Someone Else’s Writing

Shared Universes are Weak Sauce

Jessica Jones

Jessica Jones

The Internet, as always an individual reality with only a tangential relationship to actual reality (which is not, let me finish, a bad thing, just an observed fact) has been buzzing recently about Jessica Jones, the new Netflix series offering from Marvel, following in the steps of the dour, glacially-paced and thoroughly, thoroughly overrated Daredevil (and I will fight anyone who disagrees with me).

I haven’t watched it yet, because I am old and slow. I plan to, if only because of the praise the show is getting. And it does sound interesting to a guy like me who has never owned, read, or paid any attention to comic books. The villain, a mind-controller known as Kilgrave or The Purple Man depending on how dramatic you’re trying to be, sounds really creepy and evil and thus well worth watching a narrative about his (hopeful) downfall.

Ah, but see, now we hit the snag, don’t we? Because it’s a shared universe. In Daredevil they peppered in references to the larger Marvel Universe, with New York City recovering from the last time the Avengers showed up and other references. So, Jessica Jones exists in the same universe as Iron Man, Thor, and Hulk. Which means anyone watching the show might wonder: Why in the world don’t we just call The Avengers?

The Infinity Problem

Don’t get me wrong; I’ll still check out Jessica Jones and I may even enjoy it! But the problem, from an annoying writer’s point of view, remains: You have created these super powerful beings. Your story exists in that universe. Why can’t they help? Why does no one even try? I mean, when the bad guys show up and you desperately try to call Iron Man and all you get are increasingly annoying voicemail greetings from Tony Stark, okay, that makes sense. But why does no one try?

I mean, as has been mentioned elsewhere on The Internet, the Marvel universe has established that there are superpowered autonomous robots everywhere. We’ve already seen Ultron, and Stark’s Iron Man suits that can be remote controlled by JARVIS — so, The Purple Man shows up mind-controlling everyone, why not sic a few superpowered robots on him?

Sure, there are likely storytelling explanations for this. And yes, that would make most of these stories suck in a very Somers Way:


Avengers: Here we are to save the day!

People: Never mind.


So yes, stipulated: Actually thinking about this stuff logically is boring and mean and annoying. We’re not here to approach superhero stories scientifically! We’re here to be entertained!

And yet, it’s a problem. Once you create a powerful being in a universe, you are stuck with that being, and stuck with explaining how they are defeated and controlled — and if they are not defeated and controlled (as most superhero failures are temporary plot points at best) then you have to explain why they don’t just solve every problem in the world, eventually. Sure, the Avengers can’t be everywhere at once, but they’re also not the only superheroes out there. It reduces all of your villains and monsters to mere annoyances, or forces the viewer/reader to wonder why in the world we’re wasting time throwing lesser superheroes against the Big Bad, when someone else would likely destroy them easily.

Too Many Cooks

This is a problem nearly unique to shared universes, where multiple creatives are spinning new tales, inventing new characters and new rules all the time. In a smaller-scale universe a single author might get themselves into trouble by creating a godlike character or two, but this can be handled because they are in total, godlike control. In a shared universe it’s nearly impossible. You can’t, for example, announce that the Avengers are all dead in Jessica Jones, because that kind of upsets all the people looking forward to the next Avengers film or future comic books. You also can’t really pretend that superpowered robots that would be immune from mind-control are impossible, because we’ve already seen them.

All you can do is ignore them, and have your characters ignore them, which makes them seem kind of dimwitted, but that’s okay. I do dimwitted things all the time. I have little doubt that if I became embroiled in a war against a superpowered villain, I would — well, let’s be honest: I would be dead almost immediately. But if I managed to survive, I’d at least try to get The Hulk or someone — even Ant Man, or the weird guy with no powers but the jetpack-like wings — to help me.


Learn About Bad Writing from Spectre



So, I love me some James Bond in general. I love a good Bond movie, even the bad ones. And I’ve been particularly fond of Daniel Craig in the role; I like the physicality he brings to it. So, yes, I went and saw Spectre despite the unpromising reviews. And it is kind of a bad movie.

But it’s a special kind of bad movie that could have been a good movie. Even about halfway through, there was plenty of potential. I was enjoying it, the action sequences were really well done, and there was a touch of humor here and there that made me really excited. And then there were a few awful, really bad storytelling and character decisions that derailed the whole thing and turned a pretty-good Bond movie into a terrible Bond movie, and there was much sadness.

