For a year, during my twenties, I befriended a group of struggling women, all in AA. Everything always came back to one particular moment in their lives. They all shared these very personal stories and it didn’t really take them long to do so. In AA they teach you it’s cathartic to share these stories with others who understand. This helps, once a person is out of rehab, to share their stories with loved ones and friends. Even today, almost 10 years later, I ponder these women and their experiences. This vital personal story was missing from Bridget’s introduction to us. As we were rushed off to meet the rest of the cast, we were never given even a moment to glimpse why Bridget was worthy of redemption. In this post I explore how proper pacing and focusing on the protagonist is much more important than setting up the premise.
Many times before we’ve even seen the premiere of a new television show we become excited. It could be over the actors involved: Sarah Michelle Gellar, squee, or a commercial hinting at the cool premise: who hasn’t wondered what it would be like to have a mirror of yourself walking around? Even the co-stars can make us swoon, Ioan Gruffudd rock my world, and Ringer has, count them: seven, yes seven reoccurring male co-stars. I can safely say Ringer had a lot going for it before I even turned on the TV. As mind-blowing as all these are, they’re only window dressing to the actual story. The point of a premiere is to hook the viewer into watching the show each week. As such how these details are used to dress up a story plays a vitally important role in the life of a television show.
Our protagonist is Bridget: the messed up, confused twin just coming out of rehab. She’s witnessed a murder and is the prosecution’s star witness. Confident of her coming demise she runs, taking refuge with her twin to whom she’s written an AA letter seeking forgiveness. Siobhan is the pulled together, sophisticated and cool twin. We understand right away that their relationship had become strained at some point in the past six years. Everything in her life is perfect she insinuates to Bridget; yet later that day she throws herself off a boat into the depths of the lake’s murky bottom. To protect herself from her past Bridget takes over as Siobhan. An intriguing premise, right?
My disappointment knew no bounds when after the first fifteen minutes I wanted to stop watching. I probably would have too, I persisted because I couldn’t shake the thought that Sarah Michelle Gellar had to have found some redeeming quality to put her name on it. Many aspects of this premiere really worked, unfortunately the successful bits were the window dressing and had already done their job luring the audience in. No matter how much we watch for an actor (or any other window dressing detail) if the story doesn’t work the audience starts to see the scaffolding in the background. The same was true for Ringer’s suffering story. By thirty minutes I wanted to stab my eyes out. Even simple production tasks like blue screening (the twins on a boat ride across a lake) were fumbled. A good cast, appropriate atmosphere and a solid premise didn’t save the premiere. Three fundamentals of a well-written story were almost totally absent and without them Ringer was a rushed mess: #1 – a connection between the characters and the audience, #2 – focus on the protagonist’s point of view and #3 – good pacing.
A Connection to Character
Putting Bridget in AA was a stroke of background brilliance. They mishandled it when it came time to use it in the actual story. Sure I understood she’d been a partying girl who took it too far and had to go to rehab to dig herself back out of her mess. I didn’t feel anything about it though. So a murderer is after her? Why should I care? I don’t know. I wasn’t presented with anything that made me feel sorry for her.
Each and every woman I met that year in my twenties had one particular story, personal to them, that defined when and why they started their addictive lifestyle. By sharing these stories they reaffirm again and again for themselves and others how they got on that road and why it’s important to beat their enslavement. I really got to know these women and came to see them as strong and independent, nothing like you’d imagine looking at them from the outside. As we understand the type of people in AA it made her the perfect character for us in the audience to connect to first. All we needed was the personal details that we could us to intimately relate to the character.
For example, one woman watched her son cradle his girlfriend as she drowned, pinned under a log when she slipped into a nearby river. Another woman shared how her family tried to press drugs on her. They couldn’t understand why she wasn’t able to be a recreational user like them. A third shared how her family locked her up as a child because she’d dreamed she met her grandfather, whom she loved, after he died. If I presented these three women to you in folding chairs in a school gym you’d get they were in AA. You’d get that they were addicts and recovering users like Bridget. We can’t relate to them though, until we hear their stories and start to see who they are as women.
This story personalized Bridget for us and we start to see her as a woman, but it also gives us just enough to judge whether we think she’s redeemable or not. Even if none of the other problems with the story were fixed at least we’d have gotten through the middle of the episode because we felt Bridget’s pain. I believe the writers felt it more important to hide the details of this personal story so they could use it in some future episode. If you re-read my examples though you’ll see you don’t need that many details. In fact, you don’t need to be as specific. Start mid way through the story. Show the other AA members responding to her story again, even though she’d shared the same story in the past. She could have said: “A child, my-” with a deep breath, “A child died by my hand. How can that ever be forgivable? No matter what I’ve seen, what I’ve witnessed that child will forever be dead.” This gets the specifics across, we feel her guilt, her shame. A character with a history in AA has such diverse and rich experiences to share and pass on. Why’d we miss out on this vital connectable element?
Focus on the Protagonist
Now you are probably asking – what’s wrong with the point of view focus? What does that even mean? Let me explain. It’s pretty obvious even with all her problems that as I explained above Bridget is the protagonist. Now she’s not the only point of view but she is the central one. Everyone else stems off her: the FBI agent, the AA sponsor, the twin sister, and even her sister’s relationships: including her husband, her husband’s daughter, her lover, and her best friend. So the connection to the audience should be with Bridget. We should be emotionally involved and what happens within her relationships with the other characters should inform our emotions about her character.
