Hang Your Plot on Character, Not HappenstanceComplications Ensue
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Thursday, October 13, 2011

We blitzed through THE GOOD WIFE Season One, and we're deep into Season Two. It really is a beautifully written show, very subtle and nuanced and true.

At the beginning of Season Two, though, the show does something that is perilously close to a sitcom plot move.

(*Spoiler* for the end of Season One.)

At the end of Season One, Will declares his feelings for Alicia, our heroine. And she, beautifully, doesn't say "yes" or "no," but "I need a plan." At the beginning of Season Two, he calls back to leave a voice message, saying "You're right, I don't have a plan, forget it." Then he leaves another voice message, taking the first message back. He loves her. If she loves him, she should call him back.

Unfortunately, she's handed her cell phone off to her husband's campaign manager, who deletes the second message, because it will make the election harder to win.

So for something like 6 episodes, she assumes that Will's first call ("forget it") was his only call; and Will assumes that she is intentionally ignoring his call.

Okay, so why is this relatively lame plotting? Almost everywhere else, the characters of THE GOOD WIFE are really smart. It takes Peter Florrick moments to tell when someone's wearing a wire. Kalinda, the mysterious private eye, figures out that Alicia's had a moment with Will from just her tone of voice; and while she says nothing, we can read it in her face.

But this is not as smart. It is a little hard to imagine that someone as smart, and correct, and self-righteous as Alicia would hand her cell phone off to anyone, ever. Certainly not to her husband's campaign manager. Certainly not moments after getting an adulterous phone call.

And it is a bit lame of Will to leave two voice messages and then never follow up on them, not even to say, "Did you get both my voice messages?" Especially after a fervent declaration of love. I have made a few fervent declarations of love in my day. I did not leave them on voice mail, and if I had, I wouldn't have let them sit when the lady in question worked at my own office.

And how lame that, having left his fervent declaration, he ends it by saying "If you agree, call me," rather than, say, "I want to talk to you about this in person and I won't take no for an answer." Which, given her "I need a plan," he's entitled to say.

But how likely it is, is not really what bothers me. People do unlikely things all the time, especially under stress. No, what bothers me is that the plot is suddenly hanging, not on character, but on a misunderstanding. How THREE'S COMPANY is that?

I think the best dramatic plots hang entirely on character. You have the feeling that what happens, happens because of who the characters are. If it didn't happen today, it would happen tomorrow. There is surprise, but there is inevitability. You think, "Of course, that had to happen."

When the plot hangs on happenstance, to me it can't help feeling a bit convenient. The writers have decided that Alicia will never say, "I got your message," and Will will never say, "Both my messages?" in the four months it takes Alicia to figure out that she's been informationally shortchanged.

Why did they do it? Because they wanted to milk the Dave-and-Maddy mutually-unrequited-lust angle for all it was worth before moving on.

That's a natural desire for TV writers, especially when they're using the episodic-A-plot/long-arc-uberplot template that the best broadcast shows love so much. In TV, you don't want to get anywhere too fast in your uberplot because you'll run out of plot twists. Once Alicia knows Will's feelings she'll have to decide how she feels; and there is only so much back and forth the audience can take.

But how much better to hang the whole question on character? What if Will had indeed only left one message? What if the six episodes were about Will wishing that he could take it back, wishing he could declare his love, but knowing that, in fact, he has no plan, and he's asking Alicia to destroy her family when he himself isn't risking anything?

You'd get the same will-they-or-won't-they. But it would hang on character, not on the clever ministrations of Eli Gold, who is oh so handy with a cell phone.


I couldn't agree more! I actually was thinking about that plot point the other week, mainly because it always stood out as being really false. (Who lacks a password for their voicemail?! Careless teenagers maybe, but not career women considering infidelity who've survived being tabloid fodder.)

While pivotal moments can always be nit-picked, picking at a character-based moment generally draws an audience deeper into the show. Whoops! moments like these aren't engaging and, at their worst, require out-of-character coincidences to keep going.

By Blogger alice, at 8:22 PM  

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