Just Respond To The Question, TV Characters - Macleans.ca

Just Respond To The Question, TV Characters


We all can name certain types of scenes that we don’t like, or are usually hard for us to sit through. I was reminded of one of them when I was watching an episode of, of all things, Aftermash. I’ll save the background of this short-lived spinoff for a “weekend flops” post in 2009, but in this scene, Klinger is on trial for something or other and Colonel Potter is called as a witness. The prosecutor is trying to introduce damaging information about the defendant, so he asks Potter about Klinger’s habit of wearing dresses when he was in Korea. And in the ensuing scene, Potter talks about the issue without ever saying outright that Klinger only wore dresses because he was pretending to be crazy. It’s necessary for the plot that he not get too specific about that, because the plot requires the judge to think Klinger is actually insane and commit him to the mental ward for examination. But it bothered me, because it was all too clear that the character was not saying something that he should, and logically would, say.

This kind of thing happens a lot, in both comedy and drama, though for some reason I’m having trouble thinking of specific recent examples. (I know I’ve seen some recently; they just don’t come to mind right at this moment.) It occurs, usually, when the plot would not work if someone revealed a piece of information, but the story has not set up a specific reason why the character can’t reveal that information. So he or she just doesn’t say it, and we’re left wondering why. Another example I can think of, though still not recent, is an early episode of The Simpsons where Homer is photographed dancing on a table with a stripper, and Marge gets mad at him. We know that he was at a bachelor party, got up on the table to dance, and nothing else happened. There is no plot-related reason why Homer can’t say “I was at a bachelor party, I got up on the table to dance, and nothing else happened.” But he doesn’t. So we’re pissed at both characters: at Homer for not imparting the information, and at Marge for being too idiotic to ask him what happened.

You can also frequently see it on soapy shows like Grey’s Anatomy, where characters will argue about something without one of them mentioning a key fact that would change the tone of the conversation — remember Derek and Meredith yelling at each other about her first date with Finn, but Derek never bothers to ask, or Meredith to mention, what the date entailed. (Because it’s necessary for the scene that Derek be a complete jerk and accuse her of being a slut.) It’s different from a situation where there is some kind of clear plot-related reason why they’d be reluctant to say something; on Gilmore Girls, we knew why Luke didn’t want to tell Lorelai that he had a daughter. But sometimes there’s just no clear reason, other than the demands of the plot, why someone wouldn’t say something; when they don’t say it, we feel like we’re being toyed with. I never like to get the feeling that the characters are acting and talking in illogical ways because the story needs them to do so. Watching a scene like that is a bit like watching a debate where one of the debaters isn’t bringing up some obvious, important fact that would help win the debate. No matter who you’re rooting for, you’re frustrated that they’re not mentioning it.

I should also distinguish between that kind of scene and a farcical-misunderstanding scene. The misunderstandings in farce, which would be cleared up in an instant if the characters just bothered to ask each other for clarification, drive many viewers crazy; I’m not bothered by that, because in a strange way the characters in that kind of scene are acting logically. When there’s a misunderstanding, what happens is that character A actually delivers the information that character B needs to know; it’s just that character B takes it to mean something else. The plot complications occur because of poor word choices or the double meanings of words, not because someone simply failed to say what needed to be said.

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Just Respond To The Question, TV Characters

  1. I was with you right up until the last paragraph. I think those “farcical-misunderstanding scene” are generally the worst offenders of the idea you’re talking about. The characters always phrase things in a way that no normal person would, just to make the comedy work. They usually betray the logic of how their characters speak.

    Since we’re talking about illogical character speech patterns, the one that always drives me crazy is “Well, there’s good news and there’s bad news. Which do you want to hear first?”. The response (for example, “Give me the good news”) always ‘happens’ to make the dialog function and have logical flow, whereas the reverse response (in this example, “Give me the bad news”) would make the logic of the conversation fall apart. For example, in a Star Trek: The Next Generation episode, the Captain is given the choice, and he says “The good news.” If however, he had said “The bad news”, the other character would have had to have responded with “Well, the good idea I haven’t told you about yet has a big problem.”

  2. By “farcical-misunderstanding scene,” do you mean the kind of conversations that led to “we were on a break”?

  3. The big stall…CSI Miami is notorious for this move. Interview one of the potential suspects early on in episode – don’t ask the obvious question or the suspect refrains from telling everything…team investigates for a while, eventually finding something that takes them back to said potential suspect…at which time the obvious question is asked or suspect feels pressured to or just decides to tell the whole story. Ugh.

