Friday, April 03, 2009


I was never a fan of “Star Trek” because I always felt the people making it cheated.

Somewhere in Act 1, the crew of the “Enterprise” would get in some kind of bind and there’d be this inevitable scene where Scotty would go to work on the damaged Thrusters or Shields, making it clear that they weren’t designed to take whatever abuse was being meted out or they needed to operate at some capacity beyond scientific possibility for the ship to survive. But, in the final minutes, some futuristic feat of engineering that’s explanation sounded totally made up on the spot would magically allow them to do just that.

It was science fiction where all the science remained fictitious and I just never bought it.

Good drama always depends on the “Willing suspension of disbelief”, meaning at some level we know what’s going on doesn’t track, but we’re having a good time so we let the illogical things slide, playing along to be entertained. And like the old “Star Trek” series, an awful lot of enormously successful movies and TV shows have logic holes you could drive a truck through.


“Jurassic Park” is one of those great thrill rides of a movie. But scene after scene doesn’t follow the logic the filmmakers use to construct their story. Luckily, there’s a lot of dinosaur eye-candy to keep us distracted while we’re repeatedly told one thing about the world being created and then the action requires us to believe something completely different.

We’re told a T. Rex has a top speed of 30 miles an hour and then treated to an elongated chase between one of the dinosaurs and a speeding Jeep. Earlier, the T. Rex easily climbed over an enclosure wall that Dr. Grant and the kids later hurtle down in a truck to treetop level and then further descend at great peril. 

Near the end, the park’s warden, Muldoon, played by the late British actor Bob Peck, who has spent the entire film educating us on the dangers of Velociraptors and specifically their ability to hunt in packs, walks into just such a Raptor trap, facing his attacker with a respectful -- “Clever Girl…” before he’s torn to pieces, as if the animal’s intelligence were a sudden revelation.

It’s a completely bogus moment. But one that’s required for the rest of the story to play out. In other words, it’s a writer’s trick based on cleverness rather than dramatic truth.

I don’t write a lot about writing. Mostly because I don’t have any formal training in the craft. I learned by doing and watching other writers do, becoming one of those guys who realized I didn’t know what the hell I was doing around the time I was making too much money at it to quit. But every now and then, I’m frankly astonished by some of the things supposedly intelligent and trained writers try to get away with.

On my first TV series, we had one guy on staff who’d been on practically every hit series since television began. He’d write himself into a corner, smoke a cigarette and then rattle off a couple of pages that brought the episode to a conclusion. I used to read his stuff and, as diplomatically as I could, point out that his resolution didn’t actually make a lot of sense.

“Don’t worry about it. It’s a Refrigerator moment,” he finally told me.

What’s a Refrigerator moment?” I asked. Thinking I was about to glean some well-kept Hollywood secret.

It’s when the show ends, the credits run and the guy watching gets up to get a beer. He opens the fridge, pops the cap, takes a drink and then, thinking about the show says, ‘Hey, wait a minute…’.”

According to this writer, by that time, we’d lived up to our part of the “Willing suspension of disbelief” contract and could not be penalized. Checks had been cashed. Ratings numbers had been achieved. Detergent had been sold. No harm. No foul.

I never bought that either. And over the season I watched him paper over so many Refrigerator moments with distracting dialogue, contrived actor business or set pieces that he often achieved what he termed “Jacuzzi moments”, meaning you already had your beer and were in the Jacuzzi before “Hey, wait a minute…” hit.

Rightly or wrongly, and trying hard not to sound like a disgruntled Fanboy here, I’ve always believed that you have to live by the rules of time and space and character you create for your series or movie. Of course, you can make wholesale changes as the thing progresses as long as you do it in a believable way. But you always have to be aware that you told your audience you were taking one direction and if you’re now going somewhere else they need either a respectful heads up or a heartfelt explanation.

But lately, I’ve been noticing a trend toward writing in which “Cleverness” trumps what writers know they should do.

