Tuesday, April 10, 2012

How Not to Write a Cop Show (or, a review of Alcatraz)

As with most of my media-related rants, this post will contain spoilers. For multiple shows, possibly, but mostly for Alcatraz. Consider yourselves warned.

I've mentioned before on this blog that I'm a sucker for cop shows. I don't watch them all, but almost all I watch has some version of Case Of The Week in it. I'm especially a sucker for the shows with some science fiction or fantasy element -- Grimm, Supernatural, Castle, Bones, Alcatraz... Except that Alcatraz kind of lagged for me and I'm not interested enough to continue with the second season when it airs. Which is a shame, because the ideas in the show have potential.

Alcatraz, in case you don't know, revolves around a team of people, ostensibly part of the FBI, who travel around the San Francisco area capturing Alcatraz inmates who've been transported mysteriously forward through time. There's the Grizzled Senior Agent, the Young Eager Detective, the Geeky Comedic Sidekick, and a supporting cast of friends, relatives, and people connected to 1960s Alcatraz. Because it's written by people who wrote LOST, every episode ends with a twist that adds to the greater mystery and is meant to keep you guessing for a couple episodes, when they'll mostly resolve it and add something else in its place. Each inmate gets 1960s-era backstory that also serves to heighten the mystery, as does the fact that the Grizzled Agent is very blatantly Keeping Secrets. It's competently written, decently acted, and kept me coming back each episode.

Unfortunately, I came back largely in the hopes that it would get better. Competent is fine, but I was hoping for great, especially with the time travel and mystery thrown in. It could've moved faster. It could've been tenser and ratcheted the stakes past "unsettling" to "we're all going to die". (Presumably that'll come when we find out why the inmates are jumping forward.) It could've had characters that don't feel flat or like they're just going through the motions. About halfway through the season I decided that all the hints were going to give us an explosive finale, and from then on I watched mainly so I'd have all the clues when it was time for them to fall into place. I did not, sadly, get an explosive finale.

The slight flatness of the characters and writing, and the pedestrian nature of the episodes, which have the barest amount of continuity possible, are my main beefs with Grimm and Haven too. Grimm I'm sticking with because it's just cool enough to still hold my interest (and the finale's a few episodes away still), but Haven I quit on partway through the second season. I just didn't care about what happened to the characters anymore.

So here's what I'd like to do, if given carte blanche to reboot Alcatraz:

1. Make the characters more interesting - Characters should have more than one trait or habit to distinguish them from everyone else who shares their trope. A love of comics or the ability to quote philosophy does not an interesting person make. I want to see what scares them, what excites them, what drives them, and I don't want the feeling that the actors are just reading lines.

Booth, the FBI agent on Bones, is a Catholic football fan and ex-sniper who solves crimes creatively and doesn't quite understand the scientist mindset. Hauser, the FBI agent on Alcatraz, is an ex-Alcatraz guard who studied philosophy, fell in love with and lost a psychologist, and has become a grizzled, cranky old man. 

Interesting, complex characters not only get me emotionally invested in their stories, but make the story less predictable because I'm not always sure how they'll react in any given situation.

2. Speed up the feed of clues or the importance of them - I am perfectly happy to know that Mysterious Things Are Happening and that I may have to wait the better part of a TV season before I know the answers. I want the twists to shake my world and make me think, not say "eh, I wonder where they're going". I want to be involved. 

Supernatural does this well. We'll generally get a small clue or twist every episode (the demons want x because y, they want y so they can z). Every few episodes, the twist will be something massive, like a character being a double agent or the demons' plans being almost the opposite of what anyone thought. The twists have a strong connecting thread, they tend to follow logically from each other, and when the big ones happen, they truly do change everything. And if Supernatural does one thing well, it's cliffhangers. Man, are they good at cliffhangers.

In Alcatraz, the clues were scattered and a lot weaker. One week we'd discover a mysterious key. The next week, we'd see the warden playing favourites for unknown reasons. The week after that, the inmate-of-the-week would say "They told me to" as an explanation for his crime spree. The clues only have tangential relationships with the rest of the episode they're embedded in, and only slightly more attached to the season arc. When Supernatural gives a twist, we know how it'll affect the season from thereon out and I start squealing in my chair. When Alcatraz gives one, it's simply a fact and doesn't noticeably change the characters' behaviour. Or mine. 

What I'd like to have seen from Alcatraz is more clues, faster. Tell us, in the same episode, that there's a mysterious key, the warden is playing favourites, and They are telling criminals to do things. In the next episode, give us more information about all three elements. Let us catch a glimpse of the They, even if it's by way of phone call. Show us in 1960 something about the key that 2012 won't find out for another few episodes. Around mid-season, finally use the keys or figure out the They, or even find out how the inmates are jumping through time. End the season with a revelation about what Their end goal is, and make us feel like the characters are against insurmountable odds, that they might never win. I wouldn't reveal the reason behind every clue, but I'd follow through often enough that viewers wouldn't grow disappointed.