    • My missus likes to watch CSI: Vegas and Miami so I often watch them and two things bother me about the shows. The big stall, like you mention, and when one character explains how a machine or test works to another character who already knows how it works but has to hear all about it so that tv viewing audience can be informed.

      Makes me crazy when two characters talk about things they already know and understand in order to inform audience. Like it’s vital the audience, most of who have zero interest in science, knows how the new spectrometer works.

  4. What, no mention of Roger Ebert’s theory of the “idiot plot?”

  5. On one episode of Firefly, Mal and Zoey’s old army buddy arrives on board (they initially think he’s done, but he awakens). Turns out he’s hiding from organ smugglers, who end up chasing down the crew. In the pivotal scene, the army buddy thinks Mal and Zoey are gonna give him up, freaks out, grabs a gun, takes Caylee hostage – and Mal ends up having to shoot his friend. They never try to tell him they’re not giving him up and that they actually had a plan to escape the pursuers!

  6. I’m giving up on heroes for this reason. If everybody (who are supposedly working together) just told the others what they knew, issues would be resolved a whole lot faster.

    Lost is pretty bad for this too.

  7. This is what drove me crazy about The Dark Knight… Two-Face spends half the movie angry at Batman and Gordon for “choosing” him and letting Rachel die, but no one ever thinks of telling him “Hey, the Joker switched the addresses on us, we WERE actually trying to save Rachel”?

  8. I couldn’t agree more Ponsonby, that was the one thing that drove me nuts about DK.

  9. Because Two-Face was just so gosh darn reasonable and not crazy at all by that point.

  10. You’ve just described every single episode of ‘Three’s Company’.

    However, I think with the farce, the ludicrous misunderstanding perhaps grates less because it falls within our suspension of disbelief expectations for the genre.

    Kudos M. Denton on the Ebert reference, he writes extensively on this.

    I agree as well on the exposition as filler in the CSI family of shows…ugh.

    I’ve worked in lots of labs, and my deepest peeve with the CSI shows isn’t the impossible technology, the model-good-looking staff, the blinding speed with which crimes are solved, or even the tangential involvement of, you know, detectives and police officers, it’s this:


    Who works in the dark? Criminy.

    • I was thinking the same thing until I read that bit at the end, which I think is meant to exclude Three’s Company. It’s a really difficult line that Weinman creates here. I actually think farce isn’t a different thing altogether, rather, it’s just what happens when its done right and isn’t a jarring problem.

  11. One more thing about the police procedurals that I find defies understanding is the way in which people in general, and teenagers in particular are so glib, defiant, and self-possessed while being interrogated in connection with homicides (of their friends and family)!!

    If Briscoe and Logan had me under the lights I’d be more inclined to soil myself than make smart-assed remarks, no?

  12. Jaime: Was the recent instance you’re thinking of possibly on The Big Bang Theory? On an episode a few weeks ago, Sheldon kept intruding on Leonard’s dates. There is no one in that show’s universe who should know better than Leonard that hints and sarcasm go unheeded by Sheldon, yet he (Leonard) managed to get through the whole episode without once saying “I’m on a date, go away.”

  13. I really admired Babylon 5 for the first four seasons. Season Five, due to its troubled birthing, has numerous problems. (The whole telepath storyline, for example.) However, one thing that stands out to me as preposterous [spoiler alert] was the relationship between Sheridan and Lochley. While not technically an example of the “answer the question” problem, it is a close relative. In order to preserve the secret/surprise for multiple episodes (for both the other characters and the audience) that Sheridan and Lochley were former husband and wife, the characters were forced to speak in strange, formal ways, even when there were no other characters around to overhear them. I have a lot of respect and admiration for J Michael Straczinski, but that whole scenario still causes me to wince and grumble.

  14. Many is the time I’ve turned off an episode — and sometimes even stopped watching a series altogether — because of this anti-expositional dialogue. (We really need a name for this.)

    There’s a line in “Seven Pounds” that triggered the alarm, but I confess that when the reason for it became clear much later, it caught me by surprise. I’d figured out a lot of what was going on, but not that. And no, I won’t be more specific. The movie generated some truly harsh reviews, which I don’t think it deserved. I’m more aligned with Roger Ebert’s three-star reaction.

  15. Wow! What a bunch of fussy people you are. I’ll be happy when, during a shoot-out, they just stop pulling the hammer back on those semi-automatics for that killing-shot effect (they do cock themselves when fired you know, so the hammer is already back); and when they stop drawing chalk lines around bodies after the invention of instant cameras and rulers. That and the “Wincer”.

    Clint Eastwood! How in the hell anyone can believe he hits anything, anytime is beyond me. He’s got his eyes closed before the round even goes off!