May 14 2010

36 hours ago...

, Writing , ,

Last night's episdoe of Fringe opened in media res with an action-packed teaser.  Heather turned to me and said "I hope this isn't one of those 20 hours ago things."  I had to agree with her.  Cue the credits, a commercial break and then 36 hours ago caption on the screen.

Once upon a time, the flash-forward teaser was cutting-edge.  Few people were doing it and it made for compelling TV.  It allowed you to start in the middle of something and then fill in the story.  But frankly, it has become lazy storytelling of late.

Case In Point:

A recent episode of V featured a thrilling adventure with this opening scene:

Kyle Hobbes takes aim with a stinger missile launcher. He fires. KABOOM! It’s a direct hit! A V shuttle explodes in the sky. Jack realizes something isn’t right. He races to the scattered wreckage. The shuttle was supposed to be filled with V trackers sent by Anna to hunt down those responsible for stopping her soldier. But there weren’t any trackers onboard. No, this shuttle was carrying humans.

 The show then jumps backwards to show the progression of the story then shows us a recap of the opening scene and then continues the story.  It was clear what had happened in the opening.  I saw only a few lines of dialog that needed to be added to the opener to expand on what had happened up to that point.

It would have been so much more compelling if we had just kep going from the opening scene.  Then, we could have had real emotional dialog as they run over what they had planned looking for where it could have gone wrong.  They could have had real tense investigation as they track down the possible leak.

We could have completely avoided going over the same thing we'd already seen and gotten right to the gripping revelation that they unintentionally and innocently did it to themselves. We might have even seen some real acting and growth in these characters.

In the Fringe episode it was less egregious.  I understand the desire to make the body found to be unexplained which added tension. I can see how there was a need to explain the presence of the other characters (even though they didn't last long) but I am not sure that I needed to see it presented that way.  The cancer-ridden body wasn't identifiable and so it could have been cut in a way to eliminate the flash-forward in favor of a cut placed just after they are in a circle and the one character falls down.

Then we cut to Twolivia (clever, eh?) with infected!Charlie arriving on the scene...more or less what we saw in the teaser. I think it would have been more compelling and certainly less jarring.

And less jarring is my point. It sort of takes the wind out of our sails to have an action-packed opener followed by a milquetoast lead-in. I understand that the teaser+three-act structure doesn't leave you alot of leeway for plot but the "N-hours before" storytelling pattern is getting tiresome. It is robbing your shows of energy.

I suspect this is some sort of network inititive to try to catch viewers in the first few moments of a show.  Those precious seconds of slop-over when their DVR catches the beginning of the next show or that they come back from the toilet break during the credits and have yet to change the channel.

And while it might grab a couple of hundred viewers for a few seconds they'll be completely lost again when it hits them with "N-hours before".  The energy is gone. 

TEASER_____ __Act III___/
|n-hours later /
| __Act II__/
|__Act I__/

Compare that to this

__Act III__/
__Act II__/
TEASER___ __Act II__/
\ __ACT I__/

What happens in the first is that you have to kill all the momentum of your story and hope that the anticipation of what has been seen will hold to fuel that extra jump in intensity between Act II and Act III.  That is needed to make the viewer feel like they've had a good ride on the show with an energy level at the end abovethe energy level at the beginning.

It can be done, but as the structure gets overused the anticipation gets lessened until that boost isn't realized.

By sticking to the more traditional second structure the energy level is an extra degree higher at the end leaving viewers feeling excited at the end of the hour. The slow build asks less of your audience to bring to the process.

I think it is time to give "N-hours before" a rest for a while. It isn't as edgy as it used to be and in the long run you are going to hurt your shows by over-using it.