Friday, August 12, 2011

The Writer's Cardinal Sin Part II: A Case Study

Yesterday, I ranted mused about what I view as the Writer's Cardinal Sin: being false to one's characters and making them act in such uncharacteristic ways that they destroy the audience's sense of entrancement. When this happens, the audience is rudely reminded that the characters aren't real.

Oh, you are so brilliant a writer. Fang and I are entranced.
Nothing will lose a writer fans faster.

That's why I am so mad at Jeff Eastin I could spit. Eastin created White Collar, one of the few shows that made me wish I still had TV. I own seasons 1 & 2 on DVD. The way season 3 is going, however, putting it on my WishList remains doubtful. The reason is that the show's writers have (in my opinion) committed the aforementioned Cardinal Sin.

Let's take just one random episode, say Scott Free, fer instance (though every episode this season suffers from Cardinal Sin Syndrome. But I digress...):

In this episode's opening scene, Peter bursts into Neal's apartment early in the morning, surprising him as he's making breakfast for his girlfriend, Sara, who has spent the night. A ridiculous exchange takes place in which Sara and Neal react with all the dignity of a couple of bumbling teenagers caught fooling around in the parents' sedan.

Really? This is what we get from a female character who repossesses luxury goods and thwarts insurance fraud by whacking the bad guys with a stick?

"Yes," you may say, "making a strong female character act like a blathering Homecoming Queen borders on the criminal. But male writers do this so often it's hardly a cardinal sin. It's more like an indulgence." 
Your bungling irks me. And you made Fang's head explode.

I suppose ... But the whole "bursting into Neal's apartment at inopportune times" gag is played out with woeful predictability. The viewer knows it's going to happen. Wouldn't you think Neal would get a lock -- and use it? 

One of the tenets of the entire series has been that con man Neal Caffrey is the best of the best, and only FBI agent Peter Burke has the chops to beat him -- and then, only barely. The first two years were spent building the case for Neal's criminal genius.

Now, don't get me wrong, the first two seasons have plot holes you could pilot a Nazi U-boat through, if you were so inclined. But the characters were so convincing -- so consistent -- that the viewer willingly suspended disbelief and followed in their wake.

For inexplicable reasons, however, this third year has been all about finding ways to pull loose threads and unravel the mythos of Neal's character. The writers have committed the Cardinal Sin of taking someone they've spent two years building up as brilliant and making him insufferably, unforgivably stupid.

With a capital "STU." I present Exhibit A:

Neal and sidekick Mozzie meet up with the Plot Point of the Week; a 20-something kid who steals from the rich and gives to the poor, who the feds are calling "the next Neal Caffrey," much to Neal's dismay. Knowing this kid is trouble, they take him to Neal's apartment. Which is in a big ol' mansion filled with tons of expensive stuff. Because, evidently, that's where you go when you have someone you don't trust and are lacking a budget for another set.
If I close one eye, maybe I can see your motives for this travesty...

In Season 1, Neal called in a favor to a friend and was able to put on a kick-ass rooftop party for the glitterati within hours. Now, the writers want us to believe that the only place in the entire city uber-smart Neal can take the brat while they work out a plan is his own home?

An all-night writers' drinking party is the only explanation for how this move was justified as a reasonable thing the character would do.

"Sinful, maybe. One of the Writer's 7 Deadly Sins (Laziness), perhaps. But not a Cardinal Sin."

Oh, there are so many other examples I could point to in just this single episode.
What have you done to my favorite characters? It's a train wreck. I can't watch.
Here's one: Neal and Mozzie have been unable to move any of their ill-gotten gains because they don't know what is listed on a partial manifest which Peter keeps in an easily-picked-with-a-spork drawer in his office. In this same episode, Neal successfully cracks an "uncrackable" safe. But his handler, who doesn't trust him, keeps the One Thing he's searching for within easy reach, and he doesn't find it?

For shame, writers! For shame! Neal's new name should be "Stu." And Peter's could be "Pid."

But the capstone is in the final scene.

Neal has finally gotten a bona-fide, unbreakable alias. It's perfect. It's permanent. He's had it less than 24 hours.

So where does he put his new passport? Not in a safe. Not a lock box. He doesn't open, say, a safety deposit box in his new name and keep his ultra Top Secret Important document there. Nope. Not our criminal genius.

The writers expect us to believe that he takes his new passport to his home and hides it in a hole in the wall.
Aaaaauuugh! You have betrayed my trust! I shall never forgive you! Never!
He doesn't lock it up. He doesn't even close up the hole. So Sara, of course, finds the new alias about 15 seconds after he's received it.

Well, butter my behind and call me a biscuit. S-T-U-...

In a single episode (sadly, in nearly every single episode) of the third season, the main characters behave in ways that are woefully inconsistent with their own history. Which is all the more unforgivable because there are about 64,000 ways to have written a story that was equally, if not more, compelling while refusing to heap a ton of stupid on the characters' heads.

Now, thanks to these 43 minutes of screen time, Sara doesn't deserve a grown-up relationship. Peter deserves to lose the manifest. And Neal deserves to get caught.

More to the point, both actors and fans of the series don't deserve such sinfully sloppy writing.

Take care -- take GREAT care -- when writing that you treat your characters and your audience with respect. Because it's much easier to make a fan than it is to regain one...

All photos by Alvimann, courtesy of

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