There was also sadness because the audience I saw this film with was the most restless group of people I’ve ever shared space with, just constantly running in and out of the theater at full speed, like they were monitoring a small trash fire in the next room simultaneously.

However, if you’re a writer, go see Spectre, then come back. Because you can learn a very important lesson form it, and that lesson is simple: Well-drawn characters with believable motivations can elevate a story. Bad characters can destroy it. Spoilers ho: I will spoil the shit out of this movie.

Swann’s Way

The character I’m talking about isn’t Bond. As I said, I like Craig’s interpretation of Bond. It’s a physical, interior performance that manages to suggest a lot of things, from the animal way he walks to the almost obnoxious way he wears the shit out of a suit. Craig’s Bond is a thug with a familiarity with money and the world it buys, but he’s also aware of being a glorified killer. His contempt for his “betters” combined with his absolute dog-like loyalty to the few people he respects makes sense for the character, and Craig does fantastic work of making you believe that Bond can be simultaneously a trained killer and a man who falls deeply in love with someone in a few days because he is so overwhelmingly lonely.

Nor is is the character of re-invented Blofeld the problem. While Blofeld is completely mishandled and wasted as a Bond villain here, the film still could have attained a sort of B grade decency with him. Yes, the revelation that he was Bond’s adopted brother of sorts was lame and unnecessary, and they did little to make you believe that Christoph Waltz’s Blofeld was actually as dangerous as we’re told he is, but the film could have survived that.

No, the problem is Léa Seydoux’s Madeleine Swann. The character single-handedly destroys the story because she’s so badly written.

Bond Girls for the Fail

Sure, Bond Girls are always tragically underwritten. The Craig-era films have tried with mixed success to elevate the Bond Girl to something more than a piece of ass, but Bond Girls are still challenging because the audience knows full well they will be Bond’s love interest and then disappear.

But Swann is more problematic because they break several rules of good writing with her character, and here’s what the film can teach you about bad writing and what not to do:

  1. Making Your Characters Fall in Love Solely to Have Motivations Is Lazy. There is a moment in Spectre when Seydoux’s Swann tells Bond that she loves him and the audience laughs. This is because the character has literally known Bond for about a day at this point, and has spent that day hating him with a passion. In fact, Swann’s character instantly changes–instead of the steely-eyed woman who hates Bond because he represents the poisonously masculine world of her father, she’s suddenly flirty, fragile, and dedicated to Bond, and it’s solely so she can serve as Bond’s motivation going forward. It’s clumsy, clunky, and simply bad writing.
  2. Making Your Characters Idiots to Keep the Plot Moving is Lazy. Swann also decides, suddenly and without warning, that she cannot stay with Bond right before the climax. It’s framed against her past: She lived a life of danger and intrigue with her father, and she won’t repeat her mistakes with Bond. All well and good, but literally any other time would be a better moment to have that conversation. Why give your little speech and walk away–alone–just seconds before Bond heads out to the final confrontation? Because you’re a lazy writer and you need to have Swann captured and held prisoner so Bond can go insane trying to save her in a ginned-up emotional moment. Having your characters behave in insane ways simply to create a scenario is bad writing.

These decisions regarding the Swann character ruin the story. Yes, the climax was already compromised by other problems with the writing–the fact that Blofeld’s evil superpowers are all telling with no showing, that Bond makes the curious tactical decision to deliver himself and the woman he loves directly into the hands of the enemy with no leverage or plan, the complete lack of any sort of realistic time sense in the whole story–but it could have been saved if they’d found a better use for the Bond Girl character, and not relied on bad writing tricks to move the story along. Watch this movie and learn what not to do.


The Curse of the Futile Victim

Knock Knock

Knock Knock

I spent a week recently without The Duchess, who was off in far-flung lands rampaging with credit cards and no interest in learning a second language, and spent some of that time watching bad movies on Netlfix etc. Also baseball playoffs, but also bad movies, because sometimes you need a palate cleanser. And some of these bad movies got me to thinking about tropes, as I often do, and one in particular that I’d always been annoyed by but hadn’t managed to articulate in my mind before: The Futile Victim.

