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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.