Let’s Talk About Plot Twists

The Sixth Sense


Warning: spoilers for multiple stories lie ahead.  Read at your own risk.

Love ’em or hate ’em, plot twists are an integral part of modern storytelling.  You know what I’m talking about…those moments in stories that make you go “HOLY CRAP” or “WHAT THAT DOESN’T MAKE ANY SENSE!”  But the question is: when is a plot twist good and when is it bad?

For my personal taste, a good plot twist is one that makes you reevaluate what came before.  To start with, I’m going to use an example from something I’m betting not all that many people know about: the television show “Fringe”.

For those who’ve maybe never watched the show, it’s similar to “X-Files”, only instead of investigating weird, far-fetched supernatural stuff they investigate weird, far-fetched science stuff.  The basic premise is this: FBI agent Olivia Dunham investigates after everyone aboard a commercial airline flight is killed by a strange contagion that caused their skin to fall off (in spectacular, gooey fashion).  The case leads her to Dr. Walter Bishop, a man known for extreme experiments in science…who is also now in a mental health facility.  Because of the facility’s rule allowing only family members to visit, Olivia must track down Walter Bishop’s estranged son Peter.


Over the course of the first season, the three deal with bizarre and terrifying cases, ranging from killer computer viruses to a bio-engineered monstrous animal.  As the season progresses, an overarching plot involving parallel universes starts to unfold.  In the season finale, the trio stop a bad guy from crossing over into another universe to do bad things.  As things come to a close, we realize that the three have grown close together.  Peter finally starts to accept his father despite his failures.  And Walter has a poignant moment standing in front of-



…hi-his son’s grave.


Wait what?!

And this is where, if the twist is good, your mind goes into overdrive.  You start seeing the clues, putting the pieces together, realizing that certain little things you initially thought were innocuous actually hinted at a bigger truth.  In this case, the truth is that the Peter we know in the show actually belongs to a parallel universe.  And, in this case, your mind is likely to go back to a scene earlier in the season where Walter is talking to Peter and mentions a time when Peter was deathly ill.  Walter says he became consumed with saving him, but that Peter eventually just got better.  Obviously, with the twist at the end of season one, we know that’s not what happened and Walter’s version of Peter died.

There are also other, smaller hints throughout the season that you’d probably never catch on your first viewing.  For example, during one very early episode, Walter is rambling about eye color when he says Peter’s eyes are green.  But when we cut to Peter, we can clearly see that his eyes are blue.  Initially, you likely brushed it off as just Walter being not altogether there.  However, with the added information we get at the season’s close, it takes on a newer significance.  Same with another scene where Peter is holding a G.I. Joe toy and says something like “weird…I always remembered the scar being on the other side”.  Again, innocuous on its face, but hinting at a greater truth.

Another great instance of this kind of plot twist comes from “The Sixth Sense”.  I’m sure most, if not all of you, know the story by now: Bruce Willis plays a psychiatrist who helps a young boy that claims he can see ghosts.  Spoiler alert: Bruce Willis is actually dead the entire time.  He’s just another ghost that the kid can see.  But what’s genius about this twist is that unlike “Fringe”, where most of the clues are only really recognizable upon re-watching the first season, “Sixth Sense” actually replays snippets of scenes from earlier in the movie during the climactic reveal, giving them new meaning and context.  That scene with his wife in the restaurant?  It shifts from being the portrayal of a couple falling out of love to that of a widow grieving for her lost husband.

And it doesn’t even show all the clues the movie had in it.  There’s actually a scene where Bruce Willis is standing behind the kid as the kid reaches for a doorknob.  There’s a quick close-up shot of the knob that shows that Willis has no reflection.  It’s truly crazy how much foreshadowing the movie does right under your nose.

Now let’s move on to the other side of things.  When is a twist bad?  For my money, it’s simple: when the twist is done for pure shock value and offers very little payoff.  For example, one of the seasons of “24” reveals that the president of the United States (or former president at that point…I can’t remember for sure) is in league with the bad guys to do…something I guess.  I don’t remember if there was a good explanation for it.  What little I remember tells me it was more done for shock value than anything else.

Another example comes from the video game “Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2”.  In the game, a character named General Shepherd sends one of the playable characters to an estate in the middle of a forest somewhere to retrieve data on the enemies operations and help stop World War III.  Only, at the end of the mission, Shepherd shoots and burns the playable character alive upon receiving the data, revealing that he was the mastermind behind it all and was just covering his tracks.  It’s a moment that screams “epic” at first, but once Shepherd reveals his motivation later on things fall apart quickly.

