11 March, 2009

Plotting rant #1

I was reminded of Showcase/Five dramedy Californication recently and realised I forgot to have a rant about it on my blog last year. So imagine it's a year ago: McCain was going to be the next President of the USA, the economy looks strong and Birmingham City was going to stay in the Premier League.

As I watched the first series, I enjoyed the quality dialogue and frank sexuality but the hack plotting began to wind me up each week until the daft last quarter .

Hank has long-term writers block. While away from home he plays around with an old typewriter and ends up writing a novel on it in a couple of weeks - the best thing he's ever written. And yet he doesn't bother to photocopy it. Predictably, the book gets stolen and to cut a crap story short, the ex-girlfriend publishes it as her own.

That plot is an old one and there's nothing wrong with using old plots - recycling is good - but what annoyed me was how the writer didn't make the effort to update it to incorporate new technology and instead pretended they don't exist.

Rather than ignoring a problem, inconvenient technology like computers, photocopiers, mobile phones, etc gives us a chance to make more of an effort and avoid hack writing, should we want to. By going beyond the easy and most obvious solutions we may find stronger and more truthful stories. TV Guide called the plotting "absurd" with "more logic-holes than a hunk of swiss".

The thriller/horror with people trapped in an isolated place with no landlines to call for help is harder to do in the present day as everyone's got a mobile. It doesn't mean we can't still do that plot but we have to deal with the mobiles. Hence my impression from the movies that the USA must have the worst cellphone coverage ever. Even in the middle of cities, they can't get a bloody signal! But at least they've made the effort to deal with the problem and it stops the audience asking the question: "Why don't he use his mobile?"

The example with Californication also shows suspect if not bad characterisation. Would any writer - just out of a long writers block - really not safeguard their manuscript like a newborn child and photocopy it several times like a newborn child? Although, saying that, I knew one writer who sent a typewritten spec script to a prodco for an existing show ages ago and the company lost it. He sued and got a considerable settlement out of court. While he was complaining about the prodco in the pub, no-one wanted to ask the question hanging in the air, "You mean you sent them your only copy?"

So script loss clearly does happen in real life but up until then Hank, as a character, was just very self-destructive, not very stupid. He had to act stupid for the plot to work when maybe what was needed was a cleverer plot.

I did give Californication a second chance with the second series. TV Guide called the set ups "mechanical" and the characterisations "improbable". But to be fair while I agreed with the critics and gave up on it, enough people stayed watching it for it to get a surprise third season.

Actually, Monday night's Heroes (UK pace) has another more clear-cut example of bad characterisation which I'll attempt to rant about next.


Andy Conway said...

I actually didn't mind the Cali plot-hole as it didn't really hinge on whether he'd made a copy of his MS or not, it hinged on him having slept unknowingly with a 16-year old who then stole his novel knowing he couldn't say anything about it or she'd have him arrested or, worse, let it all out to the woman he was trying to win back, her soon-to-be stepmom (Confused? You will be).

For me, it was about blackmail, not back-up, and I subsequently wanted her character to die a horrible death every time she showed her smug, novel-stealing face. Which made for great telly.

[Resists the temptation to make a crack about it being more plausible than Birmingham City staying in the Premiership] ;-)

Robin Kelly said...

You're right in that the consequences were great but writers can't shortchange the set-up. Well, obviously writers can as they do it all the time but in my world it would be banned.

For me it's like someone killing babies and selling the parts for meat and then they give me a £1000 as a share of the money.

The consequence of the action is great but the action itself is immoral and evil and puts a bit of a dampener on any good feelings I might have about the free cash.

Yes, I am equating having plot holes in our scripts to killing and eating babies. It really is that bad.

Bingethink said...

Didn't see the episodes in question, but it seems to me that it's not a big step at all from "character is self-destructive" to "character, even when approaching success, acts in (unconsciously?) self-destructive manner". I could even call it consistent characterisation.

[i]"Would any writer - just out of a long writers block - really not safeguard their manuscript like a newborn child and photocopy it several times like a newborn child?"[/i]

Fuck, yeah. Writers (and, indeed, real people) sometimes indulge in sub-optimum behaviour. Self-destructive writers even more so.

The fact that you can pull a real life story from the top of your head of a writer doing just that shows that you know it's the truth.

"Flawed character makes sub-optimum choice" doesn't preclude a great story. Adam and Eve, Goldilocks and Lear did that way a long time before Californication.

I suppose one way to deal with the logic problem you have with the script is to have other characters point out his sub-optimal behaviour. But isn't the better, cleverer way to create a character that makes the audience do that for themselves?

terraling said...

Good to see you writing not just linking (which is not to sell short the usefulness of your usual posts).

Have to say that series one of Californication surprised me with just how good the characterisation was, given that at face value its appeal was just shocking sex.

You are right that losing the script was very weak plotting, "duh! How come you don't have a copy?!?", but the consequences of that loss all flowed quite naturally. I'd contrast that with the climax of the first series of Heroes, ouchh, it hurts my head thinking about it, it was so bad, I can't even remember what the alternatives were, but I remember watching the show cringing, saying "Why don't you just...!? Why don't you just...?! That doesn't make sense, why don't you just...!?".

The crime was all the greater with Heroes because the audience was *anticipating* very weak plotting, whereas at least with Californication the weak plot device happened and then we moved on, it was in the past.

You are very brave if you have stuck with Heroes thus far! Series two of Californication started very weakly, but picked up three or four episodes in. (That said, the remainder of the series is sitting there waiting for me to get round to watching it.)

Robin Kelly said...

Bing, you're right to a certain extent and if just a hint of that psychological truth had been in the show then I wouldn't have been so bothered. But it wasn't.

It's not that I didn't spot it because it was subtle, (I watch Mad Men) it's because it's not important to the writer. It's the same with the other characters, especially his ex-wife.

What's frustrating is that often logic flaws can be fixed by a bit of subtle psychological truth.

Terry, I also have shows sitting on my shelf with the intention to watch when I get the chance but as Bing says the sub-concious is powerful; it tries to protect us from bad experiences ;-)