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.