more about the writer-reader contract

Kristan Hoffman wrote a very interesting blog post called “Broken promises and clinging on for too long (or: What ruined Grey’s Anatomy)

I don’t know from Grey’s Anatomy (my reaction was, “that show’s still on?”), but I’ve written before about the various types of contracts which exist between writer and reader.

My comment over there at Kristan’s blog covered a few aspects (Sherlock Holmes, Lord of the Rings), but it occurred to me that this applies to a few TV shows that I’ve been attached to over the years.

 
1) Dallas. Dallas has taken a lot of shit for the “dream season” where they basically retconned an entire season of the show, saying that it had never happened. But they’d broken the contract by killing Bobby Ewing, since the point of the show had been the tension between two brothers, J.R. (evil, charming) and Bobby (younger, earnest, honest). Without that, it wasn’t the same show we’d signed on for.

So, according to what I’ve read, Larry Hagman (who played J.R.) took control, got the new producer fired, brought back the original producer, and went to Patrick Duffy (Bobby) and said, “We need you back.” And so, the contract was restored, by saying that Bobby’s death had been a dream. Not an elegant solution, but the best option available to them at the time. They knew what they had to do.

 
2) MASH. A lot of people, including me, were upset when Dr. Henry Blake died, but I don’t think that did break any kind of contract. It was more like, “Hey, this is a show about a war. Did you notice that? And you thought nobody was ever going to die?”

 
3) Dark Shadows never broke the contract, which was, in essence, “no happy endings.” This may be one reason the show has such a devoted fanbase even now.

Barnabas could help other characters become happy, but he couldn’t get there himself. In the final story arc, in parallel time, the Barnabas character (Bramwell) and the Angelique character (Catherine, if I recall) ended up happy and in love, all the curses ended, but we knew that the real Barnabas and Angelique were still going down through the centuries making each other miserable.

At one point, in 1890 I believe, Angelique does something selfless and heroic, and Barnabas realizes that he’s in love with her after all. As he’s about to tell her, she’s shot dead. Her curse on him a century before, after all, included the fact that anybody he loved would die. It was a sad moment, but definitely within the contract.

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4 Responses to more about the writer-reader contract

  1. Kristan says:

    Oh, great examples! And interesting take on the Dallas situation. I never watched, but your interpretation makes sense.

    Three other shows with similarly controversial endings come to mind: the Sopranos, Lost, and Battlestar Galactica. I haven’t seen the first two, but IMO, the ending of BSG kept the promises that were made in the pilot, even if some viewers didn’t like it.

  2. Maggie says:

    Not sure if this is the same thing, but it reminded me of how JK Rowling was telling people that Dumbledore was gay after all the books had been published. It wasn’t in the “contract” set forth in the seven books of the series, and it did piss a lot of people off. There are a bunch of other little details that she mentioned after everything was published that went against what was in the books. I think that once it’s written, it’s written–you really shouldn’t go back and change stuff without a very good reason.

  3. Kristan: Thanks for the link. I think that article nails it in a lot of ways. The other important thing about MASH is that they never did it again. Everybody else who left Korea made it home. That gave Henry Blake’s death the weight it deserved.

    Maggie: I think there are two aspects to the Dumbledore thing. One is that I don’t believe Rowling’s opinion about his sexuality matters any more than anybody else’s. What matters is what’s between the covers of the books. I was trained in how to read poetry in college by a very strict professor, and the key lesson was that what matters — the only thing that matters — is what the poem actually says.

    Where Rowling does break the contract is getting into this after the books were done, after she’d said she was finished writing Harry Potter. If you’re done, you’re done — leave it alone. It’s the same reason people got so frustrated with George Lucas endlessly going back to fiddle with the original Star Wars trilogy.

    The first chapters of A Sane Woman, my first novel, were written 25 years ago. As you can well imagine, when I read it now there are things here and there that I wish were different. I try to learn from those, but I don’t go in to try to fix them.

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