Wednesday, September 15, 2010

90210 - Writing a story check that your climax can't cash

I had planned a post about the perils of writing about Hollywood, but while catching up with shows on my DVR, this post more or less sprung to my mind fully formed.

If you recall my piece on One Tree Hill, you'll know that one of my long-standing TV weaknesses is teen dramas, both good and... not so good. What this means is that I watch 90210, despite the fact that it has got to be one of the worst shows on network television. What's amazing to me is that the current showrunner, Rebecca Sinclair, cut her teeth on the Buffy writing staff, learning how to write for TV under one of the greats Joss Whedon - yet she made one of the most elementary writing missteps. As a creator, never write a check you can't cash. Never put yourself in a corner without a strong payoff.

At the end of the first season, Annie, the lead character, left a party in tears after having a few drinks. Late at night, she's so distracted driving (drunk) while crying that she apparently runs over someone. After hearing the bump she stops the car, sees a body lying in the road... and drives off. Season two opened three months later, and she still has yet to tell anyone what she did. She's wracked with guilt when she reads of the unidentified vagrant's death in the hospital, but she still doesn't come forward. In fact, as the season goes on we learn that she took steps to have the damage to her car repaired so that no one would find out.

Let me just spell this out: she killed a man, left the scene of the accident without calling for help and her primary fear is getting caught... and she's not some second or third banana character - she's the lead! Some moral center, huh? (What is it with the female leads on teen dramas being utterly annoying or unlikable types? See: Lana Lang, Marisa Cooper, Peyton Sawyer.)

Worse, when the John Doe is eventually identified as a man documented with mental problems, her guilt leads her into a relationship with Jasper, the victim's nephew. Before long Jasper is revealed as an unbalanced, drug-dealing psycho. Being a bit dim, Annie takes a while to pick up on the warning signs and when she tries to dump him, he reveals that he knows she's the one who ran over his uncle.

So her choice is: come forward with the truth or be blackmailed into a relationship with a dangerous psycho. Guess what she chooses? There's even a point where Jasper attempts suicide, and when Annie goes to see him, she's less concerned for his health than if he told anyone about what she did!

Then, after more than a year of this crap, Annie finally decides to come forward in the final seconds of last year's finale. All we see is her saying to her parents that she has something to tell them. We don't see the confession, we don't see her parents' reaction and we certainly don't see the legal fallout. When this season starts, we're told that Annie spent the summer on house arrest and is on probation until she's twenty-five.

A year of build-up. A year of the character trying to dodge a murder charge. A year of that hanging over her head. And the only payoff comes in the form of an off-screen confession and a throwaway line of dialogue designed to brush the whole thing under the carpet. That's just bad writing. Not only is it bad story construction, but it's completely implausible!

I wrote in jest on Twitter that after Lindsay Lohan's brushes with the law, it's not too implausible that three months house arrest and eight years of probation is the going rate for murder (or more likely, manslaughter) in Los Angeles. To be perfectly blunt, I find it utterly stupid that an entire staff of writers who are paid good money to sit in a room and craft stories spent an entire year building this plotline and THAT was the climax.

Worse, it's a story that completely taints the lead character. When the chips were down, when Annie made a mistake that cost someone their life, she chose to hide from it. At one point this hit-and-run was a big enough deal on the show that another character who happened on the scene after Annie was hailed as a hero for doing what he could to help. Everyone on the show was aware of this death. So to have Annie come forward and not acknowledge any sort of fallout isn't just bad writing, it's terrible writing.

If the writers were willing to follow through on it, they should have made Annie a social pariah. We should see her family and friends utterly disgusted by her behavior. Can you imagine having a worse reputation at school than being the girl who ran over a guy and tried to get away with it for a year?

I know that the writing staff's defense might be that they had spent most of the season planning to reveal that someone else had actually run over the guy first, and that Annie hit him second. That still doesn't solve the central problem of the plot - that Annie believed that she was a murderer and completely failed to do the right thing. Even if that guy had been stabbed, shot and poisoned before Annie hit him, that does nothing to mitigate Annie's complete moral failing. One way or another, they would have had to have a plan to deal with that.

Let me tell you, writers, if you're not willing to deal with the fallout of your plotlines (whether it's in a screenplay or in a long-running TV show arc) then you shouldn't tell that story. The audience will never ignore a logical question just because you tell them to.

I'm sure that some might say, "Hey it's just a stupid teen drama. Do you really expect good writing?" Well, I don't expect great writing - but for what those people are paid, I'd expect them to not make an elementary writing mistake. When you step up a plot with the question "Is our lead character a killer?" it's writing malpractice to not consider, "How are we going to get out of this? How do we keep this from tainting Annie after this story is done?"

I could be writing the show for free and I still would have cared enough to ask those questions.

But they didn't. Professional writers should be better than that.


  1. I agree that the show should have tackled the aftermath of her confession on-screen, instead of glossing over it with a time jump. But I disagree with the presumption that the main character of a series needs to be the "moral center". Annie made a huge mistake and tried to cover it up. It's not admirable, but it's definitely believable. And more importantly, it's entertaining. I think it was brave of the show to go there (although rather less than brave to not follow through on it).

  2. It's amazing what showrunners trip into without really thinking it through.

    Notoriously, in The West Wing, Aaron Sorkin gave the President MS in Season 1 because he wanted the First Lady to be worried that he had a cold.

    That was it. That plot dominated the series, when the full implications of a President hiding a health condition and then the inevitable fallout from having said health condition actually dawned on Mr Sorkin.

    Not to say that the series suffered for it, and Aaron Sorkin did follow-through spectacularly (until he got fired). But he certainly didn't think it through at the beginning.

