Do you like movies or TV shows that have sudden unexpected twists? The late Agatha Christie was the queen of the outrageous plot shift. When The Murder of Roger Ackroyd first appeared, critics were appalled because the narrator turned out to be the murderer—till then, narrators were expected to be neutral storytellers. In the long-running play, The Mousetrap, the policeman is revealed as the bad guy.
I have no problems with stories where the surprise has been woven into the plot. In Christie’s better work, the clues are scattered all around and when the twist is finally revealed, you kick yourself for missing the evidence.
But, increasingly, writers are throwing in improbable twists only for the sake of shock. Some of Christie’s Miss Marple stories have been turned into a revisionist TV series with a modern sexual subtext. As a Christie fan, I find it annoying when the TV writers change her plots and introduce lesbian twists to make the stories seem contemporary (“You thought she was in love with him. But, actually, she was in love with her…”).
I find movies where the twists are illogical as annoying. An exception is The Crying Game, about a soldier who falls in love with a girl only to discover that she is a man—in a now famous scene where the moment of revelation is accompanied by full-frontal nudity. The director, Neil Jordan, had given us all the evidence we had needed: The character was played by a man. But more recent films have not been as logically constructed.
Part of the problem is Hollywood’s tendency to shoot two or three different endings for each movie. The film is test-marketed with each ending and the studios choose the one that draws the best response.
For instance, in Sliver, they destroyed the point of the Ira Levin novel the movie was based on by turning a minor character into the murderer. This was either because audiences liked the actor who was meant to play the murderer too much to let him be revealed as the bad guy or because Sharon Stone wanted a happy ending, where she got off with the good-looking bloke.
In TV shows, writers depend on continuing audience feedback to shape the plot. So, they often dispense with logic just to keep the twists coming. I find 24 horribly addictive (though the latest series is rubbish) even when I have to fight the urge to strangle Jack Bauer’s kidnap-prone daughter. But the plots have no internal logic at all. In the first series, for instance, there was nothing in the first 10 episodes to indicate that Nina Myers would turn out to be A Bad Person.
Like other shows of its type, 24 is written in blocks of four. And the guy who is writing episode 4 has no clear idea of what will happen in episode 8. I once saw a behind-the-scenes documentary on 24 where a writer slapped his hand on the table and explained that the whole point of the show was “surprises, surprises, surprises”.
When Air Force One is under attack from evil terrorists, it isn’t just Jack Bauer who wonders whether the President will survive. The writers don’t know either because those episodes haven’t yet been written. All that the producers require is that the show keeps viewers guessing.
Sometimes, it works. But often it doesn’t. One of American TV’s most famous cliffhangers was the shooting of J.R. Ewing in the last episode of the season in Dallas. “Who shot JR?” they asked on the cover of Time. But nobody had the answer because the producers hadn’t decided yet. Later, on such long-running shows as Dynasty, it became routine to end each season with a massacre. When the episode ended, you had no idea who had survived. Then, the producers waited to see which stars were willing to sign on for the next season at low wages. They were the ones who survived. The pricey ones were all declared dead at the beginning of the next season.
Make a plot twist too absurd, though, and the series is dead. Dallas was finished when the producers decided to bring back Bobby Ewing long after he had been killed off. The last season, we were told, had been a dream. Bobby had never died. Perhaps. But Dallas certainly died from that point on. Similarly, when the ratings of Moonlighting collapsed, producers decided that audiences had reacted badly to the marriage of Bruce Willis and Cybill Shepherd. So, they turned the clock back, pretended the marriage had never happened (Willis offered an ironic explanation to viewers, staring straight at camera) and the show never recovered.
When I find that plot twists are very silly, I take a particular delight in revealing them to the world because I don’t think viewers should be forced to sit through illogical nonsense. I have no hesitation in telling you that in the last but one series of 24, the President turns out to be the bad guy because the plot shift is so obviously an afterthought.
And I sympathize with the lesbians who picketed cinemas showing Basic Instinct, carrying placards that read “Catherine did it”, given that the picture was so illogical, anti-gay and sleazy. Nor did I have any qualms in assuring people that Vesper Lynd, the love interest in Casino Royale, was the bad girl because a) the movie is such a pathetic attempt to rip off 24’s ethos and b) because anyone who has read the book (which came out more than 50 years ago) knew that already.
But if I really hate something, then I’ll play a double game. I’ll pretend to reveal the end, but make up something outrageous. My life is full of indignant friends who went into the Da Vinci Code believing that Jesus appears in the last scene. Or those who thought that the secret of Harry Potter was that Voldemort turned out to be Harry’s real father.
Yes, I know it’s cruel (and more than a little childish). But hey, they have only themselves to blame if they keep watching crap in search of plot twists.
As the writers of 24 would say: “Surprises, surprises, surprises.”
(Write to Vir at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read his previous columns on www.livemint.com/vir-sanghvi )