i didn’t realize you wrote such bloody awful poetry

10/25/09

Okay, today on Writers Monday on the blog, I’d like to point out one of my biggest pet peeves; I call it “Our Hero’s Boring Hurdle.” In essence, it’s when a television (or movie) character has an arbitrary, predictable or annoying problem that keeps him or her from doing what we came to see them do.

When you step back from storytelling, it’s been oft defined as this: you get your guy up into a tree, you throw things at him when he’s in the tree, and then you get him out of the tree. Basic stuff, our hero’s journey from Point A to Point B and how they (and others) change during the voyage.

Problem is, television is like Scheherazade – you have to tell a fantastic story with a cliffhanger every time or else the king kills you. In skilled hands, or rather in a multitude of skilled hands, this is possible for a number of seasons – but even the best shows occasionally get complacent (or exhausted) and simply offer up a challenge to your hero that is merely an annoyance to be endured rather than a twist that enlightens.

Again, I’m going to reference my beloved “Glee”, since it’s a show that has enough surprises and reversals to know better. The character of Will Schuester’s wife, the one who is currently faking her pregnancy, is almost unbearable. If you care about the romance between Will and the guidance counselor Emma, then the wife is – at best – a screeching harpy who needs to be jettisoned. She’s merely a hurdle masquerading as plot.

In fact, during the pilot, I moaned “how long are we going to have to put up with this woman?” Anyone who watches the show knows it’s just a matter of time before the pregnancy canard is exposed, and she has no other redeeming qualities, so why are they waiting so long to send her away?

The answer is obvious: you need to keep the romantic leads apart as long as possible, but there are far more interesting ways to keep star-crossed lovers from ever achieving full satisfaction. “Lost” is not perfect, but they’ve done a pretty good job keeping Jack, Kate, Sawyer and Juliette tantalizingly close – but always a fingertip too far – from real happiness.

Look at the shows commonly thought to be brilliant – your “Sopranos”, your “Mad Men”, “The Wire”… hell, even go with the first season of “Prison Break”. Notice how their characters are presented with challenges that manage to say something bigger about who they are, and what the theme of the show is about. A monstrous enemy morphs into the last person you’d ever thought would save your life. What starts as a throwaway plot point becomes the key to the season.

I want my challenges to be delicious. I want to slay the monster with advice my last enemy gave me. I never want to wait for someone to disappear so the real show can start. As they say in Sweden, don’t bore us, get to the chorus!

0 thoughts on “i didn’t realize you wrote such bloody awful poetry

  1. kent

    I’ve tried with Glee, but I’m afraid it’s afflicted with something I find fatal to my enjoyment — Disney disease.
    What is Disney disease? It is a common thread through shows like Ugly Betty, Men In Trees, Grey’s Anatomy, etc. It is a sort of artificiality beyond artificiality — everyone is too well lit, everyone is made up a little too well, every floor is a little too well swept. The jokes, even the funny ones, seem to be displayed shrinkwrapped in a well lit freezer case.
    What it comes down to is that every series on ABC is a Hannah Montana for a different audience. Grey’s Anatomy is for romance-crazy women, Ugly Betty is for younger women who imagine themself similarly ugly-duckling-esque, and Glee is for frustrated middle aged people who remember being in high school musicals fondly. Those perfectly produced musical interludes that are supposed to be rehearsals are what former swing choirees nostalgically imagine about their own performances, as opposed to the imperfect trainwrecks they actually were.
    I don’t mean to be completely dismissive of these efforts, because Disney is nothing if not professional about what it does. But all of the ABC shows I’ve tried to watch seem to fall into the Uncanny Valley — they are life-like, not lively.
    And to add a family reference lost on everyone else, Glee seems to me like it’s directed by Aunt Marilyn.

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  2. Anne

    I totally understand about sustaining dramatic tension between undeniably-attracted TV characters (cf. House, NCIS, Bones, to name a few) in order to keep the series going and writers employed. But I also get weary of enduring season-long blue balls (metaphorically speaking) with all the teasing, close encounters, steamy scenes that turn out to be dreams or hallucinations, etc. We GET it, OK? But throw us a bone now and then. Like, on NCIS, couldn’t they at least allow Abby and McGee to stop staring at those damn computer screens and share a big wet sloppy kiss? That would still leave you the Zeva/Tony romantic tension. But at least let someone, and by someone I do not mean stonefaced Gibbs and some sexy older size 0 female high-ranking military officer fercrissake, get it on.
    **”That’s enough, Anne. Step away from the television. Everything will be all right.”**
    LOL Maybe as I get older, I want things resolved faster.

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  3. scruggs

    I don’t know if I just don’t like the actress who plays the wife (Jessalyn Gilsig), or its just she always plays an annoying character (Nip/Tuck, the sister on Friday Night Lights, Boston Public, etc). Either way, her scenes have always been like nails on a chalkboard for me. The pregnancy plot, both her part and the aspect that Kurt would think he could get someone pregnant in the hot tub, are too ridiculous. I don’t even care much for Will or Emma. I watch because Jane Lynch is fantastic, as always. And the kids are endearing.

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  4. kate

    Anne – I second everything you said. I’ve been saying the same thing with almost every episode of NCIS for what, 3 seasons? My mom doesn’t think that there’s any tension between Tony and Ziva – I think she must not be watching the same show.
    And don’t even get me started on Boothe and Bones!! :)

    Reply
  5. Caitlin

    I don’t watch much TV but last year I watched the entire 5 seasons of “The Wire” in one heady DVD-laden month (doing this while living in Baltimore made it an even more intense experience). What I liked about “The Wire” most was that it refused to pander. A whole season would be spent developing a central character in great depth, and then he’d be unexpectedly killed. It was just as senseless and unsentimental as life.
    There was also a degree of moral ambiguity that I found refreshing. The challenges faced by the characters illuminate the bleak thesis of the show — that institutions fail people, that people in the hole are usually stuck there — but it was never for a second preachy or self-important; more often it was very funny, nuanced, and unsparing. So worth it. Indeed.

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