Roll up, roll up. It’s rant o’clock!
As you may or may not know, I love TV. Good TV that is. I have no time for people who are happy to stick their nose in a book but only look down their nose at television. I love stories and I love writers, and that’s what’s on and who’s behind TV. Yes, there’s bad TV, but there’s bad books too. If your argument is that TV-watching is too passive an activity, turn on your TV’s captioning service. There. Sorted.
A few months ago, the final episode of a four-part drama series called Amber aired here on the state broadcaster’s channel RTE, and as our TV screens faded to black we took to Twitter and raged. Then we called into radio shows and raged. When we next saw our friends and family we said, ‘Were you watching Amber?’ and if the answer was yes then we raged some more.
In the first episode four nights before, a teenage girl — Amber — disappeared. She got her father to drop her to a friend’s house, waited until he’d driven away and then scurried off somewhere. We’d all stayed tuned for more than an hour each evening since to follow the investigation and the search, while flashbacks teased us about Amber’s final (?) hours. What happened to Amber? both we and the characters on the show wondered aloud. Where is she? Where did she go? The acting was mostly great, the production was sleek and the opening titles even had a touch of Top of the Lake about them. Many of us had spent numerous Saturday nights glued to subtitled Scandinavian drama on BBC4 (e.g. The Killing and The Bridge) and sat through Christmas impatient for new Sherlock, so it was a treat to have a slick crime drama of our own to watch featuring An Garda Siochana (the Irish police force) and Irish actors.
Or so we thought.
I can’t write the rest of this without revealing the details of Amber, but since it already aired, most of you don’t live in Ireland and I feel compelled to warn those of you who live in the UK not to waste four nights of your life watching it like we did when it airs on BBC4 later this year, I think we’ll be alright.
But just to be fair:
***CRAPPY TV SHOW SPOILER ALERT***
So why the rage as the screen faded to black? Well, because the last shot was of Amber walking down a country road. Alive. The show ended without the viewer knowing what happened to Amber. Four episodes of a drama series about a girl going missing that in the end revealed… Well, nothing much of anything at all, it turned out.
That was bad enough.
That was annoying.
But what BROUGHT ON THE RED RAGE was the response of the team behind the show to our disappointment over this.
They said,* “It’s like real life, and in real life you don’t always find out what happened to the person who went missing.”
They said, “If you were really paying attention, there were plenty of clues.”
(Implying that you hadn’t paid attention at all and were too stoopid to put it altogether. You dumbarse!)
And to pour acid into the wound they’d already poured salt into, they said, “She’s just gone and no, no character you met along the way had anything at all to do with it.”
OH HOW MY BLOOD BOILS WITH SUPERFLUOUS CAPITAL LETTERS.
When a reader sits down with a book or a viewer settles onto the sofa, they’re expecting a story. Stories have beginnings, middles and ends and the end of a story is also the resolution of it. This doesn’t necessarily mean that everything is tied up nicely in a bow and every mystery carefully explained away, but it does mean that the reader or viewer is left feeling satisfied. They feel there is a point to the story, a good reason for its existence.
That’s why the whole “but that’s what it’s like in real life” line doesn’t wash, because this wasn’t real life. It was a TV show. And TV shows get resolved.
(And also, if I wanted real life, I would’ve watched a documentary. Or looked out the window.)
I heard they also said that it wasn’t so much about the crime itself, but the effect the crime had on the family, neighborhood, etc. See Broadchurch for an excellent example of this. But what happened at the end of Broadchurch? Oh yeah, WE FOUND OUT WHAT HAPPENED AND WHO DID IT.
But that’s just the manslaughter charge in this crime against story. The murder one is the revelation that no one the viewer was introduced to in the fictional universe was responsible for the murder and/or disappearance of Amber.
Or to put it another way: cheating.
If the writer of a story that involves a crime (or other mystery) decides from the outset that they’re not going to reveal or explain to the reader/viewer what happened by its end, they are doing the writing equivalent of dictating to an assistant as they sunbathe on a beach in Bahamas while the rest of us live in a dark stone cell and scratch our story onto the walls with a pen knife.
In a draught.
