Tuesday, May 3, 2016

The Idiot Line: Examining "The Idiot Plot"

A writer who has a character do something incredibly stupid to advance a plot is indulging in that hacky, misbegotten writer's gimmick known as the "idiot plot."  The idiot plot theory is more impactful than the auteur theory.  It is more common in a scriptwriter's work than the "Chekhov's Gun" theory.

It disappointed me that Season 2 of Better Call Saul had seemingly wandered into idiot plot territory.  The show's protagonist is an imprudently unethical lawyer, Jimmy McGill (Bob Odenkirk).  A. J. Marechal of Mashable wrote, "[W]e know he's a rule-breaker.  He goes rogue from expected attorney conduct, he risks his standing with the American Bar Association with suspect endeavors, and, well, he flat out lies."

In the episode "Amarillo," Jimmy is beginning work as an associate at an upscale law firm, Davis & Main.  He acquires help from two film students to produce a television commercial for the purpose of client outreach.  He is so pleased with how the commercial turns out that he can't wait to get it on the air and arranges for the commercial's broadcast without bothering to get his boss' approval.  This was an idiotic risk because, first, the risk was unnecessary (he could have likely sold his bosses on the idea of the commercial) and, second, the risk was dangerous (it was bound to jeopardize his job).  Most critics justified the bad decision by saying that Jimmy is compulsive and self-destructive.  An alternate excuse was put forth that Jimmy is, by nature, a cocky risk-taker.  AV Club's Donna Bowman noted that Jimmy is simply taking a roll of the dice, confident that his commercial is a masterstroke that is bound to succeed and its "success will cover his sins."  It didn't.  

The show also focuses on ex-cop Mike Ehrmantraut (Jonathan Banks).  Mike voluntarily gets himself entangled with a Mexican drug cartel.  Commenters on Internet boards found this to be idiotic behavior on his part.  Here are a couple of typical comments:
"I'm not sure what the hell Mike expected to happen after trifling with the Salamancas."

"I'm not sure whats going on with Mike, but he seems to be deliberately doing things and ignoring the repercussions."
The people who make cable dramas want viewers to believe that the world is a brutal place and their characters will do whatever it takes to survive.  I would tell them to stop being soooo dramatic, but being dramatic is exactly their job.  So, they contrive a constant stream of dire problems for their characters.  These are not the sort of problems that normal people in the real world would ever have to endure.  Too often, the labored dread and phony danger that these characters are made to suffer are less reality and more idiot plot. 

I dislike a contrivance like the idiot plot.  The best scripts flow in a natural, credible and perhaps inevitable way.  The idiot plot can destroy the natural flow quicker than any other writer's trick.  As much as I admire Gunsmoke, I have to admit that the show sometimes had to cheat to create a three-act drama every week.  The first act might introduce the bad man of the week.  He would be combative, create all sorts of trouble, and express violent threats.  More than once, a bad man directly threatened the marshal's life.   He would say something like, "You killed my brother, marshal, and I have come to town to kill you."  But it was never an imminent threat.  So, Dillon left him alone.  People begged the marshal to throw the bad man in jail.  He would tell them, "I can't do anything unless he draws his gun."  Really, where is that written in the penal code?  It was illegal to threaten a person with death or bodily injury.  It is far worse to threaten a marshal.  It was idiotic for a marshal to allow a gunman to make murderous threats without taking immediate action against him.  The problem was that, if the marshal took action immediately, the show would have nowhere to go in the second and third acts.  The introduction of the bad man was meant to create suspense, which was made to build and build until the story reached the appropriate action-packed climax.

Dillon was based on real-life lawman Wyatt Earp.  Casey Tefertiller, author of "Wyatt Earp: The Life Between the Legend," wrote, "Dodge City police records show Wyatt. . . repeatedly making arrests for such offenses as carrying a pistol, drunk and disorderly behavior, and acting in an angry and violent manner.  Preventive law enforcement was their means of avoiding problems."  He added, "Wyatt Earp understood his duty as a lawman was to prevent trouble. . ."  But you didn't have suspense or action if you stopped the bad man before he could even knit his eyebrows.

