Monday, December 04, 2006

TV For The Least Attentive

I was watching an episode of Frazier recently, a programme I hugely enjoy. And one line at the end almost spoiled the whole programme for me.

The show was the one where Lillith's con-man brother [I forget his name so I'll call him Bob] arrives in Seattle in a wheelchair claiming he has been paralysed in an accident, has found God and is now a preacher.

Frazier spends most of the show as the only guy not taken in by him. Then after receiving a call from Bob's doctor[whom he has been trying to contact to disprove Bob's story] he has to come to the conclusion that Bob is telling the truth. Riddled with guilt he whips Bob's congregation into a giving frenzy and promises to match their donations.

In the final scene in Frazier's apartment Bob says his goodbyes and wheels himself out the door. Seconds later Frazier opens the door to see....the vacated wheelchair. He'd been conned.

Funny stuff. Almost ruined by one line. Just before he leaves, Bob says to Frazier ''And thanks for making your donation in cash, it's much easier to give to the poor'' or something similar.

And that spoiled it. Up 'til then the viewer had suspicions that it was a con. On that line the suspicion was confirmed. Before the climax. Bad, Bad, Bad.

Bear in mind the previous scene was all about the donations and Frazier coughing up. So

A ] Was there really any point in reminding the viewer of this a scene later?

B] Was there any need to structure the line so that it virtually gave the game away?

To me the answer is ''only if you believe the viewer has the intelligence and memory of a goldfish''

And that happens a lot on UK TV too. Audiences are spoon fed motivations and emotions and plot reminders. I suspect mostly at the behest of execs and editors more than writers. And to me that is both patronising and shows a lack of understanding of what will play rather than what is written.

A few years ago when on a show I objected to some exposition/explanation that my notes asked me to put in. I didn't think it was necessary or desirable. It went as far as the exec producer. Here's what he told me '' People are only watching the show with one eye while they are doing the ironing or putting the kids to bed, it helps to have reminders for them''
I didn't agree with it then and I still don't. Listen mate, if your show isn't engaging enough to hold someone's attention then you ain't making a very good show. In fact constantly repeating and spelling out plot points and motivations is more likely to turn more people into grazers rather than viewers.

Making TV geared mostly for the least attentive is like making pop records geared mostly towards 12 year old girls. Damaging for the industry in the long term.

And by the way, in that same episode of Frazier, he got Bob's doctor's number from directory enquiries and tried several times to phone him without success but left messages. Then he gets a call from the doctor confirming Bob's condition. Fair enough. So.....the call didn't come from the doctor but one of Bob's fellow con artists? The doctor was in on the con?

You know what? I don't care. It's not important. It played! Thank God they didn't feel the need to explain it to us. Though I suspect it probably was until some one with sense cut it out.

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