Something slightly different this week. We have Emily and Paul B answering questions about tropes on TV. So, what are you waiting for? Let’s go!
Warning: Spoilers be here for Buffy, Supernatural, Community, Farscape and Babylon 5.
We’ve heard a lot in the past few weeks about tropes from episodes you like. But do you have any that you hate?
Emily: I think it’s entirely possible that I can no longer deal with the use of singing as part of or as the entire episode. For me, Once More With Feeling from Buffy was enough., and now any other show that ends up with its character breaking out into song without it being karaoke or similar… I cringed way more rewatching that season three episode of Community where everyone ends up singing than I had previously.
TL;DR: I now hate musical episodes, but I use to be able to tolerate them. I still have a soft spot for Once More With Feeling.
Paul: I don’t think there’s one that I hate necessarily, but there are some that do get tiresome. I know it’s only part of the way the story is told rather than a story per se, but I have seen way too many that start towards the end – getting the action and mystery in first and then going back to the day before or whatever. It’s way too overused.
As for actual tropes – I think probably planet of the hats. Planet of the hats is where a race in sci fi have one defining characteristic. So with Star Trek, we have Klingons are warlike, Ferrengi are greedy, etc… Often we see select “outsiders” from the group buck the trend, but overall, the entire race (despite being able to come up with some relatively interesting scenarios) is still wearing the same kind of personality.
Tropes in TV have always been shortcuts with meaning. Do you feel many tropes become more than that?
Emily : I think the body-swap/Freaky Friday trope has done a lot of growing up over the years. It’s gone a bit more from just being, “oh well, look at the wackiness”, with a lot more on looking introspectively at what it’s really like to be on someone else’s shoes. Though I’ll admit that the last time I watched something with this trope was the season five episode of Supernatural called “Swapped Meat” and that was mainly an episode there just for giggles more than trying to say anything serious.
Paul: I think the real sign that a trope has become something more, is when it becomes meta. When the trope is actually referenced. I think Buffy did this saying in their bodyswap episode in season 4 “freaky Friday”. Same with Community’s bodyswap episode. I think it’s more of a way of referencing a set of rules for the story. In the bodyswap episodes, we know that a: two characters will swap bodies and b: other characters won’t understand that they’ve swapped bodies and c: that in order to reverse the process, they have to do the same thing that initiated the event and d: that the characters are taught to value their own situation and lives.
The same thing happens with the Groundhog day trope. We know the rules, so a slightly more complicated setup can happen with minimal explanation.
Tropes can be seen almost like stereotypes – actually quite lazy for storytelling. Would you agree or disagree?
Emily : It really does depend on whether the trope is just there to liven-up the overall season of a show. But I have seen them used to go way beyond just being wacky. The Supernatural episode that I talked about last week, involving a time loop, was there in the season to help affect a character’s perception of a major plot point in that season and had long lasting consequences, so that in of itself wasn’t lazy.
And then with Once More With Feeling, which kind of created the musical episode trope, that was all about revealing the truth of what was going on with Buffy that season. It had some really shocking revelations and it’s not easy to put those across in song.
Elsewhere, though, I do think tropes are just used to jazz things up for an episode.
Paul: It depends on how they’re done. If a trope doesn’t reference it’s inspiration it can come off as plagiarist. If a trope is done and it has some sort of twist, then it can be good. Buffy’s Bodyswap episode for example – Faith was the one to initiate the body switch – against Buffy’s knowledge and wishes. Faith gets a taste of being Buffy and likes it.
Likewise Farscape’s bodyswap episode didn’t just have two characters swapping, but everyone swapping – with some hilarious consequences (like John in Aeryn’s body).
I think the trope is a good starting place because it has a previous set of rules and stuff associated with it, but it’s better when it’s had it’s unique situations.
A lot of tropes last for a single episode – are there any you think could have been expanded in any TV series?
