March 19, 2012
Superbad is superboring
Kate recently discussed the problem of the omniscient enemy in regards to The Mentalist. She concluded that "I will keeping watching The Mentalist, only keeping in mind that Red John is an amorphous force rather than a flesh and blood enemy."
I'm less forgiving. For me, the "omniscient enemy" eventually wrecked the logical foundations of the show such that I couldn't watch it anymore.
(Besides, other than Tim Kang as Cho, the rest of the regulars are horribly miscast. There's zero chemistry between Tunney and Baker. And what are rank rookies doing on this super-special task force?)
The omnipotent enemy is my biggest gripe with Yashakiden. "Princess" as a villain is so unstoppable that everything connected to her narrative moves forward according to her whims. Whimsy as a motivation drains the drama of any real tension when she's on stage.
As Kate puts it, "Characters held to the laws of probability are far more interesting than an omniscient enemy could possibly be."
The more interesting characters are Princess's subordinates, especially Kikiou, who can't take over the world without her help. And she doesn't really care about taking over the world. That's an interesting conflict. As I discuss here, the politics is where the action is.
Politics is what makes The X-Files different as well. The fundamental conflict is not between Mulder and the aliens. Or even Mulder and the Cigarette Smoking Man. It's between the aliens and the government (and then between those aliens and a second set of aliens).
So reasons can always be found for keeping Mulder around. Okay, they do get a bit tortured at times, but "eliminate Mulder" or even "give Mulder a hard time for no good reason" is not the motivation of any running character.
The omnipotent villain is the refuge of writers not smart enough to make them as smart as they're supposed to be. Randomness becomes an excuse for intelligence. But as Kate illustrates with Agatha Christie, a brilliant detective can find plenty of challenges solving ordinary crimes.
Both Lie to Me and currently Person of Interest also do a better job at getting the balance right. Most of the stories are about fairly average people burdened with fairly average problems that have gotten way out of hand and so have to be solved in interesting ways.
In fact, the premise of Person of Interest explicitly states that they won't get cases that involve the world ending as we know it.
On the other hand, a recent episode maneuvered the good guys into a no-win moral dilemma, which I consider equally problematic. Pretty much all of The Dark Knight consists of this manufactured "depth." Reproducing the vagaries of real life doesn't make fiction "better."
Spider-Man and Batman and the rest of the superheros would be a lot more interesting if the bad guys were a lot less bad and were a lot more predictable.