Being “Clever” in it’s cagey, shrewd or cunning form used to be the purview of Network executives, more interested in staying ahead of the audience than sharing the story telling experience with them. Don’t get me wrong. Every writer has the duty of keeping his audience wondering what might happen next. But there’s a cult of network think that believes you need to constantly be catching the audience unawares and leaving them with absolutely no idea where things might progress from here.

Unfortunately, it’s the kind of strategy that leads to the ever declining numbers for “Lost” and mass dissatisfaction with “Heroes” not to mention any number of new series cancelled after 4 episodes because that’s as much time as their overly “clever” premises could sustain.

Audiences are incredibly forgiving. But if you want them to remain loyal, you can’t lie to or trick them – unless that was part of the original covenant you both agreed to pursue.

This “Playing by the rules” thing becomes even more important when you are bringing a series or a series character to their end. I’ve had to do this a couple of times and you soon realize you’re writing a one or two hour eulogy that needs to respect not only the characters and the series but what the audience has invested in them.

Near the beginning of the 2nd season of “Friday the 13th” one of our leads decided to end his participation in the series. Whether that decision was professionally motivated, a personal decision or the result of a contractual dispute might be of interest to the truly rabid fans and gossip columnists, it can’t play into how the departure is handled in the fictional world of the show. Egos may be hurt, the weeks of work on season arcs may have been wrongly trashed, networks may want retribution for what they perceive as a sleight. But the writer has to do what’s right for the show and the audience, making sure that the best possible use is made of the inevitable moment.

When these situations are handled well, the viewer is treated to the emotional rollercoaster ride that was Jimmy Smits final episodes of “NYPD Blue” or the remarkable final episode of “Six Feet Under”. When it’s done wrong you have the final four episodes of “Arrested Development” tossed away opposite the opening ceremonies of the Olympics, a network “Fuck You” to everybody concerned.

When it really doesn’t work – you get last minutes of the American version of “Life on Mars”.


“Life on Mars” second incarnation wasn’t a success on a lot of levels. Its pilot had problems and was remade. It was constantly compared to the British original and in the end it had to cram two seasons of story telling into less than one. The show was a red-headed step-child at ABC from its first outing and you had the feeling the network would have been just as happy if it had taken its own life early on.

And more and more lately, I see writers who believe that the network’s need to distance itself from a loser or otherwise service its corporate image is their prime reason for being. But network needs, while deserving consideration, are not a writer’s primary concern, because their needs ultimately have little to do with what is bringing and holding your audience.

I had a network executive on “Beastmaster” who constantly peppered me with notes insisting that lead characters get involved in questionable sexual liaisons or pondered the use of words that would not be invented until centuries after our story supposedly took place. The fact that our pre-historic peoples were somehow speaking perfect English was less a concern than that we be etymologically accurate. Her notes arose from a boardroom belief that kinky sex would attract male viewers watching the football games that competed in our timeslot and the word science might appease educators who liked the environmental message of the show but questioned its historical context.

The fact that our audience clearly wanted action, animals and awesome abdominals was less of a network concern than that they appear irreverently cutting edge and yet intellectually responsive. They went bankrupt not too long ago. What a surprise.

Similarly, “Life on Mars” was not serving the image ABC had of itself.

But the show gathered a following that (loyal or not) outnumbered more successful Sci-Fi outings, including “Battlestar Gallactica”. It also had one of the most impressive ensemble casts of the past television season. If I was running a network, “Life on Mars” alumni like Harvey Keitel and Michael Imperioli would be starring on any show they wanted – which probably goes a long way to explaining why I’m not running a network.

Harvey Keitel encounters a beautiful woman during a routine traffic stop on a very special ‘Bad Lieutenant’ -- Thursday at Nine”

That ensemble cast inhabited a precisely created reality that (for good or ill) had been embraced by its audience. Not a large enough audience to justify its continued existence, apparently, but an audience none the less. And an audience that deserved to be respected and entertained to the end.

Yet, in its final five minutes, somebody decided to contrive a series ending for “Life on Mars” that kicked any investment anyone had made in it to the curb. In the end, it was all a dream, didn’t matter, just a computer generated way to pass the time. All the moments that had seemed so important to the characters, all their struggles, ambitions and pain were just so much nothing. Everything the audience had cared about was a cruel joke.

