During the COVID lockdown, and the long wait for my trade training, there has been little for me to do other than watch TV, and try to find the discipline to either workout or clean the house….. So naturally I’ve been watching more TV than I really should be. The long hours of streaming have reminded me of an old problem I have with writing, and a new problem with writing discovered due to streaming.
The Old Problem
My wife and I had a huge Lord of the Rings marathon over the holidays. We watched ALL the movies in timeline order; so The Hobbit movies first, then the original LoTR movies. The Hobbit movies have their issues, but I think my biggest issue was with the character of Alfrid: the character has no redeeming qualities at all!! Think back to your favourite shows, I’d bet that most of them had pretty decent bad guys in them. Their motivations might be weird, but I’m sure they had an actual reason for being evil. Alfrid is just a despicable character. If he had just been greedy, I would have been ok with that, but at one point he tries to associate himself with Bard, raising Bard’s hand after it comes out that he killed Smaug. There doesn’t seem to be any reason for him to do that. Is he trying to get wealthy; is he trying to get power? Good villains I enjoy hating, a decent one I can at least understand, but that character I just plain hated.
And that is my “old” problem with writing: villains with no clear cut motivations, and no redeeming factors at all. Properly written villains have reasons why they’re doing the things they’re doing, and even a few admirable qualities. The best villains are ones that you can identify with; where you can think “I’d probably react the same way in that situation.” A well written villain can even become a hero. Look at Deadpool, or The Punisher, even Batman. They all do villainous things for heroic reasons, and are considered heroes. The whole sub-genre of “anti-heroes” has some of the most compelling and interesting characters in it because you’re never really sure if they’re heroes, or villains.
There needs to be a reason for the bad guy to be the bad guy. Revenge? Wealth? Power? Fame? Are they mentally ill? Have they been corrupted? Gimme something!! Evil for evils sake has been done successfully, but the vast majority of the time it just sucks.
The New Problem
Recently I discovered The Expanse. (How have I not found this show sooner?!?) It takes a while to get into. It probably took about 4 episodes for me to get hooked, there is a LOT of setup at the beginning, but once the ball is rolling, it’s amazing. There is, however, one problem with it……in my opinion, anyway:
Pacing! (For two reasons.)
The last couple seasons, including season 5 (which is just being released to Prime Video) seem like they should have been about 2 episodes shorter. We’re up to episode 8 on season 5 and I’m at the point where I’m thinking “Come on!! Have something interesting happen!” There seems to be almost too much build up toward the climax! It’s like they got contracted for a 10 episode season, but only had enough material for 8, and decided to just build out what they had with something dramatic, loosely related to the overall story arc, and kind of pointless. The TV version of “empty calories”. I can forgive it because everything else in the series is really solid, but it gets frustrating.
The other part of that, is how mentally exhausting it is to watch. I’ve been watching season 5 as it gets released, so the exhaustion isn’t bad, but once the whole season is available you can stream it in a day; which will be brutal! Back before streaming this kind of mental fatigue was harder to achieve; you had to go out, find and buy the series on DVD, and then watch it. Releasing an episode once a week allows you to mentally recover from the events of each episode, but streaming means we can watch huge portions of a TV show at a time. If you don’t release that stress occasionally you burn out your audience. With streaming, writers need to understand that these 14/12/10 episode seasons will be watched all in one go, and they need to give their characters (and audiences) and occasional win. Season 4 of The Expanse was great, but I would have loved a win for the characters about half way. A genuine win, not just a “Hurray! We managed to not die!” or a “We won……or did we?” moment. An empty win in a cool fight would be enough. Have the characters kick some ass, or blow something up! (The space battle in Season 3, Episode 2 is a great example! I literally almost cheered!!)
12 episodes of build up means 12(ish) hours of stress, depression, and frustration for the audience. Do that for 4 seasons (aka 4 days) in a row and your viewers could get frustrated and “rage quit”. That can be placed on the viewer, sure; but you could also just give us something to cheer about! That is what was so great about the first couple seasons of The Expanse, the first story arc lasted a season and a half, meaning we got an additional climax half way through season 2 and season 3.