This one comes from reader Sally Law: What television trope aggravates you the most?
Let’s stop it with in medias res openings. Fortunately, these seem to have been on the wane recently, as opposed to last decade, when they were everywhere. There’s nothing gained by starting an episode in the middle of a big, exciting showdown, then offering up a perfunctory “X hours earlier.” There are very rare occasions (like on the second-season premiere of Hannibal) where the audience will say “Ooooh! I can’t wait to get to that!” But for the most part, these are just done to juice up a story that has a boring beginning. In fact, that Hannibal opening is a good case in point: It works because it teases a point of no return, a moment that the story cannot turn back from. Most in medias res openings are just there to suggest that, say, the main character might die. And we all know that’s not going to happen. It’s just hacky storytelling at this point, and it should be stopped.
It’s been snowing for about three solid months here in Chicago, so I’ll admit I’m biased on this one: I hate the idea of the magical power of Christmas. A show’s characters are arguing, unable to come to a resolution, and then they look out the window, see it snowing, and realize that, hey, they’ve forgotten the reason for the season and that they should all be friends again. It’s hokey, horrible, and completely unrealistic. What about the characters’ remaining resentments? God, it’s like these TV writers have never spent a holiday season with my family.
My willingness to suspend disbelief is strong. Plausibility, verisimilitude, and scientific accuracy just don’t bother me all that much if what I’m watching is worthwhile and compelling. But my one weakness in this regard is quibblingly specific: I hate, hate, hate the names of fictional bands on TV. They always sound fake to me, like nothing any group of real-life musicians would agree to call themselves. And it’s not like we’re still in the 1960s, when the middle-aged white guys scripting TV shows sneeringly dismissed rock ’n’ roll. People who’ve actually played in bands now staff writers’ rooms, and yet a group with a name like Drive Shaft can score at least one hit in the Lost universe. It’s an epidemic that even plagues shows with established musical cred: Gilmore Girls had Hep Alien; WKRP In Cincinnati played records by Blondie and Elvis Costello, and yet when it introduced its own “hoodlum rock” outfit, that band was flimsily dubbed Scum Of The Earth. Recent comedies have started to use bogus-sounding names like these to their advantage, leading to the rise of intentionally crummy bands with intentionally crummy names, like Parks And Recreation’s Mouserat or Party Down’s Karma Rocket. Yet, as the last three or four years of mealy-mouthed Arcade Fire allusions attest, name-dropping a real band in your TV script isn’t much of an appealing alternative.
I’ve used a fair amount of Photoshop, and I have a rather good idea of the limits of improving picture quality. Basically, you can make it brighter, you can make it a bit sharper, and that’s it. So it drives me nuts every time a TV character utters those magic words, “can you enhance the image?” A 10-second flurry of pretend typing later, that blurry daguerreotype taken during a snowstorm that the detectives found in a whale’s stomach becomes clear enough that you can read a license plate number reflected in someone’s watch. Thanks, magical computers. Not only does it take me right out of the story, it also gives my co-workers completely unrealistic ideas of what I’m able to do with a real-life blurry photo.
Here’s an obvious one, but it needs to be said: Will they or won’t they? They will! It’ll just take several seasons to get there. Like all tropes, I’m not absolutely against this one. I could hardly be more invested in the stew Patrick and Kevin are cooking on Looking. Then again their tension goes unresolved for about four episodes. A better example is Jim and Pam on The Office, who spent three seasons pining for each other while dating other people, and their romantic stasis is part of the broader portrait the show builds about drudgery. But it’s been a while since a show has gone to the will-they-or-won’t-they well without making me roll my eyes, and that includes shows I love, like Happy Endings. Now even something as goofy as Brooklyn Nine-Nine is taking time to make the leads pine for each other. Great.
If TV writers could give up the schlocky and eye-rolling convenient miscarriage, I would be a much happier person. It’s such a cop-out; an easy way to resolve a pregnancy storyline without forcing a character to make a show-changing decision like carrying the baby to term or even—Gasp!—having a character decide to get an abortion. But more than it being a cop-out, it’s insulting to the audience; it’s emotionally manipulative pabulum that has the façade of being profound without putting in any of the actual emotional work to earn it. The only time it is remotely acceptable is when it is used like Revenge did when it dispatched Charlotte’s pregnancy between seasons: As a ridiculous, tossed-off plot point used to quickly correct what was obviously a very big mistake in the first place.