You see TFV in horror movies, mainly (though not exclusively). The Futile Victim is generally the protagonist of the story, the one who is assaulted and tortured and possibly killed, and their main feature as a character is that they never have any reasonable chance at winning. The Futile Victim may occasionally see chances for escape, revenge, or return fire, but these opportunities are never presented in any serious way to the audience. We know they will fail, and they generally fail almost immediately and quite spectacularly.

Probably the easiest example in film I can think of is Funny Games, a meta-meta horror film where the two demonic young men torturing a pleasant suburban family are so totally in control at one point they literally rewind the movie to undo a sudden twist of fate that favors their victims. In a film like that, the victim never has any chance at all, and you can’t take any of their gambits, brilliancies, or moments of courage seriously, and frankly it’s all kinds of irritating. I think it’s fine to have your victims ultimately fail, and ultimately have the monster/villain be absolutely in control — but I think you have to sell the possibility of a reversal or the stakes disappear. Stakes have to exist for both sides, after all: If the villains are absolutely godlike, then there’s no tension. Bad writers think godlike villains are scarier, but they’re not, because we can easily skip 100s of pages or hours of your film and get right to the inevitable, utterly predictable end.

Knock Knock

The film that actually tipped this over in my head to conscious thought was Knock Knock, the latest from director Eli Roth, starring Keanu Reeves — SPOILERS HO! Knock Knock is basically a remake/update of a 1970s cult film called Death Game or The Seducers depending on who you ask, starring Sondra Locke (who produced Knock Knock) and Colleen Camp, who has a small role, and some guy whose name escapes me but who is basically 1970s Marlboro Man by way of porn sets as far as I can tell.

Anyway, the basic plot of the film is kind of clever: A more or less happily married father of two (Reeves), slightly blueballed by a busy wife and perhaps resentful that his family abandons him on Father’s Day because he has to work, answers the door on a stormy night to find two cute young women, soaking wet and very polite, who beg him to let them in to use the phone. The girls slowly ramp up a seduction: At first they are the picture of good behavior, seeming only to appreciate the assistance, but they find excuses to penetrate deeper into his home, to shed their clothes, to chat about sex, to touch him.

This sequence of seduction is actually done very well. It uses an Uber car on its way as a clever time pressure — will Reeves manage to resist long enough? — and Reeves plays his combined discomfort and fascination well. The tension here i s real for one very important reason: We’re not 100% certain how it’s going to go. Reeves could believably resist. After all, the girls are cute, but he’s portrayed as a loving father and husband, and he seems perfectly aware of what they’re doing.

Of course, he does give in, and after a gratuitous threesome sequence, we get to the meat of the story: The girls, now that they’ve gotten Reeves to break the rules, set about punishing him, and he finds himself unable to simply throw them out of the house because they’ve got him: He cheated on his wife, the girls suddenly (and improbably) claim to be underage, and Reeves can see how it could all play out into a rape charge and the end of his life as he knows it. By the time the punishment switches from mind games and petty vandalism to Reeves tied to a chair while the girls dig his grave in the back yard, it’s too late for him to call the cops.

The Futility of It All

It’s not a bad movie, really, and if Roth will never be a great director he gets a lot of energy from the scenario, and does what horror films do best: Makes his audience ask themselves if they would be do any better. The problem is Reeves’ character is a Futile Victim.

Roth explicitly gives Reeves three specific moments in the story where it seems possible he might escape or at least turn the tables: Early on, the girls leave him alone while he’s imperfectly tied up and he frees himself — only to be almost immediately subdued again, as in literally thirty seconds after getting free; Next, his wife’s assistant shows up unexpectedly, and the girls are inscrutably worried about his presence at first, and he turns out to be a ballsier character than initially assumed, and for a moment it seems possible he might throw a believable wrench into their plan, but he has a fatal weakness that shows up almost immediately, and suddenly the girls aren’t concerned about his presence at all and so they kill him; and finally, Reeves knows where a gun is hidden in the house and seems on the verge of extracting it, only to have the girls swoop in and find it first.

In short, all three times, Reeves’ chances of escape end pretty much immediately. Why bother having them in the first place? To prove that the monsters are all-powerful, I assume, but it makes things terribly boring.

When the victim/protagonist gets the drop on their tormentor, it should be a moment rife with tension. You should be glued to the screen or the page, wondering what happens next. Instead, in Knock Knock and similar films, you’re bored, because you know it won’t last long, and will end in futility.


