Wednesday, November 16, 2016

My conspiracy theory

Why does every one hour drama now have to have a lurking conspiracy? It’s not enough that people pop into a Time Machine and hurdle through dimensions? There has to be the suggestion that some nefarious organization is pulling the strings?

Every show that has a government agency (even a made up one) now must have moles or is really a tool for some Ernst Blowfeld.

Good guys might actually be bad guys or maybe even really bad guys who belong to a secret organization intent on wreaking havoc or at least holding up traffic.

ORPHAN BLACK got so twisted in conspiracies and agendas that I eventually gave up.

This trend has gotten so out of hand that on a recent series space ants were plotting some conspiracy. We were asked to really wonder what ants were really up to.

When the X-FILES established a “don’t trust anybody” template it felt fresh. But that was twenty years ago. The idea of keeping the audience guessing was fun – for awhile.

But now every show does it. Every agent is a double or triple agent. Everyone who works for an organization with initials really works for an organization with different initials.

What they don’t realize is that the audience is numb to it all now. Writers might think it’s super cool to introduce all these diabolical clandestine conspiracies, but news flash – we no longer give a shit.

We’re no longer shocked that the Mr. Rogers character is a terrorist, or the PTA mom is buying that new dishwasher by sending secrets to North Korea. (Any organization with initials…) We don’t gasp at these shocking reveals; we yawn. “The big twist that everyone will be talking about” – no one will be talking about it.

Stop trying to fool us, surprise us, turn your show into THE USUAL SUSPECTS. It’s now a cliché. Putting real people into compelling situations and watching them struggle against the elements and themselves to overcome real problems might actually be enough to hold our attention. Try it. If nothing else, it’s different.

46 comments:

404 said...

It doesn't bother me in a show like TIMELESS -- heck, the conspiracy is the REASON behind the time travelling in the first place. But there are shows where the conspiracy ruined what would otherwise be a good plot. TERRA NOVA comes immediately to mind. Going back in time to "colonize" Earth from the past? That was a great premise, and already had tons of conflict and story built in just following these people trying to build a life in prehistoric times. Then, from out of nowhere, there's a stupid military/conspiracy subplot. It made the show much less interesting for me.

Jim S said...

Ken,

I hear you. I saw the first couple of episodes of Westworld and for the most part liked it. Then I read that they shut down production for a couple of months so that they could figure out the five year plan.

That's just a bridge too far for me. Five years of keeping me guessing? Five years to wait for a payoff. No thanks. I stopped watching because when it's all about the twist, the twist can never pay off can equal the hype.

Chris Lansdown said...

There is a related phenomenon where the writers up the tension so much it snapped a while ago and we can see the deus ex machina coming long before it arrives. Like when the hero is surrounded and all he has is a baseball bat and then the bat breaks... at that moment, we know that his ring which never worked before will suddenly work and get him out of the situation.

Or analogously, when someone falls off a cliff, we know that the several seconds of them falling to their death is simply a lie, because absent a 100mph updraft, they'd be 50 feet away from everyone else by the time we cut to someone grabbing the falling person's hand (or worse, a chain of them who somehow managed to fall faster than the guy with the head start).

If I recall correctly, it's something a theme you've mentioned that writers should never destroy the audience's trust lightly. (IIRC your original phrasing was that whenever actors want to protect the integrity of their character over a joke, they're almost always right, because you can always write another joke, but you can't save a character who's been wrecked.)

On the other hand, isn't this just a sci-fi version of soap operas? I never watched them, but my understanding is that people were always cheating on each other and stabbing each other in the back, etc. And soaps have proven to be a very enduring format...

Jason said...

I thought Agents of SHIELD did it pretty well, when one of the core team turned out to be a double agent with really no previous hints. Where the series TOOK that was maybe not done as well, but it was a huge surprise to me at the time.

Wendy M. Grossman said...

It's like the current trend toward superheroes. I think they think people just want someone to blame and someone to rescue us.

wg

Anonymous said...

I felt this way when watching 'Alias' in the late 90's / early 2000's. The first 2-3 seasons were amazing. It became too much eventually so I stopped watching. I'm trying to get into the third season of Orphan Black but quickly losing interest due to Ken's reasons. The question is, where do you go as a network or cable show after a conspiracy McGuffin is finally captured?

MIKE BOTULA said...

And we wonder why every political point of view nowadays has an underlying conspiracy theory entwined in it!

Marty C. said...

I felt the same way when watching 'Alias' in the late 90's / early 00's. The first 2-3 seasons were amazing, then I lost interest. This can also be said as I'm trying to get into the third season of 'Orphan Black' but it's becoming too much. The question is, where do you go as a network or cable show once the conspiracy McGuffin is caught?

