Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Originality Is a Lie

Yesterday someone told me there was never anything new on TV and justified the statement by listing shows similar to or which may have influenced a show which shall remain nameless, but which is currently airing and which I'm enjoying. I both agree and don't agree with their statement, but refrained from saying anything to their face about it. I save my best arguments for the blogosphere. Aren't you lucky?

You see, there are only so many stories out there. Every show is going to fit into one of those basic plots. And TVTropes has pretty much proven that there is no truly original idea. Somebody will have used that character, that situation, that trait before you, and hundreds of people will use it after you. It is impossible to be truly unique, especially since art is never created in a vacuum. Also, if you look through TVTropes for any length of time, you realize that some of these ideas go back to the start of recorded history, and probably further back than that. They've obviously stuck around because they strike a chord with people. Why shouldn't we expect people to still use the ideas today? They've been proven to work.

Like I said, though, I do agree with the "nothing new" statement to a degree. There are an awful lot of crime dramas, and a fair number of legal dramas and medical dramas, on air right now—enough that my reaction to green-lit show announcements is occasionally "oh no, not another one". Even sci-fi/fantasy shows seem to be borrowing from those subsets (Torchwood, Eureka, Alphas, Warehouse 13, Supernatural, Haven, and the upcoming Grimm). Would it hurt the networks, or the cable channels, to give us more shows without an episodic mystery underpinning? And networks do have a habit of copying from each other, which is why we have so many crime-medical-legal dramas, and why there's about to be a show about 1960s stewardesses after the success of a show about 1960s advertising executives.

However, I don't write off shows (or films, or books) because I've seen the core plot, or tropes, or formula before. I expect them. I expect that the first film about any given superhero will be an origin story. I except that any team of crime solvers will have a comic relief character, a strict boss, a tough-but-fair type, and a hero. I expect sitcoms to be about slightly dysfunctional groups of people stuck living or working together. I write off shows for lack of originality, or rather, I watch shows that display originality. Supernatural's kind of like Buffy and kind of like X-Files and kind of like horror movies, but it's also about family and "home", and it has different takes on monsters and an interesting take on religion. Bones is kind of like CSI with more skeletons, but it's focused on the lab people, not the detectives. Basically, I want to see people take the tropes and plots we've seen again and again, and do something different.

Interestingly, I've seen this "nothing new" argument leveled at TV and movies far more often than I've seen it leveled at books, though the backlash against repetitive stories occurs with both. I know from #ufchat on Twitter (admittedly a very small sample) that people get tired of the same mysteries with the same romances and same monsters. Anything different gets praised or at least mentioned. The publishing industry and reviewers will quite often point out the "different" parts of stories, as will I at my dayjob—and negative reviews are frequently "it's just like X". This happens again and again in film and TV reviews too.

I'm not sure which of my conclusions is more accurate. Does the ratio of books to shows lower the proportion of negative to positive feedback for books vs. TV? Or are readers less vocal about their dislikes compared to watchers? Are there fewer book reviewers compared to TV reviewers? Is it a mix of all these?

I'd like to see less backlash against "unoriginal" work, period. Everyone inspires everyone else and everything gets reused. We need to accept that and appreciate the ways creators do new things with old material—because, voice of experience here, that's really hard.

1 comment:

mfantaliswrites said...

I like this post a lot, in part because I've been thinking about these same issues lately. My problem is that success breeds imitation, even as the powers-that-be swear they aren't looking for copy-cats or trends. It's more obvious in TV as you so accurately pointed out, or in music (hello, Katy Perry-wanna-bes) but it happens all over books as well. After Harry Potter hit, the fantasy market was glutted; since Twilight, paranormal romance is everywhere; now Hunger Games imitators are all over the place.

The challenge to us as writers is to stand out among the swarm of wanna-bes trying to cash in.