Saturday, April 17, 2010

What's with starting every TV show with the best scene?

Posted By on Sat, Apr 17, 2010 at 3:03 PM

click to enlarge human_target.jpg

An explosion of billowing flame! The thuds of thugs hitting the floor! Our hero, iconic trenchcoat billowing in the smoke, steps out of the inferno, silhouetted against the deep red sky. He raises up a pistol — a pistol covered in blood — points it at his own head and...

Wait a second, let's rewind a bit.

"Let's rewind a bit." What an awful phrase for the direction of a television episode.

Catapulting us into the middle of an action sequence is a fine idea. Most every James Bond movie does it to great effect. It implies the characters are so heroic that there are big adventures that the producers never even bother showing us. (One recent Psych episode opened with a silly fake psychic giving one of his famous scenery-chewing it-was-you-who-killed-him monologues, perfectly playing on our expectations of formula.)

But starting the story with its coolest, most climactic scene? And then forcing us to rewind to boredom and banality? That's just unfair.   

See Human Target. Maybe hero Christopher Chance is, I don’t know, in the middle of a bullfight or something. But then we're, suddenly pulled out of the world of action and excitement to see Chance receiving his briefing.

Meanwhile... back at the exposition factory.---

Maybe it's my problem with flashbacks.   

Their excitement — think Sauron’s bodily form being defeated in the voiceover at the beginning of Lord of the Rings — is always diminished by the simple fact that they’re not happening now. 

See how a news story becomes that much more exciting when you write it in the present tense. “He shot at the thief” sounds like a police report. “He shoots at the thief” puts you there, flinching beside the gunshot. 

But an in media res teaser opening, like Human Target so often has, puts the whole episode in flashback. The audience spends the episode waiting, anticipating, tapping toes and twiddling thumbs until the episode catches up to the first scene. The most recent episode of Caprica spoiled a key plot development that doesn't take place until the end of the episode. (Note: FlashForward does this to its entire series.)

Worse is when they actually show us the full scene all over again.

Granted: There are times the teaser opening can be fantastic. Breaking Bad is the king of making a teaser opening odd enough — a burnt teddy bear floating in a swimming pool, bullet shells bouncing up and down, up and down on the hood of an abandoned car with the hydraulic systems left on — that it doesn't spoil the context. Same with the famed "Fizbo" episode of Modern Family. It begins with the teaser of somebody in the hospital. We don't know exactly how they got there. 

So the rest of the episode we're guessing what happened to put the person in the hospital. The writers gleefully play with our expectations and pack the episode with danger: scorpions and crossbows and ziplines and collapsing bouncy castles. The punchline is hilariously anticlimactic: The kid slipped on some beads. 

These openers work because they make us curious for the rest of the episode. Not impatient or bored.

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