TV: Ending 10 Minutes Early

I haven’t caught up with this week’s Chuck, but I did watch last week’s Charlie’s Angels tribute, “Chuck vs. the Cat Squad.” Allowing for the fact that the show has been in decline for a while and that it has never figured out how to solve any of the myriad problems it has always had (endless ‘shipping of two leads who have no chemistry, not enough for Adam Baldwin to do; insane overuse of wacky comedy background music), I kind of enjoyed it, as I usually enjoy the show’s tributes to cheesy action/spy stuff of the past. Or rather, I enjoyed it for the first few acts, and then…

…with one act left to go, the plot was over. Not the arc plots, not the emotional and romantic issues, which were dealt with in the final act, but the actual defeating of the bad guys. That was basically wrapped up with one entire act left to go.

I’ve seen Chuck do this before, and other shows too. (If Alias had a mission of the week, there was no telling how early it might be wrapped up.) It’s always bothered me, though I’m not sure it should. What it violates, of course, is the old storytelling rule that you should not wrap everything up too early. Chuck sometimes uses the last act the way the real Charlie’s Angels used the shorter tag scene before the credits — to wrap things up after the week’s plot is finished. (And, come to think of it, some dramas would benefit from bringing back the tag, the way sitcoms already did.) Since Chuck is frequently guilty of lazy storytelling in every area, this comes off as a structural weakness: sometimes it feels like the writers couldn’t figure out how to integrate the emotional issues into the main story, sometimes it just feels like they ran out of story twists too early.

But I would not say that this is always a sign of structural weakness, because, well, that’s a hard-and-fast rule about dramatic writing, and there aren’t any such things. There are good reasons for the rule that the bad guy shouldn’t be defeated too early, but in TV, particularly a cult show where much of the audience cares more about what will happen next week than about how the bad guy will be defeated, it may be that the real climax of an episode is not the resolution of the weekly story.

So I remember when I first saw the Buffy episode “Tabula Rasa,” I was annoyed that the amnesia plot was basically wrapped up at the end of the third act, and the fourth and final act was all devoted to the aftermath. It violated what I considered the rules of good storytelling, and since the show was going through a particularly bad patch when it came to episodic story structure, it wasn’t unreasonable to think that. However, that final act was huge in terms of what happened between the characters, with three big events that would affect the rest of the season. So any problem I might have had with the storytelling was arguably my problem rather than the show’s — the episode followed the rule that the final act must contain the climax, it’s just that the climax of the episode was not the climax of that weekly story.

A show with a serialized plot can, and sometimes does, use the weekly story to mislead the audience, leading us to expect the climax to be the confrontation with the bad guy, when it’s actually going to be something different. Buffy at its best (which is to say not in the sixth season) was able to integrate this with more traditional rules of episodic storytelling, pulling off the bad-guy-beating and the real emotional climax in the same act, or even at the same time. But there’s no law that says every episode has to work this way, and it may be a welcome surprise for a show to break the rules of episodic TV and give us a less neat, pat structure.

I do think that in order to do this, a show should demonstrate that it has a keen grasp of story structure and that it is wrapping up the story-of-the-week early on purpose, either to shift to the real climax or to lay the groundwork for next week’s adventure. That’s why I don’t think any of these arguments apply to Chuck, whose understanding of story has always been problematic at best.

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