Magazine article The Spectator

Pointless Bickering

Magazine article The Spectator

Pointless Bickering

Article excerpt

The thing I want to talk about this week is random and unnecessary tensiongeneration because it ruins almost every TV programme I watch and, once I've explained it, I like to think it will ruin all your TV viewing too.

I'll give you a classic example from Heroes (BBC2, Wednesday), a series to which I'm afraid I've become mildly addicted. I'm thinking of the episode where sinister Mr Bennet tries to stop his adopted daughter Claire from going to her prom-queen homecoming because he knows it's her destiny to be attacked there by the evil serial killer Sylar.

Does he a) say, 'Look, Claire. I know about your superpowers. And by the way there's a guy who's trying to kill you, so best not go to the homecoming.' Or does he b) say, for no obvious reason: 'You're grounded, ' thus causing his wife to be upset by this gratuitous nastiness and his daughter to hate and fear him even more than she does already.

Well b), obviously. First it ratchets up the tension as everyone gets upset with one another. Second, it enables Claire to meet her destiny at the homecoming because all she has to do, with her boyfriend's help, is sneak out of her bedroom window with a ladder. And why hasn't Claire's generally devious and omniscient father thought of this fairly obvious ruse? Because, er, because the plot requires him temporarily to be really thick, that's all.

Some Heroes fans -- my brother, for example -- say to me, 'Oh God, why do you have to be so fussy? It's entertainment, not high art.' But I'm not expecting quantum theory or iambic pentameters. All I'm asking is a little basic respect for the viewer's intelligence: making the characters behave more or less as they would in real life; not having them bicker purely as a means of raising the emotional stakes and padding out the episode.

In Heroes there's an awful lot of this pointless bickering. Nothing ever comes easily to anyone: relationships must always be tortured; friendships are forever under strain; and love affairs are always about to break up. No one's allowed to enjoy their superpowers, either. You'd think it would be quite a cool, fun thing to be able to fly or jump off a 200-storey building and survive.

Instead -- with the honourable exception of Hiro -- everyone has to whinge all the time and see their abilities as a curse.

I blame all those screenwriting courses.

Every screenwriter, I imagine, has to learn the mantra 'No drama without tension' and so shoehorns it in at every turn, no matter how implausibly. …

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