90210 - Writing a story check that your climax can't cash

I had planned a post about the perils of writing about Hollywood, but while catching up with shows on my DVR, this post more or less sprung to my mind fully formed.

If you recall my piece on One Tree Hill, you'll know that one of my long-standing TV weaknesses is teen dramas, both good and... not so good. What this means is that I watch 90210, despite the fact that it has got to be one of the worst shows on network television. What's amazing to me is that the current showrunner, Rebecca Sinclair, cut her teeth on the Buffy writing staff, learning how to write for TV under one of the greats Joss Whedon - yet she made one of the most elementary writing missteps. As a creator, never write a check you can't cash. Never put yourself in a corner without a strong payoff.

At the end of the first season, Annie, the lead character, left a party in tears after having a few drinks. Late at night, she's so distracted driving (drunk) while crying that she apparently runs over someone. After hearing the bump she stops the car, sees a body lying in the road... and drives off. Season two opened three months later, and she still has yet to tell anyone what she did. She's wracked with guilt when she reads of the unidentified vagrant's death in the hospital, but she still doesn't come forward. In fact, as the season goes on we learn that she took steps to have the damage to her car repaired so that no one would find out.

Let me just spell this out: she killed a man, left the scene of the accident without calling for help and her primary fear is getting caught... and she's not some second or third banana character - she's the lead! Some moral center, huh? (What is it with the female leads on teen dramas being utterly annoying or unlikable types? See: Lana Lang, Marisa Cooper, Peyton Sawyer.)

Worse, when the John Doe is eventually identified as a man documented with mental problems, her guilt leads her into a relationship with Jasper, the victim's nephew. Before long Jasper is revealed as an unbalanced, drug-dealing psycho. Being a bit dim, Annie takes a while to pick up on the warning signs and when she tries to dump him, he reveals that he knows she's the one who ran over his uncle.

So her choice is: come forward with the truth or be blackmailed into a relationship with a dangerous psycho. Guess what she chooses? There's even a point where Jasper attempts suicide, and when Annie goes to see him, she's less concerned for his health than if he told anyone about what she did!

Then, after more than a year of this crap, Annie finally decides to come forward in the final seconds of last year's finale. All we see is her saying to her parents that she has something to tell them. We don't see the confession, we don't see her parents' reaction and we certainly don't see the legal fallout. When this season starts, we're told that Annie spent the summer on house arrest and is on probation until she's twenty-five.

A year of build-up. A year of the character trying to dodge a murder charge. A year of that hanging over her head. And the only payoff comes in the form of an off-screen confession and a throwaway line of dialogue designed to brush the whole thing under the carpet. That's just bad writing. Not only is it bad story construction, but it's completely implausible!

I wrote in jest on Twitter that after Lindsay Lohan's brushes with the law, it's not too implausible that three months house arrest and eight years of probation is the going rate for murder (or more likely, manslaughter) in Los Angeles. To be perfectly blunt, I find it utterly stupid that an entire staff of writers who are paid good money to sit in a room and craft stories spent an entire year building this plotline and THAT was the climax.

Worse, it's a story that completely taints the lead character. When the chips were down, when Annie made a mistake that cost someone their life, she chose to hide from it. At one point this hit-and-run was a big enough deal on the show that another character who happened on the scene after Annie was hailed as a hero for doing what he could to help. Everyone on the show was aware of this death. So to have Annie come forward and not acknowledge any sort of fallout isn't just bad writing, it's terrible writing.

If the writers were willing to follow through on it, they should have made Annie a social pariah. We should see her family and friends utterly disgusted by her behavior. Can you imagine having a worse reputation at school than being the girl who ran over a guy and tried to get away with it for a year?

I know that the writing staff's defense might be that they had spent most of the season planning to reveal that someone else had actually run over the guy first, and that Annie hit him second. That still doesn't solve the central problem of the plot - that Annie believed that she was a murderer and completely failed to do the right thing. Even if that guy had been stabbed, shot and poisoned before Annie hit him, that does nothing to mitigate Annie's complete moral failing. One way or another, they would have had to have a plan to deal with that.

Let me tell you, writers, if you're not willing to deal with the fallout of your plotlines (whether it's in a screenplay or in a long-running TV show arc) then you shouldn't tell that story. The audience will never ignore a logical question just because you tell them to.

I'm sure that some might say, "Hey it's just a stupid teen drama. Do you really expect good writing?" Well, I don't expect great writing - but for what those people are paid, I'd expect them to not make an elementary writing mistake. When you step up a plot with the question "Is our lead character a killer?" it's writing malpractice to not consider, "How are we going to get out of this? How do we keep this from tainting Annie after this story is done?"

I could be writing the show for free and I still would have cared enough to ask those questions.

But they didn't. Professional writers should be better than that.