Friday, October 23, 2015

Mystery Shows - Madlibs as Plot

A number of the shows we’ve been following defy genre. When we start watching them we can’t be sure if they’re sci-fi, urban fantasy, horror or even something completely different.

Is this because they are so nuanced, so complex or so groundbreaking that they can’t be so easily categorised?

Usually no - they’re just so lacking in information or definition that there’s no way of knowing what genre they are. Ultimately they are tagged as “Mystery” because that becomes their sole defining feature, mystery. Lots of questions with few if any answers and little real coherent world building - and this will go on for episode after episode, season after season.

Of course, a mystery isn’t necessarily a bad - but all too often this “mystery” is an excuse for some horrendously lazy writing. Sometimes I think the writers just paste story ideas on a board and then throw darts at them at random to see what plot line they’re going to pull out of nowhere next. We end up with a long string of “monster of the week” episodes, without even the excuse of monsters to justify it!

This is a different trope from shows which use random ill-explained and completely unjustified decisions or events within a show to drive the plot forward (for example, Falling Skies) because those shows do have a plot - it’s just a terribly executed plot that the writers should be forever shame for inflicting on the public. No, a Mystery doesn’t even have that - Something happens for Reasons and now everyone needs to deal with the Something and next week something else completely random will happen, also without explanation

As the mystery drags without any kind of answers the plot grows steadily more irritatingly empty and pointless - but always teasing the possibility of answers to try and keep fans engaged. Eventually when the writers finally do get round to providing answers they’ve written themselves into a corner - their episodes have been so random and so lacking in coherence that their big reveal can’t possibly answer all of the mysteries they’ve raised

Lost really started the trend of writers including mysteries into a series with viewers watching each week desperately looking for hidden clues. Lost was so popular in part because they convinced viewers that they had a grand narrative which would play out over time and have a spectacular end. From the moment we found that the survivors landed on an island and were not alone, the mystery began. Writers included: Hurley’s obsession with the numbers 4 8 15 16 23 42, polar bears on a tropical island, a plane filled with drugs crash landed on the island.  Who was Jacob and what was his purpose? Who could forget the Dharma Initiative? Both the flashbacks and the flashforwards were absolutely meant to give the viewer a sense that the writers were falling a strict plan. Viewers made excuses for the slow pace of the show claiming that the authors were forced to keep drawing it out because they had no end date.  What started as a very popular show found that it steadily lost viewership for the simple fact that the writers kept asking questions. In fact questions inside of questions would be a more accurate statement.  In the end, it turned out just as viewers had always feared, the writers were making it up as they went along.  As a viewer I can think of no greater slap in the face.  Just throwing things against a wall for funsies while having people spend hours contemplating the meaning of your supposedly deep and detailed show is just plain and simple an asshole thing to do. Well done Lost.

So here’s the deal: fool me once shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me. Today audiences are less likely to get involved with shows which do nothing but ask questions without giving any answers. It’s not cute and it’s not funny. No one has time to waste on this shit. It’s lazy writing and disrespectful to the viewer. All of these years later, I want the hours back that I spent watching Lost and talking about Lost. For all the question they asked I got very few answers. If viewers have fatigue of shows which try this tactic, the beginning at least can be placed squarely at the feet of Lost.

The Leftovers is the latest incarnation of Lost. No, it’s not about people crashing landing on an island but it is a show that seems obsessed with ridiculous side mysteries. It begins with the central premise that suddenly a significant percentage of the world’s population just disappears. Much of The Leftovers deal with how the survivors negotiate the loss. The only thing that we are told is that it is not the rapture. Okay good. Now this sounds like an interesting premise right? I can run with that but the writers weren’t content to work around this and instead created a mystical Black man who cures people with hugs, a cult named the Guilty Remnant who wear white and smoke at people because Reasons. Animals that go absolutely rabid. A police chief who has visions of the woman he kidnapped and later died in his custody.  Birds that give messages about what to bet when playing roulette. A town called Miracle in which no one departed.  And finally my personal favourite, a pre-historic woman dying by a lake side and then that same lake disappearing in the present along with several of the town of Miracle’s teenagers. If this sounds like a whole lot of WTF, that’s because it is. Does anyone even know why Kevin’s father was so insistent that he accept the May 1972 edition of The National Geographic? The amount of effort looking to see if there was a secret meaning behind this particular edition was ridiculous. To me it just stands as yet another question which The Leftovers have asked that I have given up finding an answer to. Am I tired? You bet.