It’s as if the writers had to hamstring together an explanation last-minute.  Basically, there was a nuke that went off in the previous game, killing a whole bunch of soldiers.  This made General Shepherd mad or something, so he came up with a convoluted plan to start World War III in an effort to drive up recruitment and get more soldiers…

…who will then more than likely die in the ensuing global conflict, leaving General Shepherd with a far larger body count than he would have had otherwise.

It’s best not to think about it too much.

(If you’re curious, I did write an entire story analysis of Modern Warfare 2 over two years ago.)

Another example of a twist that underperforms is in “The Village”, another movie by M. Night Shyamalan.  For my part, I actually liked the twist itself.  But at the same time, I admit that it does have a lack of payoff for the story.

The plot of “The Village” is as follows: a colonial era village lives in fear of monsters that lurk in the woods around the town.  But later on, it’s revealed that the monsters are nothing more than the village elders wearing outfits in an effort to keep people from moving away from the village.  And the noises they keep hearing in the woods are made by things like wind chimes.  Then, at the very end, it is revealed that the movie actually takes place in modern times, with the village elders starting the village in the 1970’s as a way to escape the traumas they experienced in modern society.  They’re basically an Amish-like cult.

While the twist is cool, there’s very little payoff for it.  We already know that the spooky noises are fake and that the monsters are just old people in costume.  It does give us an explanation for why the elders did all those things, but it doesn’t feel very satisfying.  It feels…anti-climactic in a way.  Not only that, but the twist has some serious explanations with plausibility, the most notable of which being how did no one ever see a plane flying over the area?  The movie tries to explain this away by saying they set up a no-fly zone over the area the village is set in, but it still seems far-fetched.

I could talk about more plot twists, but that would make this post go on longer than it needs to.  And it’s already long as it is.  So to recap, for a plot twist to be good, it needs to redefine or alter the arc of the story in a way that makes sense.  Twists that are thrown in there for shock value (which is something broadcast television shows seem obsessed with these days) tend to collapse under the weight of their own implausibility.  The quality of twists can be highly subjective, but in the end I think most people would agree that it needs to be logical.  It needs to follow some sort of common sense.  Otherwise, its artificial nature is plainly obvious for everyone to see.


Thanks for reading.  Check back next Wednesday for a new post, and as always, have a wonderful week.

You can like the Rumination on the Lake Facebook page here or follow me on Twitter here.

The Woes of Broadcast Shows

To get started, let’s take a look at this promo for an episode of the show Designated Survivor:



Nothing unusual here right?  Just an average promo for a television show right?  Well that’s sort of my problem with it.

I stopped watching shows on broadcast television a long time ago (the last show I followed was Fringe, and that ended its run four years ago).  My issue is the kind of thing you see in the trailer.  Instead of actually giving us a clue as to what might happen next, it dwells on the “shocking” twist at the end of the mid-season finale.  “The shot that shocked the nation,” it proudly proclaims before going on to tease “who took the bullet?”  Because that’s the kind of hype these shows are built up on.  How many television show promos have you seen tease a plot twist you “won’t see coming”?

For another example, let’s take a look at the ABC series Scandal.  Scandal‘s main premise is about Olivia Pope, who is a “fixer”…that is, someone who gets rid of problems for people who can afford it (namely the rich and powerful).  Let’s take a look at Wikipedia’s summary of season one:

“Season 1 introduced Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington) and the various members of her firm, as well as President of the United States Fitzgerald Grant III (Tony Goldwyn) and his chief of staff Cyrus Beene (Jeff Perry). Season 1 focused on the lives of the team members, the relationship between Olivia and the President (her former employer), and the mystery surrounding Amanda Tanner’s (Liza Weil) involvement with the White House, among other cases the team solved.”

It doesn’t tell us much about what happens in season one, but it doesn’t need to.  Scandal clearly started out as a procedural type of show with some recurring elements.  I’ve never watched it myself, but that’s the impression I get from the summary.  For contrast, let’s take a look at season four’s summary:

“The first half of the season focuses on Jake’s arrest for the death of Jerry Grant after Rowan forces Tom to name Jake as the operator. Rowan continues to try to make everyone believe Jake is guilty, which inspires Olivia to find out the truth for herself. After forcing Tom to reveal Rowan as his operator, Fitz, Jake, and Olivia make a plan to arrest Rowan. Unfortunately, the plan fails, causing Rowan to shut down B613 and start eliminating B613 agents. Olivia tries to kill Rowan when she confronts him, but he manages to flee. Abby is now the White House Press Secretary, and is struggling with gaining the respect of Cyrus and Fitz, because they choose to demean her by calling her “Red” instead of Abby. Later in the season, Abby finds herself stressed even more by the presence of her abusive ex-husband, who has been nominated for Virginia State Senator, and she enlists Leo Bergen to help ruin his campaign. Quinn has stayed in contact with both Abby and Huck, in addition to trying to find Olivia.”

