The Modern “Nale” Plot …

So, I started watching the new “Beauty and the Beast” through shomi. At the time I write this, I’ve seen two episodes. And it got me thinking of what seems to be the tendency in modern American television, at least, towards what I’ll call a “Nale” plot, plots that are needlessly complicated.

Let’s compare the new Beauty and the Beast to the original to see what I mean (spoilers ahead):

In the original show, Vincent was someone who was born with bestial characteristics, and so was naturally a “beast”. He lived in an underground area filled with people who would be considered rejects from society for various reasons. Catherine was the assistant DA who one night was attacked and left for dead due to mistaken identity. Vincent saved her life, and this started their relationship, with various issues and villains to be dealt with, until she was killed (as Linda Hamilton wanted to leave the show) and he rescued his newborn son.

In the new version, Cat is stuck at the bar after leaving the vanity mirror open in her car. Her mother comes to get her, and two men drive up and kill her mother, and then chase after her. She is saved by … something, and it is later revealed that that something had very strange DNA. The incident is dismissed as a car jacking, but Cat believes that it was a professional hit (that somehow depended on Cat having car trouble?). The incident gets papered over, but 10 years later there’s another murder and the same DNA is found, which leads Cat to find Vincent. Here, he was a promising young doctor who lost his brothers in the 9/11 attacks, and joined the military after that in order to make a difference. He was recruited into a program that messed with their DNA in order to produce super soldiers, but it had bad side effects (animalistic tendencies) and was terminated … along with all the participants. He managed to escape, and has been hiding out with a reclusive scientist friend while they look for a cure, even though Vincent is officially dead. There’s definitely a shadowy semi-governmental agency involved, which sends an actual person to take the evidence of Vincent’s involvement in the murder in the first episode (he didn’t do it) and then in the second episode wipes Cat’s computer when she takes and uploads some data about the people who were in the program with Vincent. Also, there might be a link to Cat’s mother, because she was some kind of scientist working in similar areas but never wrote on anything like that … except for one paper.

Now, remember, I’ve only seen two episodes, and this is all hinted at in those two episodes. You should be able to see what I mean by “needlessly complicated”.

This seems to be a trend in modern American television, and I’m not sure who to blame for it. X-Files, maybe, but it handled its conspiracies better than most modern shows. Lost might get some blame as well, which leads to the issues with this approach. If you are going to build your show around all of these complicated plots, you have to be able to conclude them in a satisfying way, or else the audience will feel let down at all the build-up that went no where. But the more complicated you make your plots and the more you build them up, the harder it is to make them satisfying. If you build it up as being something that will surprise the audience, it will go badly for you if most of them already guessed it. But if you hide details in order to maintain the surprise, then the audience will feel cheated as they’ll feel that the only reason that you managed to pull off the surprise was because you lied to, misled, or even simply didn’t provide the information to allow them to figure it out. The more things you are juggling in the mix, the harder it is to credibly hide things in plain sight to pull off the surprise. This leads to the issues that I think Lost had and that I know the new Battlestar Galactica had where the shows were either good or okay for most of the run, but the endings greatly disappointed people because they didn’t tie up the plots very well.

What I’d like to see modern television realize is this:

1) Not every show concept needs to have complicated plots and writing. The heart, for example, of the original Beauty and the Beast was the relationship between Cat and Vincent and the relationship between the two worlds, the world of those who were “rejected” and the world that did the rejecting. There is a lot more that could be done with that given modern storytelling techniques that would make it an interesting show to watch without having to graft on massive conspiracy theories and complicated, intertwined plots to do it. Having recently re-watched the original Battlestar Galactica, there were a lot of issues around that sort of Exodus that were hinted at but that couldn’t really be explored there that the new series could have explored without turning it all into some deep, dark, secret “Plan” and adding in the paranoia of Cylons that look like us. You don’t need to have complicated conspiracies to have an interesting concept and to explore that concept.

2) More intricate plots can be good, but you don’t make for good intricate plots simply by adding complications and conspiracies. Complications and deceit don’t always make for good plots. Sometimes, they just make things more confusing. So stop adding complications and intricacies and then claiming to have added depth to the story. You might not be (Agents of SHIELD, I’m looking at you here).

If we look at one of the shows that did an intricate, involved plot well — Babylon 5 — we can see that it took the time in the first season to flesh out the characters and only drop hints of what was to come. That way, we could get used to the characters and the setting and get involved, which led to having better characterization which was then available to provide the emotional punch when the plot issues started coming up. While others definitely disagree, I really like the first season of Babylon 5 at least partly for that reason. Beauty and the Beast, in contrast, is pushing the big conspiracy before we’ve really come to know and care about any of the basic issues or characters, and is pushing the plot heavily before we’ve even gotten our feet wet yet. I’ll probably manage to get through it, since it isn’t bad (at least not yet) but it’s easy to see how this might frustrate someone who just wants to see if this is a good show with characters they can like. This may be part of the new TV reality — having to get the plot moving quickly because if people aren’t drawn in then you get cancelled — but it can backfire if you try to move the plot before people care about it. Agents of SHIELD handled it clunkily and had a huge advantage that a lot of the audience already cared about Coulson from his role in the various movies; there’s nothing like that here except for maybe nostalgia … with characters that are too different from the originals to invoke that.

We need to get “Nale” out of writing, so that our plots can be complicated … but not needlessly so.

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