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04/20/2004 Archived Entry: "Secret Guardin'"
Posted by CKL @ 03:06 PM PST

Something for writers to remember: keeping arbitrary secrets is lame.

You can string people along from the end-of-season cliffhanger to the next season's premiere (see TNG's "The Best of Both Worlds" and every Star Trek series since), and for maybe half a season otherwise (see Buffy the Vampire Slayer, year 5). But you can't sustain a show on a single mystery that drives all your plots. It's too suffocating, and too easily taken apart.

For example: Smallville, which has to concoct ever more preposterous scenarios to put Clark's Big Fat Secret in peril and then keep him from being found out. And then there's the Fox one-season-wonder John Doe, whose Big Honkin' Secret turned out to be, well, pretty damn silly.

A gimmick is not going to keep your audience interested for long. If the only reason I'm watching is to find out who Cartman's father is, the only way to keep me watching is to not tell me who Cartman's father is. And, eventually, I'll get annoyed or bored, just like I did with Twin Peaks.

Good storytelling is where it's at. Is that so difficult to understand?

Replies: 13 comments

Now there's spam comments? Geesh! Who the hell has so much time on their hands to browse people's blogs and leave spam comments? Notwithstanding the war on terror, I'm sure our government could spare a few commandos to send after these losers.

BTW...can I have a gmail invite? :-)

Posted by Eushuk Hong @ 04/29/2004 07:28 PM PST

I don't know, the gimmick has managed to keep people hooked for a while on such high-brow fare as Fear Factor and other reality "humiliate yourself for money" shows. Thank god for Sopranos, Six Feet Under, and other high quality dramas, seems pay cable may be the last refuge for high production values and attention to the crafts of writing, directing and acting.

Posted by Win @ 04/30/2004 10:20 AM PST

TruCalling did something like this last night, at the end of a season ending 2 hour ep, they gave away a huge secret that the main character's father was a grim reaper. But, just like the X-files, the secrets they did reveal opened up another bag of secrets to have me wondering until the next season starts.

Heh, I feel so cheesy for asking this, but can I have a gmail account too?

Posted by Chris @ 04/30/2004 02:26 PM PST

The show "24" has made its name on gimmicks. The trick they use is that each season a new big gimmick is used, but they also have several side-plots (smaller gimmicks) to string people along for 24 episodes. Even if the main gimmick is revealed several episodes before the season is over, they still have a few other gimmicks to keep people watching. That being said, it's one of my favorite shows.

Also, I would absolutely love a gmail invite :)

Posted by Daniel @ 04/30/2004 02:30 PM PST

I still can't believe that "friends" is almost over but they have been dragging audiences on for awhile, but of course, I keep watching. It has enough on each episode to sustain someone,yet always wanting more gimmick or not.

If you do have any gmail invites left, I'd appreciate one too. Thanks for sharing yours.

Posted by letcp @ 04/30/2004 02:41 PM PST

I've been using as my email for a few years now and it's really quite embarassing. When i access my email at school, people think I'm a pedophile. Save me from humiliation and send me a Gmail invitation, I beg of you.

Posted by auto @ 04/30/2004 03:00 PM PST

If you like interesting writing, try Farscape. Some of the best writing I've seen, actual plot coherence. Think the way that B5 had an overarching plot arc. So does this one, and the season finale three-part episodes are excellent.

It manages to avoid particle-of-the week, last-minute escape sort of things most of the time. In fact, several characters die (one permanently, the others are more complicated.) They get screwed over quite a lot, which is reasonable for people with as few resources as they have. Quite entertaining.

Unfortunately, it got canceled by the scifi channel due to politics, despite it being their top rated show. There are reruns at 2AM or so, but you'd do better to get the DVDs.

(I will admit I came to this page by Googling Gmail invites, but I absolutely refuse to spam blogs or anything else.)

Posted by Daetrin @ 04/30/2004 03:08 PM PST

Honestly, I wanted to like "Farscape"-- I really did-- but couldn't ever get into it. I won't claim to have higher standards than anyone else, but I do have *different* standards than many people.

Tangentially: I love science fiction, but I hate bad science fiction, and that's all too prevalent these days. Hollywood has co-opted a thinker's genre and uses its Big Ideas as an excuse for special effects. Not that some of the golden age stuff was great writing, either-- go back and read some of Asimov's early robot stories-- but the authors were committed to their premises. They wanted to know about the aliens, not simply use them as Maguffins to blow up cities with gigantic ray-guns.

More science, less fiction. That's what I want.

Posted by CKL @ 04/30/2004 09:49 PM PST

I am going to be blunt unlike the other people on this page. I am listing my true desire first. I want (ironically the first definition is a state of extreme poverty) a Gmail invite code please. I hope you find my comment interesting enough. :-)

And btw, after reading your page I have found out so much about the countless sitcoms that I watch. Well I mean I found out about the secrets. I always wondered about the secret of "John Doe". Now that I know, you're right: that was kind of a stupid secret.

Posted by James @ 05/01/2004 01:35 AM PST

When you consider those who watch sci-fi shows they are:
- intelligent gluttons who can't stand contrite storylines
- lazy gluttons who watch what ever they can and buy the contrite story lines

Well, I think that the latter category is far more prevalent in our society - and they simply buy into the cheesy storylines and contribute to the hype of the "disturbing mystery" which a 10 year old could have thought up. They go right along with the ploy and watch every episode, not wanting to miss the secret being revealed. I'd be interested to hear why you think this strategy is effective on the majority of tv viewers. People may get annoyed and bored, but they still hang in to find out the secret - and when they do they're hooked - they want to keep watching for the next "secret" to be revealed.

Oh, and a gmail account wouldn't be bad.

Posted by Jeff @ 05/02/2004 10:30 PM PST

What was so stupid about John Doe? I was so addicted to that show, then they ended the first season on the cliff hanger of all cliff hangers and - BOOM - no more show for you!

I just about punched a hole in the wall when I found out the show wasn't going to be renewed.

Since I can't really ruin it for anyone now - this guy knew all these facts, I mean he was a walking google - but he didn't know who he was (amnesia). So, he meets some friends, moves in over a bar and tries to help people and figure out who is really is. Then at the end of the season, we see that his best friend (the bar owner) is a bad guy! I just about flipped. That was the last scene they ever showed and we never had an explanation!

Anyway, yes, I'm fishing for GMail, but still I couldn't not post about it when you said John Doe was silly.

Posted by Jim @ 05/03/2004 11:44 AM PST

Secrets can be THE gimmick which glues everything together. Take Alias for instance. I felt similarly frustrated about Alias during their first season, but I was really impressed when they were willing to completely change their plot line and take the show in a new direction. A lot of shows would have just fizzled out by trying to keep the gimmick going.

I don't think they can keep pulling off these plot overhauls forever, but it's more like they're just filling in the pieces and working in good sub-plots along the way.

My favorite show is the West Wing, which has a few minor gimmicks along the way, but uses those more just as a vessel to throw in political and social commentary in an interesting way that you won't find on CSPAN.

Who knows, maybe Cartman's dad will to turn up on Sunday night as Sydney's long lost brother.

Any more gmail invites?

Posted by Scott Myrick @ 05/04/2004 11:25 PM PST

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