Emily: Quantum Leap made an entire series around body swapping: so it has been done. But I’m not sure if there are many other tropes that you could take and expand throughout a TV series. A few of the more expostionary ones have worked throughout series, like having characters write in a diary each episode or having a character break the fourth wall often: like in House of Cards.
But there aren’t really any that I’d want to see expanded into a TV series.
Paul: As Emily mentioned, there have been plenty that did work it’s way into entire seasons or series. These are actually good by themselves. Fringe really made the alternate universe trope far more important than most TV series do (and lets face it, there’s so much that can be done with it). Sliders even had its concept based around it.
Farscape also had a duplication episode which then span off into a dual storyline, where one episode would focus on one part of the crew on Moya, then the next episode would be on Talyn. This is actually fairly similar to Fringe’s third season, which had it split between he two universes (which worked really well, as it stopped it from being the prime universe and the “evil” universe).
Personally, I think most could potentially spin into multiple episodes and seasons. I like the idea of a Groundhog day season – at least for a small area – but having it so that other characters can come in from outside and leave. There’s just so many possibilities. The consequences for a lot of tropes would probably last for quite a while, so why not?
The tropes themselves don’t do very well without some other hijinks going on. How do you think the better ones achieve this?
Emily: The better ones try to make sure that the humour isn’t just constantly gag after gag and instead allow the characters to progress through the story and see things from a different angle. If the episode is too concerned with revelling in the oddness that has been introduced for just that one episode, then it just gets really boring and you begin to wonder if a sci-fi or fantasy show should have been a comedy from the get go.
And I’m not actually that fond of the more tropey episodes of Red Dwarf, for instance, because you end up with a comedy sci-fi that then just leans way too far into the comedy. There needs to be a balance.
Paul: I think the better ones take an already existing conflict and builds upon it. Tabula Rasa episode of Buffy had several conflicts going on, with Willow and Tara’s relationship strained due to magic, with Giles leaving again, and Spike being far more good than most vampires. Likewise, in Fringe, we discovered the origins of Peter being from the alternate universe, the fact that Walter stole him as well as being revealed that it was where William was hiding out.
The tropes themselves in these examples act simply as mediums which the story travels through. The continuing stories with the characters are often at the core of the better tropes.
Some shows like Bablyon 5 and Battlestar Galactica don’t seem to use so many tropes. Do you think there’s a fundamental difference between these series and others?
Emily: For me, the new Battlestar Galactica, more so than Babylon 5, was a drama first and sci-fi second. The same could be said of Game of Thrones, where it’s a drama first and a fantasy series second. It’s this difference that means that they don’t seem to be as keen to go all wacky in comparison to other shows. They want to be taken seriously, hence the focus on drama, and so don’t resort to tropes, because so many of them are associated with humour.
Paul: I think there’s definitely something about tone and focus that is a factor there. The focus being the characters and the story. If you take the analogy of the light through a prism that I was alluding to in the previous response, imagine the prism is actually nowhere near as visible. I think that’s what happens with some shows.
Even Babylon 5 had some tropes – albeit more subtly done and with greater spacing. The time-loop from War Without End for example. Even the “greater threat from beyond” is in Thirdspace (which is apparent in things like Star Trek Voyager with species 8472 or Sliders with the Kromags).
But the focus is on the characters. Bearing in mind, that these generally tend to be series that doesn’t delve too much into the fantastical either. Babylon 5 had some basic explanations for things, but never goes into techno-bable unlike Star Trek. Likewise, Battlestar Galactica focused on the story and actually had an interesting grounding in reality with Cylons being able to “upload” to the resurrection ship once perished. I think part of the consequence for this is that some tropes simply couldn’t be done while retaining the trope. Battlestar Galactica couldn’t have done a bodyswap episode with the human characters just like a soap opera wouldn’t be able to. You couldn’t have a Groundhog Day episode in The Walking Dead, because there’s no reasonable explanation for it.