There are some things that are universal: birth, death, love, hate, taxes. There is our first drink, our first sexual experience, weddings, funerals. So when TV writers look into the stream of life for inspiration, there are just some things that are natural to include in their work. And then there is laziness.
So many shows nowadays resort to cliche and convenient tropes to generate plot points. Some of them are so common they hardly surprise anyone anymore, but writers and studios continue to push them forward out of convenience and fear of being different. And looking at these plot points, it is easy to see a hegemony of social norms pushed upon viewers.
Note: This will be focusing on more current TV series as plenty has been written about TV pre-1990.
The Couple Conundrum
- Guilty Parties: Friends, The West Wing, Gilmore Girls, Cheers, How I Met Your Mother, The Big Bang Theory, That 70s Show, Glee, The Good Wife, Bones, Castle, The X-Files, Private Practice, Firefly, Frasier, Boy Meets World…
It is the ultimate question of chick flicks, soaps, domestic dramas and a myriad of other genres: will they get together? The two central characters (Ross and Rachel, Diane and Sam, Luke and Lorelai, Donna and Josh) who may have had an off-again, on-again relationship have sputtered for years and face one ultimate test to see if they will “last forever.”
The problem with the couple conundrum is that viewers just get so fed up with the characters. The couple throw imaginary barriers between them (“we’re not right for each other”, “we were never meant to be together”, “I don’t want to screw up our friendship”). They deny themselves happiness for trivial reasons. They ruin things just as they are about to get together. At the end, the viewer is simply annoyed with them for being so idiotic, and they really doubt that any two people with such baggage could ever hope to have a lasting relationship.
In addition to that, the viewer knows pretty much from the pilot episode that the two characters are “meant” to be together. They usually hook up around halfway through the length of the series after an excruciating series of teases and flirtations, they break up, they have a mini-reconciliation before breaking up again and then they face a “moment of truth” in the series finale.
This is also accentuated with a “B” couple, another set of people who go through the same motions though they usually figure it out before the protagonists and often serve as inspiration for them (Chandler and Monica, Frasier and Lylith, Wolowitz and Bernadette, Fez and Jackie).
And pushed along with this coupling notion is a predominant Hollywood interpretation of traditional heterosexual monogamy and destiny. The idea that there is one perfect person out there for everyone (no matter how crazy that notion actually is) is continuously shoved down our throats. It also seems that to be a successful couple, you must be white, straight, good-looking, and eventually career successful (none of the couples at the end of any of their shows is unemployed or at lower standing than when they started off).
It is the most overused, overdone, mind-numbing and predictable television trope of all-time, simply meant to build sexual tension in order to keep you watching.
- Guilty parties: Friends, Gilmore Girls, The West Wing, One Tree Hill, Modern Family, Grey’s Anatomy, Angel, Cheers, Once Upon a Time, Scrubs, Dexter, Frasier…
I’m pretty sure there’s a sticky note taped up on the walls of TV writers everywhere that reads, “When in doubt, throw a baby in the script.”
It has become almost laughable how many babies are used for plot points in shows nowadays.
Typically, the baby is used to show how a couple are maturing (usually it’s the B couple from the Couple Conundrum). The characters have to show responsibility and are given an arc. Which works once. Not fifteen times.
Friends is the guiltiest party by having, not one, not two, not three, but four children birthed by their leading ladies, plus another two adopted children, plus storylines involving trying to get pregnant, having a pregnant sister and lesbians being pregnant.
Friends is also guilty of the “twins” syndrome. Twins are not that common in the modern world, but that hasn’t stopped characters from Friends, The West Wing, and Gilmore Girls from having them.
And through all of this baby love plot device is a lot of actual baby love. The idea is always thrust out that children are this essential form of happiness. You can not be a successful person unless you have offspring. It’s amazing how this notion is still perpetuated even though more and more young adults are deciding to postpone or even not have children.
But the baby love continues. And whenever a team of writers needs to show their character “maturing” there is inevitably going to be baby popping up next season.
Talking One’s Thoughts
- Guilty parties: Scandal, How to Get Away with Murder, House, Grey’s Anatomy, House of Cards, Dexter, Once Upon a Time, Glee, The Good Wife, Bones, Brothers and Sisters, Private Practice, Six Feet Under…
It’s time for a heart to heart. And in TV, heart to hearts are prevalent, awkward and incredibly personal.
Voiceover is usually sloppy writing and that has gotten around. So now, instead of having characters tell the audience what they’re thinking over voiceover, they tell another character (usually a best friend or a partner) their innermost fears and desires.
It’s amazing how open so many characters are nowadays with their emotions. They will tell this special person everything about how their parents abused them and that’s why they have commitment issues or how they secretly fell in love with their sister’s husband or how their experience in Afghanistan has made them emotionally distant. These conversations usually take place at the end of episodes and serve as a sort of theme for the previous hour.
