Four Common Tropes of the TV Writeron August 14, 2009 at 12:18 AM
It’s a tough-as-hell business to get into, and it’s a really crazy one to stay in. Writing for TV is like a mixture of being back in high school again, working for Facebook during the batshit crazy beach house and energy drink-fueled era, and being the younger characters on “Mad Men.”
This is what I hear. I can’t write for TV. I’m just some asshole.
Anyway, it’s totally understandable that TV writers have some shortcuts to progress a story or character’s emotional arc. After all, it television moved in a natural, real-life pace, it would 1.) be boring as hell and 2.) take five years to write one season. And to be honest, I think some writers are unaware that they keep reverting back to these cheap little devices.
1.) The Bait and Switch
This is a more common occurrence than you think, and it has its roots in classic literature. It’s so overused (mostly because it’s something that happens in real life) on dramas, usually concerning a romantic plot.
There’s a character…let’s call him Jenkins. I don’t know why. So Jenkins has just made a big life decision to switch from one spouse to another, or one job to another, or one drug dealer to another, something important. At one point, we see in a flashback or an earlier episode that Jenkins and his previous spouse/job/dealer really enjoyed a particular joke or pastime or quirky nuance of something. For the sake of the example, we’ll say they got a real kick out of drawing boobs on an Etch-a-Sketch and leaving it out for children to find.
When Jenkins tries to engage his new love interest or dealer is his Etch-a-Sketch tomfoolery, they call him childish or stupid. They are clearly not a person who appreciates this private thing that Jenkins has now officially lost. Maybe making a change was a bad idea. But it was too late.
Why it Sucks:
Instead of writing the replacement spouse or dealer as a pale imitation of the older one that is revealed over time to not be the same, we get one insignificant little quirk about the main character as our reason for hating the change. Fact is, when you marry for a second time, your entire day-to-day situation is morphed into something different. Focusing on one little private joke or moment is a writer’s lazy way of telling us that Jenkins is not satisfied with the change in his life, but it won’t really affect him enough to derail the show completely. It’s just annoying enough to mention, but not enough to dwell on.
2.) The Hangover
Either one or several main characters start an episode waking up in a grotesque or compromising situation. Like waking up in a puddle of your own waste, or waking up in a public place where you are on display and embarrassed. We as the audience have no idea how the main characters got themselves in this situation, but we know we’ll find out by the end of the episode. This whole thing can be played for horrific shock (like the dead hooker from Godfather Part II) or for uproarious laughs (like The Hangover, which turned this device into the entire plot of a film).
Over the course of the episode, we may flash back to what lead to that wake-up moment. Perhaps a fight with someone close, or a wild night in the company of strangers. Or, the character spends the episode investigating and retracing his/her steps to find out what happened.
Why It Sucks:
This device can be a simple framing technique to tell an otherwise less-interesting story, or it can be a lazy shortcut to a character’s growth or realization of something profound. If done up for comedic effect, the moral for the character is “I’m actually pretty awesome. Look at all the crazy stuff I was capable of last night!” If done for dramatic effect, the moral is typically, “How can I keep living this way? I’m so ashamed of the things I did, and I’m more ashamed that I’ve ended up here.” It’s a literal wake-up call…get it? GET IT?!
Using this device to shame a character is dicey at best, because the whole episode is predicated on the idea that the character is enough of a douche (or a legendary badass) to do the things that lead to the wake-up moment. If they really aren’t the type of person to end up in that situation, it seems gimmicky. If they are the type to do that stuff, then the wake-up would lack a certain significance.
3.) The Time Machine
We’ve all seen this. Sometimes it’s the final episode, sometimes it’s just clearly written as the final episode and they use it prematurely. But there’s something seductive to a writer and a viewer to just jump ahead for one episode. Maybe three years. Maybe twenty. Maybe only five weeks, and then we get to see how the current timeline gets to that episode’s timeline (that’s called a Hung-over Time Traveller).
Oftentimes the fast-forward includes tiny hints and blatant signs at what each character has been up to, how the internal world of the show has kept up with the advancement of the world at large. Usually there are large role reversals, such as a big important honcho on the show reduced to a menial position or a reviled dickwad suddenly adored by many fawning followers.
Why It Sucks:
Whenever this comes into play, at least fifteen minutes of a 44 minute episode can be written on the toilet in about an hour. As a writer, you don’t have to tackle any important themes or issues until the audience’s shock and awe has worn off at some point during the first commercial break.
Also, it’s really convenient. Instead of showing the audience how one character’s aspirations or anguishes lead them to change slowly and become a different person, you can just make them that different person with the wave of a magic wand and if anyone calls shenanigans on you, you can always write in a flashback that will explain everything. It’s the most gimmicky of gimmicks.
4.) Everybody Gets Loopy
This is usually used as a device in a bottle episode, where the budget is really low and the actors are looking to stretch their legs and their characters. In an unexpected twist, some foreign element is introduced into the usual interactions between characters. Sometimes it takes the form of alcohol, sometimes lack of sleep, and sometimes it’s just being trapped in a stupid location like a cellar or store room for so long they lose their cool.
Inevitably, the chemicals or claustrophobia or fear make our favorite characters show their true colors. Otherwise despicable antagonists reveal the vulnerable, lonely victims underneath. Two seemingly unrelated characters unleash a maelstrom of emotions for each other (be it hatred, lust, or just a sympathy that they didn’t seem capable of). And if we the audience are lucky, we’ll get some Breakfast Club styled confessions and bonding. Even if they don’t remember the tumultuous events afterward, we will know.
Why It Sucks:
I’m going to fully admit that this can be fun. Lots of fun. But it is still used as a crutch during the slow months of TV season, roughly around November when the ratings lag. Nothing is easier to use than a spiked punchbowl gag on a sitcom, or a goof-inducing brain spore on a medical drama.
The thing that bothers me is that no motivation or emotion is required for the characters to start acting out of character and randomly showing a different side to their story. Especially when the chances are good that we’ll never see that side of them again and it’ll never be mentioned again.