Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Three Things I'd Like Never to See Again on TV

1. The failed trip. I was re-watching an Old Christine the other night, and wanted to tear my (remaining) hair out. First, because it was an awful episode; second, because it was credited to two writers I really like; and third, because they should have known better than to write it in the first place -- because it's a premise that never works. It's the episode "Up in the Airport," and can I put in a motion now for A Plot I Never Want to See Again on TV? It's the one where a family -- or group of friends -- is set to go on a trip, but Something Goes Wrong. They get stuck in the airport and never take off (the aforementioned "Up in the Airport" or Designing Women:"The Odyssey"). Or they arrive at their destination, but immediately get sick and never leave the hotel (Designing Women: "Stranded" or Kate and Allie: "Evening in Paris") -- or they arrive, but fall asleep because of the time change and, again, never leave the hotel (Gilmore Girls: "French Twist").

A few weeks ago, Big Bang Theory did its own variation, as the four geeks took off on a bachelor-party excursion to Mexico -- but developed a flat tire. (Their efforts to salvage the situation, wonderfully in character, did a lot to salvage the episode, but still, it was sad to see the show resort to such a TV cliche, especially after they'd trotted out much the same plot last spring, as Leonard and Sheldon headed to a lecture at UC Berkeley, but got sidetracked along the way.) You know the nice thing about when the Ricardos went to Hollywood? They actually went to Hollywood. When Samantha and Darrin visited Salem? They visited Salem. In fact, off the top of my head, only one show excelled at the "failed trip" script, and it was the sitcom Yes, Dear. But then, that was a show built on the comic incompatibility of its four principals, so the more frustrating the situation and claustrophobic the setting, the better. On Yes, Dear, the journey actually was more interesting than the destination; on all other shows, the expression "getting there is half the fun" should be more accurately rephrased as "getting there is only half the fun." The next time a series wants to foist one of those plots on us, where we start off on a destination that we never reach, maybe they can warn us by flashing on the screen, ahead of time, "Rated HF, for half-fun."

2. The flash-forward. It seems that every one-hour drama, at one point or another, uses that hoary device of starting the episode at the end: you open with a car crash, or gunfight, or a shot of the hero seemingly dead, or betraying his comrades -- then cut to the opening theme -- and then when you return, you see "Nine hours earlier" or "Three days earlier" plastered across the screen, and you go back and see how our hero got himself into that sticky situation. I've come to accept that not only is that convention never going away, but its usage seems to be expanding; Walking Dead, one of the chief offenders, just started their new season with yet another flash-forward. (NCIS: LA seems to do it every other week, but I am willing to cut NCIS: LA some slack because they did Kensi and Deeks right, and I can't think of the last time a show took an antagonistic couple with combustible chemistry, and over the course of several seasons, ignited a romance without losing what made them special to begin with. The Moonlighting Curse has officially been lifted; can we now dispense with that expression forever?)

But, you see, now we don't just get episodes starting at the end. We get whole shows fast-forwarding to the end of the season. I'm sure that convention goes way back, but let's just blame Breaking Bad Season 2 and the pink teddy bear in the pool. Was the season really any better for that goddamn pink teddy bear? And now, with How to Get Away With Murder and its clone sister Quantico, it's not just about flashing forward, then flashing back -- you get to go back and forth and back and forth all season till your head explodes. It used to be that part of the season would be the lead-up to the crime, then the rest would be solving the crime -- now you get to do them both at once. You don't just get to watch the episodes; you're expected to study them. (You've heard of appointment television; this is assignment television.) But you know, for me, I don't need something momentous happening on my screen every second: I like the exposition, the slow builds, the sense of anticipation. And I like when the writer is confident enough in their story to let it unfold chronologically. Because for me, these two-for-one storylines don't make the shows more exciting (or heaven knows, "better"); they just make them busier. And my life is busy enough without my TV show multi-tasking too.

3. The stall. I watched the hideous Flash premiere a few weeks ago, with Robbie Amell written off about eight seconds in (and mourned for only slightly longer), and John Wesley Shipp written off during his welcome-home party, sometime between the ice-cream and the cake, and I was pretty much ready to give up on the show. Did the writers really think taking a season-long quest (Barry rescuing his father) and turning it into a MacGuffin was going to warm the hearts of viewers? -- that their cold-hearted deployment of the Reset Button would be greeted by cries of, "Yeah, screw Season 1; here comes Season 2, baby!" So I proceeded to episode two with some caution, and right away, when the affable Teddy Sears appeared on the scene with a doomsday warning for the S.T.A.R Labs sextet, and Barry refused to listen to him, I hit "pause" and emailed a friend who'd already seen the episode, "Oh God, is this going to be one of those episodes where someone refuses to listen to reason, just so the writers can fill 43 minutes?" And he wrote back, "Kind of."

And the episode wasn't as bad as all that, but it utilized one of the most overused TV scripting tactics: the stall. The scene where someone bursts into the room with needed information, but nobody will listen to him -- because if they did listen, if they armed themselves with all the facts, the episode would be over in four minutes. I'm not even going to list the times I've seen that employed recently -- you've all seen it employed. If you're old enough to watch TV, you've seen it employed. My husband and I will often turn to each other -- when someone gets cut off mid-sentence, or dragged out of a room before he can impart key information -- and say, "So is this going to be one of those episodes where, if they were actually allowed to speak, there'd be no episode?" And it always is. And in fact, the only thing worse than the "you've got to listen to me" episode is the follow-up a few weeks later: the "you were right, I should've listened to you" episode. I'd suggest "you've got to listen to me" and its companion, "I should have listened to you," as a new drinking game, but my alcohol consumption is limited to about two quarts a day.


  1. I'm going to go with the love triangle. It's a common trope in literature, and seems to happen a lot on TV, too. (Buffy, Vampire Diaries, Lost, Friends, True Blood, etc.) How reflective are love triangles of reality? How many viewers are sat out there thinking, "Well, if there ain't no love triangle, I can't relate to any of this shit. When are people gunna write stories that reflect my exact sit-chu-a-shun?"

    Also, bad accents... particularly the fabled 'British accent' which exist solely in the mind of the non-Brit. Either hire an English actor who speaks with his own accent, or don't bother. You're just embarrassing yourself.

    1. Omigosh, yes, the love triangle: once the province of soaps; now it's invaded everything -- sitcoms, fantasy, sci-fi, horror, procedurals. Poor Barry and Iris and Eddie -- on The Flash -- were stuck in that love triangle all last season; Eddie's dead and gone for one episode, and now they've put Barry and Iris into a NEW triangle. And I think they think by commenting on it, they're taking the curse off it, but you know: there are other ways to keep a couple interesting and active than throwing them into a triangle...

  2. Getting Away With Murder should definitely change its campaign to “You've heard of appointment television; this is assignment television.”

    As far as TV tropes that should go away... how about:

    * Parking spaces always being available right where and when they’re needed.
    * Phone conversations never ending with “goodbye.”

  3. Much as I'm inclined the give The West Wing a pass on pretty much everything, I fear it is partly to blame for the epidemic of flash-forwarding...