Roseann said...

What about Flashback Hell that we are now in? I have had to stop watching Quantico cuz my head was gonna explode.

Matthew said...

Elevator pitch:

"The twist is, there's no twist"

Marty C. said...

I felt the same when watching Alias in the early 2000's. The first 2-3 seasons were amazing, then I lost interest due to too many theories and agents. Unfortunately I'm running into this while trying to get into the third season of Orphan Black. The question is, where does a show go after a conspiracy McGuffin is caught, but then a cliffhanger opens a new can of far-fetched worms?

Earl Boebert said...

Pretty well killed EUREKA as well.

Barefoot Billy Aloha said...

It's time for another Get Smart...

Joe M said...

I hate feeling in disagreement with the master, especially after nodding along to every post for all these year. But a premise of wider conspiracy is fine (especially after this election season...) if it delves into the question of trust between the characters. Make it about "which scary agency is coming after me" and yawn. Make it about "how are these characters gaining trust between each other, violating trust between each other and deciding who to trust" and A+. Those are stakes.

Grimm has done this well. Orphan Black was up and down on that, overall maybe a B-, they did better in the recent season. Deadwood brought in George Hearst as a wider conspiracy and A++. Sons of Anarchy had so much mistrust... Didn't X-files come down to the trust between Mulder and Scully? And how they earned each other's trust?

Rory Wohl said...

I think the conspiracies are meant to hook the viewer into coming back every week. Execs figure you're not as likely to abandon a show if there's something unresolved and you want to find out how it ends.

For me, it works just the opposite. I don't want to have to watch every show in order to be able to follow what's going on. Give me good old fashioned weekly procedural (oh, where have you gone "Law & Order"?).

This is also why I've stopped caring about the "Marvel Cinematic Universe." There are so many movies and TV shows that are all so intertwined I can't keep any of it straight.

MikeN said...

Blacklist has that problem of trying to produce a new conspiracy each time. Walking Dead too.

I was really surprised when watching Tower Heist. After watching the special about it on Comcast, I was convinced that there would be a plot twist that Eddie Murphy is just pretending to be a crook.

Anonymous said...

I thought the confusion of the dramatic "twist" with creativity ended after Shyamalan's career dried up.

Still, I enjoy it when it's actually a surprise. But it only works when you don't overuse it. Otherwise I don't think people get surprised or tickled by its appearance.

So what works these days? The same thing that's always worked since Shakespeare--good characters. Put the complexity there please. I'd watch that all day long. Heck I'd watch that (as I do) decades after the shows gone off the air. And if you can't make them complex and real just give them a good heart.

:jumping off soapbox:

Sean

Mike Doran said...

May I put in a word for Madam Secretary, which is mainly conspiracy-free?
(I mean, beyond the usual politicking?)
The characters are actual recognizable human beings, as opposed to the feral horndogs on Scandal.Secretary McCord, President Dalton, the depicted family members, the staffers - I'm getting empathy, sympathy, all the right feelings - as opposed to the unceasing OMG/WTF of Scandal.
Jury's still out on Designated Survivor; they seem to be headed to Conspiracy Row, and that's bad - so wait and see.

Andrew said...

I think part of the problem is that once a trope has become commonplace, it's hard to find a new and original one.

I used to read Agatha Christie novels as a teen. Never having read other mysteries, to me she was strikingly original. The identity of the murderer was never obvious, and each book felt like a new discovery. I.e, the intended victim did it. The wounded bystander did it. The narrator did it. All the suspects did it. The detective did it. But once something like that has been done, you can't really repeat the surprise.

For some reason, John le Carre always manages to maintain suspense, despite the fact that every character could be a double or triple agent. Not quite sure how he pulls it off (and not everyone would agree that he does).

Richard said...

I was thinking the exact same thing while watching TIMELESS Monday night. I am a sucker for time travel shows but the overarching conspiracy has become so all encompassing to the show that the group's weekly trip back in time is becoming irrelevant. They don't really solve or do anything while back in time. And if they do anything, they botch up history so that things are different once they get back to present time. Oh, how I wish for the return of Jeffrey and Bogg from VOYAGERS! Or even Sam from QUANTUM LEAP.

Aaron Sheckley said...

