5 Movie And TV Plots That Mean The Writer's Out Of Ideas
I don't understand porn parodies. They've been around forever, and I can't figure out who they're for. I once spoke to a man who watches porn, and he agreed that the porn experience is in no way enhanced by bad pun comedy performed by strung-out actors in rental costumes. Not that it would matter if the comedy was good -- it's just not the time or the place for it. If you go to a brothel, you're not going to find a guy hiding under the bed with a slide whistle.
However, nonporn movies and shows frequently make the same mistake as the pornmongers: they add plot elements that are doomed at the idea stage. I'm talking about ...
Plots That Are Essentially Clickbait
As seen in: The recent The Walking Dead finale, Lost, shows that like cheap cliff-hangers, and The Sopranos' series finale (for some reason?).
If you know some The Walking Dead fans, you might be wondering why they were out in the street overturning burning cars after the recent season finale. Well, about six months ago, the show started teasing a major event that's already happened in the comics: the death of a main character at the hands of a new villain. The cast did publicity appearances talking about how they were already in mourning and how said event would arrive in the season finale and would shock fans to the core. AMC teased the episode with glimpses of the death scene with the tagline "THE PRICE WILL BE PAID."
Finally, in April, the season finale arrives. Early in the episode, the villain's henchmen promise to kill one member of the heroes' crew, right on schedule. After 90 minutes, 28 minutes of which were commercials, we get the final scene. All of the protagonists are restrained and lined up. The villain emerges and gives a monologue that seems to last for 46 hours. The camera cuts to a first-person view from a victim, the villain swings his weapon ...
Cut to black and the sound of screams. Season over, come back in six months to find out who got killed.
"Please enjoy a metaphorical hate-cock to the face until then."
Yes, it all turned out to be a cheap ratings stunt, which was shitty for obvious reasons (you don't reward loyal fans by lying to them, and you don't ruin huge emotional moments by chopping them up into teasers for the next episode). But, it also featured one of my least favorite storytelling tricks: coyly denying the viewer information in a way that reminds us we're watching a TV show.
Think about it: Every main character in the show knows what happened -- it occurred right in front of them. The only party left in the dark is us, the viewers, because they chose to turn off the camera at the key moment. It would be like if at the end of The Empire Strikes Back, they bleeped out "I am your father!" and superimposed "TUNE IN NEXT TIME TO FIND OUT WHAT VADER SAID, AND POST YOUR GUESS WITH HASHTAG #WHATDIDHESAY" across the screen.
"Join me, and together we can rule the galaxy as- *fanfare end credits*."
This cheap trick is usually the sign of a creative team that has run out of gas -- Lost got very bad about this right when the show was in mid shark-jump. Example: At the end of Season 3, we see protagonist Jack walk into a funeral parlor with a closed coffin in the room. He and the funeral director talk ... but carefully avoid saying who is in the coffin (we know from context that it's a key member of the cast). About an hour of show time later, in the final scene of the episode (and the season), Jack and Kate meet to discuss said dead person and proceed to have another ridiculous conversation in which two people discuss the death of someone close to them without ever A) saying his or her name or B) referencing anything that could give away his or her identity. So, instead of Jack simply saying, "Did you know Locke died?" he silently hands Kate an obit cropped from a newspaper:
Jack: "I was hoping you'd heard. I thought maybe you'd go to the funeral."
Kate: "Why would I go to the funeral?"
Jack nods silently.
"He, she, or it was survived by some family members or possibly none at all."
Any answer he gives there would give the audience clues to the corpse's identity, and the characters know that we, the audience, are listening in. They then stretch this shit out for a whole calendar year, until the finale of season four. There, they finally reveal who's in the coffin ... but only after a long exchange between Jack and antagonist Ben, in which they carefully only refer to the dead as "he" or "him" 10 times.
It's like hiding a Christmas present from a kid who already snuck inside the box.
Once more: During that entire time, everyone in the universe of the show knew who was in the coffin -- it wasn't a secret they were trying to discover. It was only kept a secret from us, because this is what struggling writers' rooms do when they feel like their plotline doesn't have enough juice to keep the viewer engaged. That's why I refer to it as clickbait -- it's the plot version of "YOU WON'T BELIEVE WHO JUST DIED! CLICK HERE TO FIND OUT!" Cliff-hangers are about "What happens next?" -- not "What just happened?" If your story is worth telling, you don't have to do that shit.
