I watch quite a lot of crime series on tv these days; I particularly enjoy most of the Scandi-noir that turns up on BBC4 but will also settle down with home-grown fodder such as Ann Cleeves’ Vera and Shetland series, plus new kids on the block (Harlen Coben’s recent The Five; Broadchurch; the Beeb’s jazzy entrant New Blood).
Most of the time I’m happy to suspend disbelief in the name of good drama. However, there are a few things which crop up so regularly, on tv and in the movies too, that they start to scream ‘device’, ‘formula’ and ‘lazy writing’ at me. Here are my top five, in no particular order – let’s see if you agree with them!
- Photophobics. They must have a genuine fear of light, mustn’t they? And photophobia must be one of the most common phobias out there. Because characters do this all the flipping time. What am I talking about? Walking into their home, after dark, and not switching the blinking lights on, that’s what. I mean, would you? I sure as hell wouldn’t, and I’m not that bothered about the sort of ‘psychopath lying in wait behind the kitchen door’ scenario that tv characters have to contend with. In my case, it’s more the furniture. Go blundering around in pitch darkness and I’m bound to collide with something heavy, and end up hopping up and down on one leg swearing. So why do so many characters do it? Presumably, because the plot needs them to in order to provide a scare. But there are loads of less formulaic, more original ways to do that.
- Characters who find an open door at the home of a friend/neighbour/family member/witness/complete stranger, and instead of phoning the person to check if they’re okay, or calling in the authorities, just walk on in. Usually while bleating something inane like “Hello? Is anyone here?” No, just a dead body and that mad axe murderer behind the kitchen door… I don’t know about other countries but here in the UK it’s considered trespass; even the authorities need permission before entering someone’s home, unless they suspect someone’s life is genuinely in danger. And while I can swallow the occasional outbreak of rule-bending to get into a target property, this happens with monotonous regularity and often involves characters who aren’t even police.
- “Everything will be all right, darling, I promise you.” Quite possibly the most overused piece of dialogue ever, in films and tv series in all genres – but because of the implied tension, it seems to be particularly prevalent in crime and action dramas. And it sucks. Because here in the UK at least, people just don’t say that sort of thing. Not even to their kids. They’re far more likely to say something tactless, which creates a tension of its own and is far more interesting than endless stock platitudes. (A great example being a recent Peter Kaye advert where he tells a child they shouldn’t worry about monsters in the wardrobe, they should worry about the burglars trying to break in through the window – and then wonders what he’s done! Now that’s real life for you.)
- Dialogue that becomes nothing more than a series of thinly-disguised stage directions. “You go the market and see if you can head him off. I’ll drive to Mo’s and get him out of bed.” The worst cases of this are often US tv series that are in their third or fourth season and running out of ideas. It’s horribly stilted, and surely there are better ways of getting that information across to the viewer. Whatever happened to show not tell?
- Back-up. This really is my pet peeve at the moment, because it’s turning up everywhere, from silly populist shows that might expect to get away with it, to more intellectual, ‘serious’ programmes that really should know better. Nobody waits for back-up. It doesn’t matter what country they’re from, whether they’re police or civil crime fighters, or how dangerous the situation is. They simply grab a gun (even in countries where the authorities aren’t routinely armed) and dash in. Usually through a handily-open door, and without bothering to switch the lights on. It’s hardly rocket science knowing what’s going to happen next, is it? And that in itself takes away most of the tension, because the key to genuine shock is not expecting it. Which doesn’t happen if you’re watching the same damn scene for the fiftieth time, yawning, and saying “Any minute now the killer’s going to jump out from behind the kitchen door.”
So go on. What are your worst offenders in the peeve department? I’d love to know!