Shows with elaborate conspiracy plotlines are as self defeating as the annoying "will they or won't they" trope that infests so many male/female relationships on dramas and sitcoms. If you start your show off with some elaborate conspiracy operating in the background, which becomes the foundation of the show, then you can never have any sort of relevant satisfying payoff. The hero can't totally lose, yet he can never defeat the conspiracy. The first season or two is satisfying to viewers because this is their indoctrination into the mechanics of the conspiracy. After about two seasons of this, the casual viewer begins to really grasp that the writers have no idea where they are going with the whole story, and at that point they start realizing that the emperor has no clothes. To me, these shows end up feeling like a big old "F-You" to the audience from the writers: "Hey, wasn't it cool how we got you guys to believe that we actually had an endgame in mind for this?". The X-Files and Lost are both prime examples of this. I didn't watch Lost, but there was enough nerdrage on the internet when it was over that made it clear that the ending didn't satisfy a lot of people. As for the X-Files, it became totally unwatchable after a few seasons when it got so bogged down in its own conspiracy laden quagmire that I don't think even the writers could keep it straight.

Fred from Scarborough said...

Whenever it starts to happen my wife and I turn to each other and say "Red John".

Steve Lanzi (formerly known as qdpsteve) said...

Is it just me going crazy, or does the Timeless time traveling contraption look a lot like a giant CBS logo?!? Hmmm...

blinky said...

Here is a Friday query that relates to yesterdays Stephen Fry post. Stephen Fry and Joel McHale are the stars of the new network "comedy" The Great Indoors. I love both actors and their excellent work but this show is pure drivel. I see every obvious joke coming a mile away. They look like they are phoning it in. Is this a case of cashing in on their past glory or what?

Tom Wolper said...

As has been noted, a conspiracy is a gimmick of setting up a season-long or multi-season story while doing self contained episodes. When a conspiracy gets introduced at the end of the pilot of a drama I know not to stick with the series. Two remakes where that happened are Bionic Woman and Hawaii Five-0.

There is also a cultural aspect to the conspiracies, specifically never knowing whether a character is good or evil. In the early days of TV, in series like Dragnet, we knew who the good guys were and there was no ambiguity: they were obedient to authority. IN the '70s, in series like MASH, we knew who the good guys were and they set themselves outside of authority as that shift happened in pop culture. The '80s brought a return to identification of good with authority and the current era started with The X-Files where the identification of morality with authority became unclear. In a series like 24 the stories are driven by questions of morality and loyalty to authority but that keeps me from getting into the series.

John Hammes said...

Goodness... somebody else remembers "Voyagers!"

Keep writing Ken. This is your blog. You have the knowledge to write on anything you want, the right to say whatever you want. I posted a comment sometime earlier that this blog is something of a virtual "Cheers", where everybody knows your avatar. This is a good, comfortable place for people to check in and up with each other.

Regardless of circumstances personal or professional, regardless of news headlines, people will always need to check in and up with each other. That will never change. Nobody can take that away.

powers said...

You are so right on this one,Ken.

I've felt this way for a long time regarding shows having to have massive conspiracies as part of the plot.I yawn now when such intrigues are introduced into a series.

Lost was a chief offender for me. They so densely packed their plots with this malarkey that it became a joke.I gave up on the show & it was just as well as their finale stunk on ice.

Charles H. Bryan said...

Very Off Topic: In case you hadn't heard, on Nov. 22, Vin Scully will be awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. I'm never a big fan of most entertainers getting awards like that, but I'll gladly make an exception for Vin Scully.

Lorne Michaels is also getting one. I have nothing bad to say about Lorne Michaels, but, c'mon, really?

Full article at https://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2016/11/16/president-obama-names-recipients-presidential-medal-freedom

On Topic: The "conspiracy theory" concept has been done to -- and well past -- death. It was fun while it lasted. Sort of. Sometimes. The big twist always needs a good payoff and flow from the existing logic of the story. It's the kind of ending that one doesn't expect but upon seeing it -- well, it just HAD to be that way. Too often this did not happen. Ahem, LOST.

And the conspiracies are boring. It's always some rich, power-mad Bond-villain proto-military wannabes, with maybe some aliens thrown in, and the intrepid whomevers that always get just-this-close to revealing the truth. Ugh. There's a conspiracy to bore the crap out of me, led by a shadowy group called "Second Tier Cable".

It's not the secret conspiracies that are interesting these days, it's the brazen crazy-ass evil that people do to each other right out in the open. That is always a more compelling narrative.

Andrew said...

Marty C., third time's a charm.

D. McEwan said...

Amen. I've gotten to the point where, if it turns out there's a deep conspiracy going on behind the scenes established in an early episode, like, say, the pilot, I don't even watch the second episode.