The real Dodge City wouldn't allow its residents and visitors to walk around town carrying a gun.  Visitors had to turn in their weapons at a hotel or a livery stable.  But, on Gunsmoke, it would have prevented the series' weekly gunfights if the cowboys couldn't carry their guns into town.  It made sense to disarm cowboys before they got drunk and shot up the place.  Gunsmoke is accurate in one very important way.  It wasn't unusual for a pair of drunken cowboys to get into a gun battle over a saloon girl.  This was the most common cause of death in the cowtowns.  So, without question, everyone in town was a lot safer with the cowboys having to turn in their guns. 

The smart man makes it his priority in life to keep himself and his loved ones safe.  If his wits are good for anything, they are good for this purpose.  A smart life is a cautious life, which will hopefully deliver a quiet and content life.  But a quiet life makes for boring television.  So, the producers of weekly television must allow idiocy and recklessness to reign supreme.

Forbes' Allen St. John pointed out to Better Call Saul showrunner Peter Gould that, in his view, Kim Wexler (Rhea Seehorn) is the smartest character on the show.  Gould responded, "We love it when our characters are smart.  But sometimes it makes them really hard to write for.  We just opened up the writer’s room for Season 3 and I found myself at one point saying 'I wish some of these characters were more stupid.  They’re so smart they can see around corners.'"  The problem is that a character who can see around corners has the ability to avoid or prevent trouble.  He is Wyatt Earp arresting the drunk cowboy who's carrying a pistol.

It could be, though, that I am being too rigid in my thinking.  I believe, after watching more recent episodes of Better Call Saul, that I may need to rethink my position on Jimmy.  Ed Power of The Telegraph came to a clearer understanding of Jimmy after watching the episode "Inflatable," in which the fresh junior lawyer irrationally walks away from his dream job.  Powers explained that Jimmy "has no business as a respectable lawyer" and can do nothing else but "[embrace] his true calling as a huckster in a cheap suit."  We, as human beings, are the imperfect creatures that we are.  As Powers sees it, we need to just accept Jimmy's inevitable bad choices and "[bear] witness to his fall from grace."  Powers referenced a scene in which Jimmy's boss, Clifford Davis (Ed Begley Jr.), expresses his bewilderment and contempt over Jimmy's efforts to sabotage his career and tells Jimmy bluntly that he is an "asshole."  Powers agrees with Davis' assessment and wonders if, at this point, Jimmy is someone we can "root for."

I admit, with surprise, that Better Call Saul's showrunners, Gould and Vince Gilligan, managed with skill and finesse to convince me that Jimmy acting against his best interests is not a plot device.  Jimmy is compulsive.  The man, no matter what he promises to do and no matter what he is supposed to do, just can't help himself.  The dysfunctional person, who is present in great numbers in today's world, is a person who is always getting in their own way.  People engage in compulsive shopping, compulsive eating and compulsive gambling although it is obvious this type of behavior will bring about a bad outcome.  I see these people frequently in my daily life and, although I am often dumbfounded by the things they do, they stand before me living and breathing and I have to accept that they exist.  And so it is that I accept that Jimmy exists and he is not merely an extension of the idiot plot.

Don't get me wrong, it isn't easy for me to say this.  I have lived such a cautious life that most every dramatic twist in a film or television series strikes me as complete and jaw-dropping idiocy.  A person who engages in perilous behavior cannot inspire my understanding or sympathy.  I would never borrow money from a loan shark, which a character did in a film that I saw last night.  I would never let a girlfriend strangle me for sexual arousal, which is something else that I saw in a film recently.  That is not the person that I am.  Trust me, I flee doggedly from the mere suggestion of impulsivity and high sensation-seeking behavior.  This behavior is so alien to me that I just can't imagine it happening.  But it does happen.  It is probably happening somewhere on my street as I write this.