  3. I was interested in this because the 90210 season premiere was the first episode of that series I've ever watched.

    What would you - or any other commenter - have done instead to make the storyline end with a bang instead of a whimper?

  4. You wouldn't catch Brandon doing that shit! Maybe Steve...

  5. @ hooray... - her suicide. let them deal w/ that

  6. Hey Bitter,

    I feel your frustration, but allow me to offer a possible defense of the Showrunner and staff. It's entirely possible that the arc was compromised by any number of possible scenarios from a simple miscalculation to the show running over budget and not being able to afford the courtroom scenes to countless other pitfalls other than bad writing choices. I've been there, and have seen good stories got watered down and gutted.

    It could have been a miscalculation along the lines of wanting to reveal that someone else was actually responsible for the death, but after they got into it and filmed it they felt that it would have been a cheat to let her off the hook. This rationale could have come from the staff, the network, the cast, or the fans.

    It could have been the network. This is the most likely scenario IMO. The network could have approved the story arc but got cold feet. This sounds plausible since the arc was setup at the end of one season and paid off in the next. Someone, possibly the network, could have gotten cold feet about playing out the story's legal issues. They might have thought that if she was involved it wouldn't have been likely she'd have avoided jail time. It might have been that there was no budget left for courtroom sets (unlikely because there are so many that could be rented), or they felt that playing that out would have taken too much screen time away from other cast members.

    Without talking to the people involved, it's impossible to know how it went down. But one thing that's certain is that network television writing can be tricky to navigate and the wishes of the showrunner and staff are subject to the demands, whims and calculations of networks, casts, and fans.

    Just my $0.02, your mileage may vary.

  7. "(What is it with the female leads on teen dramas being utterly annoying or unlikable types? See: Lana Lang, Marisa Cooper, Peyton Sawyer.)"

    I am you, and you are me, and we are both horrible teen drama TV.

    My review of the '90210' premiere on my blog was basically the same as this (hate all characters, hate the writing, hate myself for still watching), only I didn't spend as much time writing about this as you did (though I spent more time than I should have).

    "Let me just spell this out: she killed a man, left the scene of the accident without calling for help and her primary fear is getting caught... and she's not some second or third banana character - she's the lead!"

    I think my biggest problem about the Annie thing is that she never showed remorse about killing a man. Yes, she was worried about getting caught, but that was about it. I'd probably appreciate that if we were supposed to think the girl's a sociopath, but since she's supposed to be a likable (eh, that failed) protagonist, it doesn't quite work out.

  8. And the only payoff comes in the form of an off-screen confession and a throwaway line of dialogue designed to brush the whole thing under the carpet. That's just bad writing. Not only is it bad story construction, but it's completely implausible!

    That would essentially describe every episode of every season of the abysmal Ghost Whisperer. Thank God that trainwreck was finally canceled...

  9. When "Friday Night Lights" did their rendition of the "Stupid Sensational Second Season Story to Boost Ratings", it was also a murder, and boy did it cause the show to bog that season down. The writers at LEAST had the audacity to have the the characters involved confess. And at least there was motive that made us side with what the chacters did, via self defense. Thankfully the writers realized the story didn't work in the world of FNL and ended it as quickly as they could, and nothing was ever spoken of it again (not that THAT is a good thing either, but they buried their shit in a good way). And the show recovered, and has never been better.

  10. On the same topic, what did you think of the Izzie Stevens story on "Grey's Anatomy", where she sabotages some medical equipment and kills a patient? I always thought the consequences for her were absurdly light. At the very least she'd never have any chance of treating patients again. She'd probably also get some jail time on a manslaughter charge.

  11. HoorayforHollywood - I never would have started that story in the first place. The instant we see Annie drive off, the die is cast and the story digs a near-impossible whole to get out of. In a legal sense, they might have mitigated her guilt with other twists, but she failed this moral test badly.

    My feeling is that the show never should have put Annie in that position. My guess is they took the feedback that viewers hated that she was such a perfect princess and decided to give her a little more edge. I can't believe that's the best story they could come up with, though.

    Steve - I hear where you're coming from, and I certainly have heard from plenty of people who work in TV about the network or the studio stepping in and ruining their plans.

    I don't think network interference is hugely likely here, if only because this was a year-long storyline that started just before a summer hiatus. The higher-ups usually end up signing off in one way or another on the "master plan" for the season when it's a plotline this big. The fact that the plot survived the summer hiatus and was a part of nearly every episide makes me discount that someone at the studio suddenly ordered a swerve at the last minute. (And as I understand it, they actually got as far as filming the scene that would have revealed the "real" killer... so again, we're left with the team working a year on a story only to change at the very last second.)

    And as I said, the story was pretty much screwed from the first beat. Even if it had turned out that Annie ran over a dead man, her reactions are what really taint the character.

    LaToya - agree on the lack of remorse. I suspect that the Jasper storyline was possibly intended to give the character a chance to play remorse, but that went off the rails the moment they decided Jasper was a psycho.

    gareth-wilson - I don't watch Grey's so my opinion is going to be based entirely on second-hand information. That said, when I heard the details of this plot, I thought it was ridiculous for pretty much the reasons you mention.

  12. I never watch 90210 or any or these shows - don't hate me, I've got other problems - but I am impressed that they apparently decided to rip off an arthouse hit called THE HEADLESS WOMAN, an Argentinian film with a very similar plotline. But I'm pretty naive about the ins and outs of network tv plotting, so I guess it's possible they came up with the story before the movie came out.

  13. I wasn't a regular viewer of The West Wing but I nevertheless remember how the show spent episode after episode after episode dealing with the president's upcoming and crucial tv interview.

    As you might recall, we never got to see the interview. After a massive build-up all we got was "how did it go?" and "it went well." Good job, writers.