Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Because the writer WANTS them to

Here’s a common problem we writers have. We need to get to a certain plot point in the story. But logically getting a character to be where we need him to be won’t be easy. It’ll be a stretch for him, or there are other alternative choices he would probably make first. Sometimes solving these problems are murder. Often we need to either re-think the plot or the character. One sure way to lose an audience is when they throw up their hands and say, “That’s ridiculous. He would never DO that!”

How many romantic comedies have you seen where the two leads supposedly fall in love and you say, “why?”

Because the writer needs them to is not a good answer.

It’s like those idiotic teen slasher movies. Why on God’s green earth do those kids go back to that summer camp? Every summer?  You'd think one year they'd go to the mall.

A more recent example comes from last Sunday’s BRAIN DEAD. I better explain it since, according to the ratings, no one watched it. And if you did, after this week, you might never again.

Okay, here’s the backstory. Ants from outer space have landed on earth and crawl into peoples’ ears, turning them into zombies. They become political extremists. It’s a satire on Washington.

So there’s a big buy to begin with.

Over the last few weeks our heroine, Laurel, has noticed that people around her are turning into these Stepford senators. She’s learned what the cause is and can’t get anyone to take her warnings seriously.

In last week’s episode she has sex with a guy in her apartment. Then (conveniently) decides to sleep on the couch. Ants get in and nail her booty call. She realizes this in the morning. Now it starts getting really dicey. 

First, she’s not convinced her beefcake is actually infected. He could just be acting a little weird. Except that all the signs are there and she’d have to be an idiot not to instantly recognize he’s now “one of them.” And Gustav, the ADD genius spearheading the campaign to alert the public of these creatures from outer space and inner ear TELLS her she escaped their clutches by sleeping on the couch.

So let me ask you? Would YOU go back to that apartment the next night? Might you instead, oh, I dunno, check into the 80th floor of a hotel and spray RAID wherever you go instead? If you think bed bugs are bad, ants that eat your brain are way worse. Or is it just me?

But nope, plucky Laurel returns to her apartment that night. No residual ants hanging around. You’d think fifty or a hundred would linger. If nothing else they could bring an apple back to the mother ship. But no, the apartment appears to be clean. By the way, not too smart to keep the window open, Laurel… in your first floor apartment.

So she’s back in her cozy apt., seemingly unconcerned, when zombooty call calls again, bearing gifts – a pizza and bouquet of cherry blossoms. Even terrestrial ants know to hide in cherry blossom bouquets. Instead of being freaked, Laurel lets him in. Huh??? Why?

Because the writers want her to.

He begins to molest her. She hits him nine times with brass knuckles. (Gustav conveniently provided them. You never know when infected souls like Margo Martindale might want to fight back.)

The bloodied guy leaves. I’m screaming, “Laurel! Get the fuck out of there!” But no. I guess she paid the rent for the month so by God she’s staying.

Gustav arrives. Tells her to leave (like any sane person would). Not a chance. She’s staying. He says at least put up this mosquito netting he brought along with five dollar headphones to cover her ears. Somehow it doesn’t feel like a very satisfying science-fiction story when the space invaders can be thwarted by Radio Shack.

So Gustav leaves. Laurel goes to bed. But first, decides to put up the mosquito netting. She climbs in. It’s not sealed very well. She brings the headphones to bed but decides they’re not necessary. Moments later she’s fast asleep. Could you fall asleep wrapped in mosquito netting knowing that just the night before ants got another victim right where you’re lying now? I’d need an Ambien the size of a manhole cover.

So Laurel saws ZZZZZZ’s and guess who crawls out of the cherry blossoms making a beeline for the girl with ears. Yep. They don’t stop for kitchen crumbs, they head right to the bedroom. Mosquito netting is only good for keeping out earth ants it seems. This is definitely a defect. Obviously the manufacturers cut corners and didn’t bother to test their product on Mars.

The episode ends with an ant going into Laurel’s ear and Laurel waking up startled.

