November 12, 2012

In medias res

One thing about this season's slate of new television dramas that jumps out at me is how hobbled they often are by unnecessary backstory blunders. Not just that the backstories are clumsily executed, but that they are there at all, and laid out in such a linear fashion.

Vegas got it right. Jack Lamb's backstory is covered in about three lines of dialogue, and then on with the show. The Mob Doctor and Revolution (and Arrow, though I could only stand to watch about ten minutes of it in total) get it wrong.

What they get wrong is starting before the beginning and systematically marching the viewer through the chain of cause and effect that leads to the real beginning of the show. Or, as in the case of Arrow, cramming a dozen excruciatingly long and detailed flashbacks into the first episode.

Ron Koslow's pretty good reboot of Beauty and the Beast (it's really more Beauty and the Incredibly Handsome Hulk with the Cool Scar and Anger Management Issues) got the backstory over with in about five minutes and a couple of refreshingly short flashbacks.

Even then, I would have cut the opening sequence in half.

When a series involves a twist on a familiar formula, like Vegas or Castle, it can be introduced while the story gets underway. The twist in House is all show and no tell, and the pilot episode could have taken place at any point during the first season.

The pilot episode of Person of Interest matches up the ruthless John Reese with the enigmatic Mr. Finch and the "Machine," and we're off and running. The biographical details of all three are revealed slowly throughout the series. House did this to great effect.

In Elementary, the simple mention of "Holmes" and "Watson" tells us everything we know in order to drive this car. The twist of Watson as a woman is self-evident. It was a big mistake to delve into her biography in the first episode. Let it work itself to the surface.

I think the producers and writers were so eager to "hook" the audience with touchy-feely material that they gave away too much too soon. House, by contrast, waited until the time was right to reveal House's backstory, and produced a brilliant episode.

Besides the mechanics of good storytelling, leaving the backstory to later can give the writers enough time to figure out exactly what it is. I have to believe that a dozen episodes watching Miller and Liu work together would have inspired them to create something less insipid.

In fact, a later episode did explore her backstory, and would have been much better if we didn't already know what it was. (The writers on Elementary also seem to have no idea what to actually do with Liu; Martin Freeman, by contrast, glues Sherlock together.)

Especially in science fiction, this compulsion to explain everything all at once can rob a show of a substantial source of tension and conflict. (Though Star Trek: TNG did wait way too long--almost to the end of the series--to figure out why Riker never got his own command.)

Anime writers love post-apocalyptic plots as an excuse to overturn life-as-we-know-it, but they know that "why things turned out this way" is such an intriguing question that the smart thing to do is wait to answer it. Let the viewer find out the same time the characters do.

In a series like Yokohama Shopping Log, the "how" and "why" are only ever hinted at, the focus of the narrative being on the here-and-now. "What if all the lights went out" is sufficiently "high concept" to drive the story for a long time before delving into the backstory.

If at all.

Labels: , , , ,

# posted by Blogger Kate Woodbury
11/15/2012 11:26 AM   
I completely agree about Person of Interest (thanks for recommending this on your blog, by the way!). The thing that is so cool about the backstory is that within a few episodes, the viewer kind of already knows it; I'm on Disc 4 of Season 1 and although I couldn't give an exact decription of the backstory, I pretty much know what happened. Instead of being a big SHOCKING TWIST, the back story instead is used to reveal current information about Reese and Finch.

By the way, I think this is another example where the ostensible "guy holding things together" is actually, in some ways, the more fragile of the two characters. Although Finch is the mastermind, Reese seems to be the one trying to not only reach out to Finch but to save Finch from himself.