Monday, April 18, 2011

writing lessons from mediocre TV

I've been watching BBC's Merlin on Hulu this week. It's shallow, simplistic, and juvenile. The actors and the characters they play are rather likable, but the storylines are generally transparent, and in a whole season and a half no one has transitioned from A to B, they've just become more emphatic about their one-dimensionality. Arthur is arrogant. Morgana is defiant. Merlin is the good-hearted naif. Uther is vindictive. The result is that, episode after episode, the characters keep repeating the same lines again and again.

It's not all wasted time, however. When shows are this shallow I tend to watch them with the storytelling machinery running in the back of my brain, working over the dialogue, braiding in complexity and plotting how I could do it differently and make it work better.

More than that, I've codified a few simple rules that describe why shows like this are shallow and lame.

1. Paper-tiger plots will only get you so far. People usually have complex reasons for doing things, and giving lip-service to the counterarguments is not really enough when we all know the hero is going to do the right thing and there won't really be any consequences.

2. Don't ignore common sense (or internal logic, or historical accuracy) for the sake of a plot device. I think it was Roger Ebert used the phrase "moron plot" or somesuch --the kind of story that moves forward only because the characters are all idiots.

3. Don't sacrifice characterization for the sake of plot devices. Before I quit watching TV I had seen probably five or six David E. Kelly-produced series, and every single one of them at some point, featured one of the female characters doing something completely out of character in order to facilitate a major story line. Thomas Harris' "Hannibal" is another good example of this, although I'm more inclined to forgive that one because he at least made the effort to earn it.

4. Don't tread over the same patch of character growth more than twice. Your characters have to grow and change and develop or they start to seem really stupid. Genre television series seem to be particularly bad about this. The characters are expected to be iconic so they are never allowed to grow and/or change. I'm not sure if this is genuine audience expectation or the poor opinion of the show's producers about the expectations of their audience. Either way, it's pandering.

5. Don't give your characters stupid dialog just so they have lines. This is where having subplots helps; everyone has something to do so they're not reduced to wacky hijinks just to fill screen time. After a certain point, stupid isn't funny. It's just stupid.

I'm sure I could elaborate on this more, and maybe I will. With some good examples someone might find it useful.

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