Sunday, January 20, 2013

Breaking the OTHER Set of Rules

Every Sunday night, two television shows record on my DVR.  These shows could not be more different.  Once Upon a Time (which I've blogged about before) is set in a modern day town, peopled by various fairy tale characters.  Every episode features two plot lines: the lives of the modern day characters, and a flashback to their lives before they were transported from their world to ours.  I've said it before and I'll say it again--I love this show.

The other program I record on Sunday is Downton Abbey.  PBS fans will likely know the series, which is set between the years 1912 and 1921 in the Yorkshire countryside of England.  If this is the first you've heard of the show, I have to warn you spoilers are coming, though I'll try to keep them at a minimum.

There is one thing that ties these shows together for me, and I probably only noticed it because they air on the same night, so I end up watching them back to back the next day.  Like all stories, they both have to follow their own rules.  In Once Upon a Time, magic cannot exist in Storybrooke, Maine.  That is the entire reason the evil queen transported the fairy tale characters to our world.  She brought them to a place where they could not rebel, and then took away their memories, creating a version of life that suited her.

Downton has its own set of rules.  The plot follows the Earl of Grantham, his family, and the people that serve them.  Life in an English manner house in the early 1900s was extremely structured.  Clothes had to be changed several times a day, women had to be chaperoned when visiting with men, servants had to keep the house running without being seen by the family.  Everything was done just so, with attention to both detail and propriety poured into every aspect of daily life.

The first season, for each show, was mostly about setting up for later conflict.  Now that both shows are a few seasons in, some of those carefully laid out rules--the rules that govern the plot and character existence--are starting to come undone.  (Here's your spoiler alert.  Look away!)

In Once Upon a Time, magic has made its way to Storybrooke.  It started out small enough, with Regina crushing the huntsman's heart, or finding a loophole that allowed her to pull a poison apple through from the old world.  At the end of season 1, Emma kisses Henry and the magic of true love wakes him from Regina's spell.  Not long after, Rumpelstiltskin finds a way to bring all magic into Storybrooke, which means season 2 has been filled with every kind of rule-breaking imaginable.

People who died in one episode turn out to be alive in the next.  Emma and Snow White become trapped in the fairy tale world, with no hope of return, and yet after several episodes of searching and fighting, they find a way home.  Regina promises never to use magic again, but within an episode or two, she's back at it.  Rumple makes similar promises to Belle, but breaks them almost in the same breath.  In fact the only thing you can count on anymore is when a character says "This is never going to happen," it'll probably happen next week.

It might sound like a lot of backhanded storytelling, and I suppose it is.  Here's why it works, in my mind anyway.  Once Upon a Time is a fast-paced story.  Because you flip between the present and past, you get a more rounded idea of who these characters are.  It's also pretty normal for the characters to be embroiled in a physical fight in one era, while struggling with an emotional war in the other.  It helps keep the plot from feeling stuck.  It's the changes themselves, though, that usually set this pace.  When you think you have a grasp on what's happening, or how the world works, someone throws a wrench into the gears.

However, the writers always ensure the changes are plausible.  Magic isn't possible in Storybrooke because of a curse, but as the first season unfolds, it becomes more and more evident that Emma is going to break that curse.  And once the curse is lifted, all bets are off.  It's no wonder then that they start to find fairy dust, or that Rumpelstiltskin's previously worthless antiques start to exhibit strange new properties.

My only criticism is how often rules are set and then broken.  Most recently, a character crossed the town line.  In the first episode of season 2, the writers laid down a rule: anyone that crosses will lose their memory of their fairy tale life.  I suspect the rule was put in place for two reasons.  One, to keep the characters contained, and therefore keep the story on track, and two, to make it a gut-wrenching moment when this character fell over the barrier.  They will never regain who they are--something the character's love interest pointed out with great pain.  And yet, having spent as long as I have with this story, I'm not buying that for one moment.

The solution will be plausible--magic, true love, whatever they come up with, will fit with the story enough that it'll pass.  The writers are too smart to have an easy solution on hand right away.  The characters are going to suffer, and struggle.  Sacrifices will be made, but in the end they'll find a cure for this unfixable memory loss.

This false suspense is okay in small doses, and forgivable when the solution is plausible.  But what about when the writers just cram something in to tie up whatever plot line they're struggling with?  What happens when you break the rules of your world for no good reason?

Enter season 2 and 3 of Downton Abbey.

In season 1, the audience was given a very intimate look at life within the Grantham household.  Sibling rivalry, scandal, even housemaids with a grudge all had their moment in the story.  All the rules were set, and when they were broken, the offenders were met with consequences.  Mary's adventure with Mr. Pamuk had particularly dire consequences for most of season 1 and all of season 2.  It was season 2 that really dropped the ball, though.

