September 26, 2011

It's not about the bad guys

Kate's review of Sherlock, the "modernized" BBC Holmes series, got me to thinking again about why I found it so annoying. The casting and the setup is perfect, but the early introduction of Moriarty--a Moriarty of such inexplicable means and motives--wrecked it for me.

What Orson Scott Card says about the "Red John" character on The Mentalist applies here: "He was made too powerful, with tentacles reaching everywhere, so that we began to wonder why he didn't just kill everybody and become king."

Like Card, if he doesn't stay dead (he didn't), I'll stop watching (I will), because "I don't tune in to watch the same repulsive villain week after week. I tune in to watch intriguing and enjoyable heroes" dispose of the bad guys.

I watched the pilot episode of The Secret Circle. It's the kind of show I want to like, but I'll give it a pass. Besides being yet another 90210-with-a-twist soap, the thought of hanging out with the same mean girls and angsty teenagers and evil, Machiavellian adults every week is tiring.

Recall that Buffy was about hanging out with the same interesting, resourceful and good kids and adults every week. The underlying conflict did not depend on Cordelia perpetually being a bitch or even Spike being evil. In fact, the series got better as their characters matured.

The X-Files was big on conspiracies, but structured so that most of the episodes had nothing to do with the big conspiracy arc. They were entertaining ghost or crime stories solved by the odd genius and his level-headed sidekick. Which should also be true of Sherlock Holmes.

And when the conspirators did show up, more often than not, Mulder was caught in between competing cosmic forces. He wasn't constantly being preyed upon, at the mercy of fate or crazies. When he did end up in somebody's cross-hairs, the means and ends justifying them aligned.

Even so, as the conspiratorial twists and turns compounded, it became necessary to explain why the Cigarette Smoking Man just couldn't bump off Mulder. (The Cigarette Smoking Man also showed up in a hilarious episode that explained why running the world is boring.)

The problem seems to comes down to a dearth of writers capable of creating truly smart villains, so they instead create sociopathic and really lucky ones. They turn the bad guys into amoral demigods, and that is surprisingly dull.

This is a persistent problem with superhero series, and one that doesn't need to exist in the first place. As Kate points out, the vast majority of Agatha Christie's criminals are "simple and believable." Their actual crimes are comprehensible in the given context and rather mundane.

Especially when it comes to the police procedural, it's not the crime or the criminal that's interesting, but how the hero solves the one and catches the other.

Related posts

The Big Bad
Oh yeah, we're baaad
Superbad is superboring

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# posted by Blogger Kate Woodbury
9/27/2011 11:06 AM   
Wanting to watch good guys rather than repulsive bad guys is one reason I think Stargate was so remarkably successful with its villains, the Goa'uld and the Wraith. In both cases, the villains remained consistent through several seasons (unlike even Star Trek which kept inventing villains even after the Borg), yet those villains' wants/needs/nefarious purposes were strong enough to supply many, many worthy plots!

And the main reason these villains supplied good plots without becoming raison d'etres in their own right was because their motives were so totally comprehensible: power/survival and food. End of story. The good guys don't want to be taken over and don't want to be food. End of argument. (I mean, who does?)

It helps that the Goa'uld and Wraith are rather fun to watch, but Stargate never asked me to commiserate or, at least (with the Wraith) to commiserate to the point where I stop routing for the hero. I never reached the point where I wished the episode would show me more of the villains. Which doesn't make the villains any less ambiguous or even, from a viewer's point of view, beloved. Peter Williams (Apophis) guest spots in Season 6's "The Changeling" and boy, it was nice to see him again! But his role was to merely highlight the hero's struggle.

Strong, useful villains supply actions/mind-sets that the heroes must resist. It helps if that something is interesting and smart and can in fact be outwitted/outmanuevered, so that several times the SGC does deals with the Goa'uld and Wraith (without giving up their basic desire to be rid of these antagonists).

Most importantly, they struggle face-to-(human)-face. Sociopaths and bugs are just boring.