Thursday, September 06, 2012
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?
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?
By Ken Levine at 6:00 AM