Dammit, Jim! (The value of the Red Shirt)


You know how it is, every fall season there are new shows paraded in front of us that are going to be the next new hottest thing everyone is talking about. Trouble is there’s only so much time and so much DVR space.

So, in our house we have what my husband calls the Red Shirt process.

(For those of you born only a few years ago or hidden under a rock or perhaps newly escaped from a Neo-Luddite compound this is a reference to the original Star Trek series in which a tertiary character, always wearing a red shirt, usually never seen before or only seen once or twice, and in whom the audience has zero invested, beams down to a planet with Captain Kirk and shortly thereafter gets unceremoniously killed. )

We each pick a few shows and let the DVR record the entire season while other shows we actually make the effort to watch the episodes periodically. Then during the ‘Dark Times’ as my husband calls the period between NFL drafts and the start of football season, we watch our Red Shirts.

After three consecutive episodes you can get a feel for whether you are going to enjoy that series or not. If so, you can watch them back to back no pesky waiting, or simply press Delete. No investment. No hype. No feeling like…well, I’ve spent every [insert day of week here] watching this tripe might as well see how it ends.

Of course as a writer (and voracious reader) the Red Shirt is invaluable. I mean you can’t very well kill off one of your main characters during an ongoing series can you? I mean who here actually worried Harry Potter was going to bite it until the very last book? No, of course not. It’s a necessary tool to advance the plot and create tension.

This is where soap operas have started to go wrong. They have become all about the ‘ohmigod they killed Kenny!’ moments. They’re like adrenaline junkies, soap writers, always looking for what the next gasp inducing crazy over the top shenanigans is going to be. Often by killing one of the major characters or drastically changing a character’s core to fit a plot. And in doing this they forget sometimes that most (yes, I’m generalizing) people watch Soaps or dramas for the multi-generational family dynamics, romance, sweeping revenge plots and the occasional hanky panky. None of which can successfully engage an audience if the characters are not ones we have invested in — in may cases grown up with — because they have been killed off and replaced by a newbie or so blatently Thrown Under The Bus we don’t recognize them anymore. That’s why there should always be a third party Big Bad Guy and a Red Shirt. Death, mayhem and chaos can ensue, we can root for the characters we’ve invested in and cheer when these other characters bite the big one. (Then perhaps get resurrected a decade later in a completely contrived and highly implausible but oh so deliciously soapy manner.)

And people wonder why certain reality shows take off? I mean, besides the vicarious guilty pleasure of watching the human equivalent of a slow motion train wreck, of course, you don’t have to worry about one of the ‘characters’ getting killed off before the Big Finish. Barring the state of New Jersey falling into the ocean, naturally. The only Red Shirt necessary is the certain knowledge that for every one reality show going off the air, three more pop up, and of course your ‘characters’ will show up from time to time on Page Six the next time one of them cheats on their baby daddy.

Yes, in the world of entertainment, the Red Shirt concept is one of the best tools the human mind has to engage in suspense with a subconscious woobie they can hold on to … you know … when the Dark Times come.

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5 comments

  1. Does this mean that Once a upon a time… sniff.. is a red shirt show? Please tell me itsn’t so!!!!!!!!! I am hoping this because Damn, Girl that show rocks and I just know it would greatly annoy your hubby to no end if you liked the show , just as much as I do! 😉

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  2. Ha! Yes Once Upon a Time was a Red Shirt. I started watching it just this last weekend confident that it would be deleted quickly as opposed to Revenge (also Red shirted and I have not watched it yet so ixnay on spoilers) but I’m four episodes in and so technically it’s passed the keeper test since I’m still vaguely intrigued. Not a big fantasy genre fan so I roll my eyes at some of the premise (like for instance the baby just HAPPENED to be sent 28 years shy of the future the Queen placed them in? Mmm kay.) but overall it’s fun and witty and at the very least will provide potential for mocking.

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    1. Very belated reply.. I know that there are many plot lines , which can make anyone’s eyeballs fall out, … from the eye rolling… but the characters are so well done and the acting/scenes are really done well and I just saw a promo for S2, and it had Captain Hook’s hand in it… I admit it! I love this show!

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