Weekend Roundtable: Most Annoying TV Tropes

In many respects, modern primetime television dramas have eclipsed feature films as the medium of choice for quality writing and storytelling. Nevertheless, with between 10 to 25 episodes of screen time to fill each season, even otherwise good shows will sometimes fall back on silly or dumb clichés. For this week’s Roundtable, we call out some of the TV tropes that particularly annoy us.

I’m sure that most of our readers have been to (or are at least aware of) the TVTropes.org web site, which catalogs thousands of common television and movie clichés. Our intention with this Roundtable is not to make a comprehensive list of these tropes (already pretty well covered by that site), but just to highlight the ones that stand out to us the most. Also, we’d prefer to limit this discussion to just TV shows, not movies.

Shannon Nutt

Due to a past job I had as a fingerprint examiner for the FBI, I’m continually annoyed by the way just about every crime drama uses computers to “ID” bad guys. In almost every instance, you’ll see the cops run fingerprints through a system that will immediately pull up the suspect – usually noting six or seven “points” on their prints that make a match.

There are two real-life problems with the above: First of all, neither the feds nor local law enforcement match prints like that at all. The prints are sent off (via fax, email or the like) to the FBI’s fingerprint center (CJIS, located in West Virginia) where they’re compared against the most-likely candidates – usually only one or two people among their thousands and thousands of records. The examiner looking at the prints will see neither the face nor the info of the suspect, just the two prints (the one on file and the one sent in) to see if they match.

Furthermore, believe it or not, the vast majority of fingerprints are so different from one another that (much like snowflakes) few look alike under close examination. And when you have multiple fingers to look at, the chance of making a false match are virtually nil. (By the way, burned-off fingerprints are even easier to ID. So no need to disfigure yourselves, bad guys.) In three years as a fingerprint examiner, I never needed more than one point of ID per finger for a positive match, let alone the six or seven that every cop show (and occasional courtroom drama) seems to insist upon. Sure, it’s easy to point out that many (and more) matching points, but they’re certainly not required to make the match.

Every time I see this popular trope on television, I find it amusing… especially since so many of these shows are allegedly going for some semblance of realism.

Adam Tyner (DVDTalk)

One comedy crutch that’s nails-on-chalkboard but refuses to go away is “Right Behind Me”.

MARK: Why did I decide to move in with that nutjob? Billy’s as cheap as they come. He smells like pimento loaf. He cheats at Yahtzee. He leaves the toilet seat up at a 45 degree angle, which shouldn’t even be possible. He still won’t stop singing “Let It Go” at the most inappropriate times, even though he only knows, like, half the words. He… he’s right behind me, isn’t he?

BILLY: Yup.

MARK: How long were you standing back there?

BILLY: Long enough!

It’s everywhere! “Right Behind Me” is a staple of basically every sitcom, ever. It’s a lazy laugh in oodles of procedurals. My hands tremble with rage just writing about it! Not really, but that trope pretty much is the worst.

Brian Hoss

This might not be a trope yet, but I’d bet that examples stretch back throughout the last half century at least. It’s the out-of-character/divine intervention reason for a character leaving the show (or even the show leaving the air).

For example, I’ll focus on ‘Downton Abbey’. When an actor or actress leaves that series, the writers always seem to telegraph the departure and then resort to a contrived explanation to make the exit dramatic. A certain silly car wreck comes to mind, which when combined with another widower character, makes for “I wish such and such were still with us” scenes at least twenty times an episode.

My annoyance with this may stem from the fact that I find the individual characterizations on the show too variable to begin with, but practically any time a character is going to leave, some event will happen that stretches believability beyond the norm.

Luke Hickman

I’m intolerant of scenes that feature someone randomly eavesdropping at the most accidentally opportune moment. I can point out two different reasons for this trope: 1) To resolve conflict between two characters, or 2) To create tension.

