This post discusses many currently-airing TV shows, including Quantico, Agents of SHIELD, Arrow, and How to Get Away With Murder. While we have tried not to give away major plot points, minor spoilers are used here to make or clarify our points. Please tread carefully.
Flashbacks as a format
Using flashbacks as the structure for your show has gotten more popular lately, and not always to great effect. While a well-placed flashback can give insight into a character, they are now being used more often to keep the viewer in the dark. Recent examples include How to Get Away With Murder and Quantico, which begin by introducing a terrible event — a murder, a terrorist attack — and then taking the viewer to a time well before the event to introduce the characters involved. The viewer remains in the dark for a time, getting tiny pieces of the story until a mid-season or season finale, at which point they are finally given the answers.
The format occasionally works, if the rest of the show (cast, plotline, writing) is solid. For instance, Arrow has been structured around a dual timeline, in which you watch the present day unfold alongside flashbacks of his time on the Island. But taking something that works on a crime procedural for a single episode and making it a season-long format turns watching a TV show from an enjoyable escape from your life into a hostage situation. It gets old.
Never giving nearly as many answers as there are questions introduced
It’s inevitable that tv shows will give us questions without giving us the answer for weeks, sometimes even for a full season. It’s perfectly understandable that a tv show will withhold information from it’s viewers; we know this and we expect it. However, where it starts to grate on us is when a show repeatedly introduces question after question each week, and never gives us any answers. While we believe this trend to have started with Lost, our big current violators here are How to Get Away With Murder and Quantico. We’re only three episodes into Quantico, but so far all it seems to be doing is throwing more questions and unknowns to the viewer, and refusing to give us any answers.
A show needs a good balance between answering questions along the way in order to keep viewers invested and leaving some things hanging to be wrapped up at the very end of the season (or in some cases, end of the show). Veronica Mars is a prime example of how this was done well. While viewers had to wait until the final episode of the first season to find out who killed Lily Kane, the show wrapped up minor mysteries such as the identity of Veronica’s rapist, if Duncan was really her brother, and the story behind her mother in a way that left the viewers satisfied, but still wanting more. Another example of keeping the audience guessing while still giving some answers is this season’s new show Blindspot, which has already solved a few of the riddles in Jane’s tattoos and possibly revealed her true identity. Rather than holding this information for sweeps or a finale (or worse, assuming they’ll get a second season and thinking they can do the whole first season without answering much of anything), they’re giving it piece by piece — which is far more satisfying to a viewer than waiting all season for one episode to drop a bombshell.
Using sex as shorthand for plot or character development
It’s just a part of life that hormones are going to get in the way when you put a bunch of attractive, young people in close quarters. However, the way sex is used on shows like How to Get Away With Murder, Scandal, Revenge, and many others, you would think human beings have no self control at all. Often, shows get too caught up in sexual encounters as a quick and easy way to inject drama into a scenario that often would have plenty of drama to it already. Take How to Get Away With Murder, where by the midseason finale, basically every single of the characters that had a name was sleeping with at least one other named character.
Sex can actually become a roadblock for some shows, as is best evidenced on Scandal, where Olivia Pope and President Fitzwallace cannot, for reasons we as viewers could never quite figure out, get over each other, to the point that every single scene on that show involving the two of them in the same room brought the otherwise fast-paced and interesting show to a grinding halt. We both quit watching in large part because we got exhausted by that terrible romantic pairing. And when the sex doesn’t become a roadblock, it can also become a punchline–HBO’s Game of Thrones got into the habit early on of letting Littlefinger’s character give vitally important exposition while sex was happening in the background of his scene, coining the term “sexposition” and ensuring that a good chunk of the viewership missed important information because there were tits bouncing in the background.
Shock deaths for ratings
Every finale season, TVLine does a May Sweeps Scorecard where they keep a running tally of all the big events that happen in the major shows they follow (take note: TVLine contains spoilers for a large number of shows through last May’s season finales). This year they had 52 deaths listed across a multitude of shows. FIFTY-TWO DEATHS. That is utterly ridiculous. This device has simply become shorthand for “shock the audience and get people talking.” Character deaths lose their effectiveness when they are overused as a plot device; your audience starts to expect them and therefore don’t allow themselves to really care about anyone on the show (Game of Thrones), or they become so burned by each death that they stop watching completely (Revenge, Scandal).
