Stuff They Get Away with on TV

I’m not a typical TV viewer. We don’t (choose to) have cable here or even an antenna; we only get Netflix. Coming at things as a writer, I’m maybe thinking about the stories in a different way than the general audience. And I’m really bothered by the total illogic of some plots.

I’ll use the show Alias as an example because it’s what I’ve been complaining to my wife about most recently. I’ve officially given up on this show; it’s just too stupid. I can’t understand how enough people like it for it to have run multiple seasons. Yet I understand it’s quite popular.

The premise is that there’s a criminal organization that recruits and trains “agents” to who believe they’re working for an ultra-secret part of the CIA. The whole idea is ridiculous, since any competent spy would certainly notice something fishy in short order, and their enemies could destroy their organization with a single email. But it’s no more ridiculous than most conspiracy theories that lots of people do believe, so okay, I can go with it. The protagonist, Sydney, has cottoned to this, but her partner is still ignorant. Sydney hasn’t told him she’s now a double agent working for the real CIA.

Of course, there are the usual silly notions common to programs of this type, such as: makers of electronic locks evidently design in a “you’re getting warmer” feature so that you can have a device that deduces the combination one digit at a time – each digit taking the same amount of time, even when there are only ten combinations left to try instead of 10 gazillion. And a smallish woman can take out numerous large armed thugs with her bare hands and never break any bones in her hands or have any bruises to explain to her friends.

That sort of thing is all in fun. I wasn’t expecting much in terms of realism. I notice it, roll my eyes, my wife and I laugh. We could have a drinking game, except neither of us wants to drink that much.

Where it stops being fun for me, is where the characters do stupid, stupid stuff, transparently to serve the needs of the plot or just as an excuse for more kick-boxing.

Here’s where I called it quits with this series: say your HQ has been invaded and everyone taken captive except for you. Unknown to the invaders, the vault they’re breaking into is booby-trapped to cause a huge explosion, killing everybody present. Do you (a) race against time to secretly disable all three bombs before they figure out the combination (one digit at a time), or (b) have your dad tell them about the bombs, reveal the location of one so they can see for themselves, and let them try to find and disable the others, removing the time pressure and freeing you to pick off more minions? I’m sure you can guess which option the scriptwriters chose. To quote Dr. Strangelove, the whole point of the Doomsday Machine is lost if you keep it a secret.

Then, say you manage to free your co-workers, kill the guards and steal their weapons. The head bad guy is seconds from opening the vault and blowing you all to smithereens. Do you (a) take the guns and a couple of your fellow agents who are trained in the use of deadly force, and go shoot him? Or (b) leave your co-workers to tidy up the office while you run to fight him with your martial arts skills? Hint: option (b) not only gets you more kick-boxing, but allows the bad guy to more plausibly escape so your friends in the CIA can stop him and take what he was after.

You can get away with this sort of thing more in movies and (especially) TV, because the viewers don’t have as much time to stop and think about it as they do when it’s in written form. But surely there’s some limit, some point at which the public will collectively say, “Really? Really?” Yet, somehow, there are enough viewers to support dozens of shows of this type.

I don’t know. Maybe I should just try to turn off my brain and enjoy the kick-boxing in tight clothes.

NOTE: It would be refreshing to see a spy show that played with the conventions of the genre. For instance, the spy might stop at Best Buy to gear up instead of getting custom-made wizardry from the back-room genius (hey, product placement!). But that’s another post.


Stuff They Get Away with on TV — 1 Comment

  1. Nice post. We watch very little TV, but enjoy NCIS for the character interaction, even though the plots are frequently absurd. (Hint – if you’re a Marine, don’t get stationed in the D.C. area. According this show, your per capita risk of getting killed is about 20 Times higher than in Afghanistan.) As far as a spy using found items rather than “Q” gadgets, I have one word – MacGyver!