Let’s call the first usage the “How Long Have You Been Standing There?” moment. This line has been uttered countless times in film and television, typically followed-up with the reply, “Long enough.” In this instance, the trope is used to reconnect two characters – one stubborn and hurt, the other apologetic and remorseful for an action from the past. The offended one usually eavesdrops and overhears the offender explaining his/her true feelings or reason for the action. Once the eavesdropper is revealed, all is well.

The second usage of this trope is probably used more often. How many times have you seen two or more characters acting in secret, only to have an outside party just-so-happen to hear them conversing about their secret? The eavesdropper can either use this information to blackmail the others, or take the knowledge to others in order to stir the pot.

Either way, this trope is annoying. I can forgive and forget if this device is used only once during a series, but any count higher than that is unacceptably lazy. ‘Downton Abbey’ relies on this absurd tool several times each season. Holy shit, nothing can be said in that show without an enemy hearing. Not a damn thing. No secrets exist because there’s always a servant around the corner listening in on every word that’s uttered.

M. Enois Duarte

I’ve seen this trope growing more popular over the years, since at least ‘Monk’. Countless police crime dramas feature a main character, usually the lead detective who’s supposed to be the best crime solver on the entire force, who is not only eccentric but socially awkward, blunt, straightforward, deeply analytical and absolutely brilliant at what he or she does. For some reason, it’s become weirdly popular to have characters with Asperger’s Syndrome or autism on crime shows.

Not that there’s anything wrong with depicting such characters, but it’s interesting to see this as a major trend in television. The first character that comes to mind is Dr. Temperance Brennan on ‘Bones’. She’s likable and sweet, but also very awkward and sometimes too cold. More recently, Det. Sonya Cross on ‘The Bridge’ is very similar. Will Graham in ‘Hannibal’ is downright kooky, creepy and has difficulty adjusting to adulthood.

Don’t be surprised if the next police crime drama stars yet another eccentric, socially-awkward crime solver.

Josh Zyber

As a new parent, what I find absolutely hilarious is the TV cliché of the Baby That Never Cries, and is rarely seen or heard from except when necessary for plot purposes. Anyone who’s ever had a child knows that babies are very loud. They scream all the damn time, at even the slightest provocation and frequently for no reason at all. They also demand constant attention. A baby takes over your entire life.

Yet countless TV shows shove their baby characters off screen, leaving the parents plenty of free time to take care of other important plot requirements while the infant is presumably cared for by some less important supporting character. And when the baby is seen, it’s always sweet-natured and in a good mood, and never makes a peep, no matter what’s going on around it. This ridiculous trope has perhaps reached its apex with ‘The Walking Dead’, where little baby Judith has quietly observed numerous zombie attacks and even the huge raid and destruction of the characters’ prison fortress. As I recall, she started to cry a tiny bit while being hauled through the forest by Tyreese, sprinting madly away from zombies. That ended quickly when he stuck a bottle in her mouth, which completely quieted her down even though he yanked it out again three seconds later.

More recently, a baby on ‘Hell on Wheels’ sat out a massive gunfight in the town’s general store. After the shooting finally stopped, it let out a slight gurgle that gave away its mother’s location but was otherwise undisturbed.

Meanwhile, both of my sons scream bloody murder if I try to gently put them down for a nap.

Honorable Mention: Characters who pointlessly cock their automatic pistols for no reason other than to be dramatic. See: every episode of ‘Lost’.

What TV tropes get under your skin? Tell us in the Comments.

36 comments

  1. Bill McClain

    Infinite Zoom. A traffic cam image can be enlarged to reveal the engraving on a class ring. This gag is as old as photography, given new life in in the computer age with “enhance it with some filters…”

    -Bill

  2. NJScorpio

    You know what TV Trope I can’t stand?

    Overly dramatic CPR on a main character. Especially in a series where it is highly uncommon for a main character to die mid season.

    You have one of the main heroes (the lead male or lead female) giving CPR to a weaker character, pumping as hard as they can. Then nothing. Then they try more. Nothing. Then they start crying a bit. Then try HARDER.