“The Gift” and The Power of Expectations



The film The Gift (written, produced, and directed by actor Joel Edgerton) will kill your soul, trust me; it’s got one of the most downer endings I think I’ve seen in a while. It’s an interesting film, because of the way it treats audience expectations: It treats them as tools it can use to tell its story and leave you stunned at the end.

Spoilers? Spoilers. Be an adult and read anyway.

On the surface, this looks like any number of slickly-made thrillers. Jason Bateman plays the cocky and sarcastic Simon in what you’d expect to be the standard Jason Bateman role. Rebecca Hall plays his apparently fragile and sweet wife, Robyn. Moving to California from Chicago for a “fresh start,” they run into Gordo, an old high school classmate of Simon’s who’s a little awkward and a little too eager to reconnect.

At this point, just about everyone in the theater assumes they know how this movie will go: Gordo will insinuate himself into the pretty couple’s lives, they will try to be nice, they will assume he is harmless, and by the time they realize he’s not harmless it will be too late: He will have learned their passwords, copied their keys, and framed them for crimes. In the end Simon will have to engage in horrific violence to defend his family and defeat the evil weirdo.

The movie knows that’s your expectation. It knows you expect Gordo to be insane and uber-competent until he makes one major mistake that is his downfall. It knows you will assume Simon, for all his urbane wittiness and aloof sarcasm, will be the hero by the end, and fragile, sweet Robyn will find her own inner grit as she helps her husband defeat the weirdo that invades their lives.

Yeah, not exactly. Which is to say–kind of? But Edgerton is smarter than that. He takes these expectations and plays us all for fools.



Rick and Morty is the Best Show on TV Right Now

We're All Going to Die! Come Watch TV.

We’re All Going to Die! Come Watch TV.

There’s been some thinky things written about the “monoculture” recently, and its a concept I’ve bought into in the past — the idea that at some point in the near past there was a general consensus about what pop culture mattered. I mean when the final episode of M*A*S*H pulled in 106 million viewers in 1983, that was like half the fucking country at the time. It’s easy to decide that there was a time when we all experienced the same pop culture.

It’s both true and untrue. There were fewer choices, so we were all aware of stuff in a way we aren’t now. Now half my conversations involve locating overlapping TV shows or books or music to center a conversation; finding a TV show that everyone sitting at a table has watched and appreciated can be time-consuming, because we all make our own zeitgeist now. This is not a bad thing, really, and since it’s coupled with TV shows and other pop culture ephemera being accessible far longer than it once was (via streaming and DVD and Internet download) the zeitgeist evens out, slowly, as people go back to experience things they skipped the first time around. Back in 1993 if you were at all into Science Fiction, you were at least aware of The X Files, whether you enjoyed it or not. These days, shows can be on for years and not achieve any sort of cultural penetration.

Recently, the TV Show I use as my password to the Cool Folks I Want To Talk To is Rick and Morty, airing on Adult Swim. This is the best show on TV these days, and if you like science fiction chances are you should be watching this show, unless occasionally dumb and puerile humor ruins things for you, you humorless bastard.



One Thing About “Mr. Robot”

One "O" Away from EPIC

One “O” Away from EPIC

Mr. Robot, the first TV show USA Network has ever made that’s worth paying attention to (which is different from simply watching), has been making some waves–most recently because they postponed the finale due to the recent on-air shooting in Virginia.

I haven’t watched the whole season, but I’ve already formed an opinion about the show: It’s far from perfect, but in one specific way it’s the most interesting show on TV right now. No, not because of the nerdy computer stuff (which yes they get mostly right but JESUS do they hit that button hard; am I seriously to believe people actually say things like “Oh you’re running Gnome? I run KDE myself” in actual conversations?) but because it’s one of the only shows I’ve ever seen that does the Unreliable Narrator right.

Elliot, the main character, informs us (yes, us, the viewer) that we are a creation of his–an imaginary friend he’s created so he can talk to someone. He reaffirms this several times during the course of the show. In other words, the whole show is an exercise in breaking the Fourth Wall, and acting like the character is aware of our presence, watching him. Many things in the show are depicted from Elliot’s POV, and sometimes they’re a little off, a little weird.

There’s also the fact that the whole show, from the opening credits onward, is filmed like a 1970s horror movie. And that is also a good thing.

