Dramas rule our lives from Grays Anatomy to American Horror Story, they are gripping tales of crime, scandals, love, betrayal, horror, etc. But how much is too dramatic and is upping the ante always the best solution? Taking a look at some truly dramatic shows, have they gone off the deep end, is so dramatic it’s lost all control of it’s own reality? Let’s see.
Shows like Scandal and How to Get Away with Murder have a few things in common. There is a group of people, who get involved in lots of dramatic things, usually there are bad guys, or some type of adversary, and at the end of each season it usually gets worse or shifts us to the next bad guy, or chapter in the over all story, ending in an endless dramatic cycle of what’s going to happen next and who can you trust.
Most dramas market themselves to be character-driven, NCIS, and Castle are prime examples of this. But often time these days are more villain driven than character driven and the problem you end up having is the characters don’t act like themselves, don’t learn from their mistakes, and end up being just plain irritating.
Suspense of disbelief exists in the ability of writers and directors to tell a great story in a specific way where you know these things aren’t real, but you can see how they are in the universe established, or simply because it’s so cool that you want it to be real. A semblance of truth is an imperative tool. Yes we know that a guy can’t be as fast as lightening, or that dead parents and a lot of money can’t make one a vigilante superhero. But we become so invested in the characters that we put aside that knowledge because we want to believe that a teenager can be a superhero, or that you can jump into a storybook, or be a fairy tale character. Too often though, drama over-populates the entire show becoming more of a drag and you think, “Is this for real?” Even if the show is marketed in a realistic universe.
Starting with Scandal, and I’ve written about it’s over dramatic flare, but it needs to be brought up again. Olivia’s on again off again relationship with the president was cute the first two times they went on and off again. The first season of scandal managed to keep us interested by having a slew of clients and character driven stories. But rather quickly it “jumped the shark” with it’s secret organization B6-13 and Olivia’s psychotic parents. The love-triangles get old fast no matter who’s involved. Between all of Olivia’s men, the viewer starts to wonder what anyone sees in her? She’s smart, blunt sure, but Abby’s adventures as White House Press Secretary were becoming more interesting than the main plot. You can have a centralized arc within the main season without pushing overly dramatic elements.
Borrowing from Veronica Mars season 1, it was a noir style series with a little romance thrown in. That worked well. The romance was secondary to the misadventures of Veronica’s sleuthing and the search for who killed her best friend. In Scandal (which was heavily promoted as a political drama) there ends up being less politics and becomes more about conspiracy theories and adults who act like teenagers. If we wanted to see adults acting like children we would sit in on a session at the United Nations.
The smash hit How to Get Away With Murder gave us a fascinating central investigation within the realm of multiple cases and the students who worked for their professor’s law firm, with diverse cast, and flashbacks. However, much like Scandal, instead of learning from their mistakes and trying to move on and study and do their jobs, they fell back into the same rut, with the same problems and the same mistakes. Lies, irrational behavior, and circumstances that are just a little too unbelievable for a lot of audience members to swallow. It’s as if Scandal and HTGAWM writers said, “Well our first season was good. Let’s up the ante.” You don’t have to make it even more dramatic for it to be good. You can keep a steady story flow as long as the characters are evolving.
In any story there has to be character development and in a great story the characters should be able to deal with their short comings and become better people for it. Instead we have students and their mentors acting like children. And yes, the show is groundbreaking and edgy. But edgy does not equal good and creating characters doesn’t make them believable. The students act on impulse and despite the debating and the arguing they fall back on doing what is completely irrational and dangerous.
Constantly upping the ante and creating more and more drama ends up boring the viewers and driving them away from the show because it breaches the point where audiences can no longer ignore the proposed reality as a possibility. We watch shows and crave them because we want to be part of it. We want to live in the same town as Snow White and Prince Charming and we want to be on the winning team of a killer law firm. But what we don’t want is the constant lying and deceit. If Pretty Little Liars has taught anyone anything is that lies turn into bigger lies and eventually everyone gets burned. This is true for within the show and in terms of dramatic writing. Lies on top of lies are dramatic in the short run.
You can have a central arc in a show and have individual cases to work on, Veronica Mars proved that (we can do a whole article on the problems in the latter episodes of Veronica Mars later). She helped a girl with a lost dog while also working on the case of her best friend’s murder. HTGAWM does this, but it seems like the cases are just side shows to distract us briefly while everyone whines over something, where is Wes, are we going to prison, is our boss protecting us or harming us. It gets old fast. More drama does not equal good writing or good storytelling.
Shows like Scandal and How to Get Away with Murder have breached the realm of fiction and non-fiction and come to exist in their won cesspool of a reality that is about as real as Supergirl. Even then, Supergirl is more believable than government conspiracy and a law-firm covering up at least three murders, and however many other illegal actions. What both shows need to remember is that the characters are important sometimes more than the plot itself and that throwing more fuel into the fire burns not only the characters, but the viewers as well.
Others shows aren’t excused from this either. Once Upon a Time is completely driven by the villain/gimmick of the season instead of the characters, as is Teen Wolf. Writers need to remember that the reason the show succeeded in Season 1 was because it was about the characters and figuring out who people were and how they fit into this crazy world. Taking something that works and turning it more dramatic just makes it look too similar to everything else when we yearn for something different. Arcs are cool and a central bad guy antagonist is too, just as long as the characters continue to grow and develop and you stick to the formula that works.