With no reveal/explanation, there are no rules. If there’s no rules, you don’t have to play by them. You don’t have to induce a migraine tying your plot up in knots and drawing graphs and using six different colors of Post-It notes to map out every last twist and turn. You can do whatever you like because it doesn’t all have to make sense at the end. You can fill your story with intense moments of mystery and end every chapter with a crazy cliffhanger and it all doesn’t matter because — woo-hoo! — you’re free to make this crap up as you go along. You can do whatever you like because you haven’t committed to doing anything in particular except stringing us all along. Let’s throw in a unicorn and a ghostly apparition and a car chase and then – POOF! – deus ex machina, THE END.
I should’ve known that Amber had a plot problem because of the shambles that was Episode 2.
Amber had a non-linear narrative that kept jumping around in time as it followed different people through her disappearance and the subsequent search for her. In episode 1, we were shown Amber coming out of the city centre on the Luas (tram) carrying a shopping bag. Got that? Right. In episode 2, we focused on a very shady character who was already in prison for another crime and, in flashbacks, we saw him looking very suspicious as he sat in a parked car and watched Amber walk by on the day she went missing. But anyone with two brain cells would’ve instantly been able to deduce that Mr Suspicious had nothing to do with Amber’s disappearance, because when she walked past his car she wasn’t carrying a shopping bag. Therefore she hadn’t been into the city yet. And since we knew from Episode 1 that she stayed alive long enough to get back on the tram and come out of the city with her shopping bag, we knew this guy didn’t kill or take her.
(I’m not even going to talk about the episode where Amber’s father SAVED AMERICAN BACKPACKERS FROM HUMAN TRAFFICKERS IN EASTERN EUROPE BY WATCHING PORN AND HAVING A PROSTITUTE OVER FOR DINNER. No, really. That was actually the “plot” of the final episode.)
If convicted for this first degree murder of what a story is supposed to be, the prosecution should seek the death penalty in this case because while leaving us hanging is bad enough, the creators admitted that (a) they know what happened (um yeah, oh-kay…) and that (b) NO ONE WE MET IN THE SHOW WAS RESPONSIBLE.
(Remembering that they told us the show was filled with clues, had we bothered to pay attention.)
Are you [BLEEP] kidding me with this?
That breaks the cardinal rule of crime and thrillers, and breaking this rule shows such a blatant disrespect for the reader/viewer that I’d need to start taking blood pressure medication if I thought about it too much. It’s just not playing fair if you don’t give the reader/viewer a chance to figure it out for themselves. Now I read crime novels and thrillers all the time, and I never figure it out. I like it that way. (I was once friends with a girl who would start every book by turning to the last chapter to appraise the ending. Only if she liked it would she go back to the start and read the book. We’re not friends anymore. Coincidence?) But when what really happened is revealed, I go ‘Oh, right! I see it now.’ I realize the clues were there all along. Readers who are cleverer than me may go ‘I KNEW it!’, but despite our different reactions we’re both feeling satisfied, we’re both feeling like the time we sunk into the book or show wasn’t wasted.
But if the person who killed/disappeared Amber WASN’T EVEN IN THE BLOODY SHOW, well, we don’t have much of a chance of figuring it out, now do we?
And of course, it also means that no one involved in writing the show had to figure it out either. Again: cheating.
It’s not that stories that aren’t neatly tied up can’t be satisfying. See Tana French’s In The Woods or series 2 of The Bridge for more on this. But they worked because even though not every plot strand was tied up in a bow, something was. And that something made sense. It also involved CHARACTERS WE’D ACTUALLY BEEN INTRODUCED TO.
I was venting my rage on Twitter the night of finale when someone suggested we send the writers a copy of Robert McKee’s Story. I suggested that that might be a bit advanced for them. Perhaps an episode of Murder She Wrote instead?
You know something? I realize now that this blog post may not have a point. I just really needed to vent about how stoopid that bloody show was. But you know what? Maybe it’s not supposed to have a point, because that’s, like, real life. Things don’t get all neatly tied up in real life, dontcha know.
[A T-REX BURSTS OUT OF THE BUSHES]
[THE POWER GOES OUT]
Now, how was that for you?
Amber is apparently going to air on BBC Four sometime this year and after that it’ll infect Netflix. It’s too late for me but run, save yourselves!
UPDATE: BBC *did* show it and my blog visits have been boosted by people searching for ‘amber crap ending’ and the like. For more Amber rage, see this great piece by Daragh Keany writing for the Sunday World. Now, go watch some GOOD TV.
What show or book had an ending that gave you the RED RAGE? Why was it so rage-inducing? Did you watch Amber? Do you think we can have some of our TV license fee back from RTE? Let me know in the comments below…