In addition, there are hints throughout that at least one of the characters Elliot interacts with isn’t actually real. Like I said, I’m not through watching the season yet, so this may turn out to be untrue, but it doesn’t matter. Because this show has so thoroughly nailed the Unreliable Narrator that I can’t be sure of anything that happens on it. And that’s pretty exciting, because the story is still compelling (enough) and well-written, so I also don’t care if it’s really happening.

Most shows and novels mishandle Unreliable Narrators, because they see them solely as a Twist Delivery Vehicle, and that’s because for most people Unreliable Narrators were invented by Chuck Palahniuk in Fight Club. Don’t get me wrong, Fight Club is a great book and film, but jebus, people, there are other uses for the Unreliable Narrator. For example: Unsettling your audience. Keeping them off-balance. Everything we’ve seen in Mr. Robot might actually be happening in-universe, and that won’t ruin anything. It’s not about the twist (if there is one), it’s about the artistry. My uncertainty about what’s happening on this show is pretty epic, and that is refreshing.


Need to Explain “Show Don’t Tell”? Watch True Detective Season 2

We also get the TV show we deserve.

We also get the TV show we deserve.

So, True Detective season 2 has ended, and bow howdy it wasn’t very good. There are of course plenty of bad TV shows every year and few of them rate the amount of attention that TD2: The Failuring has gotten; this is largely a result of the outsize praise season 1 received, of course. After “Time is a flat circle” briefly made up 90% of all Internet traffic, the second season was doomed to disappoint. It’s just the scale of the disappointment that’s surprising.

Because True Detective season 2 is complicated. It was terrible, don’t get me wrong, but also prestige television. It was pretty poorly written, but also delivered at least a handful of well-written lines. The acting was all over the place, and the direction was lackluster, and the plot overly complex with a weak payoff, but there were still tantalizing moments when it seemed poised to transcend these issues and become, if not great, at least watchable.

Ultimately the problem was a simple one, a fundamental one, a problem all writers struggle with: How do you handle showing and telling? And how do you ensure you earn your characters’ fates? That’s where TD2: Electric Mustache Review went wrong. It told. It told everything in an effort to be cagey, and it told it badly.

Vince in the Basement

Vince Vaughn’s character Frank Semyon is the perfect ur-example here. In an early episode, Frank had a soliloquy about his father locking him in the basement as punishment and then getting drunk and arrested, leaving little Frank to fend off rats in the dark for several days, starving. Vaughn delivers the speech with a blank-faced lack of affect that might have been poor acting or might have been batshit direction, but either way the speech lands flat because it’s all Tell and no Show. People think Telling is when you write something like

FRANK: I am a broken man because my father was a drunk who abused me.

But the fact is, Telling isn’t so much about declarative statements that are better left for the reader/viewer to figure out on their own. It’s about subtlety. It’s about understanding how real human beings act and speak. Who in the world lies in bed with their partner in the morning, staring up at water stains in the ceiling, and tells a five minute story about being locked in a basement by their father for no other reason than to let the invisible audience know these crucial details about themselves?

It’s also Telling (and bad writing) because it’s meant to stand alone. We learn very, very little about Frank (or the other characters) over the course of the show, but specific events in their past are supposed to stand in for actual knowledge. Frank and his basement story. Ani and her rage and her knives and her promiscuity. Ray and his wife’s rape and the murder of her supposed rapist. Paul and his closeted homosexuality and his time with the military contractors. We never really get much else about these people: These single events define them absolutely (and are often only vaguely outlined — we know Paul is troubled by his experiences “in the desert,” but we have no idea why or what he did). Frank’s basement story is Telling because it is supposed to be everything we need to know about Frank: He was locked in a basement and fought off rats in the dark, and therefore he is Frank Semyon.

Yeah, it makes no sense. Telling is like that.

And then Frank’s death is like a cluster bomb of Telling. As he staggers through the desert, bleeding from a belly wound after a final betrayal, a few million in diamonds in his pockets and vultures literally following his trail of blood, it’s almost a great scene. Frank came alive a little in the final 2 episodes, and his reversion into a scrappy gangster who takes down his enemies and negotiates his way — almost — to freedom was kind of fun. And watching him refuse to give up, watching him force himself to stagger onward despite the clear odds, could have been affecting if his character had a little more development and backstory before this moment.

