Monday, 19 November 2012

Hollywood Babble On & On #968: Building A Mystery?

ABC has cancelled the drama series The Last Resort by not giving it a "back 9" order after its initial 13 episodes.

It's a shame, because the show had good people working on it both in front of and behind the camera, but I had a nagging feeling that it wasn't going to last right from the moment I first heard about it.

The business pundits are saying the show didn't catch on because of its time slot, because of its very masculine style and ABC's very feminine demographics, but I think the show's demise can be placed squarely on the shoulders of the concept of the mystery.

Specifically the fact that the series' premise was built around a mystery.

If you haven't seen the show it's about the captain and crew of a nuclear submarine who get mysterious orders from a questionable source to fire their nuclear missiles. When the captain calls headquarters for confirmation, they get fired upon by their own ships while someone else nukes their proposed target.

The crew then sail to a remote pacific island and take it over, making it into the world's smallest nuclear power while they, and others, try to clear their names and find out what the hell is going on.

That's where I think the problem arose.

Lots of shows are built around mysteries. Police procedural shows deal with a fresh mystery every week, and other shows, some even successful, have mysteries that extend through the whole run of the show.

So why did Last Resort fail while the others survive?

Because Last Resort had no reason to exist if the central mystery was solved.

If they exposed the conspiracy that made them into fugitives, they'd probably go home, and that would be that.  There was no way to solve the mystery without completely deflating the premise's reason to exist.

Recently there was a short lived series called Missing, where Ashley Judd played a retired spy who scours Europe looking for her missing son.

While many thought Judd's return to show-biz playing a kick-ass secret agent running around exotic locations was a guaranteed hit.

Audiences thought differently, and the show fizzled out after one season.

If you're presenting the audience a show based around a central mystery there must a way for that show to operate without that central mystery being involved in every episode.  Because if there isn't, then the vast amorphous mass-mind known as the television audience gets a buzz on their bullshit meter.

It means that their questions will not be answered, ever, so why bother getting emotionally and intellectually invested in the show. ABC's show Lost tried to beat that by piling on mysteries like toppings on a stoner's pizza order, but even then had to deal with flagging ratings and a audience that was greatly disappointed by the fact that the writers behind the show were going to a lot of trouble to distract them from the fact that they had no answers to give them.

So here's the deal, if your show idea has a mystery at the heart of its premise, then you must structure it in a way that tells the audience that not only will the central mystery be solved, but that the show can operate after it's solved chasing new mysteries.

Then you might be able to survive.


  1. Blast Hardcheese19/11/12 5:31 pm

    Another way you can structure it is to have a smaller mystery each episode that gets solved, while laying the foundation for solving the bigger mystery. Shows like Monk and White Collar didn't really make that much progress per season on the central mystery, but it didn't feel that way thanks to their solving something each episode.

  2. Plus the shows didn't need to have the cental mystery remaining unsolved to exist. Person Of Interest also does a good job, laying multiple story arcs amid the weekly cases that are all building towards something big.

  3. Furious,

    What is the deal with the Narnia movies? Why the moratorium? Who benefits from that?

    Rainforest Giant

  4. Rainforest Giant- As far as I know the last Narnia movie had budget problems that led them to switch from Disney to Fox, and while it made over $400 million internationally, they were probably expecting it to do better domestically.

    Plus the contract the producer Walden Media had with the CS Lewis estate expired in 2011.

    So there's no moratorium, just a blend of indecision and bad timing.

  5. I don't know the source real well, how did the Fugitive last so long with a central mystery? Was it because of freshness in its time or something else?

    Also, I note that Supernatural figured out a pretty good system. They started with a central mystery, then when it was solved at the end, there was a new mystery instead. Each season has run on one mystery, that's usually solved at the end only to set up another mystery for the next season. I wish most shows would adopt that method.

  6. Nate- The mystery behind The Fugitive (who killed Richard Kimble's wife) was secondary to the weekly drama of an innocent man having to live on the run and maintaining some sense of morality. If you recall, other than him seeing a "one armed man" running from the scene of his wife's death, they was very little investigation into the case.

    Supernatural was following the "Big Bad" system I first saw on Buffy The Vampire Slayer which would slowly reveal a major threat, have a big battle in the season finale, then slowly reveal a new threat for the next season.

  7. John Paulson24/11/12 3:08 pm

    Was actually thinking of the similar vein a few days ago when I heard the news. The problems with mysteries over a period is well, it takes too bloody long. Suspense can only last so long and pardon my French before it becomes a cocktease. You do not want to be leaving the audience with ****balls. There comes the point where the audience has enough and moves on. You have to learn to portion out the mystery in parts. Give the audience some release. Actually why give them one mystery, give them mysteries that solve a bigger mystery.

    The suspense and dragging things out is ruining many shows. Think of a show like Friends or Bones and every week or month romantic tension of will they or won't they goes on and on. It gets so tedious it turns off viewers.

    You would think media would understand this by now. Some shows get the idea of using arcs or a actual back story. Or actually letting milestones happen. Thank God in Castle, something finally happened or I would have dropped that show.

    So I was thinking of the show Prison Break and how Last Resort could have worked itself out. Prison Break had some solid goals the first two season, before gremlins/producers/hack writers made a mess of things.

    Some shows try like X-Files and Lost do try, but after a while the "mystery" gets lost or so mucked up the audience is left screaming for blood. I suspect a variation of this blogs authors ebook tagline/producer ideas with literary classics and a game of telephone. What started out Aliens and abductions, ends up Black Goo infection and bunch of Native Americans resistant, they the villain actually ends up the ....

    You know what I mean.

    If you are going to do a show with a mystery, have it solved before hand. Or to throw things off track have a whole bunch of solved variations. But have something set in stone and logical.

    Plus you do not always have to keep everything in the dark. You can show some of the inner workings of the Mystery and still keep people in the dark.

  8. Make the mystery show one or two seasons long, with a pre-determined start and finish. Problem solved.

    If you don't want a show that's so "short," don't make it a mystery show. Yet another problem solved.