Plot is Bullsh*t; Character is Everything
I spent the weekend, among other things, catching up on SyFy’s Killjoys. I know it’s best to watch every show you really like as close to original airtime as possible, even if you’re not a household that counts towards an increasingly archaic ratings system. But I’ve always watched this show in big chunks, usually out of necessity: I’m not a fan of bingewatching anything, but taking in Killjoys in three-episode chunks really lets me luxuriate within its specific type of space hijinks. But it also helps clarify something that I find to be true of every show: Plot is bullshit, and character is everything.
I’ve gone to this particular well multiple times in the course of writing about TV, specifically how it relates to what I personally get out of shows I really enjoy. But I think this goes beyond personal preference and into the heart of what most people like about long-form, small-screen narrative. What actually happens is more irrelevant than to whom it happens. Don’t get me wrong: It’s something truly impressive to create an air-tight plot that defies prediction. But if your show is so dull that all viewers do is try to guess the finish line rather than get lost in the moment, you haven’t done your job as a writer.
Saying “plot is bullshit” above is probably a little harsh, but it’s almost certainly masking its banality. Plot is trivia. Plot is what answers the question “Who,” “What,” Where,” and “How” when really the only important question is “Why?” Back in my episodic recapping days, I answered the first four questions wrong all the time, and commenters would light into me, essentially at times stating that if I didn’t understand these things, I couldn’t possibly understand the show. I’d turn that around and say that anything that you can answer within the space of a tweet really isn’t important to understanding the meaning behind the show. Maybe you know the facts, but you don’t necessarily know the truth.
Of course, this isn’t an either/or situation. One can master a grasp over all five questions, and those tend to be the best critics for a certain show. It’s helpful to have encyclopedic knowledge over a certain show’s lore AND be able to dive into what makes the characters tick. All I’m saying is that if you have a good grasp of the latter, then 1) you’ve done most of your job as viewer and 2) the showrunner/writers have done an excellent job putting character above plot.
Put another way: “Plot” is what happens to or around characters, and the “story” is what those characters do about it. I’ll be the first to admit that the plot to Killjoys completely fucking confounds me. I have little to no idea what’s going on, other than “green goo wants to rule the universe.” (I think?) But that doesn’t matter to me at all. It doesn’t reduce my enjoyment of the show one bit. That’s because Killjoys, like its Friday night SyFy sister Wynonna Earp, knows what motivates its core cast and makes that sing every week. Everything that’s surprised me on these two shows comes from a decision someone has made, rather than a newly-revealed plot twist.
The best shows make those surprising character decisions organic while simultaneously unexpected, in line with what we know about them yet expands what we know about them. No show, no matter the budget, works if characters act erratically, schizophrenically shift motivations, or act in service of the plot rather than themselves. Nothing is more frustrating than to see a smart character do something dumb just because the show needs to maintain the status quo. Nothing makes people lose interest faster than characters that have double- and triple-crossed one another so many times that motivation itself goes out the door.
Killjoys works because Dutch, Johnny, and D’avin are well-crafted, well-realized, and well-acted characters whose emotional stakes in one another are clear even when the latest mythological arc is as clear as mud to dummies like me. I’ll go one confession even further: I would not under penalty of death have been able to spell “D’avin” correctly had I not looked up the show’s Wikipedia site. Part of that’s a function of never having had to write up a recap of the show, but part of it comes from the fact that it has ABSOLUTELY NOTHING TO DO with my innate understanding of what motivates him. It’s all on the screen, between creator Michelle Loretta’s conception and Luke Macfarlane’s execution. The same goes for co-leads Hannah John-Kamen and Aaron Ashmore, whose chemistry with Macfarlane means I never have to worry about trying to figure out their place in the Quad’s latest strife. (The first two episodes of this season, which featured Johnny off on his own, suffered for this. I’m all about expanding the world around them, so long as the strong center holds.)
One way to think about the difference between plot and story is the difference between “Who killed Laura Palmer?” and “Who killed Rosie Larsen?” Those questions ostensibly drove Twin Peaks and The Killing, respectively. But whereas the former had about 40 things that were interesting above and beyond that initial hook*, the latter soon burned off so much good will that all was left was the answer to a bar trivia question. And when the season one finale didn’t even answer THAT, people who stuck around more or less lost their fucking minds. This isn’t about what showrunners “owe” audience members, except inasmuch as they owe the viewers some reason to stick around without hatewatching it. I don’t think Veena Sud intentionally made a show in which people had to suffer in order to learn the identity of the killer. But the execution of that show engendered exactly that outcome, and people rebelled.
* People left Twin Peaks in droves after the reveal of Laura’s killer, but that had much more to do with the wheels almost utterly falling off that show in the immediate aftermath more than anything else.
Story is the one thing that keeps people watching, and yet it’s the absolutely hardest thing to market. Think about every promo you’ve seen for an upcoming show. You know what the plot is, but do you know what the story is? Of course you don’t. How could you? Promos are useless in terms of gauging one’s true interest in a show, because solid storytelling isn’t the province of any single genre or any network. FOX’s upcoming show The Gifted might be terrible or it might be amazing. Fringe was amazing (until it super wasn’t) because of everything a 30-second spot couldn’t reveal. I didn’t have any feel for whether or not Netflix’s GLOW would be any good, but about halfway through the first episode I could tell this would be a character-driven story I’d consume as fast as humanly possible. That’s why trying new shows is an exhausting but rewarding experience: You never know which show will grab onto you and refuse to let go, and when that happens in an unexpected place, I’m not sure there’s a better pop culture experience one can have.
You never know until you see, which is really a way of saying you never know until you feel. If you want to know the plot of a show, there are plenty of sites that will give you that dispassionate information. It’s not useless data, but it does often obscure meaning or importance. Importance has nothing to do with scale and everything about intimacy. That’s why “is TV becoming more like film” thinkpieces are such bullshit, since they implicitly equates “budget” with “quality.” A show about the fate of the world doesn’t matter if you don’t care about a single soul living on it. Killjoys, Wynonna Earp, and GLOW all tell intimate stories that feel huge because of the emotional investment viewers can place onto their denizens. We feel for these people, we ache for these people, we cheer their successes and cry for their losses. They are but a small part of the worlds they inhabit, but they are everything to those who watch.
Every part of pop culture should aspire to that, above all else.
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