Matthew, heir to the current Lord Grantham, sustains an injury in the second season which, according to the doctor, will leave him crippled for the rest of his life.  His miraculous recovery is never given a satisfactory explanation.  In fact, the doctor merely shrugs his shoulders and sweeps the whole thing under the rug.  Later in the season, several of the characters catch Spanish flu.  Again, most make another miraculous recovery, and the one character who dies does so unexpectedly.  I'm not sure I want to be sick under Dr. Clarkson's watch.  Seems to me every time he gives a diagnosis, it goes the other way.  (Is this some kind of foreshadowing for poor Mrs. Hughes?  I hope not.)

Season 3 is driving me crazy.  Lord Grantham swore he'd never allow his runaway daughter Cybil and her less-than-respectable husband to visit Downton, and yet the season kicks off with them staying for several episodes.  Lord Grantham also lost basically every penny he owns and faces ruin, but of course an unexpected inheritance for Matthew means they can keep their home, and fortune, if only Matthew would get over himself and accept it.

There are so many convenient, hardly plausible events that pop up in the latter seasons of Downton Abbey.  It's almost as though the writers threw up whatever obstacles they could think of, and when they got tired of them, they magically went away.  If it had only happened once, maybe twice, I think I could overlook it.  But it happens constantly, and it's getting out of hand.  I'm ready for this season to be over, and while I hear there will be another season in production soon, I'm not totally sure I want to watch it.

It doesn't matter if the world you're building is complete fantasy or if it's set smack dab in the middle of your hometown.  There are always going to be rules you have to follow.  If your character is blind, she can't regain her sight just in time solve a murder simply because it's convenient to the plot.  If your character loses all his money at a game of craps and he's wandering through the street destitute and hungry, he'd better have a good reason for finding that million dollar lottery ticket.  Otherwise you're just slapping a band-aid on a problem you aren't ready to deal with.

If you find yourself doing this, I hope you'll take a step back and figure out why you've chosen this route, and start asking questions.  What other path could you have taken?  Maybe your character can use her other senses to solve the murder case, or your gambling addict will finally see he has a problem and start the slow path to recovery.  You can break your own rules, by all means, but not without a good reason or a lot of skill.

Better yet, maybe a little of both.


  1. Great Post!! I've never seen Downton Abbey, but since your post on Once Upon a Time, I've caught up on that show. I love it too.

    I don't really mind the game changing of the show as long as it is important to the plot and complicates things rather than makes things easier.

    I think one thing about that show is that the characters are in a new situation and they are unsure about what the "rules" are, and that works to the writers advantage (this is similar to Lost) in that the rules of the world aren't fully established.

    But there still needs to be an internal consistency. One thing that has bothered me is that in the beginning, Emma was shown to be able to tell when people are lying, and for some reason she has lost that ability. People are lying to her right and left, and she has no idea. Unless I missed something (I have missed a few episodes here and there) there is no explanation as to why she no longer is able to detect lies. It feels like the writers are just hoping we forget that she used to have that ability. That doesn't work for me.

    Like you said, I think you need to be very careful how you break the rules of your world.

    1. I forgot about Emma's internal lie detector. That bothered me a little at first, too, and resurfaced a lot in season 2, particularly with Hook. Most of the time her instinct is right, though. I wonder if that's all the writers meant to imply. If so, they shouldn't have made such a big deal about it in those first few episodes. Good point, MaryAnn.

  2. This reminds me so much of Heroes. Man, I loved that TV show in the beginning. But you know, I can't even remember why I liked it anymore, because they changed the rules so many times I couldn't take it anymore. That's a great example of being careful, because you might not just lose a viewer, you might create an enemy. :)

    Great post, Trisha.

    1. I think I lost interest in Heros around season 3. Sylar is bad. Now he's good. Now he's bad again. Too much! Once Upon a Time is still ok, but it's about 1 season away from going too far. Which would depress me greatly.

    2. EXACTLY. Sylar kept ripping out my heart, and I couldn't take it anymore.

      If it cheers you up, Lost got really weird for a while, (I'm lost somewhere in the middle of that weirdness. I'll break through someday) but I hear that it straightens itself out and gets amazing again. Since these are some of the same writers, we can hope that the same thing will happen with Once Upon A Time. Or maybe it'll skip the weirdness altogether and just stay cool.

  3. This is the problem with only having Netflix. I've watched season 1 of each of these shows - and love them both. I guess I'll have to wait till next year to figure out everything you're talking about :)

    1. I hope you keep watching both shows. As critical as I've been in this post, the good always outweighs the bad. I'd keep watching Downton just for Maggie Smith and it would be worth it. :)


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