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Wednesday, May 30, 2012

3 Ways to Avoid Overshooting Your Audience's Intelligence

I just found out that one of my favorite TV shows, Awake, was cancelled after it's inaugural season. I did some research into the thinking behind NBC's most unfortunate decision, and I believe Awake was cancelled because it overshot viewer intelligence by a long shot.
I did a post here that gives the background premise of Awake. I was so into this show, trying to figure out which reality was the real one....the one where his wife survived the accident, or the one where his son survived. I still am not 100% sure. The producers really worked hard to make each reality seem, well, real.

In my last post, I wrote that I was going to try to diagnose Britten, but I never got a good feel for that, either. In all, I'm really bummed about this!!

The ratings steadily declined after the premiere, signalling the death of the show. How can we avoid the same demise?

(Minor season finale spoilers below.)

1) Utilize more Jami Gertz characters.

Jami Gertz in one of her classic
"What is this probe?" expressions.
Jami Gertz played Dr. Melissa Reeves in the 1996 film Twister. Writer Mary Conneally believes Jami's character was the most important, because she was the avenue the audience had to understanding all the technical jargon of chasing tornadoes. She was the "dumb" question-asker, asking the needed questions to keep the audience apprised of what was going on. Without Jami, the audience would have been lost.

Awake didn't really have the dumb question-asker. There were two super-smart psychiatrists, essentially playing off each other, and brilliant detectives doing their thing. The police procedural was easy to follow...but the mind-bending aspect of his dual realities was difficult to grasp as is, much less without a Jami Gertz.

2) Without a Jami Gertz, avoid overly technical jargon.

The psychiatrists spoke in psychologese quite a bit of the time. Being in the field, I was totally enamored with those scenes, but I fear that the average viewer came away even more confused. You want to bring authenticity to your work, utilizing appropriate words. But without Jami, these should either be limited or explained by the main characters themselves.

It wouldn't be outside the realm of possibility for a therapist to explain themselves to a patient. While both therapists did this, I still don't think it was enough.

3) Don't leave the reader/viewer with more questions than answers.

This is a fine balance, particularly when you're working with a series that you hope people will continue to read/watch. Awake's season finale wasn't supposed to be the finale for the whole season, and boy did it open up tons of questions for me. Even worse is leaving a reader with a completely wrong interpretation than you intended.

In essence, Awake was so intellectual that many reviewers missed the boat entirely after watching the season finale ans supposed that Britten imagined/dreamed the entire thing, a la Dallas or Dynasty. In truth, the season finale represented a further fracturing of Britten's psyche...he was getting WORSE, not better. But I believe this was largely missed by an audience craving a happily ever after for Britten.

In fiction writing, make sure that strings are tied up. Bows are optional.

Let's Analyze: Have you ever put down a book that was too technical? Or stopped watching a show that you thought was over your head?