Instead, as if the show was fucking with us, it chooses instead to Tell us again, using the worst mechanics of any freshman-level writing workshop: The mysterious hallucinations with no context. We get his father, who has never been personified before in the show, abusing him in a generic way, his speech the sort of thing you’ll find in any  piece of crap about an abusive, one-note father. We get a group of black kids taunting him for being tall and white and gawky. We get a man Frank presumably killed over a debt, begging for his life. This all sketches out a potentially interesting story of how Frank Semyon went from terrified kid to small-time gangster, but it does so in the final five fucking minutes of the character’s story, in a rushed, awkward sequence that treated Frank like a hero, when he isn’t one. Instead of last-minute hallucinations, we could have gotten Frank’s backstory over the course of the season, instead of the endless stilted conversations about a land deal no one gave a shit about.What really hurts is that in the final moments of the scene, when Frank is dead and yet having a sort of Owl Creek Bridge moment, Vaughn stops limping and grimacing and for thirty seconds he turns on a Charm Ray so powerful you almost forgive him. Those thirty seconds as Frank realizes he’s dead are great, and it demonstrates the possibilities.

It demonstrates what they could have Showed us.


Unnecessary Thoughts on “Friday Night Lights”



So, about 10 years too late to the party, The Duchess and I binge-watched Friday Night Lights recently. And I do mean binge: We normally don’t tear through shows too quickly, but The Duchess became absolutely addicted to FNL and so it took about three weeks to watch 76 episodes. It’s also one of the rare shows that could make her declare “I hate this show” when it did something emotionally devastating, only to have her welcome it back moments later when it did something uplifting.

Friday Night Lights isn’t a perfect show, despite what some people might say. It had some seriously dubious plot developments (there is no need to speak of the murdered rapist) and it dropped more plot threads, never to be mentioned again, than your drunk grandma at a knitting contest (we must imagine that poor Santiago is still living with Buddy Garrity, possibly in a pit in his basement, putting lotion on its skin).

But what FNL did well, it did exceedingly well. There were few Big Moments; this was a show about normal-sized people without super powers just trying to find their way through modern small-town life. But when it came to Character Arcs and sketching out the lives of these people, it was nearly perfect. Let’s discuss two specific things that are representative of the show as a whole: Tim Riggins, and the Housing Market in Dillon, Texas.

The Housing Market in Dillon, Taxes

One of the simplest ways to define a character in a visual medium is to show where and how they live. Yet for most TV shows (and most films) there’s a tendency to go for Setting Porn instead of realism. The kids on Friends couldn’t afford those impossible large apartments, and the titular Broke Girls on that awful sitcom Two Broke Girls live in a huge apartment that people would pay top dollar for, rats and all.

But in FNL, where the characters lived was pegged very realistically to their socioeconomic status. Smash Williams, whose mother moved her family from a crime-ridden town nearby and can barely afford West Dillion, lives in what appear to be either public subsidized housing or very low-cost rentals. Vince Howard, living in poverty-stricken East Dillon, lives in similar lodgings with his drug-addled Mom. Matt Saracen, living with his grandmother while his father is in Iraq and his mother is elsewhere, lives in a sagging old house with a scrabbly front yard. The Riggins Brothers live in a run-down ranch house that had once been part of a new development.

Moving up a little, Coach Taylor and his dual-income family live in a nice enough home on a suburban-looking street, with a neat front yard, and the taylors feel safe enough to play pin-pong with the garage door open at all hours. But they’re just municipal employees; the house is tight on space and little things are broken or run down. They’re doing okay, but there are frequent dreams of larger places and frequent arguments about money.

Buddy Garrity, initially a successful car dealer, lives in a much larger and newer home. It’s not a mansion, but it’s much nicer than the Taylor home. And the McCoy’s, rich and moving to Dillon solely to get their talented quarterback son into the best high school football program around, do live in a mansion. The housing for every character is almost perfectly chosen. It tells you everything you need to know about their economic background, their social status (outside of football, of course, which has its own social pecking order the town respects), and how they live, all without one word of exposition of “As you know … ”

Tim Riggins

As played by Taylor Kitsch, the character of Tim Riggins initially seems like a poorly-acted jock asshole, the sort of athletically gifted handsome lad who coasts through everything and while not precisely mean–though he is, initially, selfish and callow–does a lot of damage solely by dint of not really caring about anyone else. This character could have been a sad cliché, but FNL approached character development in a very smart and measured way.