I can say now that Jimmy is a believable and uncontrived idiot, but the question becomes if the irresistible urges that compel his idiotic decisions make him a bad person that we shouldn't care about.  After watching Better Call Saul's Season Two finale "Klick," I was willing to consider that Jimmy is not as bad as I thought.  He may actually be, despite his compulsive idiocy, a good person.  I say may because I am just not sure about this.  You qualify as a good person if you perform good acts, which means that your actions must have both good intentions and good results.  Jimmy seems to only get the good intentions part right.  Or does he even get that right?  Vulture contributor Matt Zoller Seitz wrote, "Like a lot of people, Jimmy thinks good intentions excuse almost everything, and that the phrase 'good intentions' is a synonym for 'what I personally want.'"

Bob Odenkirk and Michael McKean in the Better Call Saul episode "Klick."

Does it count for something that Jimmy deeply cares about the people close to him?  His caring side is never more evident than in the "Klick" episode.  Jimmy goes squarely against his own interests to aide his injured brother Chuck (Michael McKean) despite the fact that his brother has been working tirelessly to bring about his downfall.  This time, Jimmy's actions are the morally right thing to do.  This is the difference between self-sabotage and self-sacrifice.  We know in this moment that Jimmy has good in him and that, although he is an asshole, he just may be a lovable asshole.  But then we get a twist.  His brother ends up betraying him, which doesn't make it seem like he did the right thing after all.  This level of misjudgment might qualify as idiocy, but the story remains too nuanced and sophisticated to be dismissed as an idiot plot.

Additional notes: In Defense of Idiocy? 

One day, my uncle was talking to his neighbor Joe.  Joe knew that my uncle got the newspaper every Sunday.  He explained that he needed to look at something in the Sunday paper and he asked my uncle if he could let him have the paper after he was finished with it.  It was a simple favor.  What could go wrong?

On Sunday, my uncle finished the newspaper.  He went out onto his front porch and whistled across the street, assuming that his neighbor would hear him and understand that my uncle had the newspaper for him.  This is not in my estimation a good form of communication.  I see that my uncle had three more reasonable options in this situation:

  1. He could have called the man on the phone.  He did, in fact, have the man's number on speed-dial.

  2. He could have walked across the street and delivered the newspaper to the man's front door.

  3. He could have set aside the newspaper and waited for the neighbor to show up.
But, no, my uncle whistled. 

My uncle was perplexed that his whistle did not have the desired effect.  He went back into the house.  Not too long after, he came back onto the porch and whistled again.  Still, he got no response.

I should note that my uncle will sometimes stop his car in front of my house and beep the horn.  It is usually that he is on his way to the supermarket and he wants to know if he can pick something up for me.  It is a nice deed that he's trying to do, but his efforts do not achieve the proper end.  I hear car horns all of the time and there's no way that I could know this is him.  Later, he will say to me, "I beeped the horn.  Didn't you hear me?" 

So, it was the same situation with his neighbor and the newspaper.  My uncle finally figured it would be a good idea to phone the neighbor.  The man's wife answered.  "Hey," my uncle said, sounding irritated, "where's your husband?  I've been whistling for him!"  The wife became annoyed.  "My husband is not a dog," she told him.

The wife's remark rubbed my uncle the wrong way.  By the time Joe came to pick up the paper, my uncle was terribly worked up.  "Who does she think she is?" he asked Joe.  "I'm a street kid.  I grew up in New York.  That's how we'd call a friend.  We'd whistle up to his apartment."

I later explained to my uncle that it was fine that he was one of the original Dead End Kids, but he was now an 82-year-old man in 2015 and maybe beeping car horns and whistling was not the most effective form of communication. 

My uncle remained resistance to simple logic.  He told me that he once had a neighbor who occasionally invited him to his home for breakfast.  My uncle always knew that the neighbor had breakfast ready for him because he would come out onto his porch and bang a pot.  My uncle said that the pot-banging always got his attention and, even more important, it made him laugh. 

As it turned out, my uncle bought himself a whistle and he now blows the whistle for me whenever he comes by my home.  My uncle sees it as boring to live life in a serious, reasonable and cautious way.  I cannot say for sure if he's wrong or if he's right.  I just know that I am a different sort of person.  If I ever have any dealings with you, I will be sure to step up to your front door and ring the bell.

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