On Contrivance

1. The guest star is always either the victim or the villain. He’s never a red herring. His agent won’t allow it.

2. Television writers are not ingenious criminals. Therefore the plot of a television drama will always be less than intriguing. Television relies on characters, jokes, or standard formulas easily repeated– the comfort food of media. This explains the durability of Murder She Wrote, Matlock, 24, and Everybody Loves Raymond.

3. Information needs introduction. Mysteries and cop shows that rely on outside information– that is, information that’s not generated internally by the story– must contrive to bring that information into the consumer’s world. The most blatant device: “Long, long ago, in a galaxy far, far away…” Other examples:

  • When two CSI agents are studying evidence, one starts spouting facts the other obviously already knows. Sometimes they trade off.
  • In the room with a dead body, the camera scans across a key paragraph in a diary.
  • Or it pauses on the television as our hero wakes up in the morning, performing his ablutions to strident CNN anchors.

The longer the separation between the introduction and consequence of the information, the better. At least that’s the theory. See #4. (Similarly, protagonists use crutches to remind them of things they should know already. The hero has to refer to the list of suspects when he hears a name on an answering machine. The camera shows the name, and the hero repeats it out loud. The viewer goes “oh yeah, I heard that name earlier.”)

4. You can’t fool viewers for long. In “What Lies Beneath,” Michelle Pfeiffer’s cell phone always loses signal on the bridge. Astute viewers spot this right off, and when the untrustworthy cell phone inevitably plays its part, they see it coming a mile away and their eyes roll toward the heavens. (The root of the humor in the “it seemed extraneous at the time” joke in _Wayne’s World_.)

However, the point of this point isn’t the mechanism itself, but that you can’t con the audience with this sort of thing. Screenwriters fool themselves into thinking they’ve hidden their machinations but they haven’t. Not even close. It’s like anything done to a professional level– you haven’t achieved excellence until you think you’ve gone way overboard. SEATT devices are a crutch, writers! A crutch! Don’t be a hack! [Constant Reader “Shane” points out that the cell phone ONLY works on the bridge. Which, really, is even worse since it’s not only a SEATT plot device but complete, unbelievable bullshit. In any case I apologize, both to my readers and to Mr. Zemeckis, for the inaccuracy.]

5. Innovative story twists will be repeated (with progressively less innovation) until they become cliche. For instance, the hand-held “scanner” that shows the hardy group of adventurers how close the monster is. Masterfully done in “Ghostbusters,” somewhat less so in “Aliens,” and most recently seen (by me) and scoffed at (by same) in the sci-fi original picture “Gargoyles.”

6. Never hire William Forsythe. His presence as a main or recurring character is signifies a doomed project. It’s not that he’s a bad actor. He’s perfectly adequate. I can’t explain it. See “The Gun in Betty Lou’s Handbag.” Ok, well, that one was somebody else’s fault. But still. Forsythe = box office poison.

7. The skeptic is always wrong on television. If it appears to the contrary, it’s only temporary. The skeptic’s purpose is to allow the visionary to speculate. Incorrectly at first, but always, always correctly in the end. Often via a logical leap the audience is supposed to overlook, being wrapped up in the story by that point. See Mulder v. Scully. “Five years together, Scully. How many times have I been wrong?

8. The straight dope is boring. A hero will ask his villain straightforward questions which illuminate the depth of the villain’s depravity. The hero asks these questions with a straight face; he’s incredulous, evil just would never occur to him even though he (in most cases) deals with it every day. So when the villain kidnaps a secondary character, the hero’s “Where is she?!” is totally honest, as is the villain’s “Like I’m going to tell you” and thus the stage is properly set. This contrivance is used even when the hero is otherwise a hard-bitten cynic who trusts no one.

9. The hero has an incredible respect for human life. When the villain presents a conundrum involving other people, the hero reacts with outrage: “This is between you and me! Let these innocent people go!” Another example: Jack Bauer. Dude spends all day torturing people, then breaks down in a wet heap. See, he’s really a softy at heart.

10. “But- but- you don’t understand!” I hate this one with a fiery passion. People with vital information will go conveniently inarticulate whenever the plot requires it.

  • A girl who might be involved in a theft/murder suddenly can’t form the words to explain exactly what happened and why.
  • The guy who discovers he can read minds just can’t bring himself to explain to his wife.
  • The guy who paints the future sort of just doesn’t bother discussing it with people. Later when it’s painfully obvious, the language gets a little clearer, but it still tiptoes around what the deal is.

