Idiot Plot Devices
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Sometimes TV shows, especially sitcoms, like to take little plot devices from the movies and use them just for laughs. And use them again. And again. I’m not sure whether to call them visual clichés, moronic jokes, or idiot plot devices. I think Idiot Plot Devices has the best ring.

For example: Roger Ebert, in one of his movie review books talks of one of his favorites – the Fruit Cart. You see the cart being slowly rolled down a city street or sidewalk, usually by an ethnic type, in some action movie where a chase is taking place. Ebert maintains that whenever the cart appears, it will soon be toppled with its contents spilling and rolling all over the place, and the fruit vendor can be counted on to shake his fist at the fleeing culprits. Audience members have been known to yell, “Fruit cart!” at such moments.

  
 
There are quite a few of these devices, but three of them drive me absolutely bonkers.

First on my list is the Red Carpet Stumble. You’ve seen it; the glamorous young woman strides gracefully down a carpet at some flashy premiere or award ceremony, smiling to the crowd and flashing cameras, when oh, no, she stumbles over something and falls face first to the ground, completely out of frame. Then, with the speed of light - whoosh! – she’s back on her feet and smiling as if nothing ever happened. I’m expected to laugh heartily every time I see this. Every single time.

(The previews for the film Charlie’s Angels - Full Throttle featured a smiling Cameron Diaz doing the Red Carpet Stumble. I immediately thought, “This movie is a turkey.” And guess what? I was right.)

And how about the Yell That Can Be Heard From Really Far Away? Movie and TV characters do occasionally yell loud and long for various reasons, some so loud they can even be heard outside the building they’re in. This device was effectively used in the bloody horse head scene in The Godfather. But in the last five to ten years, every TV show in creation has taken that concept and expanded it as far as outer space – for humorous effect.

I just watched a show called “That’s So Raven” with my daughter. One of the characters, a high-school kid, just learned that he passed a test, allowing him to play on the football team. “I made the team!” he yells in the school hallway. Now we are outside the school – and he’s just as loud! “I made the team!” he yells. In the next moment we’re far from the school, outside the city limits, as the yelling continues. (At this point an optional flock of pigeons may burst into flight.) The last and final scene is Earth as seen from outer space. “I made the team! I made the team!”

Ho-ho! Even from space we can hear this guy! He must be very excited!

Finally, here’s one I think I’ll call the Preposterous Repeated Phrase.

Years ago I was watching a soap opera (my excuse is that I was very sick, but that’s another story) when a finely chiseled male character said to a female character, “Possession is nine-tenths of the law, you know,” in a joking tone. A few minutes later, a new scene with a completely different man and woman takes place. She says to him, jokingly, “You know what they say, don’t you? Possession IS nine-tenths of the law.”

Wow. It’s as if the same person had written both scenes. What are the odds of that?

The only time I’ve seen the Preposterous Repeated Phrase used to good effect was in “Seinfeld”:

George: Worlds collide! They collide, Jerry!
Jerry: Yes, I know. Kramer told me about the worlds.

Most TV shows, however, use this clumsily, or even worse, unknowingly, like the soap opera. The same phrase, repeated almost verbatim, by different characters in different scenes. I think, “tsk, tsk, sloppy, sloppy," and begin to lose interest. The seams are beginning to show.

Of course, as a writer myself, I wouldn’t do that. That would be worse then writing a story with a fruit cart toppling down a red carpet with the vendor shaking his fist and yelling, “I made the team, I made the team!”

I suppose I could, but then worlds might collide.

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