Wednesday, February 9, 2011

J.J. Abrams Can't Write Characters

Is that title even fair? Though Abrams conceives of his shows and sketches the basic contours of them, the episode-to-episode writing usually falls on others. Wherever the real blame should fall though, it is Abrams' name that is most closely associated with the likes of Lost, Alias, and Fringe. And, as a result, it is on him that we level our criticism.

J.J. Abrams
What Abrams does well, he does exceptionally well. The hook of a mystery, the crack addiction of unraveling not just what happens next, but what just happened, this is his bread and butter. There are few moments in any medium that can rival the spike in my interest and astonishment associated with the words "We have to go back Kate!" The pulp of Dan Brown's Da Vinci Code comes close in the literary world and M. Night Shamalayan's revelation at the end of The 6th Sense approximates it on the big screen. But these instances still pale in comparison to the many moments in Lost where I marveled at the creativity of the twist.

With the first slide of bread on my criticism sandwich buttered thusly, it's time to move onto the meat of the attack. Lost is basically a show about a plane full of super-models who crash on a mysterious island. Fringe's attempts to lighten its paranoid, paranormal world fall flat more often than not. Even the perpetually furrowed brow on Alias's Jennifer Garner rings false. These characters just aren't believable. And while it might be easy to dismiss this rant as anti-attractive people (and therefore anti-TV, and therefore why do I even bother watching syndicated television anyway if I can't get over how an entire plane full of passengers all have such clear skin because, let's face it, TV programs across the board are populated with the most attractive of our species), this attack has less to do with the acting and more to do with the writing.

An attractive planeload. 
Countless were the times when, watching Lost, I would think to myself "real people don't behave this way." If I had come across a clattering, amorphous column of seemingly sentient smoke, I would tell everyone about it. I would turn to my companions and say "WHAT THE SHIT WAS THAT!?!" I would make us sit down in a circle and hash out what we had just experienced and try to understand it. Over and over again, the characters on Lost face the supernatural or the inexplicable and their fear lasts only until the immediate threat is over. The psychological trauma never seems to register for them. The natural human tendency to discuss unbelievable shared experiences is wholly absent from Lost and, as a result, the characters don't seem real. Piling relationships, back stories, and challenges onto a fundamentally unbelievable character does little to overcome the sense of alienation and, eventually, every character crumbles by series' end.

The same complaint can be leveled at Fringe, albeit to a lesser degree. While character motivations and actions ring more honest, the show's aforementioned attempts at humor do little more than add awkward beats. While the writing in Lost is jarring for what it ignores, the writing in Fringe is jarring for the transparency of its intent. We all understand that a show dealing with heavy topics needs some levity to work as a release valve, but these moments in Fringe are so ham-fisted as to be distracting. Instead of weaving humorous reactions into the plot itself, these moments feel added just for the sake of their levity. Humor is a universal method humans use to deal with emotional stress but its employment in Fringe seems more like a sideshow than a valid reaction to the show's content.

Funny, but not that funny.
So what is it about Abrams? How can he create such incredible stories and surprises and yet saddle his brilliance with paper-thin characters? How can the words "We've got to go back Kate!" pack such punch when issued from such an otherwise unsympathetic, vapid character?

(Give me a minute to slice my final piece of compliment bread. Pass the mayo. Here we go.)

J.J. Abrams' skill at maneuvering his plot pieces to elicit shock from us requires relatively vapid characters. His mechanism for his greatest strength requires empty shells. Avatars for the viewer to see the world through. We are the true characters of his shows. It is us who he manipulates. Our emotions whose course he charts. The less developed and believable his characters, the more empty the shells into which we step and the greater the impact the shocks and surprises on us. Abrams' Cloverfield is another big-screen example of this effect. The film's characters were criticized for their underdevelopment, but this vapidity enabled the viewer to step more easily into their empty shoes and ratchet up the fear and excitement of feeling like we are truly there.

This, it seems, is the price we must pay for the brilliance of Abrams' surprises. Far from being a weakness in his repertoire, poorly written characters are simply part of his strength. It may chaff against our more artistic sensibilities, but if he needs poorly written characters to more effectively surprise us, I suppose we can't complain too much.

1 comment:

  1. I agree. 'Lost' should have been the pinnacle of science fiction tv. Instead, it turned into a warbled mess of half truths, and unresolved character arcs. Don't even get me started on his pen of writers....mainly Roberto Orici.