Things that are plain to the eye are rarely stated in dialogue. This dramatic reticence is used to build tension, so that when finally our hero bursts into the air and zooms away we feel a sense of exultation and relief when an onlooker stares raptly into the sky and goes “He can fly!” Even as we recognize that a genuine reaction would be more along the lines of “Holy shit!” and that analytical discussion after the fact would be the time for straightforward discussion. And there would be lots of it. But in the movies and on TV, after the fact people go all inarticulate so the hero has to experience/figure stuff out himself. They can’t just be like “aliens have landed and are blowing up everything in sight! Run for your life!” This is the screenwriter’s heavy hand at work.

11. You can get away with terrible special effects if your show comes on late enough at night, or early enough in the day.

12. Things always crap out when you need them. Variation on the Roger Rabbit rule: Roger Rabbit and Eddie the detective have been handcuffed together, and subsequently must flee from the villains. They pause while Eddie tries to get them out of the cuffs, and he’s looking for tools. Roger comes up beside him and asks what he’s doing. Eddie answers without thinking, and they go back and forth a couple times until Eddie realizes that Roger isn’t handcuffed any more. Eddie is pissed. He asks Roger if he could have escaped from the cuffs at any time, and Roger replies, with deadly seriousness, “Only when it was funny.” (I love that line. I say it all the time.)

13. When Angel’s kid showed up, it was all downhill after that. TV dramas that start out to be a “case of the week” always slide towards internal conflict in the mistaken belief that it’s necessary to keep their audience. Personally, that’s when I start to get tired of a show. When it stops being about a cadre of teammates or friends or whatever, fighting against outside forces, and starts to be about impossibly contrived coincidences involving backstories and internal intrigue– I feel my shoulders start to shrug. CSI Las Vegas held out pretty long, but it’s started slipping in this direction. It’s like when Niles and Daphne finally got together. You can almost smell the shark’s fetid breath.

Often this is the hour-drama version of a shark jump, just like the proverbial shark-jump, a desperate attempt to refresh the show because viewers have assimilated the formula too thoroughly and are growing tired. Future analysts may tie CSI Las Vegas’s demise to the episode which revealed that Grissom and Sara finally, FINALLLLLY made sweet sweet love. “John Doe” (a cancelled hour-long-drama about a man who knows every fact ever, but has amnesia) on the other hand, only made a handful of episodes before this crap started creeping into plots. I don’t think the show lasted an entire season.

14. Compromises must be made. Vital information needs to be imparted, but there’s no time to do it logically. That’s why the slain security guard’s son shows up at the murder scene, and the cop tells him his mom’s dead as he looks at the puddle of blood she was found lying in.

15. Sometimes contrivance trumps a cliche. On TV, it’s impossible for the audience not to think of women and men falling in love if both are unattached and in regular proximity to one another. Shows need to make a strident effort to keep gender-pairs platonic. On “John Doe” for example, his primary companions come complete with significant others. The young girl he “hires” to be his “assistant” has a boyfriend we hardly ever see, but who is mentioned in nearly every episode. Great pains are taken so we understand their relationship to be that of pseudo-siblings, not a romance. Producers know that the longer things stay platonic, the longer the show will survive. How long did it take for Buffy and Spike to do it? You’ll see shows and movies take other pains to dodge formula– the degree of their success determines the success of the show. Artistically that is. Great shows that dodge most of this list are cancelled every year.

16. These are all flaws, and they’re unavoidable. The artistry isn’t in coming up with new devices, but rather cleverly hiding the artifice that forms the skeleton of a story. In other words, don’t have Michelle Pfeiffer drive across a bridge, look at her cell phone and go “This darn cell phone always dies at this point on this bridge.” At least, don’t do that in a thriller. Don’t do that, hire a deft hand to punch up your dialogue, and provide your casting director with a picture of William Forsythe with a big ol’ line drawn through him. Nothing against the man, but he’s a jinx.

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3 comments

  1. Well, I’m very disappointed with you. Everyone knows the cell phone only *works* on the bridge and nowhere else. Hence the completely surprising race to the bridge. I can’t believe you forgot that. It’s a good thing you covered your ass with the Roger Rabbit reference; Mr. Zemeckis may have come looking for you. Lord knows he has nothing else to do, except count the money coming from those Direct TV Back to the Future ads.

  2. In the book, Papillon, the protagonist is in the jungle and notices the ants. He describes them for a while, saying how amazing they are and how they carpet the jungle floor and such.

    Then, he never mentions them again. They don’t save him by eating through the rope he’s tied with. They don’t attack and kill his nemesis. They don’t carry away the awl that he needs to finally escape.

    That’s why I loved that book and also why I believe that it’s true.

    #13 above. That’s big pet peeve of mine. I don’t really care about House’s drug addiction or love life. I just want him to cure someone by figuring out that the guy lost an eyelash, which induced a metastatic state of ambomorphistic tricliteride, causing a blue glow around the heart and third left toe.

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