And there's also the over-complicating of shows. I'm still watching How to Get Away with Murder, but I'm no longer really tracking the uberplot, as it's become WAY too complicated to follow, and expects me to remember every detail about characters killed off back in season one. One can take serialized plotting too far. I begin to yearn for the self-contained episodes of Perry Mason. When Game of Thrones is less complicated than your plot, lighten up a bit, please.

Barry Traylor said...

I am so very tired of this sort of thing. The show gets cancelled after the first season (or before) and one never finds out the secret. I have given up on shows like this.

Diane D. said...

Aaron S.
The "will they, won't they" trope is annoying to you? The esteemed author of this blog did a couple of them very well, indeed. They were two of the best and most beloved sitcoms of all time: CHEERS and FRASIER.

Aaron Sheckley said...

Diane, I know that. I also know that in the case of Sam and Diane it was done well, but even when done well it runs out of steam, just like it did on Cheers. You can't maintain it forever, no matter how well it's written, because eventually the reasons you come up with for keeping them apart become more and more contrived. Cheers made it work better than most because of a combination of excellent writing and excellent actors (Danson and Long sold the trope a lot better than most actors). The flip side of that is something like Ross and Rachel, which was annoying almost from the beginning and got moreso as the show went on. It's a situation you can't maintain, and the resolution almost always kills the relationship; they get married and the writers are stumped on how to keep them funny, or they break up and you lose the tension that made them funny in the first place. It's a writer's trap; funny at first, but a dead end eventually.

Samuel said...

So is it a trope that is just catnip for showrunners or is this something demanded by the experts at the corporate level?

Storm said...

All I know is that if Hal Holbrook is in something as the Hero's Friend/Boss, he will ALWAYS end up betraying the Hero to the Bad Guys while crying "I'm so sorry, So-and-so-- but they've got my WIFE!!"

Cheers, thanks a lot,

Storm

Anonymous said...

Aaron,

I would say that the Sam and Diane relationship never ran out of steam. The episode where Diane leaves is still heartbreaking and that's the end of their time together on the show. Diane was certifiably insane below her pseudo intellectual veneer which kept her otherwise ludicrous decisions in romance from seeming contrived--they flow naturally from the character. Put her under pressure or in a romantic relationship and watch her crazy light shine.

Plus the difference between the romantic "will they won't they" conflict and the vast conspiracy conflict is one is actually found in real life while the other is not (well I guess there was the plot against Caesar and the occasional non-competitive market cartel but other than that conspiracies can be found only under tinfoil hats). So viewers are usually much more willing to watch characters interact in that way and will not find it as grindingly repetitive or contrived.

Just my two bits. What do you think Aaron?

Sean

Diane D. said...

Aaron S.
You're right, of course, but when it works well, it's the best sitcom television there is. The first sentence in your original comment made it sound as if you disliked the concept completely, so I was puzzled.

I agree with Ken Levine, you, and others about the overdone conspiracy issue, however.

Johnny Walker said...

It's a good question... Makes me wonder if we'll look back at this era of TV in the same way we look back at 50s b-movies and their radiation paranoia. People really seem to have lost trust in the idea of a government that might not be corrupt... as if you'd be naive to suggest that maybe, just maybe, everyone's doing their best. Even the ones you don't agree with.

Sean: I do think they would have struggled to come up with a storyline for Sam and Diane in season six. They'd already pretty much been through everything.

Mike said...

Why is America such a great lover of conspiracy theories - Kennedy, moon landings, 9/11, the Illuminati - when it has the most open government in the world?

Aaron Sheckley said...

Diane, you were correct. I do dislike the concept completely, because no matter how clever the concept is written, it will still force the writers down a path that really only has two resolutions; keep coming up with more and more ridiculous situations that keep the two characters from being together (which totally goes against human nature), or else put them together and find out that the characteristics that the writers gave to the characters in order to keep them doing the "will we or won't we" dance are no longer funny if you make them a couple. Sam Malone’s character is a perfect example of this. His womanizing and roving eye were integral parts of his character, and various bouts of jealous behavior on Diane’s part (and Sam’s) were played for laughs due specifically to Sam’s womanizing. Now, put Sam and Diane together as a couple, and now a fundamental characteristic of Sam is no longer viable for humor. Now he’s not a funny rogue with a wandering eye, he’s a rotten bastard who cheats on his wife/girlfriend. I agree that a well written, well acted “will they or won’t they’ trope will last longer and be interesting longer than a poorly written/acted one, but a writer is still going to eventually be stuck with choosing a path. If Sam had been allowed to marry Diane, the writers would have had to amputate some of the funniest parts of his personality; he can’t be the charming ladies’ man when he has a wife who works in the same bar as he does.