It’s season two and we have been treated to a reboot of sorts. What would a reboot be without more questions? The writers went back to the original premise and posed the question, could this happen again?  I don’t know maybe but how about they answer a few of the questions they raised last season? The Leftovers had better get to it because I guarantee that viewers don’t have the same kind of patience or trust that they did in 2004 when Lost was released. The Leftovers absolutely has a very short leash with me. I become more and more suspicious with each episode that I watch that, just like it’s originator Lost, they are making it up as they go along.  

Under the Dome is a really good example of a Mystery show that desperately tried some last minute patching. After two seasons of random, unexplained events, the writers (possibly forced to make a decision, perhaps under a threat of torture) screamed out “aliens!” There, an explanation, we can put down the hot pokers. But these aliens decided to magnetise the Dome because… um… reasons? Or rotate it to radically change the temperature? Or the butterflies - always the butterflies? Or the 4 hands on the mini-dome? (I’m not even taking a pot shot at a town that apparently had major food shortages within a week and felt the need to have an underground fighting ring since they went 3 days without TV - largely because there are such easier targets). Absolutely none of the random mysteries were actually explained by the big reveal

This is the frustration of Madlibs-as-plot. The writers making up plots as they go along and then trying to squeeze in coherency late feels like a cheat. The whole point of a Mystery show is the answers. It’s what the whole show revolves around, it’s what it’s all gearing towards, it’s the reward for investing in all of these episodes - it’s the answer we’re all torturing our minds over trying to figure out.

Other shows have managed to pull it back - Haven has quickly come back to giving us some explanation for the Troubles, but even that feels rather rushed in trying to explain everything and even then there are some very shaky elements to the justification (the barn was shaky, having to kill Nathan to active the barn is somewhat unexplained, Charlotte’s solution for the her daughter going off the rails seems… convoluted and even the nature of the Troubles may have changed) - but this feels again like a natural result of having several seasons of random events happen without the writers having any idea of what their end game would be or how all of this would fit in the end. It feels like we have a lot of random plots and then they decide to try and make an answer fit all of the mysteries

A Mystery show without an answer is like Urban Fantasy without woo-woo, Sci-fi without science or a Romance without a relationship or Erotica without sex. If a Mystery show is to work at all, then there needs to be some satisfaction to aim for, there needs to be some answers, there needs to be a point to the mystery, a path to follow, enigmas we can work out. To reach the big reveal and have huge chunks missed out is like reading to the end of an Agatha Christie novel and have Poirot declare “actually, I don’t know either. The Little Grey Cells have given up.” To have the answer not fit any of the questions raised is like Miss Marple saying “oh he was stabbed, dear” when we’ve clearly seen the bullet holes on the corpse.

Other shows can get away with plot holes - but they cannot be forgiven in a Mystery Show. A plot hole in Mystic Falls and one of Elena’s terrible plans won’t scupper The Vampire Diaries because it’s not a show about answers or a big reveal or long standing unsolved questions. Coherence is prefered, but not show breaking if it gets a bit wooly around the edges. But a Mystery show is all about those answers, it’s all about that coherence, the little reveals that get us closer to the truth; it must be solvable. A Mystery show cannot support plot holes that makes solving it impossible

And now, with so many Mystery Shows having poisoned the well (especially Lost - a lot of fans were burned with Lost) how much more tolerance do we have for another show whose entire premise is another convoluted, shrouded mystery? I’d be surprised if fans would give a show another 6 seasons of vague questions