I get the feeling that the writers were used to LOST, where they could spin out endless clues without really knowing where the series was going to end, which didn't teach them much about follow-through or coherence.

3. Increase the tension and drama - There's a whole subplot in Alcatraz about how Young Detective's "deceased" inmate relative is somehow key to the mystery. She apparently really wants to find out why, and to find him so she can arrest him, because we see her pouring over case files and saying things like, "I have to find him" to the rest of the cast. Hauser, the FBI agent, also wants to find this guy, and he says things like, "I want to find him. I have the feeling he's important" to the rest of the cast. But with neither of them did I ever feel that they meant it because they were curiously short of emotion in those scenes. Nor did I feel the criminal mcguffin was a genuine threat to anything. He popped up occasionally but very rarely did anything criminal. I'd make him more prominent, so that when the detective and agent finally track him down, it'll actually be a life-or-death sort of thing. And I'd ramp up the threat level of the other inmates too, on a whole. With some cop shows, I still worry about the characters and that they might not catch the guy. Not so much with Alcatraz.

There are other things I'd change re: tension. The detective and sidekick know the agent's withholding info, but apart from a couple "Please tell us" moments and one minor bit of blackmail over the course of an episode, they go along with it. I'd like them to bully the agent more and finally get him to cave. Or to hack into his systems or break into his house and get the information. Yes, there'd be fallout over the next couple episodes, but interpersonal conflict on TV is fun. And the sidekick clearly has problems adjusting to police work because he's a civilian and a pretty pacifist one at that. He has a hard time with dead bodies. He has a harder time shooting people. We see him dealing with that a little, but I'd like to see that a lot more.

Basically, I'd put the characters under real pressure and see how they react, rather than making the pressures pretty mundane and solvable, because nothing's revealed by giving them things they can deal with.

4. Take risks - I'd hurt protagonists. I'd hurt and kidnap the protagonists' friends. I'd write twists that would make viewers scream at the TV because "HOW ARE THEY COMING BACK FROM THAT?" Castle, which is generally pretty tame and family-friendly, has on at least one occasion "killed" characters at the end of an episode. Supernatural did a whole season where angels were the bad guys. Alcatraz hasn't done anything politically risky or which could have lost them viewers (apart from the writing quality). They haven't even done the 180° shift of bad guy motivation that Supernatural does. It's all basic procedural stuff—there's a bad guy, we have to stop him, we don't know what he's after, we know what he's after, we manage to track him, we put him in handcuffs at the 50-minute mark. Very little deviation, no two-part episodes, nothing.

5. Give the geeky sidekick more story - My favourite part of Alcatraz, probably not surprisingly, is the geeky comic-loving sidekick with the heart of gold. He's by far the most developed character in the show, because we have a good sense of what his family's like, what he likes, what his hobbies are. He cracks jokes but is also the sympathetic ear and very loyal. He even gets the romance subplot! Because he's so rounded, I feel like I know him so enjoy the scenes he's in and root for him. And, as I mentioned above, he's got the hardest time of all the main cast because of all the violence (and because something Bad happened to him when he was a kid). There's an emotional journey! He has to deal with trauma! His personality's going to change! I was to see that!

Plus, you know, I have a fondness for geeky guys. :) But mainly I want to see more of him because he makes the show interesting.

So there you go. If I were in charge of writing Alcatraz, I'd improve the characterizations, make the season arc move further and faster, make sure there was tension to drive the story along on a couple levels, take risks with the storyline to give it further punch, and put more of the geek dude in. If given free reign to tackle Haven or Grimm, I'd do much the same because those shows also suffer from somewhat weak writing. I may even do a post like this for Grimm after the finale. I have Opinions and must share them.

A common piece of writing advice I see is to read a lot, to absorb and analyse how writers put their stories together, so that when it comes time to write your own stuff, you'll have a larger toolkit to play with. This is absolutely true. But I also think that film media can teach a lot about how to tell stories, because the shows that get watched and renewed (or movies that make #1) are obviously doing something right, and the shows and movies without a lot of viewers, or a lot of disgruntled viewers, are doing something wrong.* Being able to analyse what TV does wrong isn't going to sort out every prose writing problem you have, but it does help with the broad strokes, I think. Dialogue, relatable characters, connection with audience, ways to keep the audience sucked in… those are all universal to storytelling.

*Not that the popular shows are perfect, by any means. I can point to all kinds of weak bits in Supernatural. Often a good hook is enough to keep a show on air.