I found this aspect really lacking. I felt zero connection to Bridget emotionally (except that this is Sarah Michelle Gellar and I really want her to succeed). Why is she so buddy, buddy with her AA sponsor that she calls and tells him about taking over her twin’s life? I don’t know. I can’t even assume why from what we are shown when they are together. The plot reason did work: she called her AA sponsor because he’s her AA sponsor. But why emotionally does she feel like she can call him? I don’t need to be told why. I needed to be shown some interaction besides her chatting amicably to him after her meeting. Something that hints at what she personally sees in him.
Let’s say it’s because he doesn’t judge her. Okay give me a scene that shows me that. The writer felt illustrating that Malcolm was a leader in AA was enough. The focus was on Malcolm, not on Bridget’s relationship with Malcolm. Who cares he’s got his life together? That could or couldn’t be the reason Bridget chose him as her AA sponsor. I’m not connected to her emotions here. We need the AA sponsor trust from her point of view. What makes their bond hold so much truth for Bridget; not a generic recovering addict – Bridget. Maybe at the refreshment table he mentions something in dialogue she didn’t mention to the group as a whole. Maybe he talks matter-of-factly about her testifying or being a stripper. Something emotional that the audience can relate to in their own life that supports he doesn’t judge her. By refocusing all these plot reasons onto the emotional reasons felt by Bridget the audience can begin to feel why she believes the way she does.
For the premise, her relationship with her sister was the most important of these point of views that we needed to feel. Now from Siobhan we got that they had a past. Good, but we also got that they were estranged and hadn’t seen each other for a long time. So what made Bridget so upset and anxious when Siobhan killed herself that she had to call her AA sponsor who might very well give her up under FBI pressures? I don’t know. (This circles back to why the AA sponsor relationship is so strong? My belief in the story falters here – in the first fifteen minutes – because I don’t understand the emotion of it.)
The pretext was that Bridget felt obligated to fulfill one of her steps for AA forgiveness. I assume this because that is what Siobhan and Bridget talked of in their mini-dialogue at the mirrors. This is a plot point though, not an emotional reason why Bridget feels the desperate need of acceptance by her sister. I needed a scene or even dialogue that hinted at why Bridget felt such a connection to her twin sister. Something that held more depth then…oh they are twins so they should feel strongly about each other. This wasn’t enough before AA, and even so Siobhan didn’t share the twin love view so the premise that Bridget should doesn’t hold. An exchange such as: “You were always my older sister and you always will be,” or “Someday I’ll be as pulled together as my older sister.” If we refocus on Bridget and Bridget’s emotions with the other characters (using whatever connection they have with her) than we exponentially increase our connection to her.
When Bridget woke up and her sister wasn’t on the boat I’m sure everyone watching thought: ‘She set you up stupid,’ just like I did. I couldn’t sympathize and when she broke down and called Malcolm her AA sponsor, I sneered in disbelief: ‘this is ridiculous, how can she believe her sister killed herself?’ In part all this was so unbelievable because there was so little dialogue between the two, how could she not remember one of the few things her sister said was how perfect her life was? The fact is the premiere was rushed. What do you want to bet that scene with her sister was cut from a much, much, much longer one?! Yeah, better not take a bet you’re sure to lose.
Screen time is necessary to show these connections and tie the threads between the relationships needed for the first episode arc. In order to include more than empty plot motivations that are present in every modern story we need time to make the emotional connections as well. The scene in her sister’s house where she is distraught her sister killed herself would make a perfect hour mark. It’s an emotional point that makes you wonder what she’s going to do about it. Will it be selfish or selfless or a mixing of both? This could be done in a two-hour premiere or two one-hour episodes, either would have worked. The second half of the show with the best friend and the men could easily have been expanded to fill the entire second hour by including more dialogue and you guessed it, building more connections.
Setup Matters More than Premise
By creating the threads and connections needed, when Bridget woke up on the boat, we would have thought…’What? Why’d she kill herself?’ Instead of what everyone really thought with the added drag of seeing the entire rest of the plot lay itself out in our minds. If done right, at the end when the sister is revealed as the villain I would have been like: ‘oh no, poor Bridget, how will she get out of this, I can’t wait until next week’s show.’ Even if you would rather root for Siobhan by supporting a connection between Bridget and the audience you make the payoff for Siobhan succeeding all the sweeter. Being able to relate to the whys of a character is so important to the longevity of a show. You’ll watch forever for a character you love. You’ll watch until bored for a plot that twists a little.
The writing aspect is so important to develop the ties that bind and has been sadly lacking in production nowadays. A generic use of back history is an opportunity lost to build a bridge the audience can’t help but cross. I believe the writers didn’t find the setup all that important. That fact is pretty evident. They also thought the second half of the hour plot would hook the audience a lot better than any understanding or connection to the character. While I agree more male co-stars equaled more drama for the screen, the lack of connection to the protagonist was a major turn off. Over time, this hit or miss plotting acting as the draw engenders the thought, “Oh well, I can miss this episode, I’d rather (fill in the blank).” That idea kills a show. We have Sarah Michelle Gellar who expertly portrayed a set of twins, we actually want to sympathize with! The premiere should have banked on her, not on secret stories or a crazy number of male co-stars to add angst and drama. Such promise lost…