Debates Over Whether The Hero Should Stop Having Adventures
As seen in:Daredevil, Breaking Bad, Rocky, The Dark Knight Rises ... any story in which a character has a dangerous hobby.
If you're the kind of deranged sicko who likes to watch something and then spend weeks afterward reading long essays about it, you're familiar with the controversy surrounding Breaking Bad and the main character's wife, Skyler. As the nonpsychotic spouse of the meth-dealing antihero, she was constantly trying to get him to stop committing horrific acts of depravity for profit. And fans hated her.
A woman? Getting shit on for being decent and levelheaded? The Hell you say!
Many of these essays were berating said fans for this, for siding with the murderous meth dealer over his concerned wife. But, the reason for the reaction was obvious: The show was called Breaking Bad. It was about a boring chemistry teacher who "breaks bad" and starts a criminal empire, full of danger and adventure and flamboyant villains. Every single person who tuned in did it to watch this guy break all sorts of bad. So, whenever Skyler would point her finger at Walter and say, "You need to stop breaking so much bad, mister!" what we heard was "You need to make this entertaining adventure end, and go back to being a boring high school teacher!"
"I am the one who grades on a curve."
And, hey, in real life, she would be completely right! If any of you are facing a similar dilemma right now, please don't break any further bad than you already have. But, those arguments were ridiculous in the context of the show we're watching. In The Dark Knight Rises, we get the same thing -- Alfred demanding that Batman stop being Batman:
Alfred: I've sewn you up, I've set your bones, but I won't bury you. I've buried enough members of the Wayne family.
Bruce Wayne: You'll leave me?
Alfred: You see only one end to your journey. Leaving is all I have to make you understand you're not Batman anymore. You have to find another way. You used to talk about finishing a life beyond that awful cape.
Again: This is in a movie that was promoted with this poster:
That "awful cape" was specifically designed by a prop department to be the coolest goddamned thing you've ever seen. The poster screams, "Buy a ticket to watch a guy wearing this badass costume rise the shit out of his Dark Knightness!" So, whose side are we going to take when the weeping old guy says, "Mr. Wayne, I am begging you to stop doing the thing that all of those strangers in the theater out there paid to see!" It's like a restaurant advertising photos of their delicious steaks, and then, when we get in the door, they start pestering us with arguments for veganism. It's literally the one time and place when that discussion makes the least amount of sense.
The Wet Blanket Deflates.
Yet, this is almost standard for superhero franchises at this point. It's a major subplot in the current season of Daredevil. The hero's law partner gets concerned for his safety and demands he stop daredeviling and simply practice law full time. That's a great scene to have in a different show -- say, a series about a lawyer who does lawyer stuff and, in one specific plotline, is considering doing some vigilante justice. I mean, when that same scenario came up in Matlock, I didn't want Andy Griffith to go beat those 30 ninjas to death with a claw hammer. Not that it stopped him.
"Justice will be served."
Prequels That Answer Questions No One Was Asking
As seen in: the Star Wars prequels, Prometheus, the Halloween remake, Hannibal Rising.
Contrary to what recent history tells us, prequels don't have to be bad -- Indiana Jones And The Temple Of Doom was a prequel, for instance. What I'm talking about here is a specific type of prequel that answers the following question: "What was this fascinating character like before they became fascinating?"
This, more than anything else, is why the Star Wars prequels were doomed from the start: They were promising to show us who Darth Vader was before he became the thing that made him famous. The "young Hannibal Lecter" prequel and the Halloween reboot (which adds flashbacks to Michael Myers' childhood) make the same mistake -- they're going under the hood of human monsters who were intriguing specifically because they were mysterious. It boggles the mind to even guess how a sophisticated psychiatrist got into cannibalism. That's the point! He's inexplicable, and that makes him terrifying. "You see, what happened was that they were abused as kids." Oh, OK. Thanks for telling me that, movie. "Yeah and Hannibal, he saw his sister die in childhood, and the men who killed her ate her. So, this set him on a path toward cannibalism." Right, right, it makes sense now that you explain it. Thanks.
