Wednesday, May 9, 2012

10 FAVORITES (57): There's No Cliché Like Old Clichés

You know when you're at a party, and you're telling a friend about a great Movie or TV program you just saw.  You're getting really into it and everyone can see by the look on your face how much you enjoyed this artistic endeavour you witnessed.  You finish telling the story and how much you loved seeing something so fresh and new...then there's that one person at the party who says: "I've heard that story before!"  Hello, I am that one person!  Or at least I often feel like that person.  We are in a day and age where no story is new and everything seems recycled.  Development departments at most studios and corporations now won't shell out big bucks to produce or publish a Movie, TV Show or Book where the plot elements aren't at least somewhat familiar (and proven to be familiar with a large audience!).  People like what they know.  Change is uncomfortable and too risky (especially where a lot of money is concerned!).  These plot elements that these execs love so much fall under a rather dubious nomenclature: Cliché.  A Cliché is a type of story that is done so often that its dramatic effect has waned to the point of nothing (or almost nothing).  It can be a character or a plot element or the entire plot itself or even the way in which the plot is presented.  It doesn't matter what it is, it's probably a Cliché.  Now, as a writer myself, I've never had a problem with utilizing clichés in my own work or seeing them in the work of others (unless they are poorly executed!).  The trap really is that most clichés are double-edged swords (and I'll explain that as we go along today!).  There really are too many to list here (you might want to try looking at for a couple other examples!).  So for this weeks 10 FAVORITES, I've decided to run through some of the most common and/or the ones that always seem to attract my attention.  And its at this point that I'm going to stop putting an accent on the "E" in "Cliché " because it's annoying and comes off as really pretentious!


Breaking the Routine
This one mostly applies to TV Shows, especially ones that decide to do something different for "Sweeps."  Sometimes the show decides to change its format for say one episode (The West Wing, 30 Rock and M*A*S*H all did it!).  Sometimes the writers want to bring a challenge to the actors like do a whole musical episode (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Scrubs and Grey's Anatomy!) or have their characters pull a Freaky Friday (watch next week's Glee, if you don't believe me!).  And then there are the shows that enter a whole "Alternate Timeline" or "Parallel Universe" for an episode or two (Bones, Friends, the entire third season of Fringe and any Treehouse of Horror episode of The Simpsons).  All of these examples are some form of what I call: Breaking the Routine.  By the way, NBC's Community has done every single one of these things (because it's awesome!).

The Never-Before-Seen Twist
Law & Order used this tagline more often than they used the "Ripped From the Headlines" tag.  This cliche is often used on TV proceedurals especially in the respective network's promos for the episode in which it is used.  They tout it like it is the most outrageous and surprising thing you've ever seen since the last time the show pulled this trope.  The so-called "Twist" comes out of nowhere within the story, though these days most people can see it coming from a mile away.  In fact since 1992's The Crying Game, no "Twist" is as surprising as that one!

Basic Stereotypes
In the old days, Movies and TV Shows utilized a lot of ethnic stereotypes (see Gone With the Wind or Speedy Gonzalez cartoons or any Western where the Native Americans were prominent characters!).  As the years went by and studios were under pressure to be more politically correct, shows like All In the Family, Barney Miller and Murphy Brown utilized those stereotypes cleverly and weaved them into their humor.  As we moved into the 21st Century, a whole new crop of stereotypes showed up: The gay guy, The nerd and (most recently) The sarcastic hipster.

The Call is Coming from Inside the House (aka You Trusted the Murderer!)
My name for this cliche is actually the name of the old urban legend (used in horror films like Black Christmas and When a Stranger Calls) that has the poor frightened girl in more danger than she realizes.  But in my definition of this cliche, I refer to "the House" as basically the hero's (or heroine's) life.  In most mysteries or horror movies now, the serial killer ends up being someone that the leading lady or the investigator has trusted the whole time. Remember the ending of Scream, the first one (SPOILER ALERT!!!).  The murderous "Ghostface" turned out to be trusting Neve Campbell's brooding and smoldering boyfriend (wickedly played by Skeet Ulrich) and his metero-goofus friend (played by perennial goofus Matthew Lillard) - the two friends were in it together to kill Drew Barrymore and just got off on the terror they struck in the town.  On TV: NCIS, CSI, Bones and Castle have all used it at some point or another.  In fact, FOX's Emmy-winning 24 thrived on this cliche.