Did you get that?  No?  Me neither.  It just sounds like a mess of different plot points.  And that’s not even the entire summary.

Now, to be fair, any show with an overarching plot can sound confusing if you just jump in four seasons deep.  But even so, Scandal‘s season four just sounds like it’s over-stuffed with plot elements.  Rowan forces Tom to name Jake as the operator, but Rowan is the real operator!  They try to get Rowan arrested but the plan fails!  Meanwhile Abby has to deal with office sexism!

Even just watching the preview for the next episode of Designated Survivor gives you an idea of how quickly things can get out of hand.  Pro tip: if you’re only halfway through the first season of your political espionage thriller show, maybe don’t make the Vice President of the goddamn United States your bad guy.  Because honestly, where do you go from there?

And that’s my big problem.  It seems that network television spends most of its time trying to out-“OMG” the competition rather than producing good, solid content.

From 2004 to 2010, Lost demonstrated the potential of serialized television shows.  It wasn’t really until Lost that network television really started to shift in that direction.  The groundwork was laid by shows like X-Files and Star Trek: The Next Generation, but it was Lost that really brought it all together.  Sure, the show was (and still is) mocked for not giving any real answers to its mysteries, but its strength lay in how fleshed out its characters were.  Over the course of six seasons, you got to know a lot about their lives…almost too much.  But Lost was also known for all the crazy plot twists that happened.  They were all the crazy “water-cooler moments” that people talked about the day after an episode premiered.  And it seems that’s what network television took note of, so now broadcast shows are just a race to get the biggest “OMG” water-cooler moment of the year.

I mean, it might actually be working.  For all the guff I gave Scandal‘s fourth season, it apparently has the highest Nielson ratings of all of them.  But the story is different for Designated Survivor.  On average, the ratings have been dropping ever since the premiere episode.  This plot twist obsessed mindset is not going to be sustainable forever.

One of the most talked about shows last year was Stranger Things, a show that was exclusively on Netflix.  Broadcast television has always had an edge because it’s free, at least in the sense that you don’t have to pay a bill every month to watch.  But as streaming becomes more prevalent and more affordable, broadcast TV might be on the way out.  Instead of having to wait and see what happens next episode, you can just click “next episode” (although you’ll still likely have to wait for new seasons to come out).

I talked about this a little bit when I spotlighted Person of Interest, but one of my major issues with broadcast television is that there’s so much filler content, even in shows that claim to be serialized.  And this is because broadcast networks are obsessed with ratings, which means that they give shows these twenty-odd episode seasons that they are required to fill up.  Now, obviously, it’s nearly impossible to make all those episodes about an over-arching plot without it quickly growing convoluted and incomprehensible, so most shows opt to have filler episodes surrounding the main story.  This is what Fringe did, and while I still very much enjoyed the show, I can’t help but wonder what it would have been like if the show had been on a non-broadcast network or had been a streaming show.

This format isn’t always a bad thing, but it’s very stifling in a creative sense.  And unless broadcast television changes its ways, I don’t see much of a future for it in the age of on-demand streaming.


Thanks for reading!  Check back next Wednesday for another post, and as always, have a wonderful week.

You can like the Rumination on the Lake Facebook page here.

Spotlight: Person of Interest

Television is changing.  With the advent of streaming services like Netflix and Hulu, the way we watch our TV shows has shifted.  And now that these same streaming services have begun creating their own shows, the very format of a television show has changed as well.  The length of a television show season is usually around twenty-two episodes or thirteen episodes, depending on the network.  But with Netflix’s Stranger Things, we got a season that was only eight episodes long.  There’s more freedom now to create as short or as long a season as the creators need to or want to.  Shows on broadcast television networks, with their twenty-odd episodes in a season, are starting to feel outdated.