I have no problem with the producers deciding to infect Laurel. Or it was one ant that she removes with a Q-tip next week. Whatever. But the ants could get her anywhere. It’s not like the ONLY place they were was her apartment.  These aren't the Oakwood Gardens. The whole sequence made absolutely no sense.

On a Robert & Michelle King show I’m very surprised this scene got through. I’m guessing they were concentrating on THE GOOD WIFE when this episode was being fashioned down the hall.

Laurel had other choices. Laurel is not stupid. Hell, the ants are not stupid.

Look, when characters make idiotic choices the audience stops rooting for them, stops caring about them.  If Laurel is such a nitwit she goes back to her apartment then she deserves what she gets.  

I’m giving the show one more week. But if she expels the ant, then still stays in that apartment I am throwing a shoe at the television screen.

41 comments:

Wendy M. Grossman said...

Well, but given the (lack of) quality of THE GOOD WIFE's final season, maybe the Kings were just on vacation...

Meanwhile, for your and others' delectation (I've only just found this, and I don't think it's ever been posted here), I thought this was a pretty funny imagining of network notes if THE WIZARD OF OZ were submitted as an episode of reality tv: http://jeezjon.typepad.com/jeez_jon_an_almost_workin/2015/05/if-the-wizard-of-oz-got-a-round-of-reality-tv-network-notes.html

wg

Kosmo13 said...

I see the same lazy-writing phenomenon happening in crime stories. The supposed audience-identification character discovers a murder victim, crouches over the body and then picks up the bloody knife or blunt object or recently fired gun. Why would anyone do this? Even an idiot should know by now that if you touch the murder weapon, you'll leave fingerprints on it. If a movie or TV character touches the murder weapon, I can no longer root for them and usually hope they'll get convicted of the murder someone else committed.

Jim S said...

That's why I loved "Breaking Bad" so much. Vince Gilligan and company would purposely get Walt in tight spots. They weren't afraid of that. And then they did the hard work of getting him out.

Gilligan admitted it wasn't easy, but it made for great Television. It made Walt look smart. So when Gus Fring shows up and matches wits with Walt and the Cartel, it's exciting.

Smart characters are hard to write because they can only be as smart as the writers, and sometimes writers are fried and on deadline. But when it works, look out. That's also the benefit of having to only do 12 or 13 episodes a year. You get the extra time needed to cover all the bases.

It isn't easy when you have to do 22 to 24 episodes a year like on Network TV.

Michael said...

It sounds like you are sticking with this show for the time being because it was created by Robert & Michelle King. Friday question: Who are some of the other show creators or actors you would always give benefit of doubt to and sample their new show or give them time to improve?

Andrew said...

Thanks so much for watching this so I don't have to. Your description reads like an episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000.

Concerning this: "One sure way to lose an audience is when they throw up their hands and say, 'That’s ridiculous. He would never DO that!' "

I remember an interview with Jason Alexander, in which he said that early on in Seinfeld, he told Larry David the same thing. "Larry, this would never happen. It's too ridiculous. And if it did happen, no one would ever react this way." Larry responded, "What do you mean? It happened to me, and that's exactly how I reacted!" That was when Jason realized that the character of George was based on Larry David. No one had told him that.

Bugdun said...

Possible spoiler....It's a rouge, good-guy ant, who is simply going to whisper in her ear instructions on how to stop the bad-guy ants.

Sorry.

Terry said...

The whole "why would they do that?" problem ruined the movie Trainwreck for me. It was an otherwise amusing movie with some solid, funny supporting performances (LeBron James, who knew?), but it fell apart for me because Amy Schumer's character was so unlikable that I couldn't possibly figure out what Bill Hader's character ever saw in her to begin with. Sure there's something of a transformation toward the end where she tries to clean up her act, but in the beginning all I could think was what is he doing with her? He could do so much better.

Herschel said...

My goodness... at least I will not waste my time on this show based on your analysis.

therealshell said...

I gave up on the show after the second episode. It's just too damned goofy for me. And I am a goof, ask anyone.

