Pat Stacey: The case for straightforward storytelling in TV in an era of tricks and gimmickry
Most people will be familiar with the old argument that there are only seven basic story types, which means that every novel, play, film or television series ever written is derived from one of them.
The debate over this has been going on for millennia and became even more heated with Christopher Booker’s mammoth 2004 book The Seven Basic Plots, which was widely criticised, not least for trashing works by the likes of Proust, Joyce, Kafka and DH Lawrence, while praising, er, Crocodile Dundee.
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Four decades before Booker’s contentious tome appeared, however, Kurt Vonnegut had set a few cats of his own among the pigeons with his theory that there aren’t seven basic plots, only six.
A few years ago, the University of Vermont’s Computational Story Lab put a data mining computer programme to work on the question and concluded that Vonnegut’s six was indeed the magic number.
But whichever theory you subscribe to (or maybe you think both of them are complete nonsense), one thing all of us can agree on is that television is second only to mainstream Hollywood blockbusters in its reliance on familiar story templates.
Think, for instance, of how many dramas you’ve seen featuring a maverick detective haunted by an unsolved case from their past, or a brilliant psychiatrist or medic who can solve every patient’s problem, yet still can’t sort out their own screwed-up personal life.
In the absence of any truly radical new stories to tell, the challenge for TV writers is how make the old and the familiar feel new and fresh.
Unfortunately, many of them seem to have concluded that the best way to pour old wine into a new bottles is to first smash the bottle to pieces and then glue it back together with the fragments in the wrong places. In other words, mess with the chronology, jumble the story up.
The flashback has always been a basic tool of TV drama. The BBC’s classic 1979 adaptation of John le Carré’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is more or less a long string of flashbacks. It perfectly mirrors the structure of the novel, which sees spymaster George Smiley interview old associates about past events as he tries to identify the KGB mole in his department.
Now, though, we have flashbacks, flash-forwards, time jumps and multiple timelines. Stories begin at the end or in the middle — for no other reason than to add the illusion of complexity, profundity or suspense to a story that lacks all three.
You could arguably attribute the credit, or the blame, for this trend to the first season of True Detective, whose plot unfolded in two time periods separated by 17 years. In that case it was completely justified and essential to the story.
A similar technique was used by brothers Harry and Jack Williams in the superb first season of their breakthrough drama series The Missing. But the siblings tried to outdo themselves with the follow-up by increasing the number of timelines, characters and plot twists until it became exhausting and frustrating to watch.
The same duo’s Rellik (‘killer’ spelled backwards) was even more gimmicky, telling the story in reverse order. Christopher Nolan had already done this in his film Memento, but there it was integral to the ingenious plot. In Rellik, it was just so much pointless showing-off.
Personally, I’m tired of this kind of thing. Whenever something like “Six months earlier” appears on screen five minutes into a drama, my heart tends to sink a little.
Gratifyingly, the tide seems to be turning. It’s worth noting that many of the year’s finest dramas, including Chernobyl, A Confession, When They See Us and Years and Years, opted for straightforward linear storytelling with no narrative gimmicks.
The WWII epic World on Fire, which started on BBC1 on Sunday and looks like it might also turn out to be a highlight of 2019, takes the same no-frills approach.
If a story is strong enough, it doesn’t need cheap tricks to support it.