First of all, most of the true character development took place in the younger characters, the kids. The adults in the show had their tribulations and their moments of clarity, but by and large all the adults are the same people, basically, that they were at the start of the show (which only covers about 3 years of fictional time, after all). It makes sense that characters that start off anywhere from 15 to 18 years old would go through a lot and emerge on the other side changed people: That’s what happens when you’re in high school. Me, I’m 44 fucking years old. I am who I am.

Tim Riggins is handled with almost supernatural subtlety. In the beginning his best qualities are his absolute affection for his friends, and a brooding inability to complain. Over the course of the show the writers slowly move Tim, an inch at a time, from the entitled jock to an actual adult person, someone who sees his glory days as a past chapter in his life–but not with any bitterness. Tim, in the finale, is a man who still loves football, still loves Dillon, Texas, but sees clearly that winning the State Championship as “Big Tim Riggings” of the Dillon Panthers was just a great moment–a great moment that’s gone. He practically spends the last two seasons of the show advising people to put football in perspective, to value it and enjoy it, but to be prepared to leave it behind.

Tim’s depicted as a fundamentally good guy who slowly figures out that you don’t do good things and behave in a responsible or moral way because you’re rewarded for it–in fact, the show mined a lot of drama and humor out of the fact that Tim often did good deeds only to be punished for them–but rather because it’s the right thing to do. After being crushed underneath a litany of bad breaks–deadbeat father, idiot brother, continually assumed to be an amoral seducer of underage girls, and finally falsely confessing to a crime and spending some months in jail–Tim could easily have been depicted as a rage-filled asshole. Instead, he finds some peace in knowing exactly what he wants: A house he builds himself on the outskirts of Dillon, a job that pays the bills, his brother and his extended family.

That’s a character arc that’s almost a straight line in its subtlety, yet it’s a powerful moment, and it’s the reason the series chose to end on the image of Tim and his brother building that house. Tim Riggins was the whole point of the show, in a way: People suffer, people triumph, and in the end all you have is what you make for yourself.


“Orphan Black” Has a Villain Decay Problem

Somehow made all cute and hilarious this past season.

Somehow made all cute and hilarious this past season.

That Orphan Black, the SF show about a woman who discovers she’s one of many, many clones produced by a secret and unethical experiment, has over the course of three seasons become almost insufferably complicated. What was once a fairly crisp story about a woman struggling to save herself and her child while dealing with the horrifying realization that she’s a clone has spiralled into territory familiar with anyone who has watched TV shows based on a “mystery” premise: The audience wants answers, but if you actually give them the show is over, so you pull a trick wherein you explain a mystery while setting a new one in motion.

This can work for a while, if you’re skillful, and Orphan Black, in fact, seemed to pull it off in its second season, expanding the world and complicating the mystery while delivering a continuously interesting story week in and week out. This past year, though, things have come off the rails a bit. There are still pleasures to be had, mainly in Tatiana Maslany’s incredible performances, but the story itself is slow-moving hogwash, to use a technical term. The main problem is that Orphan Black hasn’t met a villain it can’t destroy in a few quick episodes. In fact, the show has had so many it’s solution to the malaise at the end of the last season was to circle back and recycle a villain from the first season.

Villain Decay

In the beginning, there were the Neoloutinists, a cult that believed in “self-directed evolution” who backed the cloning experiment and sought to control the clones, manipulating their lives and monitoring them. There was also a religious cult that saw the clones as abominations, and trained one of the clones to be an unstoppable killing machine, Helena, who was basically a serial killer of clones.

But the clones managed to turn the tables on the Neolutionists, maneuvering one of their allies into a position of authority at the institute set up to monitor the clones and removing the evil clone who’d been working with the Neolutioninsts. Also, Helena, once depicted as a crazy and incredibly dangerous person, was turned into a cuddly if sometimes murderous piece of comic relief as she became affectionate towards her clone sestras. So a new threat was devised: A separate military project involving male clones, which caused a bit of trouble until, again, the female clones managed to completely neuter it and render it impotent. And so, in the third season finale, the show surveyed its field of limp and defeated villains and came up with the idea that the Neolutionists, seemingly defeated for a very long time, were actually embedded in all of these other organizations and running the whole show secretly.

