For those of us in the UK, the first series of ‘Prison Break’ ended the other week. In case you haven’t seen the show, the basic premise runs thus: a man is accused of murdering the Vice President of the USA, and his younger brother, convinced of his guilt, gets hold of the plans to the prison, has them tattooed on his body, and then gets jailed so he can break out with his sibling.
Yes, it does sound fairly preposterous – and indeed it often is – but I suddenly realised that the reason why I’ll be watching Prison Break when it returns is the opposite of the reason why I found the end of the first series of ‘Lost’ so irritating: something happened.
It’s a common problem in TV series – they want to keep you interested, so they set up an attention-grabbing premise or plotline, but network and business needs require that they endlessly play Scheherazade and refuse to resolve the tease. It’s all foreplay, basically. And I’m not knocking foreplay – it’s just there’s a reason why the first consonant of the word is what it is.
And whilst Lost lost (…) my interest by virtue of its refusal to answer many of its own questions, Prison Break had characters die, situations change, and all the things that made it worth watching because it was far from predictable what was going to happen next. Indeed, in places it looked like the writers were playing Consequences, seeing what the next episode’s writer would do to get out of the jam they were in, but the way plot threads faded and reappeared makes me think it was far more organised than that.
It’s a simple enough requirement in a story, I think, that something actually occur, or that the writer(s) have the nerve to make good on at least some of the promises implicit in the set-up, but it often seems to be one which TV serials are reluctant to do, in the belief that a promising status quo is what the viewer wants; for me, that’s not the case, and there’s little I like more when watching a TV show which actually dares to deliver the punchline which its setup promised (finding out who the killer was in Twin Peaks, for example), or which has twists of events which you didn’t expect at all (Spooks episode 2, for example, but more importantly Buffy on an impressive number of occasions).
I may be getting old-fashioned in my approach to things narrative-based, but as all stories involve the creator convincing the audience that these made-up-things in some way ‘matter’ and are worthy of their time and attention, I think it’s implied in that that if the audience spends time and effort following the story, that the creator will in some way reward that. And in TV, it seems that’s almost unfashionable (‘Life on Mars’, I’m looking at you), which I think is a shame.
Not least because it means I get increasingly wary of starting to watch a series in case it just strings me along to no narrative purpose.
*Apologies to Joseph Heller