I think the “will they or won’t they” trope is only viable in a limited series or a film, where they payoff (either they get together or break up) comes as the denouement. It may work as a short term arc, but trying to sustain that trope over a few seasons using more and more contrived and ridiculous situations to keep the characters apart fills me with absolute boredom. The Sam and Diane dance was played out by the time Shelly Long left the show; would you have wanted another season of that, or worse yet, a season where they got married and started having kids?

Sean: As far as real life goes, I’ve seen more actual real life conspiracies (I was a criminal investigator) that I’ve ever seen couples who that have an undeniable attraction to each other and yet refuse to act on it (unless the people involved were encumbered by some real life obstacle like marriage to someone else). People who like each other and are available tend to get together, even if they’re a terrible combination; it’s simple human nature. Cheers made it work better than almost anyone, but it’s still an overused, unsatisfactory trope.

As far as the vast conspiracy theory based shows go, my experience has shown me that in criminal conspiracies, the more people involved, the more likely it is that someone is going to roll over on it. You don’t need to go any further than Edward Snowden to see that the bigger and more convoluted a conspiracy is, the greater the chance that a low level member of the conspiracy like Snowden or Chelsea Manning will blow the lid off it. The more people in on a secret, the more likely that someone’s gonna tell.

Alan Gollom said...

Bring back Time Tunnel!!

Diane D. said...

Aaron
But to give up that delicious "will they or won't they" dance seems like a big price to pay to avoid that path to one of only two unsatisfying resolutions (which I don't concede, BTW). Obviously, you don't want just laughs from a sitcom, you want that story line with an irresistible build-up to something, with lots of laughs along the way. And what better build up than that never ending story of falling in love with the wrong person. In a sitcom, of course, you can have it end however you want.

Aaron Sheckley said...

Well Diane, I imagine that's how something becomes a trope; people enjoy it in spite of knowing what its outcome will be, so more and more writers use the trope, so more and more people watch it, repeat ad nauseam. What you find to be a delicious dance, I find to be a tedious trudge to an inevitable conclusion. It's been done to death. If I find myself watching a show where two characters are supposed to like each other and the writers just begin throwing one situation after another at them to prevent them from just saying "hey, you know, I like you, let's give this a try", then I'm going to lose interest really fast. The only way I'd stick with that show would be if they resolved it in a few episodes. That trope just requires too much suspension of disbelief for me. Obviously others do like it, or it wouldn't become a trope.

Anonymous said...

Aaron,

I like your point about criminal conspiracies, they certainly do happen. Although in my experience theyve always been the "three stooges" variety than the vast, complex and highly competent kind which is the one getting repeated.

But, on your other point that people who like each other simply get together and that's how it works--well I have to argue that's not the case and from direct personal experience no less. I'm happy for you that you haven't experienced romantic troubles in your life, but I certainly have included break ups and reconciliations some minor and some major.

Sean

Aaron Sheckley said...

Sean, breakups and reconciliations aren't what the trope is about. That trope is more about two people who have an obvious attraction to each other (and the writers who use the trope go to great lengths to show that they are attracted to each other), and yet they create contrived situations (a misunderstood note, a misunderstood overheard conversation. a misunderstood situation) to keep the two characters from ever getting to the point where they cut through the bullshit and just say "hey, I'm really into you". It's not about romantic difficulties; a romantic difficulty would be "wow, I really like her, but she really drinks a lot", or "I really like him, but he's really attached to his mother". People who are mutually attracted to each other tend to tell each other, unless there's a compelling reason not to, like being married to other people.

I get that this trope is popular, or else it wouldn't be a trope. I'm not trying to argue you out of your love of it, and I'm not disparaging you if you enjoy it. I think it's one of the laziest tropes that a writer can pursue, and when a writer jumps on board that particular lazy train, I get off at the next stop. If you're someone who likes it, then you're the lucky one, because there are endless examples of it on TV that you can indulge in.

It's best not to make assumptions about people based on interpretations of what they write. I'm sure I've experienced as many romantic downturns as anyone, but not a single one of those downturns has ever made me appreciate yet another go-round of Sam and Diane, Ross and Rachel, Dr Fleischman and Maggie O'Connell, Maddie Hayes and David Addison, etc.

Diane D. said...

Aaron
So we're both right, because it's obviously a question of taste. Although I have to say that no other television couple has ever captured my imagination the way Sam and Diane did. They are an example of the trope that millions and millions of people loved, and can even watch it over and over, knowing exactly what is going to happen in every detail. I cannot see the difference in that, however, and reading a good book repeatedly or enjoying a poem many times.