Monday, September 27, 2010

Subtle suspense

I've finally been about to get around to re-watching season 2 of Everwood, which as I've probably said before, is one of the greatest character-based series ever written. The series is the brain child of Greg Berlanti - who cut his teeth on Dawson's Creek, and has a new series called No Ordinary Family premiering this week on ABC. (He's also one of the writers of the forthcoming Green Lantern movie.)

The show is built around Andy Brown, a renowned brain surgeon who seems to be one of the most famous of his brethren. When his wife suddenly dies, Andy reevaluates his priorities and suddenly uproots his two children from their New York life and moves to a small town in Colorado called Everwood.

The folks in this sleepy hamlet are beside themselves with the arrival of this "celebrity" and the first episode uses their reactions to let us know just how big a deal Andy is. It's hard to imagine them more impressed if Stephen Hawking took up residence there. But none is more impressed than 15 year-old Amy Abbott. She's the most popular girl in her grade, and quickly latches on to Andy's son Ephram. Being a teenage boy, Ephram welcomes the attention - and then she reveals she's got an agenda.

See, Amy's boyfriend Colin was in an accident several months earlier. Now he's in a coma and Amy is convinced that "the great Andy Brown" is his last hope. Midway through the season, Andy is persuaded to try a risky operation in the hopes of saving Colin. In what seems to be a miracle, Colin wakes up. For a while he seems to be his old self, but soon mood swings and tremors reveal that there have indeed been complications. Andy is convinced to operate again, but it's clear that there is a very real chance that Colin won't survive this surgery. The final episode of the first season builds up to that surgery. We experience the agony of the wait of those in the waiting room, along with seeing Andy scrub in for surgery.

The final scene of the show features Andy emerging from surgery to face those in the waiting room. They give expectant looks, and Andy appears weary, exhausted. The season ends with Colin's fate ambiguous. Did he die? Did he survive with complications? Did he pull through?

The first scene of the next season opens at a pool luau and in a sneaky bit of suspense, each main character is reintroduced in the course of the scene. It's a great way to toy with the audience. We see everyone turn up, nothing is said of Colin's fate and we find ourselves waiting to see if Colin proves to be among the crowd. Then, one character bumps into someone from behind. They turn - and it's Colin.

So the audience likely exhales their tension, relieved that the story got a happy ending. Then the show kicks us in the gut again. He speaks to Amy, and then fades out. We find ourselves at his funeral. He didn't make it.

It's a nice series of mini-reveals. The first scene casually reintroduces the characters, knowing we'll be scrutinizing their arrivals and their behaviors for clues as to Colin's fate. I remember seeing another show where the opening scene featured the aftermath of a car crash and from the reactions of those on site, it's clear that one of the main characters was killed. Cut to a local hangout - one by one the leads of the show are featured. The audience realizes they're subconsciously taking a head-count, figuring out who's missing... until we realize who isn't there.

The Everwood example is even better because the scene avoids the trap of feeling like a dream scene. Most of the time when a show does a fake-out dream sequence, it tips its hand early on. It'll have characters clearly acting out of character, or something happen that is clearly impossible. Here, the moment is a mundane daydream - nothing truly calls attention to the scene as being out of place. Not only does it make Colin's appearance a relief, the truth becomes that much more of a gut-punch because we're truly taken off-guard.

It's moments like these that lead to the fans at Television Without Pity coining the phrase, "Damn you, Berlanti!"

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