    Then suddenly, the other character coughs up water.

    I knew you weren’t going to have the actor listed 4th die in the middle of Season 2 because they fell in a river.

    It is even WORSE when it happens several times within a season, on several different victims, but with the SAME character giving CPR to ALL OF THEM.

    I’m looking at you LOST.

  3. Ryan

    I always get annoyed when shows pretend there is a magical sound barrier that exists between rooms. Someone walks from the living room to the kitchen? Now it’s safe to speak at a normal volume and they’ll never hear us!

    Right now, I’m in my basement, and I can hear my wife talking to our baby TWO FLOORS UP!

  4. Ryan

    Oh, two other action tropes I also can’t stand:
    1) One punch/strike and someone is knocked out…and they are fine when they finally wake up (and they always wake up at a convenient time too).
    2) Silenced guns sound NOTHING like that.

    • Josh Zyber
      Author

      The 1980s “V” TV series is hilarious for the one-punch knockouts. Even the faintest little tap will send a character sprawling on the ground. I recommend making a drinking game of it.

      Ever since I saw a YouTube clip of what a real “silenced” gun sounds like, I can’t take any depiction with the barely-audible “twip twip” sound seriously. Movies are terrible for this as well, of course.

      • Josh Zyber
        Author

        It’s still pretty loud. The bullet is propelled by an explosive charge in the chamber. Putting a silencer on the barrel doesn’t stop that from making a loud noise. What it really accomplishes is to disperse the sound so that it doesn’t seem to come from a specific location and is harder to pinpoint where the shooter is.

        When you see a show like 24 where Jack Bauer is running around gunning down dozens of bad guys, while people five feet away have no idea that anything has happened… No, that’s not how it works.

  5. HuskerGuy

    Don’t know if it counts as a trope, but I dislike episodes that are based on the premise of the main (or one of the main) characters being implicated in a major crime or being killed. Example, the Castle episode where Castle was framed for murder or any of several episodes where he and Beckett might die. That play for drama has become very old for me. Perhaps that’s why I like Game of Thrones so much. It still carries weight for the most part.

  6. I don’t know about shows from now, but the 80’s loved their amnesia episodes. A character gets hit on the head and can’t remember who they are and if they’re bad, the amnesia makes them good and vice versa. A simple hit to the head achieves this.
    The comments about the one knockout punch also remind me of the sneak up behind and karate chop to the shoulder which also renders a person unconscious. I feel like I use to see that all the time on tv shows. Chloroform was also a big one.

  7. My most hated trope is the nostalgia episode where the cast sits around talking about things that have happened while we get repeat clips from previous episodes. It’s just cheap recycling.

  8. Dave Mueller

    I’m just so grateful that Shannon Nutt is writing for this site now. I think of all the people wrongfully convicted with his apparently half-ass ‘close enough’ approach to fingerprinting.

    Josh’s reminded of that show ‘Mad About You’. Anyone remember that: with Helen Hunt and Paul Reiser. They had a baby one season and then the next season the baby has ZERO impact on their sitcom shenanigans. Yeah, as a parent I call b.s. on that.

    Speaking of babies: on Rizzoli & Isles this year Angie Harmon’s character got pregnant. And you’re thinking: ‘really? a cop show with two leads and one of them’s going to get pregnant?’ Sure enough pictures post up about episode nine where the character is being comforted after a loss.

    No one-and I mean no one-thought they were going to have one of the two main characters have an baby. So if no one-producers, actors, AUDIENCE-think that she’s actually going to have this baby, why even bother wasting the time?

    • You’ve been brainwashed by too much CSI, Dave. Fingerprints are ridiculously easy to match up. One of the reasons I left the Bureau – there’s not much brain power involved in it. I could probably teach any one of you how to do it in a day.