The oh my God, the main character is totally dead trope. Spoiler alert: Mal on Firefly is only technically dead; he’ll be back in a second. No, Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. is not actually killing off stupid, whiny Skye. No, Sherlock didn’t kill off Sherlock Holmes—his name is the title of the show, for Pete’s sake. I’m all for TV shows with big stakes, but the threats have to be credible to be emotionally effective. It’s far more painful to see protagonists in danger of losing something they really care about, something they might plausibly lose, than seeing them just about to die. And it’s just plain aggravating when a character appears to die (or take a mortal wound or whatever) solely to motivate a big emotional hand-wringing sequence from other characters. I’m not buying that the show is murdering its protagonist, guys, so having the cast weep and wail over a seeming death that’s about to get an unlikely take-back just disconnects me from them and makes them seem unnecessarily credulous.
I enjoy living vicariously through sexy monsters as much as the next schlub, so I don’t want to call for a moratorium on shows about evil masterminds. But maybe, in the future, any proposed show with such a character at its center would have to first be approved by a panel consisting of, say, Al Swearengen, Montgomery Burns, Malcolm Tucker, Lex Luthor (as played by John Shea), Catwoman (as played by Julie Newmar), and Arvin Sloane. (If nothing else, it would be fun to read the minutes of their meetings.) Right now, there are a lot of writers working in TV whose life goal is to create the next Hannibal Lecter. The show that currently bears that character’s name works fine, because it pits him against characters who are smart enough that it’s a full-time job for him to keep one step ahead of them. But the antiheroes of The Blacklist and House Of Cards have no real stature or interest, because the people crafting their stories are too lazy or uninspired to present them with real challenges, let alone invent ingenious ways for them to overcome them. They’re not really masterminds, just big, snotty frogs in tiny ponds. One of the things that makes Doctor Who such an enduring character is that he basically thinks that anyone who’s doing evil can’t be very smart anyway.
Can we get a moratorium on scenes in strip clubs? I mean, if someone wanted to do a show actually set inside a strip club, and get the perspectives of the strippers and the bartender and the waitresses and the customers, sure, I’d watch that. Could be fun. But it seems like every detective show in existence, and most of the sitcoms, has to include a scene or two each season of the main characters wandering into a dimly lit bar and trying to hold a conversation while naked women gyrate in the background. The trope turns people into screen savers, and any sort of transgressive or titillating appeal has long since worn off; hell, even the “Oh wow, look at how sad and bored those dancers are” comes off as the sound of who gives a good goddamn. I have no doubt pole-dancing is an unfun and often dangerous career choice, but these scenes are cheap, reactionary commentary that fail to offer verisimilitude or any deeper truth. Yes, people are naked under their clothes. Grow the fuck up.
Carrie and Zack snagged two of my pet peeves, but fortunately, everything irritates me, so I’ve got another one in my back pocket. I am really, really, really over dead girls. I don’t deny that some great television has been made out of stories about missing girls and raped young women. But it is so awful, especially as a woman, to be barraged with these stories in seemingly every other show. Hannibal, True Detective, The Following, Top Of The Lake, The Killing, and even the classic Twin Peaks—all shows where a serial killer or repeat offender kidnaps, rapes, or murders women—sometimes, if you’re very lucky, all three. And that doesn’t even include shows that deal with a new case each week, like Law And Order: SVU and Sherlock. It’s too much—and worse, too much of it isn’t addressing the reality of how dangerous it is to be a woman, instead delving into shock value. I might have to put a moratorium on watching yet another show that is centered around the disappearance, rape, or murder of a young woman—I don’t think I can take it.
A trope that I always used to love when I was a kid but that has come to grate on me the older I get is what I think of as the old Army buddy trope, because the first place I remember experiencing it was when Diff’rent Strokes crossed over with Hello, Larry because Phillip Drummond (Conrad Bain) and Larry Alder (McLean Stevenson) were—you guessed it—old Army buddies. First of all, I get that it’s easy to bring guest stars onto a show by creating characters out of thin air and having one of the leads say, “Hey, you’ll never believe who I heard from today… and who’s coming to town on business!” If it’s a character with some substance, someone who’s designed to stick around for the long haul, it doesn’t bother me so much, but when you start getting a steady stream of old girlfriends, former co-workers, favorite professors, or high school rivals, even a fun cameo by a famous face can’t keep me from thinking, “Man, this feels lazy…”