Eric J said...

Wouldn't giving the show one more week be like Laurel returning to an apartment that she knows is already infected? Isn't that illogical?

Ken Levine said...

Eric J,

EXCELLENT point!

cd1515 said...

"why would they do that?" is the cousin of another thing I see in most movies, the "no way in hell I'm doing that!" moment, usually early on, when the main character proclaims he/she will NEVER do what the plot ultimately has them do.

Anonymous said...

One of my favorite quotations of all time... I was working on a show, we were trying to lay out a story, and I was attempting to examine where a character was at emotionally, obviously for the purpose of trying to find an interesting way to go. The showrunner listened for about a minute, then said, "Let's just get the plot points down and we'll work out all that emotional shit later." Show cancelled. That's how this one worked out.

Jon88 said...

The worst thing about BrainDead for me is that it probably will end on a cliffhanger. I continue to enjoy it; having low expectations helps. On the other hand, I've transitioned from watching to reading recaps for UnREAL and Suits. (About UnREAL: Recent press has indicated that there was a falling out between the two women who ran the show last year [when it was edgy and good]. Now that we see what happened after Marti Noxon got pushed out, it's a clear statement about who wanted what.)

Chris said...

The Arrowverse (CW's Arrow/Flash) drove me to distraction with this sort of thing, especially with all the secret identities floating around. Fine, keep it secret. It's worked before. Except when it didn't. Or when you gained an ally by confiding in them. Or were at least able to forewarn the love of your life that the villain was gunning for you and your friends. Or found yourself driving your family away because you've had yet another secret on top of all the OTHER secrets that...

But no, let's stop the action and the hunt for Evil Dr. Mad Brainzzz and monologue about whether sweet Cindy Lou needs to know that you're really...

Again.

YEKIMI said...

I think it was Criminal Minds I was watching when it first came on when they were looking for a gun that the killer had hidden. One of the characters punches a hole in a freshly plastered wall and pulls out the gun-barehanded-and turns it this way and that and then hands it off to his partner. I was working for a police department at the time and just started laughing my ass off that a supposed FBI agent would do something so asinine as basically contaminating evidence and possibly destroying any fingerprints the bad guy had left on it. Never watched the show again after that.

George Adelman said...

Friday Question:
In the season seven Cheers episode "Norm, Is That You?", the Cranes get their apartment redecorated. There are scenes showing the place before and after redecoration. How does this work on a show in front of a live audience? Was the scene before redecoration pre-taped? Or were there possibly two sets with identical floorplans but different decor? I've seen this happen on several different shows and I'm curious.

blinky said...

Watching the second season of Luther where a Saw Mask wearing slasher is out killing people. So two detectives take a witness back to her apartment. The female detective goes in to check the apartment and the guy stays in the car. OK feminism rules I guess. After a series of spooky dark gotcha scenes in the apartment the female detective signals all clear out the window to the guy in the car. When suddenly the slasher pops up in the back seat of the car. Cut to black roll credits.
My wife and look at each and and yell: WHAT the HELL?

USA TV said...

I gave up too but on the show after first episode.. For me kind of shitty ..

DrBOP said...

Off-Topic Kid
Complete M.A.S.H. series dvd set $60 Amazon:

https://www.amazon.com/gp/goldbox/?tag=pcmbundle-20&mailing_id=1989942&mailing=DailyNews&mailingID=2BB31F18B2A53303AD7702D9EC6FDD69

Johnny Walker said...

That sounds as frustrating as the time the team of top scientists took their helmets off on an alien planet. It's so annoying because we (the audience) WANT to be swept up in the story. We hate being taken out of it for stupid reasons like basic logic. We want to love what you're trying to do. It does make you wonder how things like this happen. Maybe one of the sets wasn't ready and they had to set the final scene in her apartment again? Who knows.

Earl Boebert said...

On a related note, Nerdwriter has a pretty good critique of Zach Snyder's directing style:

https://youtu.be/38Cy_Qlh7VM

The theme of the criticism is "moments vs. scenes."

