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Structure and obvious choices: Leverage as an example - Barnstorming on an Invisible Segway [entries|archive|friends|userinfo]
Marissa Lingen

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Structure and obvious choices: Leverage as an example [Jul. 27th, 2012|07:55 pm]
Marissa Lingen
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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.
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Comments:
[User Picture]From: alecaustin
2012-07-28 01:23 am (UTC)
Yah. The most obvious options here are, in order:

1) Thief.
2) Mastermind.
3) Grifter.
4) Hacker/Hitter, because they're both out of their comfort zones.

Given the nature of the episode (everyone tells stories about a job they didn't know the others were involved in), only one person can succeed, and that's whoever tells their story last. There are other possible endings to this kind of episode, including nobody succeeding, but you know whoever goes first (and second, and third, and so on) cannot be the one who succeeded, unless they're lying or other shenanigans are involved.

Level -1 structural meta-gaming is to have the thief go last and get the prize. This is the painfully obvious solution that no one will think is clever or interesting unless it's handled extremely well/hidden in plain sight, etc.

Level 0 structural meta-gaming is to have the mastermind or grifter go last and get the prize. While not as painfully obvious, it's still... obvious. And... yeah, maybe a little painful, too, depending how many milliseconds it took you to get to the stack-ranked list, after considering the possibility of the Thief getting the dagger and discarding it.

The writers only start doing anything potentially interesting when they hit level 1 structural meta-gaming and have either the hacker or the hitter getting the dagger. Obviously you have to jump through some hoops to get here, and you can't go straight here all the time, or else your meta-gaming becomes obvious and expecting the "least likely person" becomes level -1 for informed audience members.

Level 2 meta-gaming, of course, is to create the expectation that a member of the cast got the dagger, and have someone else entirely get it, or do something else clever to wrap everything up into a bow. This is even trickier than playing at level 1, and you really can't do it all the time, because people will get annoyed at you for being too clever.

The point here isn't that you can't write stories which work at level -1 or 0, but that if you're going with the predictable approach, you have to do other things that still make it interesting and worthwhile for people who see the ending coming from miles out. I mean, one should really do this for levels 1 & 2 as well, because the unexpected is only unexpected once, and ideally you're aiming to create something that can stand up to re-reading or -watching. You can make it look like you went with a level 2 ending before going back to a -1 ending, with the Thief having been especially sneaky, if you handle it right. But the absolute most obvious plot path is almost never correct, and the level 0 alternatives to are really only okay if handled smoothly and with assurance, IMHO.
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[User Picture]From: timprov
2012-07-28 01:36 am (UTC)
Personally I prefer the Level 4 metagame, where the producers break into your house and steal all your stuff while you're distracted watching their terrible TV show.
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[User Picture]From: alecaustin
2012-07-28 02:31 am (UTC)
Yeah, but that requires an episode to contain the Hypnotoad.
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[User Picture]From: timprov
2012-07-28 02:33 am (UTC)
NOTHING CAN CONTAIN THE HYPNOTOAD!
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[User Picture]From: alecaustin
2012-07-28 04:56 am (UTC)
But can the Hypnotoad hypnotize... itself?
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[User Picture]From: sartorias
2012-07-28 01:46 am (UTC)
Happy birthday plus one day!
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From: nenya_kanadka
2012-07-28 03:03 am (UTC)
Happy birthday-week!

I just saw this episode for the first time and liked it a whole lot. I think you make good points about how it could've been better, though. Interestingly, I didn't realize that Nate was even going to be in the theft part of the story--that it would be all five of them, not just four--until near the end, so I guess either I'm a less sophisticated viewer than some, or Nate just bores me.

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.

Heee. Yes. *goes away giggling*
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2012-07-28 03:10 am (UTC)
I loved how they gradually subbed in each character for the other actors playing those parts. I particularly loved the not-so-subtle commentary--that Sophie was freaking out about them not recognizing her accent, but that their view of Some Black Dude had nothing whatsoever to do with how Hardison actually looked, so she was at least as bad at it as he was. I loved how they were all assuming that the security head was some kind of evil genius, when in fact he was kind of a schlub.

I just thought they could have done a much better job with those elements.
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From: nenya_kanadka
2012-07-28 04:26 am (UTC)
Yes! I realized immediately that waitress!girl was Parker, and Eliot was pretty easy to figure out, but then I went, "Where's Hardison? There's nobody like Hardison here...there's a black guy but he's nothing like him in the slightest, it must be another black guy somewhere..."

And Parker (or Hardison?) remembering Sophie and Eliot's awkward encounter as them making out madly! Heh.

I almost thought security guy would turn out to be Nate, actually. Was surprised when he wasn't.
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[User Picture]From: matociquala
2012-07-28 05:42 am (UTC)
This is why I gave up on Leverage.

In the first season, the narrative undermines Nate constantly. (In The Bank Job, he *blows it all* by not trusting Sophie to self-rescue.)

After that? It's all Nate all the time.

And frankly, I am here for the Parker/Eliot/Hardison show.
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[User Picture]From: moiread
2012-07-28 06:17 am (UTC)
Ditto this.
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2012-07-28 11:01 am (UTC)
Right. The more Nate, the less I like the show. I am also not the world's hugest Sophie fan, but the narrative at least seems to recognize Sophie's blind spots. Whereas it recognizes Nate's only to reassure him that they're not such a big deal really.

But I need workout fodder, so I've stuck around, albeit somewhat behind, for Parker, Eliot, and Hardison. Especially Hardison.
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[User Picture]From: carbonel
2012-07-28 04:22 pm (UTC)
Happy belated birthday!

And yes, Nate annoys me considerably, though I've only watched through the middle of season 2. He's an alcoholic in denial, though it's unclear how much of his bad actions are related to that. I want life to kick him enough that he'll decide to fix himself, but the writers of the show don't seem willing (as far as I've watched) to let that happen to him.

I watch the show, when I do, for Parker and the capers and the banter.
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2012-07-28 04:25 pm (UTC)
I don't know if you intend to watch further, but I cannot say that the show's handling of Nate's alcoholism improves in my opinion from mid-S2. If anything the opposite. There's possibility that it will get better from here, but...so far I am not impressed.
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[User Picture]From: zalena
2012-07-29 01:47 pm (UTC)
Happy Belated Birthday. I hope this is an excellent year for you!
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