Why shocking surprises in TV shows and movies are usually bad

The villain is his father. The agent is the mole. The gruff older mentor is actually the bad guy. Turns out, he's been dead and in purgatory and everyone is hallucinating inside a snowglobe the entire time.

Twists can make a movie or television show truly famous — or infamous. M. Night Shyamalan, after all, has done both. But more often than not, twists weaken the underlying works.

The perfect twist is a delicate balancing act: It must be unpredictable enough to surprise, but justifiable enough that it makes perfect sense once it's revealed.

A good twist is a like a good magic trick. It relies on distraction — you're so busy thinking about all the other interesting parts of a movie or show that you don't see it coming. Or, even better, you figure it out just a few seconds before the reveal. You're watching the character and there's a slight smirk playing at the corner of his lips and then you're like — wait a minute, is he actually? — and then, indeed, he pulls off his latex mask to reveal the dashing mug of Tom Cruise.

But even good twists have a price to them. Each twist is a small betrayal of the audience's trust. A scriptwriter has to withhold information or even feed the viewer outright falsehoods to make it land. Yet you can only pull the rug out from the audience so many times before they stop stepping on the carpet. If enough sequences have turned out to be all just dreams and if enough characters are revealed to actually be clones or Cylons or Westworld robots, the story just stops mattering.

Worse, you train the audience to expect twists, encouraging them to spend their viewing experience guessing what the next surprise is, instead of seeking to empathize with character motivations or to unpack the themes of the story.

Twist culture can infect even shows that generally don't fall prey to it. The recent season finale of Succession ended with a betrayal — a surprising but entirely justified turn of events. It was a rare twist that completely worked. But audiences had been so trained by other, more convoluted television shows that plenty of fans began speculating that the supposed betrayal was actually a feint, a larger scheme executed behind the scenes by a brilliant puppeteer.

If they're right, it would undercut the emotional power of the surprise and would weaken the series as a whole. Too many shows have gone the route of becoming addicted to the twist. Here's hoping savvier shows like Succession resist the temptation.♦

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About The Author

Daniel Walters

A lifelong Spokane native, staff writer Daniel Walters is the Inlander's City Hall reporter. But he also reports on a wide swath of other topics, including business, education, real estate development, land use, and other stories throughout North Idaho and Spokane County.He's reported on deep flaws in the Washington...