B said...

My first thought is these scripts are the natural descendants of "Lost"

Not soap operas, but complicated enough to keep the truly devout fully engaged -- like baseball or the Catholic Church.

darms said...

I dunno, personally once I accepted the conventions of "White Coller" as 'real' (which they obviously are not) I enjoyed and had no trouble following that particular episode. For me there were no jarring notes to cause me to lose my "willing suspension of disbelief" and I liked that I couldn't guess the outcome until the end of the show. Since you are a highly-skilled comedy writer and I am but an employed engineer I do value your opinion but would like to know more if you care to discuss this further. You said "What it really was was a complete utter mess. The story was impossible to follow. Pages and pages were devoted to exposition trying to get the audience on board but the explanations were even more arcane than the action. There were coordinates, codes to be broken, treasure maps, clues, and the whole while I just kept saying, WHAT THE FUCK IS HAPPENING HERE?". I on the other hand had no problem following the plot and as for the "coordinates, codes to be broken, treasure maps, clues, et al", I took them in stride as the underlying tone of the show is to me "tongue in cheek". Certainly I enjoyed this episode far more than the recent Nicholas Cage "National Treasure" movies which IMHO I found to be ridiculous...

Damon Rutherford said...

I thought that particular "White Collar" episode was detailed, though perhaps clumsy, but still easy to follow and understand. No complaints here!

I find it hard to believe that "The story was impossible to follow."

Instead of saying "What the fuck is happening here?" do you have more specific questions pertaining to the plot? Otherwise, it seems like you missed a few key points at the beginning that screwed the episode for you the remainder of the way.

Lou H. said...

The White Collar staff has woven a nice little world which I like to visit. The exterior scenes show NYC at its most beautiful. But they seem to write 2-hour episodes that they then chop down to 40 minutes by cutting out the middle and throwing in a deus ex machina or two.

For instance, there's the one where Jones' ex's husband mysteriously vanished halfway around the world. Missing-guy's boss just happens to be in NYC, so the gang crashes a party to try to get some intel on him. While the party is going on, who should show up outside but missing-guy! He wants to see his boss, too. Case closed in just 15 minutes! Oh wait, missing-guy spends a couple minutes giving us exposition about evil boss that would take too long if it were acted out, and now it appears they'll have to pull a caper for the next half hour to really solve the problem. Just awful pacing.

Roger Owen Green said...

The ONLY episode of Perception I've ever seen was the one you described; I thought it was me who was having difficulty keeping the wives, and hallucinations, straight.

Brian said...

Ken, now that Breaking Bad has finished its run for the season, I'm curious as to what you think of the writing of it.

Pat Reeder said...

Never heard of "White Collar," but I really like "Perception." It's filled the lone non-comedy spot in my TV week that "House" used to take up. I think the early episodes were a little rough, but the writing has improved very quickly. Once you understand the premise, it's pretty clear when he's hallucinating because it's either a recurring character you know or it's something so off the wall, it has to be an illusion that his mind is conjuring up to help him solve the mystery. (TIP: My wife has a hearing problem and puts on the closed captions. With this show, that might also help the non-hearing impaired.)

Also, Eric McCormack is terrific in it. He makes me forget "Will and Grace," and I mean that compliment on at least two levels.

GFoyle said...

Re Mike re Atlas Shrugged 2:

According to Tom Scharpling, "Just saw an advance screening of ATLAS SHRUGGED 2. It's not very good but Paul Ryan's acting is surprisingly solid."

WizarDru said...

These are shows? On television?

I've literally never heard of them before this. I'm not sure if that's on them or on me. I don't watch as much scripted dramas as I used to, but I still seem to have more than I have time for.

Heck, I still have last year's Castle and Person of Interest shows on my TiVo. The only show I've stayed current with this summer was Longmire (and I haven't watched the finale, yet).

Dana Gabbard said...

Darns says he is an engineer. Well, everyone knows they are infamous outliers for juries and political polling from being literal and detached. And evidently have a high opinion of their opinion.

Frankly if I was a producer of either show and read this entry, Ken's reaction is what I would value (not the condescending "I'm so smart that I got it" types) and gather the tribe for a session of analyzing what the shows need to change to give the audience a break.

darms said...

Dana Gabbard,
I was hoping for a more detailed explanation of Ken's "WTF" reaction in order to better understand his opinion, not to imply 'right' or 'wrong' or any such thing. It would be interesting at least to me why he as a writer thought "WTF" while I as a viewer thought it competent & quite watchable if a bit far-fetched. I won't be buying the series, however...

jenw said...

I actually liked that episode of Perception - I pretty much had it figured out before they explained everything though.
Agreed that the White Collar episode, while cute, was a bit too complicated.

Shrill1 said...

I love Law & Order for the most part but really haven't watched those shows too much the past few years. A while back I tuned into an episode. It started out focused on the male head of a fashion company who's found murdered, possibly by his most recent sex partner. But no, it turns out that he actually cut someone off in traffic and that person posted his license plate to an online site where people egg one another on to get revenge against other people and one of the users of the site is a woman who was unbalanced. Then a few scenes of computer magic: someone on the site tracks down the victim's address using his license plate (the DMV lets just anyone search their database, right?) and then goes online and disables the security system in the victim's building (just like that!) so this unbalanced woman, who weighs about 90 pounds sopping wet, can get in and overpower this well muscled 35 year old guy and throttle him to death so the L&O team decides to bring charges against the other folks on the website who...well, it went on like that for quite some time. I mean, jeez.