The Plague of the Vague
I watch a lot of television shows. It’s my field and I enjoy it.
Lately I have noticed shows that preposterously withhold vital information from the audience. I am always careful about criticizing anybody on this blog, for fear that it is could be a time bomb that might blow up my career—but on the other hand, I’m pretty sure the creators of these shows are well aware of what they’re doing.
The biggest example is Westworld. The writers seem to fetishize leaving the audience in the dark about huge, consequential parts of their premise and narrative engine.
I’m talking like—who is this character? What is the time period? Let alone what the character wants.
Sometimes you don’t even know if the character is a human or a “host” (android).
I sort of understood it in the first season: it was a way to get the audience to identify with androids who are compelled to carry out their programming, without understanding why.
Because, to an extent, that is the human condition, yes? We’re programmed by genetics and evolution to have needs and desires, without always (or ever) understanding why.
So, the first year—okay, those were some cool reveals. And it was intriguing to get invested in a character’s behavior without understanding the source of his or her “wants.”
But four seasons in, there are four new subplots, and I have no idea who anybody is or what they want...I’m sorry, I keep checking the clock.
Raised by Wolves tried to follow the Westworld template of doling out the show’s mythology slowly and incrementally—and unfortunately it was so weird and esoteric (and expensive to produce), HBOMax canceled it. I guess we’ll never know what was up with that crazy planet!
A very classy Amazon show, Night Sky, also keeps its mythology close to the vest—in a way that, halfway through, I find frustrating. And it was canceled after the first season.
I understand the granddaddy of all of this was Lost. I almost never watched it. Nothing against it—I just didn’t watch it. But it was a mega-hit, of course.
What is the downside of this type of storytelling? Well, it’s obvious: as the audience, we want to know what is going on.
But isn’t mystery good? Yes, mystery is good. Confusion is bad. Ambiguity is good. But vagueness is bad.
In a detective story, we follow the detective who wants to solve the mystery. The crucial detail...drum roll...is that the detective and the audience have the same goal: discover the truth!
So even as the detective has his (or her) successes and failures, we’re happily following along, because we’re invested in the journey and interested in the answers—and we like this person who is working hard to deliver for us.
But in these “vague” shows, the audience wants to know what is going on—yet the characters are preoccupied with other stuff!
They’re either doing things for reasons withheld from the audience, or they are also in the dark—and for whatever reason, being passive about it.
It’s not sustainable as a narrative style.
It’s also a cheap trick because it’s easy. Clarity is hard. But it’s way better.