Unseen Characters
Here, Google these names: Vera Petersen, Maris Crane, Stan Walker, Mrs. Wolowitz, Carlton the Doorman and Wilson Wilson.  All of these are examples of TV characters that we often hear about (and in some cases even hear their voices!), but we never fully see their faces.  Usually it is because an actor could not physically be cast in the role, because the description of the character went so over-the-top in some physical attritbute that no actor or actress could fit that part without disservicing the character.  Whatever the reason, these characters get used in sitcoms often.

The Beauty and the Schlub
Tale as old as time...and it goes right "to the moon!"  It's basically a variation of the Beauty and the Beast tale in which a beautiful wife is married to one of the schlubbiest guys you will ever meet.  Witness the classic sitcom The Honeymooners (and it's animated parody The Flintstones).  It has been used several times over the years (Marge Bouvier was apparently one of the prettiest girls in high school when she met Homer J. Simpson!), however in the late '90s there was a slight twist on it.  It started to seem that comedy writers decided to up the shall we say nagging quality of the wife and the ineptitude of the schlubby hubby (look at Everybody Loves Raymond or The King of Queens or even Family Guy and all of the couples on Modern Family!).  It almost could be called "The Shrew and the Schlub!"

Team So-and-So Vs. Team The Other Guy (aka The Basic Love Triangle)
The Love Triangle has been around for centuries, dating all the way back to Sir Walter Scott's Ivanhoe (are you Team Rebecca or Team Rowena?).  But it wasn't until recently that it has taken on a whole new dynamic, and all you fangirls out there know darn well what I am talking about.  It's like the fans of the book or movie have to join a "team" of other fans who root for the relationship that they want to see happen (even if both choices look like their the same pile of milquetoast, sorry Twihards!).  If you don't believe me about the influence that Stefenie Meyer's Twilight has had over the last couple years, just look at the latest book-to-movie phenomenon The Hunger Games.  Suzanne Collins' popular trilogy has taken on the same kind of fan base and therefore main character Katniss Everdeen must pull a Bella Swann and chose between her two leading men.

24 Hours Earlier... (aka How We Got Here...)
Remember Sunset Boulevard's format, with the story unfolding after you know that the narrator lies in a pool dead from a bullet in the back.  Writer-Director Billy Wilder was praised for his trailblazing technique.  Since then, it has been used so many times in so many different ways (usually with some kind of title card that says "24 Hours Earlier" or "2 Days Ago" or "Many Moons Prior").  Every crime proceedural since the '90s (from The X-Files to NCIS to Law & Order: SVU to Criminal Minds to this week's season finale of Castle!) has used this at least once.  Even sitcoms have taken a shot at it (a classic Wings episode parodied Mr. Wilder, while the short-lived FOX show Grounded For Life seemed to use it all the time!).  And dramas like LOST and The West Wing used it a couple of times, especially during Season Premiere or Season Finale time!

Will They? Won't They?
This can be referred to as the Maddie and David or the Sam and Diane or the Booth and Brennan or (my personal favorite recently) the Hermione and Ron.  Sexual tension between two characters can be quite palpable and can even make the audience really root for the relationship to move forward.  But, as I said above, cliches can be double-edged swords and none are more double-edged than this one.  It divides people more than the above Love Triangle fangirls do.  If they go forward and have the relationship, two camps pop up.  One saying they've "Jumped a Shark" (witness Who's the Boss?) and the other shouting "Hooray" and creating cute nicknames (Glee's Finchel).  If they don't get together, the same two camps pop up.  Audiences are disappointed that the writers are dragging it out and critics are often applauding the choice not to jump into bed.  It changes the dynamic of the series, and some shows survive it while most shows flounder in the change.

Ensign Red Shirt
Poor Ensign Red Shirt!  He's that guy that the show hired to basically be the other guy that is NOT the main character that goes into the dangerous situation with the rest of the crew and pretty much doesn't come out alive.  The name of the trope comes from the classic sci-fi series Star Trek in which almost every landing team consisted of Captain Kirk, Mr. Spock, Dr. McCoy and -well, you guessed it!- Ensign Red Shirt (he doesn't need a real name, because basically he's not important!).  Ensign Red Shirt has changed with the times though.  On Star Trek: The Next Generation, he became Ensign Yellow Shirt.  And on most crime proceedutals, he is often Officer Whats-his-name or Agent That Guy.  And most often we learn a little something about him just before he bites it.  It's like the writers feel guilty so they have the main character talk to him like they're old buddies.  And he always has something he has to be ready for by the weekend (like his daughter's piano recital or a family reunion he isn't looking forward to or an anniversary dinner with the wife!).  You know an Ensign/Officer/Agent Red Shirt is gonna kick the bucket when he mention's little Katie's piano recital!  Poor Officer Red Shirt!


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