  9. plissken99

    I think maybe you guys are thinking suppressors rather than silencers. While I’ve never heard a professional silencer, my Dad has this childhood friend who is a classic Texas gun nut, like, has lived alone since his family left him in the 80’s in a big house, which is filled with junk of all sorts, he dabbles in high explosives(can make C4), fantasizes about killing Obama(not in a racist way, he wanted to kill every president, self professed anarchist), seriously creepy. BTW to the FBI, he’s in his 70’s with multiple sclerosis, so harmless. Anywho lol, he makes homemade silencers. I fired one he made for a 22 cal pistol, it was very quiet indeed. I could see someone in the next room not hearing it easily. We all fired off a dozen rounds with other houses well within earshot.

    My biggest gripe is specifically with Star Trek fighting. From the days of Kirk all the way to DS9, slow ass clunky fight scenes, that stupid double fist hit to a guys back that knocks him right out, the half hearted judo chops etc. David Carradine from Kung Fu, drunk off his ass could take down the Next Generation cast in a heartbeat lol. Ironically Enterprise improved the fight scenes a bit, but absolutely everything else about the show sucked, except T’Pol’s outfits.

  10. Justin

    My wife is an ultrasound tech. Every time we watch something where they’re looking at the baby, it’s usually wrong. So-and-so just found out they’re pregnant, but they baby shown on the ultrasound screen is typically in the late stage of the pregnancy versus what should typically be the early stages.

  11. Glehelle

    Along with the one-punch knockout is the one where characters exchange serious blows and just keep going without any defense whatsoever. Also, fights between individuals and groups where the group members attack one at a time.

    Finally, I don’t know if it’s possible, but I can’t stand to see beer/whiskey bottles easily broken over people’s heads. I assume it would take a pretty serious blow to break a bottle, with attendant damage.

  12. C.C. 95

    Annoying Trope: My uniform and station in life suggests very high intellect, many years of study, rising above the merely average to be the best of the best in my field. My voiceover, however,suggests I’m as dumb as a box of rocks.- ex. GREY’S ANATOMY, SCRUBS…

  13. C.C. 95

    Don’t know if this is a trope but bugs me (in TV shows and Films): When there is a swordfight (like in an episode of HOW I MET YOUR MOTHER) and it is blocked so that it appears that the goal of each fighter is to hit the others sword and NOT the man!!

  14. Serenity

    Both pertain to the use of, or treament of, firearms.

    The “shotgun, jacking in a shell” trope. Somebody (a police officer, a bad guy, whoever) carries around a shotgun, “ready” to blast someone. Of course all that time, there is no shell chambered, so if they actually needed to quickly react to a life-threatening incident, they would be dead (as seconds obviously count). It’s only when the time comes for a dramatic “punch”, that they suddenly pump in a round, seemingly to emphasize that “OK, now I might REALLY shoot somebody” moment. (You see the same thing done with semi-automatic handguns. Anyone, in the “real world”, carrying a semi on their person, already has a round in the chamber. It is as “ready to fire” as would be a revolver.)

    And the other one is with revolvers, where they load the cylinder full of bullets, and then “whip” the handgun to one side, in order to slap the cylinder into place. You might expect some moronic novice to do that, but when some (supposed) professional does it, you just have to laugh out loud. Someone (a writer, director?) obviously thinks it “looks cool”, but anyone with basic firearm knowledge would understand that a revolver is a precision-aligned weapon, and “slapping” the cylinder into place, risks damaging the alignment of the cylinder, to the barrel. Nobody, who has any clue about firearms, would ever do this.

  15. eric

    Don’t forget the CSI plots driven completely by a single strand of DNA evidence found at a crime with no other DNA evidence to get lost in. Also, their computer wiz that can tell you who the criminal is attached to that DNA.

    What about tracing phone calls, that is some BS. I dare you to call 911 and hang up on them immediately and see if they can trace that call. They will be calling your dumb ass back within 5 seconds.

  16. Mexico is always sepia-toned or a dark yellow. In Breaking Bad, Albuquerque happens to have a normal, blue sky, but a scene across the border indicates some strange meteorological occurrence that the sky and the landscape and people beneath it develop a dull brownness. Season 3 of 24 is also a pretty big offender in this regard.

