Marissa Lingen (mrissa) wrote,
Marissa Lingen

Structure and obvious choices: Leverage as an example

Hey, yesterday was my birthday, good deal. That's not actually what I want to talk about, though. I had a great example of structurally obvious choices making something far less interesting than it could have been, and thinking past the obvious choice. So! Spoilers ahoy! If you care about being spoilered for a single episode of a show you might not even watch, avert your pristine eyes.

So Leverage. Right there in the opening credits, they hand you the premise: these are five crooks of differing skills, clearly labeled with their skill in the opening credits, who work together as a team to rob from the rich and powerful evildoers and give to the poor but virtuous. Their labels are Hitter, Hacker, Thief, Grifter, and Mastermind/Brains. In The Rashomon Job, they're talking about an event five years earlier, from before they knew each other. As the episode unfolds, each tells their story, and it unfolds that each of them was in disguise and did not know each other then but was playing a role their now-friends did not know. Each thought they had stolen an antique dagger only to find it had slipped through their grasp. At the end the overtly stated message is that this is why they need to work together as a team.

However. The structure and the outcome of the episode completely undermine the stated message and make for a less interesting episode than it could have been, although some technical aspects of it are still fun to watch.

First of all, the job is a theft. More or less straightforwardly: a theft. The dagger is in an art museum, they want it to be out of an art museum in their own possession. Theft. And the mastermind is the big brains of the whole outfit. So if you have to rank who is the most likely to succeed at this, the Thief and the Mastermind are the top of the list. And in fact, as the episode unfolds, Parker (Thief) is the penultimate and Nate (Mastermind) is the ultimate criminal. The fact that Nate succeeds at his goal (in this case, working with an insurance company), however, undermines the stated message. The others couldn't do it without him. But he could do it without them. So...this is why they need to work together as a team? No. This is why they need to do what Nate says. This is bullshit. (I partly feel this way because I don't like Nate. I like the actor, Timothy Hutton. He was a brilliant Archie Goodwin. I hate Nate. I want to kick him in the shins multiple times per episode. Sometimes he gets kicked in the shins. I like those episodes.)

So if you're structuring an episode like this and you want the message to actually be that they all need each other, then they can't succeed without each other. So then the next question should be: for it to be interesting, who should come closest? Well, not Nate (Mastermind). Because that's really freakin' obvious, isn't it? He's the guy who always plans things. Nate makes a plan and it comes to fruition, without watching the team work as moving parts doing clever things? YAWN. So Nate has to be pretty early in the episode with his failure. Not Parker (Thief). The Thief comes very close to stealing a thing but fails? Again: YAWN. Even if you give her lots of dangling from ceilings to do, this is what she does. It's within her core competency. You have to knock her outside her core competency to make her part of the episode interesting. Make her deal with people, not peremptorily but extensively. (They didn't.) Throw her into a situation where whatever plan she has for picking locks and sliding down fire escapes is not useful. That's where the Thief by herself is interesting. Thief is messed up in her plans by unexpected other person? There you're maybe doing something, maybe.

So you're left with the Grifter, the Hacker, and the Hitter. I say that to plot an episode like this, you have to have either the Hacker or the Hitter come closest to succeeding in stealing the dagger. It's the biggest stretch, the thing that's going to take the most interesting use of their skills unless you go for something really cheap. So it'll be the most interesting to watch.

Not every writer needs to write down the most obvious idea and then deliberately toss it out or subvert it. But I've run into several stories and episodes lately where I really felt that the practice might improve the situation, and this sort of thing is why.
Tags: full of theories, small screen
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