The Perils of Speed Plotting
'Homeland,' 'New Girl,' and 'Scandal' hooked us with fast-paced storytelling -- but three seasons in, the rush is starting to fade
Things used to move slowly on TV. It took several seasons for Ross and Rachel to hook up, for Jack and Kate to leave the Island. Heck, it once took Homer Simpson years just to eat a sandwich. But with shows getting canceled faster than ever, writers need major plot twists to keep viewers watching (and tweeting) in real time, for fear that social media will spoil everything if they wait to catch up on the DVR. So last season, several showrunners gave us speed plotting, along with a rush of satisfaction: The CIA captured Brody (Damian Lewis) on Homeland, Jess (Zooey Deschanel) and Nick (Jake Johnson) kissed on New Girl, and the affair between Fitz (Tony Goldwyn) and Olivia (Kerry Washington) went public on Scandal. Now partway through the third season of these shows, we’re starting to crash. The pace can’t be sustained. When every possible thing has already happened, what on earth can happen next?
Homeland might be struggling the most. (Stop reading if you’re not caught up.) In the wake of the Langley bombing, the show was stuck in the same endless loop from season 1: Carrie (Claire Danes) goes on and off her meds, is checked in and out of a mental ward, gets fired from and rehired at her job. Granted, that’s the way mental illness works — it’s never cured so much as managed. But no one’s watching Homeland for authenticity. Most of us watch for the suspense, which is why this season’s big reveal was both shocking and unsurprising: Carrie let Saul (Mandy Patinkin) put her in the mental ward to lure a terrorist mastermind named Javadi (Shaun Toub) out of hiding. But if Carrie was privy to the plan, why was she crying alone in her apartment when Saul denounced her on television? And how could Saul possibly bet everything on the off chance that the world’s most dangerous terrorist would team up with a high-risk agent who’s already monitored by the CIA? Sadly, there’s no use answering these questions. The writers will just divert us with another fake-out twist-to-the-twist. Brody’s point of view used to be the only one we couldn’t trust — and now Carrie’s and Saul’s stories don’t read straight either? It’s enough to make you so paranoid you might want to borrow some of Carrie’s lithium.
While Homeland‘s writers are busy charting out this season with intricate maps laced with colored string, New Girl seems to have no plan at all. It’s gotten so boring since Jess and Nick’s dramatic “all-in” moment last season, with the smug couple often cooped up in their airless love den, even Winston’s cat is begging for them to go out and do something. Anything! There are jobs to be worked and cronuts to be sampled. Better yet, they could break up and spend their days yelling at each other about baby hedgehogs or Japanese anime — whatever exes like them would fight about — while their charismatic friend Coach (Damon Wayans Jr.) takes over the A plot. Win-win!
Of these three shows, Scandal might be faring the best, simply because it wants you to roll your eyes at its breakneck plotting. Already this season, there’s been torture and induced amnesia at a place called Wonderland, a suicide bomber who nearly blew up the Capitol, and two presidential affairs — one of them cooked up by the chief of staff, Cyrus (Jeff Perry), to make the real one between Olivia and Fitz seem fake. Essentially, Scandal uses the same smart tricks that Cyrus uses with the president: Throw a new controversy out there every so often and people will forget that the last one seemed fishy. Showrunner Shonda Rhimes knows that the soapier things get, the less she — and we — have to take the action seriously. Her brand of flying-monkeys ridiculousness is pure fun, with twists often tossed in merely to get (or divert) your attention. I’d complain about being manipulated, but then she’d just flash something shiny at me, and I’d happily forget.