In a sense, you could consider Person of Interest to be a member of the “old guard”.  The show had its run on CBS, which meant that each season (with the exception of the fifth and final) was twenty-two to twenty-three episodes long.  Person of Interest is a procedural crime drama with a science-fiction flair and some spy thriller elements thrown in.  The premise of the show is as follows:

After the terrorist attack on September 11th, 2001, the United States government began looking into creating a system that would monitor the public at all times.  They wanted a system that could alert them of any potential terrorist attacks before they happen, giving them a chance to stop them.  Their system is created by a man named Harold Finch (Michael Emerson), but it comes with an unexpected side effect.  The machine sees not just potential terrorist acts, but crimes of an everyday nature as well, crimes involving ordinary men and women.  To deal with this, the machine is programmed to split them into two categories: relevant and irrelevant.

When the show opens in 2011, Finch approaches ex-CIA agent John Reese (Jim Caviezel) and offers him a job: help him track down the irrelevant numbers, figure out whether they are a victim or perpetrator, and stop whatever crime is about to happen.

That is the central conceit of the show.  Every week Finch and Reese receive a number (which equates to someone’s social security number), which leads them to a person.  They then do the work of finding that person and whatever it is they’ve gotten themselves involved with.  There is a greater plot thread in play, even during the initial seasons of the show, but it’s not very evident.  In fact, it’s not until near the end of the third season that a massive serialized arc takes shape.  If you’ve ever watched the show Fringe the format is pretty similar: procedural, standalone episodes detailing a “case of the week” and then the overarching episodes which impact the path the show takes as a whole.

The procedural aspect of the show is undoubtedly a product of the broadcast television format.  With twenty-odd episodes to make, it isn’t entirely possible to make them all about the main story, at least without making the main plot convoluted and overbearing.  This is the issue I expect most people to run into with this show, as it is the same issue I ran into later on when the main plot got to be really interesting.  There is a lot of filler in this show, episodes that have no real purpose whatsoever aside from being entertaining for that week.

Personally, I don’t mind procedural episodes that much as long as they’re well done, but I know that a lot of people get bored by them.  However, even when the show is at its most procedural, it is still a technically proficient one.  Gone are the days of X-Files, where one episode could be amazing and spellbinding, and then the next makes you question why you ever started watching the show in the first place.  At worst, the procedural episodes of Person of Interest can come across as bland and unoriginal.

And there are some really great procedural episodes in the show, ones that delve deeper into one of the characters.  For example, later on in the show there’s an episode that takes place almost entirely as one of the characters is dying from a gunshot wound.  At first, you don’t even know it either.  What you initially think is just a flashback to a conversation turns out to be a part of the character’s hallucination.  It’s a gripping episode and one of the show’s strongest in my opinion.  It goes to show that even procedural episodes can surprise you.

The show’s serial episodes are obviously what people are going to remember, and they are definitely riveting.  Initially, the show’s serial episodes focus on the nature of government surveillance, but later on the show’s science-fiction element takes center stage.  The show’s latter seasons focus on the power and dangers of artificial intelligence and grandiose reflections on the nature of humanity.  I won’t go into too much detail, but let’s just say that one side believes humanity needs to be forcibly guided while the other side believes humanity deserves to make its own choices.

Most of my complaints with the show are minor, although I did have one thing that kept nagging at me.  At times, the show’s procedural nature was at odds with its serialized plot.  This became increasingly evident in one of the later seasons.  Without spoiling too much, the events of one of the season finales requires that the main characters essentially go underground and keep a low profile.  And the first episode of the next season goes to great lengths to make that point, with Reese being scolded for doing what he normally does because it could blow his cover.  However, after all that, some of the procedural episodes seem to pretend that this isn’t even a problem.  Some episodes do make a point of it, with a character saying something along the lines of “you can’t just go in there and do that, you’ll risk exposing your cover!”  But then other episodes have them running into a place, shooting it up, beating the crap out of dudes and the like, and there is apparently no consequence for it.  It created this weird disjunction that once I noticed it I couldn’t stop noticing it.  Maybe I’m just nit-picking, but it really bothered me after a while.  I guess I just wanted to see more of the main plot instead of random, case-of-the-week episodes.

My other complaints are very minor.  Some of the episodes, particularly early on in the show, have weird abrupt endings that seem out of place.  The “plot bubble” effect in the show is strong, meaning that main characters (even bad guys) miraculously escape from harm because their pursuers suddenly have terrible aim with their weapons.  It just seems strange that John Reese can kneecap people with perfect accuracy but at other times can’t even manage to hit the person at all.

My only other complaint has to do with one of the main antagonists of the show.  At the end of one of the seasons, there’s a plot twist that reveals that he was basically planning things for years, working towards things from a time before the show even started.  Which makes no sense when you think about the fact that he had another plan a season earlier which utterly failed.  So that would mean that he knew his plan would fail or at the very least that he had a secondary plan in place in case he failed, which makes even less sense because that would mean he created a terrorist group for no reason.  It’s one of those things where when you start thinking about it, the bad guy’s “brilliant plan” actually ends up seeming really dumb.

