Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Mysterious Premises

I love a good mysterious premise. I love ambiguity. I love not knowing 100% of what's going on at the beginning of a book or movie or TV series. I love wondering (to a point) why a character is behaving a certain way.

But when does a mysterious or ambiguous premise, or not-fully-revealed motivation, become an annoyance?

When it doesn't work, that's when.

And not working is sometimes a hard thing to put one's finger on, so I can only think of examples of "works" and "does not work".

Life on Mars... I didn't watch the British version of this show, and would like to, if for no other reason than to compare it to the US version, which I really enjoyed... But I think this one is a brilliant example of "works". And maybe they handled it so well because it was all contained in one short season. (The British version has a sequel called Ashes to Ashes... don't know that it's about. But assuming the British version of Life on Mars ended the same way as the US one... well, it's hard to imagine a sequel. Now I've made myself curious...)

I've heard people talking about the US version being "canceled"... and I admit I haven't read up on all the dirt, but from watching it, well, they couldn't possibly have had a second season. Or rather, if they had stretched it into a second season, at some point the "big mystery" would've become annoying rather than mysterious. There were only so many possible answers and I was still getting chills almost every episode until we finally got our answer. An answer, which, for me, was none of the possibilities I'd been considering. I think if they'd led me down all those other garden paths for too much longer, I might've been angry when the answer was "none of the above". But over 13 episodes, or whatever it was, it worked for me.

If you didn't see Life on Mars, rent it when it comes out on DVD. The lead actor is hot, hot, hot -- the acting was great (Harvey Keitel, Michael Imperioli) and I, for one, loved the mysterious premise and how it got solved. Plus, there's a nice little romance running through it. (Not to mention a great, early 70's soundtrack.)

Lost... Now there's one of the biggest examples of a fabulous mysterious premise. For five, (six?) seasons we've known they crashed onto an island (or were maybe dead). We've known strange things happen on this island. We know it's hard to find. We know people get healed and come back to life and others get sick and babies can't be born and some people don't age -- etc. etc. etc. And for me, it's always stayed interesting enough to pull me through the confusing bits. I know others (Molly) who think it fell apart in Season 3... and if I agree with that at all, (I actually enjoyed Season 3), it might be because they lost track of the mystery and instead transferred focus onto the love triangle. Or was season 3 the one where they were focussed on the people from the other side of the island?

I admit this show has become incredibly complicated... and I'm not sure the time travel thing is going to wrap everything up satisfactorily... And they've dropped a few threads... Michael? Walt? Walt seemed so important in the first seasons... And reappeared mysteriously a few times after leaving the island... yet now he's gone. But overall, the premise of Lost works for me.

Heroes is another example of one where the mysterious premise was AWESOME in the first season. But then they let themselves get too complicated. Talk about time travel issues. (Which Sylar is he tonight? Which Claire? Which Hiro? Which Peter? Which powers do they have this week?) But still, I think this show is a good example of a mysterious premise which, at least for a while, pulled the audience along by balancing how/when the truth was revealed. (Until it fell off the rails.)

But what really prompted his post was a new TV show called The Listener. And to be fair to the writers/producers, I haven't seen every episode. (And maybe I just want to be fair because the show's Canadian), but the "mysterious premise" is pissing me off. And has pissed me off from episode one. Okay, maybe I don't really care about being fair.

The hero can read minds. Okay. Fine. I can accept that.

He's always been able to read minds, and had to learn as a little boy how to block them out/control it, but in the first episode, "something" suddenly changes (we don't know what) and now he hears people in distress and can't get them out of his head until he solves whatever problem is causing the distress. (Talk about a convenient contrivance for a weekly series...) And we get no explanation for why things suddenly changed. But that's not even what bugs me. What bugs me is he's been told that "he must NEVER tell ANYONE he can read minds". Doing so means danger, bad things, horrible things. And while I love a big mystery, I'm sorry, but "you can never tell" isn't good enough for me. Especially if it means your girlfriend dumps you and worse, you keep getting suspected of crimes.

Why the frak doesn't he tell? Especially when not telling causes problems for him? He's a grown man. Wouldn't he question this professor guy who's been telling him he can't tell anyone, since he was a little boy? (Even if professor guy is played by Colm Feore? Okay, now I need to include a photo of Colm Feore... He's playing Cyranno at Stratford this year. REALLY want to go see it... US folks, you may have seen him as the "first gentleman" on 24 this season.)

But back to my rant... I guess my main issue is that him not telling is clearly causing big-stakes problems for him (suspected of murder, etc.) and yet they haven't convinced me that him telling carries equally dire stakes.

