Thursday, February 16, 2006

Happens Even on TV

A lot of writers claim they learn a lot about storytelling from watching television. I won't claim such a lofty reason for the amout of TV viewing I do; the majority of it is for entertainment, pure and simple. But every once in a while, I'll catch a program that does teach me loads about how to tell a good story, and occasionally, how to tell a story better.

Take, for example, Grey's Anatomy. I'm not a fan. Or rather, I've never really watched the show, despite all the good buzz, save one episode when my mom and I were on a trip together and she wanted to watch. What I saw, I liked. But in the interest of not filling another hour per week with something other than writing, I tried to pretend I hadn't enjoyed it.

Except, while watching the Superbowl, I was totally suckered in by the promos for the Grey's Anatomy episode following the game. I fell for the flashy commercial and even convinced my hubby to stick around. We were totally caught up in the show and held our collective breath for the second part that aired this past weekend.

For anyone who didn't see it, the overall premise of the show follows a handful of surgical interns as they go head to head with the drama and traumas that roll through their imaginary hospital. The main protagonist is one Meredith Grey, and apparently she recently had an affair with her boss, the appropriately nicknamed Dr. McDreamy played by can't-believe-he-grew-up-so-hot Patrick Dempsey, only to be dumped when McDreamy's wife returned to the picture.

Feeling more than a little mopey, Meredith is looking for a reason to get out of bed one particular morning when things go all to hell in a handbasket. A patient arrives in the ER with a hand-made explosive device stuck inside his chest. After a series of unfortunate events (ha ha), Meredith ends up holding the bomb in her hand - while it was still inside the guy - under the assumption that if it is so much as jiggled slightly, it would blow up the guy, Meredith, anyone standing in the OR with her, and pretty much half the hospital. Add to the mix the always dreamy Kyle Chandler playing the bomb squad's captain and Meredith's calming influence and I was good to go.

Only problem for me (and my hubby, proving that this isn't just a case of me being picky) was that I was never truly worried that the bomb would blow up while inside the guy, thereby putting Meredith at any risk. The reason I never had any fears that the bomb would go off was because before Meredith found her hand wrapped around it, this guy - and the bomb inside of him - had been tossed into an ambulance, driven down countless city streets, wheeled up and down the corridors of the hospital, and who knows what else before anyone became aware that inside of him was something that could potentially blow up. Why all of the sudden the big fear and extra special caution? As far as I could tell - and granted, I'm no bomb expert - this home-made bomb was a dud. Lucky guy.

So throughout the episode when Meredith and her friends were all freaked over the possibility that at any minute she could blow up, I never felt any real worry.

And this is where that learning what would have made it a better story thing comes in. Because I knew right away what could have been done to up the tension, to make me really worry for Meredith's safety, and to have me sitting on the edge of my seat rather than wondering how long they were going to drag the whole thing out.

What the writers needed to have done was to blow up a second bomb. To show another bomb, one that seemed to be stable or a dud, only to blow up totally unexpectedly, seemingly at random or for no apparent reason. This would have shown me that the bomb inside the guy was indeed unstable. That despite the fact he and it had been shaken like a martini with nary a twitch, at any given moment the bomb could just blow.

The writers made the classic blunder of telling me that the bomb inside the guy was unstable and could blow at any minute rather than showing me that it was unstable and could blow at any minute. And they weakened their telling by showing me the opposite - the guy and bomb having been transported in a normal, not-cautious way without the bomb blowing - leaving me to doubt what they wanted me to believe.

Instead, the writers saved the showing for a final, dramatic surprise moment. Warning - SPOILERS ahead. In the end, after hours and hours of Meredith's not moving her hand for fear of the bomb blowing, after the stress of having to pull the bomb out so verrryy caaarefullly to hand it over to Kyle Chandler with nothing happening at all, we were supposed to be lulled into the sense that the ordeal was over. Except - and my hubby called this one from a mile away - as darling Kyle walked away with the bomb, wouldn't you know it blew the poor guy up? I suppose we viewers were supposed to take this as proof of how unstable the bomb really had been and how lucky Meredith ended up being, but all it did for me was annoy me that cute Kyle was killed.

A little side note; I know nothing about how a bomb squad handles a live bomb in such a situation. I would guess that they'd toss that sucker into some kind of bomb-proof box as quickly as possible. What I don't quite understand is why a member of the bomb squad would hold this supposedly unstable explosive device in his hands and carry it out of the OR, down the corridor and towards wherever. Thus, Kyle's blowing up annoys me also because it seems like it was a result of incompetence on the part of the bomb squad and, therefore, unnecessary.

But, my point. I did enjoy these two episodes. And I'm now determined to get ahold of Season 1 to catch up. I figure Grey's Anatomy can fill the soon-to-be hole created in the wake of The West Wing's final season. The characters and premise in general is intriguing.

Even so, there is always room for improvement. And despite its visual nature, even television screenwriters can be guilty of telling instead of showing. If you want me to believe a bomb is unstable and is putting my favorite characters in grave danger, you have to do more than tell me it is, especially after you've shown me the opposite.

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