In the end though, Person of Interest is a show that is definitely worth watching.  It takes a very nuanced approach to its themes (for the most part), and is consistently well-written.  It’s also not afraid to experiment.  One of the later episodes takes place mostly in the mind of the machine itself as it hypothesizes scenarios in an attempt to find an escape plan for our heroes.  At one point, the machine realizes it’s running out of time, so it simplifies the simulation.  This leads to a bizarrely funny bit where the characters are walking around speaking in strange placeholder dialogue like “flirty greeting” or “general statement of mission success”.

Person of Interest manages to surprise many times throughout its run.  It’s an action-heavy show that’s fun to watch but also has a lot of depth to it.  And I must say that the series finale is one of the most immensely satisfying and powerful finales I have seen in a long time.  It’s definitely worth a watch.  And hey, it’s all streamable on Netflix.  Isn’t that convenient?

Now I’m going to get out of here before I start sounding like a spokesperson for Netflix…


Well thanks for reading!  Check back next Wednesday for another post, and as always, have a wonderful week!

You can like the Rumination on the Lake Facebook page here.

False Progress: Why I Dislike the Idea of the Ocean’s 11 Reboot

Earlier in the year it was announced that a reboot of the classic Ghostbusters movie was in production featuring an all-female cast for the trio of Ghostbusters.  At the time, I didn’t really think a whole lot of it.  Sure it was weird, but free expression and all that.  Well now what were previously rumors have been confirmed.  There is a reboot of Ocean’s 11 in the works featuring yet again an all-female cast, spearheaded by Sandra Bullock herself.

Now I’m starting to take issue with this.

I don’t necessarily have an issue with the fact that this is being done.  Like I said, freedom of expression.  Where I start having problems is with how this kind of thing is treated in the media.  The news latches on to these stories and then these projects are hailed as some kind of progressive icon.  But that just begs the question: are these movies actually being progressive?  Or is there a more insidious undertone going on here, one that even the people spearheading these projects might not be aware of themselves?

Let me put it bluntly.  If we encourage this, the implication becomes that there are no good roles for women.  This isn’t progressiveness.  If anything, it’s regression, taking us back to a time when women’s roles were heavily stereotyped as the caretaker of the house and children.

The problem isn’t necessarily that there aren’t good roles for women in movies.  It’s that people don’t write them.  Instead, they seem to want to take the lazy way out, recasting a role originally written for a man.  And that’s exactly what’s happening with Ocean’s 11.  It’s not a completely new movie.  George Clooney himself opted to help recast his lead role for Sandra Bullock.

I’m not against the idea of an all-female heist movie.  I think that would be great.  But I don’t like the implication going on here.  I hate that it feels like movie studios are trying to capitalize on the popularity of the gender equality and feminist movements.  I hate that these movies are held up as a step forward, when it really feels like all we’re doing is taking a step back.  Instead of recasting roles for women, we should be writing roles for women from the ground up.

And there are great female roles out there.  Does anyone remember Ellen Ripley from Alien?  Her character was credited with helping challenge gender norms, particularly in the science fiction and horror genres, and that was all the way back in the 1970’s.  Here we had a female character who was tough as nails and carried the central action of the movie.

And what about Dana Scully from the X-Files?  She’s another character who proved that she can be a fully fleshed out and tough character (even if she is sometimes obnoxiously skeptical of everything Mulder says).  And continuing with that kind of trend, we have Olivia Dunham from Fringe, who is the only one of the central three characters who works in law enforcement and carries a gun on her nearly at all times.  Fully fleshed out female characters are out there, even if they are admittedly not always as prevalent as male ones.

But that’s just the point.  We shouldn’t be recasting men’s roles for women, because that doesn’t help us further along gender equality.  I mean what’s next, a reboot of Mrs. Doubtfire where instead of a man dressing up as a women, we have a women dressing up as a man?

Besides, no one can replace Robin Williams.  NO ONE.

I won’t automatically assume bad intentions on the part of those making these movies, because that would just be unfair of me, but even so they are responsible for the precedent they may be creating.  There are only these two major examples so far, but if the trend continues, it will become a problem.