Psychotic man-eaters never reach their full creepy potential until you give them squeezable cheeks.
This is also why I get bored by superhero origin stories, unless it's a hero I've never heard of. I enjoyed Iron Man because the character was new to me -- I wasn't sitting there thinking, "OK, now here's the part with the cave, we should be getting the Mark 2 suit soon." I can live the rest of my days without ever seeing Peter Parker get bitten by that goddamned spider again, or witnessing Bruce Wayne's parents get murdered again, or watching Kal-El crash-land on that fucking farm again.
At this point, I would at least settle for actors I'd like to see get shot on screen.
It's not that their origins should be left mysterious; it's that there's no reason you can't pick up the story after they're doing their thing and fill in the backstory as you go. We never needed to see James Bond as a trainee or Sherlock Holmes as a toddler (and they're both superheroes, really). We start the show, and the hero is already great at everything. Boom, we get it. Start the adventure. "But, don't you want to know where Spider-Man got his costume?" Nope! I could not give less of a fuck. I also don't want to know why James Bond likes martinis, or whether Dom became fast or furious first, or if both happened at the same time.
"LET ME TELL YOU THE ORIGINS OF ME USING NOS!"
I think this might be because I've never, ever seen an explanation that actually added anything to the mythology. "Hey, do you know how Spider-Man got his costume? He bought some fabric and made it!" "WHAT?!? NO WAY! OH NO, I THINK I'M ... YES, I HAVE SHAT MY PANTS."
The Eye-Rolling Fake-Out
As seen in:House, 24, Bones, Buffy The Vampire Slayer, The X-Files.
Even a small child knows that if they sit down to watch my new series Pierre Nutfang: Fart Psychic that Pierre himself isn't going to die -- his name is on the show. They likewise know that if, in this episode, he loses the ability to predict the future with his farts, he will regain said ability by the end of next week's episode. That's fine -- in an ongoing series, that's just part of the understanding between creator and audience.
What is annoying, however, is the "OH MY GOD, THE PROTAGONIST IS DEAD!" fake-out -- trying to convince the viewer that, "Oh yeah, we totally ended the show just now, but tune in next week, anyway!"
"Cut! Great work everybody! Good luck on your next gigs."
So, no, Dr. House wasn't going to permanently lose his medical license (as threatened in season six) -- the show has "House MD" right in the logo. No, Buffy wasn't going to stay dead after the season five finale of a show called Buffy The Vampire Slayer. No, Arrow wasn't going to stay gone after "dying" halfway through the third season of his own television program. Actually, just replace that last one with any superhero who ever dies at the end of an episode/issue/movie.
What I always find most amusing about these is how they always go so over-the-top in trying to sell us on the "No, he's really dead this time!" thing. "He got stabbed in the heart and then thrown down a mountain!" "He splattered himself on the pavement in front of dozens of witnesses!" "He got disintegrated down to the skeleton by a bomb!"
This kept Wolverine down for like two pages.
I referenced the apparent death of Sherlock there (at the end of season two of a show called, I think, The Adventures Of Junkie Weirdcheeks), but I have to give them a point for not trying to do some bullshit "Come back next year to find out if the series about this guy still has this guy in it!" They showed him alive before the credits, as not to insult our intelligence. But then, I have to subtract that point because the real cliff-hanger was surrounding how he pulled off the fake death -- after all, the satisfying solution to every plot arc in the show involves walking us through Holmes' ingenious methods. Then, season three arrived, and the writers' answer was "Who knows? There are all sorts of ways he could probably have done it! Let's move on!"
"Blood packets? Food coloring? Yeah, sure, probably. Now, on to quipping!"
Mysteries With No Defined End Point
As seen in:The X-Files, Lost, Battlestar Galactica, The Leftovers, Heroes, Castle, Babylon 5, Orphan Black, Alias, Person Of Interest ... all those types of shows.