Much of this seems to have been done in the service of surprise: Build up someone as a Big Bad, then shock everyone when they are defeated much sooner than expected. This kind of writing gimmick is like crack: It feels good, but has diminishing returns and leads to your show being canceled.

The problem here is twofold: One, it’s hard to take these villains seriously when all it takes, usually, is a few episodes for them to either be utterly destroyed or brought over as allies; two, the new villains are always just permutations on the conspiracy the clones have been fighting against since Day One. They’re nothing new, just new versions of the same enemy.

A Glimmer of Hope

It’s possible that the bloodbath that was the Season 3 finale was a purposeful clearing of the decks, bringing back the original villains who will now be coherent and focussed. Instead of more and more variations on the “someone is secretly making and modifying or killing or spying on clones!” riff, we might get a real purpose to everything, and perhaps a single face for the enemy. That would go a long way to excusing Season 3’s disastrous meandering. Only time will tell.

The TL;DR version for writers is simple: When you’ve got a mystery-driven storyline, do two things immediately: a) have an exit strategy that involves an overall explanation for everything, and b) don’t give in to the temptation to destroy your villains on the regular just for the story shock value.


Orphan Black and The Doom of Men

All the same actress.

All the same actress.

Orphan Black is a nifty little Sci-Fi show shown on BBC America about a young woman, a snarky grifter-type from the foster system, who sees a woman who could be her twin jump to her death one night. Stealing the woman’s purse, and eventually impersonating her, she discovers that she’s one of many clones — identical physical replicas raised by a variety of parents all over the world.

There are, as you might imagine, conspiracies.

The main takeaway everyone has about Orphan Black is that one actress, Tatiana Maslany, plays all of the clones. For the most part that means she plays five distinct characters on a regular basis, and she’s played several other clones to boot. Even more impressive, she often depicts the clones impersonating each other, which is kind of mind-bending, if you think about it, because she finds little tics and ways of making it clear that this one distinct character is impersonating another distinct character. The acting she does on this show is nothing short of amazing.

That said, Orphan Black is one of those sci-fi shows that relies on a central mystery and dozens of satellite mysteries for its narrative focus and energy. That means that the first season, which was occupied with introducing the mythology of the clones, the clones themselves, the bad guys, and several double-crosses and unexpected twists, rolled along like a bus on fire. Since then, the show has suffered quite a bit from terminal Exponential Complexity.

Nesting Doll Plotting

The problem is simple: On a show like this, you can never actually solve the mystery. If you solve the mystery, the show is over. Lost was like that, and like that earlier show Orphan Black faces a problem: People want the mystery solved. We watch, at least in part, because we want the mystery solved. We can tolerate a slow solution, we can tolerate twists and heel turns, but eventually we need to feel like the story is moving forward to a solution that makes sense.

So, Orphan Black is doing what a lot of shows before have done in response to this problem: They solve a mystery here and there, but introduce two more at the same time. So, while in a sense the audience knows more about the universe of Orphan Black than they did back in Season One, in fact they know about the same proportion of information because the writers keep introducing new aspects that come with their own mysteries.

For example, in the first two seasons we were aware of the female clones, known collectively as Project Leda. At the end of Season Two it was revealed that there were also male clones from the same genetic material, known collectively as Project Castor. So while we know a bit about how the Leda clones came to be and what they’ve been up to, the Castor clones were a whole new mystery.

This strategy works for a while, but eventually becomes cumbersome. At this point in the show, the main character, Sarah, hasn’t had a good night’s sleep or a normal day in what seems like forever. It’s been a never-ending slog of investigation, impersonation, capture, torture, escape, shocking revelation, and the occasional clone dance party (Google it). It’s exhausting to imagine her having even more adventures as time goes on, only to continuously reveal even more mysteries, even more powerful villains who outrank who we previously thought were the Big Bads, and have to laboriously retcon story decisions that don’t make a whole lot of sense otherwise.

Eventually, it simply becomes untenable. Eventually, we can’t suspend disbelief any more. I don’t think the show is quite there just yet, but it’s inevitable. The British system of treating shows like one-off miniseries would be better: Tell a story, finish the story, and then, if there’s interest, set a wholly new story in the universe. It would save us all a lot of sadness.