Have you ever heard of the Bechdel test, or Bechdel-Wallace test?  It’s a test that asks whether a work of fiction includes at least two women who talk to each other about something that isn’t just another man.  The test has often been criticized because it doesn’t tell us if a film is a good model for gender equality or even if it has well-written, fleshed out female characters.  It’s too limited in that regard.  Walt Hickey from the polling aggregate site FiveThirtyEight observed this about the test, but also wrote that, “it’s the best test on gender equity in film we have — and, perhaps more important …, the only test we have data on”.  This indicates an issue surrounding the discourse on gender equality in movies.

A while back I wrote a post about Gamergate and female characters in video games.  And in it, I remarked on how the issue isn’t always that female characters in video games are overtly sexualized or relegated to background roles, but rather that the criticism surrounding them seems to be a little nitpicky, taking things out of context.  I feel like the same thing happens with the Bechdel test.  It limits itself to such a strict set of criteria that it doesn’t give us a good sense for how well a movie deals with the different genders.  And it doesn’t always take things in their proper context.  Sure, a woman may be relegated to working in the kitchen in a certain movie, but if that movie takes place in the 1950’s then it makes sense for it to be that way because that was the reality of things back then.

So to sum things up, the issue to me isn’t that there aren’t good female roles, it’s that we either don’t know how to write them or we spend too much time trying to find issues where there might not be any.  And if we keep looking in the wrong places, then we miss the problems that are in the right places.


And that’s all I have for you this time.  Tune in next Wednesday for another post, and as always, have a wonderful week!

Movies vs. Television Shows

All of us have seen at least one movie and television show in our lives (except maybe if you’re Amish or something).  We all have our own opinions on which format is better.  Some say movies are better because they have fancier special effects.  Others say television shows are better because they have better realized characters.  In either case you’ll find that people tend to double-dip, watching movies and televisions shows in equal measure.  I know I do.

Personally I have to say that I prefer television shows to movies usually.  I’ve never been too big into the whole special effects business.  I’ve been more of a character enthusiast for a long time, and characters are something that television shows do especially well.  But the real question is, what do television shows do better and what do movies do better?  For that, I decided to create a small list of categories to use.  After each one, I will select a winner.  There will be a tally at the end to see which format is superior (according to one person’s opinion anyways).

If you disagree, I hate you.  Not really.  Maybe…


Special Effects

Let’s start with one of the biggest differences between television shows and movies, the special effects.  The winner here is pretty obvious.  Movie budgets are often so much higher than the budget for a TV show, considering they pour all that money into only two hours of footage compared to how long some TV shows can run.  This leads to television show special effects being noticeably lower grade than those in movies.  Have you ever watched a TV show and thought “wow that just looks bad” or “that looks so fake”?  Compare that to how many times you’ve said that during a movie, and you’ll see what I mean.

Look at Guardians of the Galaxy for instance.  The special effects in that movie are top-notch.  That final battle scene in the movie is gloriously crazy, with ships and explosions everywhere on-screen for a good ten minutes at least.  You’d never see that in a television show.  Which is not to say that TV CAN’T look good.  Take HBO’s Game of Thrones.  That show has some very impressive set design for a television show (I can’t speak much for the special effects because I don’t watch the show, but they look good from the brief bits I’ve seen).  Even with that in mind though, the simple fact is that Hollywood has far deeper pockets than any television studio, and will probably always win out in the special effects department.

Winner: Movies



This is a hard one, because it is subjective in a lot of ways.  A good character to me might not be a good character to somebody else.  But there is one thing that I can say when it comes to television over movies.  Television has a lot more time to build up a character than a movie does (seasons of a show compared to a couple of hours in a movie).  I will say that when I think of my favorite characters, a lot more of them happen to be from TV shows rather than movies.  For example, Walter Bishop from Fringe.  His character is a spin-off of the mad scientist archetype.  When Olivia Dunham finds him, he’s been sitting in a mental institution for the better part of two decades, which has left his mind in questionable condition.  Over the five seasons of the show, Walter grows from being a goofy and at times angry man to being this amalgamation of self-loathing and love.  He has one of the more complex personalities I’ve ever seen in a character, and you would be hard pressed to generate that same complexity with only a couple of hours on-screen.

And that’s really what it all comes down to for this category, time.  TV shows have more time on their hands to develop a character.  Movies have to balance moving the plot forward along with developing a character.  TV shows can have standalone episodes that serve no other purpose other than to add depth to a character.  In this way, television shows have much more character potential in them than movies do.

Winner: Television



Now this one is probably the most difficult out of the ones I’ve chosen.  There are so many different tastes when it comes to writing styles that it’s really hard to determine what’s better.