All that would've been annoying enough, but then I caught a bit of an episode last week and suddenly his partner (they're paramedics) knows his secret. And his partner's character hasn't exactly been set up as the kind of guy who can keep a secret... Yet, the hero seems okay with babbling-idiot-partner-guy knowing his BIG DANGEROUS SECRET. And the world hasn't ended. So why not tell the ridiculously-pretty-and-always-inappropriately-dressed-for-her-job cop, who each week is coincidentally (with a big C) involved in solving a crime related to the person who's thoughs the hero can't get out of his mind. Especially since she always suspects him of the crimes because he knows so much? And why not tell his also-ridiculously-pretty-doctor-who-doesn't-act-like-a-doctor ex-girlfriend, who he loves but who dumped him for keeping secrets??? Why doesn't he tell these two female characters? Because then the writers would have no conflict.

And with a conflict that flimsy... Well, I tend to rant.

Is anyone watching this show? Am I wrong? Is there more? Could the lead actors or the premise holes be more annoying?

If there is something else, I'm willing to take this rant back, because after the first 3-4 episodes of Dollhouse I would've said the same thing (although not this bad) and they ended up fixing that problem big time and creating a whole bunch more interesting questions/conflicts to lead us forward and now I'm desperate to see season 2.

My lessons from all this: if your plot hangs together on a secret that no one can know, the writer better give the reader/viewer a fraking good reason to believe that keeping the secret has very high stakes. And if a writer is purposefully holding back a secret about the premise... he/she had better be changing things up, and raising new questions, and upping the stakes, or we'll just get impatient and feel manipulated when we're not given the answer.

Thinking back, both Sinead and I have had premises that relied on the heroes of our stories not being able to reveal a "big secret"... but I think we both handled it better than the writers of The Listener.

Ha! While writing this, and simultaneously half-way watching Canada's Next Top Model, I just saw a teaser for this week's episode of The Listener. The voice-over announcer says: "How long can he keep the secret? Is it time to tell the truth? And then one of the pretty chicks (doctor or cop, can't really tell them apart) looks at the hero and says, "You know what I'm thinking, don't you."

Maybe they've finally realized they can't keep that crap up. Still not watching. My TBR and TBW (watched) piles are too high to waste time on crap TV. Even if it's set in Toronto.

Now. Back to Make Me a Supermodel. ;-) Hey, a gal's allowed to watch some stuff that's just pure fun.


Chevy Stevens said...

You, know I had a feeling something was going to be off about THE LISTENER. I caught a couple of previews and a snippet of a show one day and found myself annoyed just from those. I think there may have even been an eye roll. There is another new one out LIE TO ME. Watched about five minutes of that one. Maybe it's good, but it didn't rock my world. And what's with all these titles? THE MENTALIST, THE CLOSER, THE LISTENER. THE SNEEZER? No to the last one? Well, not YET.

But Canada's Top Model and Make me a Supermodel? Now that's good TV:) Usually I don't like the Canadian version, but I like the top model one this season. Tyra bugs me sometimes.

Molly O'Keefe said...

Good post Maureen - making me think this morning. I think the overarching mystery/secret only really works if there's a plan. If the reveals and the clues are carefully dished out from beginning to end, which means that the writers have to know the end. Lost and Heroes both suffer from a "holy shit we gotta fill some seasons!" vibe. Whereas Battlestar Gallactica was precise. The Wire - precise. Life On Mars, not that I've seen it - precise. Even the English version of The Office - the romance plot line, which carried that show and was handled with perfection, they knew it had to end, otherwise it would spoil what made it so good. The JR Ward books work for me because there is such forward momentum, such a sense that Ward knows where this is all heading and how it's going to get there.
The Stephanie Plum books, which I loved, got old -because there was no end in sight. The same schtick over and over again.

I love a mystery and an overarching plot, but how in the world can you really make it work without knowing how things will end?

Sinead M said...

I think it's the forward momentum that has to work in the mysterious premise. We have to answer enough questions, while raising more, deepening the premise.

It's why I stopped watching Lost in Season 2, there were no answers, just more questions and I got frustrated.

But it's such a difficult balance. I agree with Molly, JR Ward handles it ridiculously well.

Maureen McGowan said...


I can't wait for THE SNEEZER. :-)

Tyra makes me crazy with all her incorrect prepositions and bizarre emphasis on the least important words in sentences. I like the Canadian version better.

Maureen McGowan said...

Molly... I'm still not willing to believe EVERYTHING has to be planned. I still believe in magic. But you're right that fwd momentum is crucial for continuing mysteries or it just gets muddled and annoying.

And for the other type of secret I mentioned... One where the reader/viewer knows but the hero can't tell... Now, that has to be carefully planned and I'd better believe the consequences of telling the secret are dire.