When the person who dies on the show can easily be interchanged with any other member of the cast with roughly the same effect on the story, it’s not worth it. Killing off characters should not be something that should be done lightly, it needs to both move the plot of your show forward and provide either motivation or a hindrance to another character. And even if both of those criteria are met, it doesn’t mean you should just start killing off characters without thinking about how many deaths your show has had and if there isn’t something way to move the plot forward. If Arrow doesn’t stop to evaluate the way they keep killing characters off left and right, Oliver will soon be the only cast member remaining, left behind to half-heartedly shoot people in the face with arrows and stare sadly into the camera. And no one wants that.
Side characters whose intelligence plummets when the main character needs to get away with something
A few years ago, Sarah Michelle Gellar burst back onto our TV screens in a show called Ringer. She played twins, one of whom assumed the life of the other and had to pretend to be her sister in front of all of her sister’s friends and family. The way the show chose to show us this was by having her repeatedly prove to the viewership that her sister’s friends were the most colossal idiots on the planet. Any human being with functioning eyes and ears would have noticed she wasn’t who she said she was maybe halfway through the first episode, and yet the charade continued almost entirely unnoticed through the show’s cancellation.
This trope gets even worse when the shows have established the supporting cast as fairly intelligent (or in some cases, above average intelligence), yet when the plot calls for it they completely check out. It’s utterly baffling to watch supporting characters behave like morons for no real reason. This happened repeatedly on How I Met Your Mother when Lily, Marshall, or Robin would suddenly lose all ability to handle things like the adults they were supposed to be because the plot needed Ted to be the one in the hot seat. Writers, remember that your viewers are invested in the characters and the development you’ve given them, and to ignore that development because it’s inconvenient to the plot you’ve created is a surefire way to lose people.
Treating the audience like they’re idiots
On the most recent episode of Agents of SHIELD, there was a point in which Hunter (British) meets with an old friend (also British) and they share a conversation over a few pints of beer. For reasons neither of us has quite been able to put our finger on, the showrunners decided that these two English-speaking men required subtitling. To add insult to injury, they only included subtitles for half of the conversation, and then the subtitles went away. Not trusting your audience to understand English with even the slightest accent on it just tells us as viewers that the network’s estimation of our capability is pretty freaking low.
But worse, though, is when a show introduces something that defies all logic in order to squeeze in a plot point that wouldn’t have worked otherwise. To give another recent example — surprise, it’s from Quantico yet again — a recent episode’s “gotcha” discovery involved Alex Parrish’s fingerprints to not match fingerprints found at the scene of the crime she’s been accused of committing. To show her fingerprints not matching, a flashbacks shows that she cut herself during a training operation and scarred her finger. However, as people who have been similarly injured in our lives, it is hard to believe that the minor wound she whines about in the way one of us would whine about a paper cut is the same wound that left a massive scar across the pad of her pointer finger. Later in the same episode, footage of Alex is shown on the national news, which the news anchor describes as her “taking a hostage” — while the footage itself shows her knocking a man out and running away without him. Words have meaning, folks, and it takes a viewer out of the moment when their first instinct is to sneer and say, “What you are telling me is not what I’m looking at.” For a show that claims to be about an organization that finds and trains our best and brightest, it doesn’t exactly show a whole lot of brightness itself. It may work to get a show off the ground, but insulting an audience’s intelligence repeatedly is what drives viewers away, and it’s for this reason we’re betting Quantico doesn’t make it past its first season.
What can change?
What we’d love to see from network TV is more of what we’re currently getting from Netflix. Smart, creative shows that don’t take for granted the intelligence of the viewing audience. Shorter format seasons with more carefully-crafted episodes seem to be the way to get really great, well-written television. Shows like Daredevil, House of Cards, and Orange is the New Black are proof that with a great cast, thoughtful writers, and a network willing to trust the showrunners and their vision, fantastic television can happen without treading over the same tired territory and leaning on the same overused tropes, time after time.