Fire Up the Infinite Improbability Drive

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I’m not sure how I feel about Seth Green’s neck exploding. (If you haven’t been keeping up with Grey’s Anatomy, I can hardly blame you, but just to catch you up: Seth Green’s neck exploded at the end of the last episode. Tune in tonight to see if that kills him. I’m going with no.)

Part of my indecisiveness is because I’m very fond of Seth Green, and his neck exploding worries me. The bigger issue, however, is that it is ridiculous to have a storyline where (buckle in!) someone’s neck explodes in the same episode where a paramedic has a seizure because she has a brain tumor and this causes her to crash into another ambulance which causes serious injury to both the paramedics in the other ambulance and to her partner, who just happens to be a white supremacist, not to mention their patient, who has come down with an infection that will cause his sternum to be removed but who must now also have a giant hunk of ambulance–you know it’s from the ambulance because there’s a big “A” on the giant hunk–taken out of his leg, too.

After I catch my breath from the exertion of saying that all in one lungful, I’ll assure you I am not kidding.

This Exclamation Pointitis drags down several otherwise fine programs. Grey’s was once better than watchable but has slid into new lows of ridiculousness. Friday Night Lights is another prime offender: one miracle win would be not just acceptable, but stirring. But multiple miracle wins, including a story where (deep breath) the Panthers are way behind in a game where the starting quarterback and running back have been benched, so a third-stringer delivers the stirring halftime speech that rallies the team so they’re within striking distance when the good guys throw an interception, but the third-stringer causes a fumble that the Panthers run in for a touchdown–mind you, the last couple are all on the same play–leading the suspended QB and RB to make up in the middle of the game to get back on the field, where they call a play specifically designed for the third-stringer who has never played before tonight, but that’s okay because he doesn’t catch the ball and the game is over, but that’s also okay because the flag flies on the latest pass interference penalty ever called, and since the game can’t end on a defensive penalty the Panthers get another shot and the recently liberated RB scores the winning touchdown, and everyone in the stadium chants the third-stringer’s name for drawing a pass interference penalty and are you kidding me?!? (pant, pant)

Some television is well-suited to piling up the improbabilities; speculative fiction, for example, is all about putting characters in extraordinary situations, just to see what will happen. Ever wonder whether the best or the worst of humanity would win out if all civilization fell simultaneously? Fire up the Battlestar Galactica, where sexy robots kill 99% of the human population and octogonal blood can cure diseases. Shows like The West Wing and House, while wildly compressing the number of people who would work on their puzzles, have settings that loan themselves to multiple dramatic moments. We really do believe White House staffers might face several crises every day. The only reason House’s department exists is to be funneled the crazy cases no one else can solve.

But several shows with more earth-bound settings are stretching their stories well beyond plausible deniability. I’ve no doubt someone’s neck exploded in a hospital at some point in the history of mankind. I believe paramedics have lost consciousness while driving. I’m even sure someone somewhere in the world was once wheeled into an emergency room with a hunk of ambulance in his leg. What I can’t believe is that these things all happened in the same hospital on the same day. I understand that these shows have to go beyond reality to tell dramatic stories–and even sympathize with that pressure–but sandwiching every freaky medical case or every thrilling football miracle into a single episode not only creates eyerolling scenarios, it chews through story at the kind of breakneck pace that explains why many shows can’t excel past the first season or two. If these kinds of shows keep it up, audiences will have to decide if it’s harder to suspend disbelief over the plots, or over the fact that the shows are still on the air at all.

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8 thoughts on “Fire Up the Infinite Improbability Drive

  1. This is exactly why I quit ER a number of years ago. The amount of ridiculous things happening per episode was unbelievable! I knew it was over for me when Romano died from a HELICOPTER FALLING ON HIM after he had already lost his arm to a helicopter blade. No the irony is not lost, I am just ignoring it.

    I also quit Grey’s when Meredith drowned, was dead forever, then magically came back to life with no problems at all. Sorry Shonda, but that is ridiculous.

  2. Wait, wait, wait–he’d lost an arm to a helicopter and *then*, at some *later date* was squished by a *separate* helicopter? See, that’s a perfect example–it’s not irony, it’s powering a spaceship with a fruitcake.

  3. You’ve totally just described why I was so frustrated with Grey’s Anatomy last year, but couldn’t put my finger on it. How much drama can these people face? But you’re right. When there are settings that allow you a little leeway just by the setup, like BSG and WW, it’s all so very right. Of course on those shows it’s not the events themselves that make the drama good, it’s how the characters play it out. Shonda Rimes would have to actually be, um, in touch with her characters, to get this part.

  4. One of the things I really loved about Grey’s Anatomy in the beginning was the beautiful way they used to create drama from small moments between the characters. Remember the old scrub nurse dying of cancer in season one? That’s the kind of tragedy that happens every day in hospitals, but there was more drama packed into that one story than in all the bombs and ferry accidents and ambulance crashes put together.

    I blame “Into You Like a Train” for a lot of the current problems with Grey’s. It was a great episode, but it gave them a taste for melodrama and signaled the beginning of the end for me. Which is too bad, because the thing that was so great about that episode wasn’t the excitement of the train accident or the uniqueness of the medical procedure involved, it was the way they managed to inject so much sweetness and humor and life into those two guest characters. They could have achieved exactly the same result with a much simpler storyline.

  5. Y’all have hit the nail on the head in terms of when this kind of thing will work and when it won’t. I’ve long said I prefer workplace dramas to romantic ones because I’m not so much for all the kissing–and that’s technically true–but what I really like best is dramas that illuminate their characters through how those characters handle or *react* to the plot. Well-made workplace dramas do that a little more cleanly, but the medical dramas show how quickly that can go off the rails when the plot moves the characters around instead of pulling up a curtain on them. For example, I don’t even remember what bill was being voted on in West Wing’s “Mr. Willis of Ohio,” but I remember both the touching guest character and, most importantly, how that guest character’s dilemma and approach showed us something new about Toby.

    More talking! Fewer helicopters!

  6. Random sampling in the census! I remember that because at its best The West Wing was not only entertaining, but educational as well. Until it became preachy and pedantic.

  7. Yes! The census! I remember too just because I learned something that episode. 😉

    And, to answer your question above, Mikaela, yes, he did die at a later time by the same “instrument” that killed him. I didn’t even stick it through to the episode of him being killed off, I read it as a spoiler and quit the show on the spot. *sigh*

  8. I was behind on my Grey’s viewing, so hadn’t read this thread yet. But, let’s ignore the fact that I’m coming a little late to the party and embrace the fact that I’m showing up at all.

    I ditched ER when Mark found out he had a brain tumor at the same moment his wife found out she was pregnant. So basically yeah, overkill on the drama. And I was just lamenting last night the lack of those small moments that made me tune into Grey’s (the parts were always greater than the whole, but the disparity is widening). Where’s my Super Bowl episode girls-in-the-shower pay-off? Watching the first half of that I went “okay, naked chicks to keep the guys watching after football ends” watching the real pay-off to that in the second episode had me in tears.

    I watched first season of FNL on DVD, and while I recognize it’s a good show, it’s too much like where I’m from and the people I wanted to get away from for me to really like it. I’ve been half-watching this season, but for me I can buy the football miracles, it was Landry killing the guy where the wheels came off the bus for me on that one.

    Ironically, Mr. Willis of Ohio and Into you Like a Train are my favorite episodes of those respective series.

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