Somebody had decided to be clever. To do something completely unexpected. To be way ahead of the curve. To show they hadn’t taken the show all that seriously all along. Not our fault. We were just too smart for the room.

And in that moment, ABC sent a very clear message to anyone watching any of their shows. Our needs matter more than your commitment.

Would it surprise anyone if a large part of the “Life on Mars” audience decides not to bother with another ABC show? Nobody likes to be told ‘the joke’s on you’, “It was all a scam’, ‘Gotcha’ or ‘We’re way smarter than you.’.

A truly talented team of writers would have done what was right for the show and concocted something within its world, no matter the constraints of time and available options. Even if the audience was disappointed, they’d still have the warmth of moments they’d loved, the knowledge that they hadn’t completely misplaced their trust.

But the “Life on Mars” writers wanted to appear ‘clever’. They wanted to let the network know they hadn’t meant to make them look bad. They really were bright enough to have a crack at another show. They climbed into the network executive’s lifeboat and scuttled their own ship instead of letting it slip gracefully beneath the waves and maybe going down with it to keep their integrity and their respect for the audience intact.

Instead they decided to be ‘clever’ betraying everything they’d created, openly admitting it was worthless shit that shouldn’t have been written in the first place and they’re not sure why they even bothered.

Unfortunately, the people they proved they were more clever than are feeling the same way.


Mark said...

Good post Jim. Great writing allows the story to dictate the direction. I can never write a script with a definitive end in mind as it usually means that you need to contrive the drama to get to the destination.

Everytime I see Jurassic Park I am annoyed by the scene where Sam Neill is holding off the Raptors at the door and trying to retrieve the shotgun with his foot. Useless little Timmy is watching his sister tap away at the computer, trying to get the security back online. I yell at the screen, 'Timmy, get me the gun!'.

Anonymous said...

Again, Monty Python was ahead of their time. Just drop a 16 ton anvil and end the sketch. Are you listening, Lorne Michaels?

SNL is a perfect example. They take many funny bits, most which have no punchline, and milk it for 5 minutes.

But lets face it, even the classics are flawed, plot-wise. Just look at "Casablanca"...

Good Dog said...

The great Spike Milligan had a far better plan with his Q series. Sketches would end with characters walking away muttering, "What are we going to do now?"

The thing with the US version of Life on Mars is that the bonkers ending hadn't suddenly been cooked up in the last few weeks or months.

The little nanobot-type robot had appeared early in the run, which means they had planned on this direction more or less from the beginning. Nasty.

Brandon Laraby said...

That and the series ending to Star Trek: Enterprise.

I was never huge into that show - it had all sorts of issues starting up - but I am quite a fan of Star Trek in general (TOS, TNG, DS9). A good friend of mine however was hardcore into it, said that in the last season it really found its footing, became some very strong TV.

The fanbase rallied to keep the show on the air, saying that it had gotten better, starting campaigns to keep it afloat.

However, all their efforts were spat back in their faces.

I remember seeing an episode of HypaSpace where Jolene Blalock (who played T'pol on the show) called the ending "appalling" in an interview - and after the viewing, fans were really pissed.

Apparently Mr. Berman And Mr. Braga 'cleverly' decided that the finale would put the show 10 years later and set it as an interlude from an actual TNG episode. So, basically, Riker has a crisis of conscience (one inserted into the midst of a *real* TNG episode) and he turns to the Holodeck (and the cast of the Enterprise) to help him through it.

Add in a bunch of half-hearted cheeseball lines (ie. A toast from Captain Archer "To the Next Generation") and it's understandable why people were pissed.

Oh, that and they killed off one of the fan-favourite characters... just 'cause they could.

What's really interesting about it all is that Mr. Berman had the gall to call the show 'a Valentine to the fans' - which just proves that by the end they had no idea how to give the fans (who'd stuck with them through thick and thin) what they'd deserved.

Needless to say, that show signalled the end of the STAR TREK TV franchise in its entirety.