The random witterings of Jonathan Morris, writer.

Wednesday, 25 November 2009

Dumb It Down

Not going to post a specific review about last nights Paradox, but bearing it in mind, a few thoughts about television drama. And why UK drama sometimes doesn’t seem to have quite the excitement of the best US drama.

Firstly, can’t remember the exact quote, but it goes something like, ‘You’ll never piss someone off by underestimating their intelligence’. Indeed, the opposite is very true; flatter somebody’s intelligence and they’ll let you get away with murder.

What do I mean by underestimating intelligence? Well, at the most obvious level, a story should make sense; not complete sense, because that might be impossible, but enough sense so that a viewer, on their first viewing, doesn’t notice any obvious plot holes. And any science, history, etc should be sufficiently well-researched so that only an expert in the subject would be able to find fault; it doesn’t have to be entirely accurate, it just shouldn’t be so egregiously wrong that it contradicts the level of knowledge of a GCSE student. Don’t treat your audience like morons, basically.

Following on from that, the characters need to be intelligent; it makes no sense to have, say, a top sleuth if that top sleuth isn’t picking up on clues that the viewer is picking up on. The expression is not having been ‘hit with the idiot stick’. Even if the characters aren’t geniuses, they should act rationally; if their goal is to achieve A, and they can achieve it by taking the shortest, simplest route possible, they should. People might not do that in real life but when they do it in fiction it feels like bad plotting.

And following on from this; dramatic irony, the idea that viewers know more about what’s going on than the characters. This is fine for sitcom, and it’s how soaps are written – on the rare occasions where the audience isn't in on a secret, it’s headline news – but it can make for a dull drama, because you’re just watching people find out what you already know; you’re several steps ahead of the characters, endlessly waiting for them to catch up.

And this is why some UK drama doesn’t work. Because it’s written with the soap mindset. That’s not how ‘Lost’, ‘The West Wing’, ‘House’ or ‘FlashForward’ work. And to be fair, there are plenty of UK shows that get it right – ‘Collision’ and ‘Unforgiven’ spring to mind.


  1. I've always opined that the perfect place for the characters to be is 3 seconds behind the audience: Just enough to give you that thrill of working it out for yourself, without subsequently wanting to scream "Duh!" at the screen.

    I found a perfect example while watching the original "State of Play" series recently. After some witty banter, James McAvoy's character walks sheepishly up to Bill Nighy, previously only known to us as his unimpressed ex-boss. As the recent dialogue sorts itself out in my brain, a lightbulb goes on and I say out loud "Thanks, Dad!" just a breath before Nighy says something like "Don't even think about calling me 'Dad'!"

    Moffat is particularly brilliant at this. Bastard.

  2. Exactly.


    That's what great writing is. Where the writer is cleverer than you.

    After all, who wants to spend time with an idiot?

    Who wants to spend time with a clever person being patronising?

    Writing is all about being one step ahead of your audience. Moffat is a genius at this. So is Paul Abbot. And so is Sally Wainwright, my third top writing hero.