Just Respond To The Question, TV Characters

We all can name certain types of scenes that we don’t like, or are usually hard for us to sit through. I was reminded of one of them when I was watching an episode of, of all things, Aftermash. I’ll save the background of this short-lived spinoff for a “weekend flops” post in 2009, but in this scene, Klinger is on trial for something or other and Colonel Potter is called as a witness. The prosecutor is trying to introduce damaging information about the defendant, so he asks Potter about Klinger’s habit of wearing dresses when he was in Korea. And in the ensuing scene, Potter talks about the issue without ever saying outright that Klinger only wore dresses because he was pretending to be crazy. It’s necessary for the plot that he not get too specific about that, because the plot requires the judge to think Klinger is actually insane and commit him to the mental ward for examination. But it bothered me, because it was all too clear that the character was not saying something that he should, and logically would, say.

This kind of thing happens a lot, in both comedy and drama, though for some reason I’m having trouble thinking of specific recent examples. (I know I’ve seen some recently; they just don’t come to mind right at this moment.) It occurs, usually, when the plot would not work if someone revealed a piece of information, but the story has not set up a specific reason why the character can’t reveal that information. So he or she just doesn’t say it, and we’re left wondering why. Another example I can think of, though still not recent, is an early episode of The Simpsons where Homer is photographed dancing on a table with a stripper, and Marge gets mad at him. We know that he was at a bachelor party, got up on the table to dance, and nothing else happened. There is no plot-related reason why Homer can’t say “I was at a bachelor party, I got up on the table to dance, and nothing else happened.” But he doesn’t. So we’re pissed at both characters: at Homer for not imparting the information, and at Marge for being too idiotic to ask him what happened.

You can also frequently see it on soapy shows like Grey’s Anatomy, where characters will argue about something without one of them mentioning a key fact that would change the tone of the conversation — remember Derek and Meredith yelling at each other about her first date with Finn, but Derek never bothers to ask, or Meredith to mention, what the date entailed. (Because it’s necessary for the scene that Derek be a complete jerk and accuse her of being a slut.) It’s different from a situation where there is some kind of clear plot-related reason why they’d be reluctant to say something; on Gilmore Girls, we knew why Luke didn’t want to tell Lorelai that he had a daughter. But sometimes there’s just no clear reason, other than the demands of the plot, why someone wouldn’t say something; when they don’t say it, we feel like we’re being toyed with. I never like to get the feeling that the characters are acting and talking in illogical ways because the story needs them to do so. Watching a scene like that is a bit like watching a debate where one of the debaters isn’t bringing up some obvious, important fact that would help win the debate. No matter who you’re rooting for, you’re frustrated that they’re not mentioning it.

I should also distinguish between that kind of scene and a farcical-misunderstanding scene. The misunderstandings in farce, which would be cleared up in an instant if the characters just bothered to ask each other for clarification, drive many viewers crazy; I’m not bothered by that, because in a strange way the characters in that kind of scene are acting logically. When there’s a misunderstanding, what happens is that character A actually delivers the information that character B needs to know; it’s just that character B takes it to mean something else. The plot complications occur because of poor word choices or the double meanings of words, not because someone simply failed to say what needed to be said.

Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.