VincentS said...

Even the best writers are guilty of this. In TEN LITTLE INDIANS (aka AND THEN THERE WERE NONE) - the granddaddy story of all slasher movies - after the first two people are killed why didn't the remaining people - 2 women and 6 men - just agree not to go anywhere without a partner? Since they (and the audience/reader) were told at the beginning that the murderer is one of them partnering up would make it impossible for the murderer to kill anybody else without incriminating him/herself. I'm certain if anybody asked Agatha Christie she would have said, "Because if I did that there wouldn't be a story!"

Matthew Kugler said...

Ken,

What's the longest you ever went between a writing/staffing job?

Obviously, I'm sure you hear more about the struggle and competition as a writer today from your daughter and son-in-law, but I'm interested to know what it was like for you earlier on and what you did/worked on spec to keep yourself busy and what steps you took to put yourself out there more to lead to the next job.

Mark P. said...

I haven't seen the latest episodes yet because I'm watching them, delayed, over the net, but AFAIK so far the only people who know that the method of transmission is the alien bugs crawling into the ears are (a) us and (b) Gustav. And almost nobody believes Gustav. So I don't think it's a gaping plot hole yet.

MikeN said...

This partly explains why they cancelled State of Affairs.

One from a supposedly all-time great show is Battlestar Galactica, right before the midseason hiatus of the last season.
Xena shows up to get the Final Five and when asked to identify them, she says no need they will come to me. Then later in the episode she declares she will kill keep killing hostages until you hand them over. Well then tell us who they are!

Loosehead said...

The exact same reason I stopped reading Dan Brown books, after throwing one at the wall. The person who calls our hero in to investigate a crime turns out to be the villain. What?

jenmoon said...

I think everyone in Ten Little Indians not pairing off boils down to, "Because they're all evil murderers and we WANT them to die off."

Anyway, holy god, BrainDead is terrible. I cannot conceive of why the Kings thought this was a good plot. The politics bored the crap out of me and braineating ants are just ridiculous and stupid. Also, the pilot lost me right there (I tried a bit more of the show after that, but not worth trying) when somehow the ants managed to get a huge chunk of brain out through a tiny ear hole. Yeah, RIGHT. Also, hella gross.

The only thing worth watching are the song recaps. I wish everything else lived up to that.

jenmoon said...

I think Ten Little Indians boils down to, "But we want these evil murderers to die off."

Anyway, BrainDead is so bad I don't know what the Kings were thinking. The politics are dull and the braineating ants are totally stupid, and then they write like this. (The only thing worth watching are the song recaps. I wish the rest of it lived up to that.) Also, they really did lose me when somehow braineating ants managed to push a huge chunk of brain out a tiny ear hole. Yeah, RIGHT. Also, hella gross.

Hell, Wayward Pines is a better watch than that, and I don't even know why I watch that show because it's pretty stupid too.

-bee said...

Maybe the Kings got infected with the same ants of idiotic choices that have infected the writers of The Walking Dead.

Carl Tyler said...

I think next week we'll see her with bacon hanging on her head.

Andrew said...

I always thought that The Sixth Sense falls into this category. Yes, it was a great movie, and the big reveal was unexpected. But it only works because the writer said so. If Bruce Willis was a ghost all along, and only the kid could see him, how could he not be aware of that during his normal day? Did he ever try to buy groceries? Get gas for his car? Did he not think it peculiar that absolutely no one paid attention to him? Didn't some people walk right into him (or through him)?

Oh yeah: Spoiler Alert.

Chris said...

To be fair, Ten Little Indians also suffers from being, if not one of the original "pick them off one by one" stories, one of the most popular early versions of the trope. I have the same problem reading early fantasy novels or movies like, say, Citizen Kane. I can admire the technical merit and how they were revolutionary for the time but a eighty years later...

Jason said...