    Same goes for cut scenes to the Great Depression. Apparently the Dust Bowl was the entire 1930s and everywhere in the United States.

    This applies to movies as well, but there should be a better shorthand for a scene taking place in Mexico than this overused cinematographic trick.

  17. Bill

    American paranoia about anyone/any agency in authority. That has become the disturbing theme of so many series in the past few years (Revolution, Terra Nova, Intelligence, Hostages, 24, Agents of Shield etc.).

  18. Teatime

    All that’s quite well. Hopefully TV-Creators will make it all different in the future.

    – Shows with babies will have crying and noisy babies during all their scenes, disrupting dialogue and annoy the hell out of everybody (incl. the viewer)
    – Let’s people trying to have a private conversion in a different room do so in a hushed tone so you have to turn up the volume to understand a word they’re saying
    – Please no socially awkward / eccentric protagonists. Give us ordinary, downright boring realistic people. I mean, why can’t Cumberbatch play Sherlock like a regular guy?

    Maybe it would make sense to make a difference between clichés, conventions and story-shortcuts. After all, we are talking about TV here with limited screentime, limited budget (CC95: You seriously want to train actors to deliver a real-looking swordfight in a Sitcom???) and – basically – the goal to entertain.

    • Clemery

      Like the trope that I was all set to chime in with… where on screen characters talk about a person who has just left the room, and even though they are still visible in the background, they must be in some sound-proof chamber or something, since they can’t hear the remaining characters talking about them.

      That said, you really hit the nail on the head with your post, and now the entire article and comments almost seem pointless since you have so rightfully pointed out that at the end of the day, the producers are trying to engage the audience… and to include a little more “reality” into the drama would probably have an adverse effect.

  19. nagara

    I’ve always hated when a character gains knowledge essential to the plot that the main character needs to know(usually a death sentence btw). But when the find the protagonist they either a) “Have to show you something” which involves a long trek somewhere during which time, they don’t tell them anything about what they saw. Then before they get there they get killed/ knocked out.

    b) “I have to tell you something, but I can’t do it here” pretty much the same outcome as above.

  20. Guy

    I got sick of Idiot Dad/Husband. It’s funny in a show completely in the confines of farce like Married…With Children or American Dad!, but it got so popular to put that kind of guy in a sitcom that was striving for the three-camera comedy version of reality. How many times could it be funny to watch Raymond be an inattentive husband or a lackluster parent? As that show’s popularity rose, it launched a cottage industry of similar fare in the sitcom world and every commercial had to have some barely functional Neanderthal man-child. It wasn’t just that the comedy was too easy, but I began to worry about the actual impression of a mate/father being given to my generation. I had an older-than-average father. I watched Ward Cleaver and Andy Griffith beside him as a small kid. On my own shows, Alan Matthews was fatherly gold on Boy Meets World. I was into that stuff early in life. By the time I was a teen, MTV was ruining the male role model of our generation and sitcoms were showing us bum behavior for when we grew up.

    • Guy

      I do like that Phil from Modern Family may be the most prominent father on network TV these days, though. He’s a goof, but he loves the kids, doesn’t treat them like burdens and tries to be the best husband he can be. Phil’s still an idiot of a character and I realize some don’t care for him (my father being one of those folks), but he’s not an Idiot Dad/Husband in the same way as Ray Barone was on Everybody Loves Raymond or Belushi on Accordi…it was so boring I can’t even bring myself to finish its name.

  21. What about this annoyance: something interesting, shocking or exciting happens at the end of a scene/act break that takes place somewhere outdoors, in a restaurant, in a theme park etc.. Then we cut to the next scene, where the family walks through the door of their home. At that point, the son/daughter will say: ‘Wow, dad, I can’t believe you did/said/performed THAT …’

    Which would be something you’d say in the car, on the way home. Or at least right after the incident in question happened.

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