Take for example, the difference between western and eastern animated shows.  Eastern animated shows (particularly anime shows) tend to have a much more over the top writing style, with crazy larger than life characters and fantastical plot points.  Eastern animated shows are also usually much darker and more serious than their western counterparts.  A lot of the animated programs in the west tend to be aimed towards children, which means that they’re much more lighthearted and silly.  So how do you compare the two to determine which has “better” writing?

It’s the same for movies and television.  They both have times where the writing is superb, and times where the writing is absolutely terrible.  It’s really hard to choose a winner between the two, without just giving in to personal prejudices (I guess that’s kind of misleading, considering this entire post is based on my opinion).

If there was one thing I would have to choose that separated the two, it’s consistency of writing.  It’s much easier for a movie to remain consistent in its writing than a television show, and it again has to do with time.  Movies only have to fill up a couple of hours or so of time, whereas a TV show can run anywhere from a single season to upwards of ten (The Simpsons has been around for over twenty years, just to give you an example on the far end).  So movies win out in this category, but only because it’s far easier for them to maintain better quality writing.

Winner: Movies



I suppose I could have filed this under writing, but screw it.  I wanted another category damn it!

The thing with stories for the two formats is that television has much more time to flesh out a story than a movie does.  Movies have to tell a complete story in two hours, with very little padding.  Television shows on the other hand can get away with having padding because of how much time they have to fill.  It is true that in recent years TV shows have gradually become more focused on being serialized dramas, and I will say that I find myself far more engrossed in those TV shows than I usually do with a movie.  Battlestar Galactica (the 2000s sci-fi channel reboot specifically) is one of the most intense pieces of television I’ve ever watched.  Seriously, if you haven’t watched it before I highly recommend it.  It’s one of those shows with incredibly well-realized characters and surprisingly good special effects for the space battle scenes (the show revolves around a fleet of ships fleeing from their homes after all of humanity is nearly destroyed).  It does things I think no movie could ever accomplish with only a couple of hours of screen time.

This is not to say that movies cannot tackle such complex characters.  It is just far easier to do that in a television show because you can spread out the character development over time to make it more believable as well as introduce little nuances that can pop back up to add more depth.  Not to mention the potential to do multiple intersecting character story arcs.

Winner: Television



This is one where I think that television shows most definitely win out.  I’ve bemoaned for a long time that movies have been rather unoriginal for some time (particularly when it comes to the horror genre).  I mean television shows have their fair share of tropes, like how there’s about five million damn cop dramas out there.  But when I look at shows like FringeAmerican Horror Story, and Battlestar Galactica, I see shows that aren’t just based off of a book or some other form a literature and I see a work of fiction that isn’t quite like anything else out there.  Sure, American Horror Story plays with the conventional tropes of the horror genre, but the stories it tells are far more demented than anything you would see otherwise.  It actually makes me a little squeamish sometimes, which impresses me because of how many horror shows and movies I’ve watched, as well as how many horror games I’ve played.  I’ve seen fathers murder their sons.  I’ve seen people brutally dismembered.  I’ve seen enough gore to last me several lifetimes.  So it’s a surprise to me when I find something that actually puts me a little on edge.

Horror in movies has become so obsessed with demons and demonic possessions that I can’t even consider this category a contest.  Television wins man, just straight up wins.

Winner: Television


You might accuse me of being one-sided on this, and you’re probably right.  I just wanted to take a closer look at what separates out movies and television shows.  And hey, they were close there.  Television only won out by one category.  So the final tally is television 3, movies 2.

Both formats have their merits and demerits.  I prefer television shows as a personal preference, but movies still hold a great fascination for me as well.  Also explosions.  Lots of explosions.

Well that’s all I have for this week.  Tune in next week for a new post, and as always, have a wonderful week everybody.

Being Human: Science-Fiction and Me

A long time ago, I was in a hotel room with my family.  It was late at night, and we were sitting up in our beds watching something on the television.  It was on the sci-fi channel (now known as Syfy), and it was some kind of movie I believe.  I don’t really remember what it was, but I remember being absorbed in it.  It’s a strange sensation, having something leave such a stamp on you but being unable to remember much about it.  Chalk it up to me being really young I guess.  But that night remains a powerful reminder that I am, and probably always will be, an avid fan of science-fiction.