"I remember an interview with Jason Alexander, in which he said that early on in Seinfeld, he told Larry David the same thing. "Larry, this would never happen. It's too ridiculous. And if it did happen, no one would ever react this way."

.. and I can never bring myself to watch Seinfeld, largely for the reason Ken states.

The rest of the reason is that all of the characters were basically jerks.

Jason said...

Sixth Sense: I'm pretty sure they explained that away earlier in the movie, saying that ghosts don't always notice that they're ghosts (explained before the twist, which makes it stronger), and Willis certainly seems distracted/abstracted throughout the movie (hmm, never noticed those were the same root word before..)

Pat Quinn said...

Are we and the character sure that the guy who got hit with the brass knuckles was "infected"?

I gave it a pass because I think that the ants and that character's infection was nebulous at that point.

MikeN said...

I'm surprised how many commenters have seen BrainDead.

As for Sixth Sense, it's pretty impressive they explain everything so clearly.
Haley tells Bruce Willis, "I see dead people. They don't know they're dead...'

Andy Rose said...

It's true that The Sixth Sense falls apart if you overthink it, but my least favorite trope in so many dramas is when "smart" characters put into place an elaborate conspiracy that only works if every single unlikely element of it works flawlessly in exactly the proper order. If even one element doesn't happen precisely as hoped, the protagonist would probably end up in jail or dead.

The 4th season climax of Breaking Bad was a great example. Walter White needs Jesse's buy-in to kill Gus Fring, so he uses a plant he happens to own to secretly poison the son of Jesse's girlfriend, hopes he can convince Jesse to connect it to Gus, and then will use that as the motivation to join together to kill Fring (and hope that the test results on the real cause of the boy's sickness aren't revealed before that happens). When Jesse sort of figures out the ruse, Walt just laughs at him and encourages Jesse (who is already pointing a gun at Walt's head) to go ahead and kill him.

Of course, in the end everything falls into place exactly as Walt wanted. Which is fine because it's not a documentary, but why to they have to make so many unlikely events necessary in order to accomplish their narrative goal? The 1st season scene where Walter blows up Tuco's office is another great example of there being so many ways Walter could have died, but his grand plan works because, well, Vince Gilligan wanted it to.

Andrew said...

Thanks to those who followed up on my Sixth Sense reference. I think I might re-watch it.

Andy, as much as I loved Breaking Bad, I have to agree with you. The most egregious example for me was Gus's strategy to kill of the cartel, visiting them in Mexico and poisoning them. There were a thousand ways it could have gone wrong, but of course all the pieces fit together perfectly.

Another example was the episode in the 5th season with the magnet. They actually go to a police station, spray something on a security camera, magnetize the evidence room (debilitating their truck), and still manage to escape? And then no officer chases them down? Right.

Nevertheless, best show ever.

MikeN said...

Andy, how about how whenever they need something, Saul pops up to deliver.

"You got major distribution problems? I know a guy who knows a guy who knows a guy..."

Incidentally, he reveals at first meeting that his name is McGill, which looks like it will contradict Better Call Saul.

Marvin Lear said...

Andrew...exactly. That particular cartel story was the most egregious in BB's entire run, IMO. Walt could do some dumb stuff when he got panicky, but Gus? That it worked isn't the problem. Crazy stuff works out all the time, and the best string of them all together could make...a compelling tv drama. Yeah, maybe 4 times out of 5 "Walt" dies in season 1, but those stories don't get told...for good reason. The problem really is that there were so many less riskly ways that a calculating character like Gus should have chosen first.

And Andy, science is sort of Walter's super power. Especially when it involves making meth, ha. Anytime something unlikely works out in his favor but it's based on him utilzing science, I feel the show has set up the character sufficiently to let us buy in to that. Both of your examples fit that category to some degree. I'll also point out that Tuco is basically crazy, so all bets are off when it comes to predicting a normal reaction to Walt's gambit, and poisoning person A to make person B mistakenly mad at person C isn't exactly that far fetched, and if it doesn't work out, you can probably still try something else. Not so for those cartel scenes.