You'll notice that lots of the shows on that list above could also wind up in the "Nonsense Series Finale That Was Clearly Never Intended From The Start" club. That's not a coincidence, and here's why:
Let's say you have to babysit somebody's 5 year old at your place for an evening. You take the task seriously -- babysitting should be like a vacation for the kid, right? You get some snacks and some games you can play together and queue up a bunch of YouTube videos of things being crushed by a hydraulic press (scientifically proven to be fun for all age groups). You've got a whole evening planned!
The best part is sending the kid to bed and enjoying Hydraulics After Dark.
But then, you get the call from his mother:
"I'm at the hospital; my aunt got bitten by three of her wolves. Can you look after little Xaiden a little while longer?"
"Sure, what time do you think you'll be back?"
"Maybe the day after tomorrow? Or next Thursday? We'll just have to play it by ear."
Yes, your fun evening together has turned into an open-ended affair. Now, think about how shitty day four will be for little Xaiden as compared to the action-packed day one. He'll have gone from seeing a bowling ball get squished by a hydraulic press to seeing a wristwatch. The Cheetos are long gone, and you're now trying to feed him some stale Ritz crackers from a box the previous tenants had left behind the refrigerator. He spent the first night making a pillow fort with his awesome babysitter -- on the fourth, he is handed an iPad with a note that says "It runs on silence." Sure, if you had known from the start it was going to be a week, you probably could have prepared for a fun seven days or maybe spaced things out a bit. But, when there is no definite endpoint, it's nearly impossible.
Now you understand the task faced by the writers of a show like Lost.
"And back. And back. And back- "
Those pilot episodes and first seasons are usually amazing and full of promise. The mystery slowly unfolds with an intriguing new question at every turn ("WHY ARE THERE POLAR BEARS IN THE JUNGLE?!?"). But, even if the writers have clear answers to those questions in mind, they might as well abandon them from the start. That's because they don't get to decide how long the series goes -- the network does. They may get two episodes -- or 200. And, because they aren't writing toward a definite end point, they are forced to extend the middle indefinitely with a series of twists that are only interesting because of hints they give about the future ... while the creators themselves are clueless as to what that future is:
"Let's have these mysterious numbers keep appearing in the lives of the main characters!"
"What is it going to turn out the numbers are? And if your answer is 'the whole show takes place in a dream,' I'm going to throw this cup of coffee in your face."
"Uh, how about ... oh, wait! I think I've got something! What if they're living in a computer simu- AHHH! MY FACE!!"
Anyone who suggests "everything was a novel written by some other character"
bypasses the coffee and goes directly to the boiling oil.
It's not their fault, really. They know that if all of the hints regarding the show's overarching mythology point toward one reveal (say, "everyone is dead, and the island is the afterlife"), then fans would figure it out early and the show would be spending the next five years teasing a question the viewers already know the answer to: the proverbial wrapped gift under the tree that's clearly in the shape of a bicycle. To keep them guessing, the writers have to continually tease different possible answers and to sell them all equally ("What if a kid and his magic comic book are controlling it all?"). So, it's better to not have an answer at all and just see how long you can keep the balls in the air.
So, no, the writers of the first The X-Files season had no idea what happened to Mulder's sister, the writers of Lost's pilot had no idea what the island was, and the writers of the first Battlestar Galactica episodes had no idea the entire series was taking place in the distant past. I've always felt like this is kind of unethical -- a form of creative malpractice. If your selling point for the audience is "Tune in next week to find out what was in the box!" and you yourself don't know, you've breached the fundamental trust between creator and audience.
"She was Scully all along" would've made as much sense as whatever garble-garbage they actually dreamed up.
The answer, of course, would be to simply set a defined end-point for the show and let the creators work with a specific beginning, middle, and end in mind. I mean, why keep renewing a popular mystery-based show for season after season if there's no specific creative vision behind the story that's being told? Just so you can make millions and millions of dollars and live a glorious lifestyle beyond what the rest of us would even dare dream? Is that why?
David Wong is the executive editor of Cracked.com and a best-selling novelist. Get his latest thriller, or if you want to know when his next book arrives, join the mailing list. He won't spam you or probably even remember to email you at all.
For more from David Wong, check out 4 Reasons 'The Walking Dead' Hates Humans More Than Zombies and 5 Subtle Ways Hollywood Taught You To Be A Worse Person.
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