It’s always something I’ve been drawn to, for many different reasons.  It’s not like I particularly hate any other genre.  They all have their place in the world, but I will say that sci-fi has always held a special place in my heart.  Part of the reason for this is its versatility.  Science-fiction can be found in a lot of different places, and encompasses a lot of different ideas.  Most people probably think of sci-fi as having to do with aliens, and while that is true, it’s only a small part of the whole.  It’s a wide-ranging genre, tackling topics such as robots, consciousness, dreams, time travel, and parallel universes to name but a few.

Even stories or movies that aren’t strictly classified as science-fiction can have elements of it within them.  Take the television show Awake for example.  Most people wouldn’t consider Awake to be a science-fiction show, because on the outside it has the air of a gritty crime procedural.  However, this interpretation does the show a disservice.  Awake is a television show about a detective who experiences a terrible car accident.  After the accident, he seems to live in two separate realities: one where his wife died, and the other where his son died.  The show is primarily about the interplay between these two realities, and their effects on the main character.  It’s a very bizarre twist on a traditional cop drama, and it’s absolutely brilliant.  It’s a shame the show only got one season.

Shows like that prove that sci-fi is one of the most flexible genres out there.  But that’s not the only reason why I love it so much.

Going along with the versatility aspect, science-fiction has the capacity to address so many different themes.  One of the more major thematic issues that sci-fi tackles is this idea of “being human”.  What does it mean to be human?  Why do we do what we do?  Where is our place in the universe?  Questions like these have plagued mankind for centuries upon centuries, and sci-fi gives us an opportunity to explore those issues.  Many stories that I’ve read deal with what humanity does when pushed to the brink, showing us the conflicting nature of ourselves.  Humans are capable of great kindness and terrible evil in equal measure.  And science-fiction helps remind us that the two are not always as easy to separate as we think they are.

From the grand space opera to the alien invasion all the way down to the sci-fi tinged procedural show, this theme of “being human”  is often on display.  Where we have been, where we are now, and where we are going are all equally important.  Science-fiction often shows us a possible glimpse at the future, be it dark and despairing, or light and Utopian.  It allows us to see where things could go wrong, or give us something strive for.

Despite the wide breadth of thing science-fiction has to offer, being a fan of it is often frustrating.  Much of this has to do with the lack of originality in modern science-fiction.  Despite my championing of its flexibility, I have to acknowledge that a lot of science-fiction these days tends to harp on the same few things.

Much of my complaint has to do with the immense volume of alien invasion stories.  Because apparently aliens have nothing better to do than travel hundreds of light-years to invade and destroy the human race.

In the last decade or so, I’ve seen more than my fair share of alien invasion movies come out.  There was even a remake of War of the Worlds back in 2005 starring Tom Cruise (which was a very good remake).  While not all of these movies are instantly bad, it has the same issue that horror movies about demons do (on a side note, horror and sci-fi share similar origins, and often go hand in hand).  Through too much repetition comes boredom.

I mean imagine if aliens actually did show up to our planet and decided to take a look at our culture.  I couldn’t really blame them if after a cursory glance at our movies they came to the conclusion that any attempts at first contact would be met with “ZOMG FIRE TEH NUKES!”

Although if our military commanders started speaking internet slang, we’d probably blow ourselves up long before any aliens actually arrive.

But I digress.  Science-fiction has so much more to offer us than just bland alien invasion plots.  Take the idea of parallel universes for example.  The television show Fringe was one of the only works of sci-fi in recent years that actually delved into the idea of a parallel universe in great detail, with much of the show’s main plot revolving around the interaction between the two worlds.  In most television shows, a parallel universe was used in a random, one-off episode where the characters ended up in a world where the alternate versions of themselves were inherently evil.

It’s hard being a sci-fi fan when a lot of modern science-fiction is just plain bad.  It seems like the trendy thing to say, but I feel like it’s true in a lot of ways.  In much the same fashion as the horror genre, modern science-fiction tends to recycle the same basic tropes over and over again.  It’s also difficult because the general trend for sci-fi television these days is that most shows get canceled only a couple of seasons in, leaving you with a cliffhanger that will never be resolved.

Science-fiction still has its place in the world.  But we need to explore its various facets more than we are.  We need to become more open to different styles of stories, rather than just the same few recycled and remade over and over ad nauseam.  The popularity of movies such as District 9 proves that people are able and willing to accept something more complex than “aliens bad, shoot them”.  People are ready and even crying out for something new to sink their teeth into, something unique to feast their eyes upon.  The task falls upon the shoulders of the storytellers, those who create the movies and the books that we digest on a daily basis.  We’re heading in the right direction, we just need to keep the momentum going.

And that’s all for this week.  Tune in next Wednesday for another post as always.  Have a great week everyone.