That's really what I meant to blog about, but veered in another direction with my examples. Must remind myself not to blog in the middle of the night, anymore.

Eileen said...

Lost lost me a while back. I'm still watching, but only because my kids like it, too. An hour of TV is quality family time, right?

I thought Veronica Mars handled the balance of a weekly TV show with an overarching mystery really well, also. Then again, there were only a couple of seasons. Maybe it wouldn't have been able to continue to pull it off.

I'm putting Life on Mars on my Netflix queue and am waiting with baited breath for The Sneezer.

L.A. Mitchell said...


You KNOW how much I love Lost and Life on Mars, but LOM's ending was a major disappointment. I do think they could have carried it another season, but like Journeyman, it just never found its audience. It's so worth watching the first season DVD and making up your own ending the last 15 minutes.

And Jason O'Mara is quite possibly hotter than Kevin McKidd, not sure:)

Amy Ruttan said...

Nah The Listener never piqued my interest, not at all.

I got into The Bachelorette late, so glad she dumped that freak cowboy Wes. What a jerk!! I want to smack him, like I hate him. My DH laughs because it's the hormones making me violent about idiots on TV. hehehe.

Simone said...

In some ways it's apples and oranges to compare novel series to TV series. First, TV series are written by a team. Second, and most important, every TV series - and I mean every - lives from episode to episode. The writers do not sit down and go, "OK we've got six seasons, let's make a story arc."

A TV series starts with a pilot, and that's it. A single episode. Nothing else promised from the network. Then the pilot takes off and the network says, "Deliver x more episodes, starting next week." It's literally a phone call.

So yeah, sometimes TV writers are frantically writing their way out of a corner. An actor went into rehab and they have to write him out. There's no budget to set an episode in Rome, like they want. The head writer gets a better offer from HBO and someone else takes over. They had no idea they would even make it this far!

Sure, book series can get cancelled by a publisher. But when you get a three-book contract, you arc for three books. You don't arc for one, then get asked to write fifteen or twenty sequels a year later in a tight timeframe.

None of this is to say "The Listener" isn't weak, 'cos it really is. But BSG isn't as tight as you think it is. There were lots of places I saw the writers scrambling. I just admired their skill all the more :)

Marilyn Brant said...

I'm with L.A. on her analysis of "Life on Mars"--I adored this show, adored its fabulous '70s soundtrack and adored lovely, soulful Jason most of all...but WTF was with that ending?! After some moments of jaw-dropping confusion, I *got* what they were doing but, oh, I was so ANGRY they'd played the storyline that way. I have not forgiven them yet.

Re: Chevy's "The Sneezer"--LOL!

Maureen McGowan said...

Wow, LA and Marilyn. I liked the ending of LOM. I think because it came as such a surprise, and yet in hindsight (mostly) made sense. We'll have to discuss over a glass of wine next week. Can't wait to see you guys. :-)

Simone. I agree with you. I think for TV shows especially, they adapt and scramble.

And I really think JR Ward has done some scrambling, too. Sure, I'm willing to believe she had ideas for 10 heroes before she started, but she had NO IDEA she'd get to write all those books. Even in her proposal for the series she didn't know that Zsadist and ummmm PHury? (I always get them mixed up) were brothers and them being brothers was hugely important to both of their stories, so I don't buy that she had it all worked out ahead of time.

She also said she had no idea that Vishous? (again, get a few of them all confused) was the Scribe Virgin's son. She said when the idea came to her it was like wow. Of course he is. Lucky I made his hand white.

All that said... I don't think it negates the point that if you've got some kind of big mystery, you need to either keep developing it or changing it to keep us interested.

Amy. I know. Wes. Crazy she got so snowed by him. There was another creepy guy, too... Tanner P. I temporarily named an at-that-time unnamed villain character Tanner because I hated him so much. And I don't have pregnancy hormones to blame for my rage at people on TV. :-)

Kristen Painter said...

Loved Life On Mars, never watched Lost and Heroes lost me about halfway through season two.

I'm all for the mysterious premise if handled correctly.

Simone said...

Agreed Maureen, if you've got a big mystery there's a right way and a wrong way to do it, whether you're scrambling or not.

I saw an interview with the BSG writers and they freely admit they had no idea who the final cylons were until they wrote the episode. They sat down to write the episode and sifted through all the characters to decide which ones it would be. So when you see the earlier episodes with those characters, at that time the writers had NO idea those people were cylons.

And yet they made that storyline work for me. That's great writing in a mystery storyline, like you're talking about.

But The Sneezer will make all of this look like child's play, I'm sure.

Maureen McGowan said...

Yes, I think I saw that interview of the BSG guys, too.

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