In line with this also is the belief that honesty above all else is the ultimate boon. We must be honest with each other even if it hurts because secrets are evil and will destroy us. Not that that isn’t necessarily true, but that also implies that each and every one of us has a similar conscience when that just isn’t the case.
Shonda Rhimes shows are especially guilty of this, and it leads to great overtheatrics. Everyone is attuned to their psychology and to psychology in general, and the outer monologue therapy session has worn out its welcome. There are other ways to write it out and the outer monologue is just a convenience.
The Bromance and the Girlfriends
- Guilty parties: Friends, One Tree Hill, House, How I Met Your Mother, The Big Bang Theory, Private Practice, Bones, Frasier, Scrubs, Entourage, Seinfeld…
If you don’t have a significant other or an active love life, that’s okay; you can have a best friend you can relate everything to. They can live with you, they can be from childhood, you can be totally opposite, it doesn’t matter. The best friend is there for you in thick and thin.
While best friends certainly do exist, in television, it’s amazing how close they actually become to each other. The only thing they lack is physical intimacy and even that is up for debate in some cases.
The best friend is really just there for the previous bullet point: voicing a character’s thoughts out loud. They are a sounding board more often than not, someone for the protagonist to complain to about their love life usually. And hey, if your love life is going down the tubes, at least you have a bro or a girlfriend to put it all in perspective for you. That is their only real purpose.
Sex and Murder Rule
- Guilty parties: Friends, One Tree Hill, The Big Bang Theory, House of Cards, Bones, Scandal, Grey’s Anatomy, The Good Wife, That 70s Show, Glee, Once Upon a Time, Game of Thrones, 24, House, Sleepy Hollow, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, Battlestar Galactica, Seinfeld…
The things that people gravitate towards more than anything else are sex and violence. And with that, TV writers have come to the conclusion that they are a big deal and should be treated as such.
But it has gotten a little out of control. Who knew that sex carries so many complications in the TV world? There is the possibility of love, children, abortion, pregnancy deficiencies, marital problems, prostitution, unrequited love, requited love, love with and without attachments, a farewell sendoff, crossing the first threshold, power dominance, infidelity, marriage relations, swinging, friendship rekindling, revenge, romance, backstabbing, drunken mistakes, just another night on the town, hiding from stress, conquest, breaking your solemn rule, passionate lust, alibi-making and attention-getting just to name a few. Normal people seldom have sexual lives so complicated or messy, but in TV, it is apparently all that anyone does and it can mean so many things.
Is there another way to show some of these things without simply stating or showing sexual intercourse? Assuredly, but it grabs viewer’s attention and is an easy out for the writer.
In the case of violence, it is similarly a big deal, but it is almost always negative. Those who commit violence are evil more often than not and when heroes do it, it weighs on them. It again ties back to that very similar conscience we all have.
For TV, murder is a step over a line. When a character does something that violent, they are tainted, almost to the point where they can’t come back. They often become addicted to it and lose their moral grounds in other ways (fidelity, financials, drugs). It is the ultimate crime that leads to the end of everything. One need only to graze through the mystery section to see that murder is the primary crime needing to be solved. It’s irreversibility intrigues us.
And TV has gotten the idea that everyone who commits murder is tainted at the core, needs to be saved or is evil. It is never an accident. It is never a tragedy. The course of action from murder is almost always the same: those who feel guilty about it (even if the person they killed was dangerous or had it coming) recover from its moral depravity and those who don’t become villains. Murderers are therefore good if they repent (Jack Bauer, Angel, Jake Ballard) and evil if they don’t (Frank Underwood, Mr. Gold, Cersei Lannister).
It’s not that sex and violence are not big deals, but their inflation in TV has led to their overprominence in culture. Television logic states that sex is extremely complicated and can mean dozens of different things and can be wrong if done for the wrong reasons and that violence and murder are always wrong unless the character repents. If that sounds like church for you, it’s because that methodology is still deeply ingrained in storytelling today.
Doubtless there are many other tropes that continue to percolate among TV today that are sloppy, easy for the writer and imbued with out-of-date societal norms. And this is not to say that the shows listed above are by any means bad, just that there are instances where the writers took a cheap way out. For viewers searching for something a little fresher and in line with the times, look at things like Orange is the New Black, The Wire, Breaking Bad, The Sopranos, Downton Abbey, Transparent, Mad Men, shows that aren’t afraid to play around with the standard formula, shows that don’t try to impose a specific doctrine of morality, shows with storylines that don’t look at things so black and white and whose protagonists are as much a mystery to themselves as they are to us.
We are in a golden age of television, but writers and producers need to stop closing themselves off from more than one idea and one standard of storytelling. There are so many different points of view and different ways of telling stories that we should never have to deal with another forced bromance or over-dramatized exposition. The world is far more complicated than that.