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Basil Exposition Must Die!!!

Last night was the preview of Touch, the new series created by Tim Kring (Heroes) and starring Jack Bauer himself, Keifer Sutherland. It was potentially interesting and I'll be watching it when it starts in earnest in March, but there were some instances of clunky writing that drove me up the wall. When discussing it with my girlfriend afterwards, she responded to one of my points with, "I knew that would bother you. Damn skippy! I've touched upon this sort of hackery before in my Avatar DVD review but seeing this junk happening over and over requires further discussion.

In case you're unaware, Basil Exposition is a character from the Austin Powers series of films played by Michael York who comes in and delivers the necessary expository (which is NOT something you stick in your butt!) background information in an info dump so the plot can get on with the gags. It's terrible writing, but that's the joke of it. What's not funny is to see so many shows which can't do this elegantly and heed the first rule of screenwriting: Show, don't tell.

As an aspiring screenwriter who has read a lot of books on the subject to help order my thinking and get a read on what a proper script looks like, over and over certain things are hammered upon, beginning with show, don't tell. It means don't have someone say, "Neo is the best kung fu master in the Matrix," when you can SHOW Neo opening a crate of whoop-ass on a hundred Agent Smiths.

What set me off on Touch was the ham-handed way Keifer's backstory was covered. When we meet him, we see him at his baggage handling job at JFK, but he used to be a newspaper writer. He has a son who has "mutism" (not sure if this is a real condition or not) and has never spoken in his entire 12 year life and doesn't like to be touched. His mother died in the World Trade Center on 9/11.

OK, that's the core of what needs covering. Widower dad, special needs (but magical) son, career changes, dead wife. How should that be presented? What Kring does is James Cameron/Basil Exposition level bad, using a social worker who has come to take the kid away as the mouthpiece to inform the audience. She comes in as a scold and then flat out states, "You used to be a writer for the New York Herald", in the context of sneering at Jack's (I'm gonna call Keifer "Jack", OK?) manual labor jobs that he can't keep because of the demands of raising his son. Later in the scene, Jack tells us that his wife was a stock broker and that's why they have a nice loft in the packing district. It's all very Basil Exposition. Later, he visits his wife's grave where we see the tombstone with the date of her death on it.

UPDATE: Here is where you can watch the full episode. (Link stays active until Feb. 21, 2012 or so due to the stupid setup online.) Jump to 13:30, after the first commercial break, to see what I'm talking about. I'll wait...

You back? Good. Moving on. The information isn't the issue - we should know about these people - but the manner in which it's conveyed is sooooo clunky; it would fail muster in an aspiring screenwriters class, so coming from a veteran show runner, I don't get it. How would I have handled this scene? Glad you asked. Something like this:


There is a KNOCK at the door. Jack  answers it to find SOSHA WORKAH. He lets her in.

I'm from Child Protective Services and
I'm here to take your kid away.


She looks at her files and then looks around the luxurious loft, taken aback. Jack notices.

It says here that you're
a construction worker?

That was three jobs ago. I work
at JFK handling baggage now.

She raises an eyebrow.

JACK (con't)
My wife was a stock broker.
She worked in the North Tower.

She acknowledges this and stops and looks at NEWSPAPER AWARDS on the bookshelf.

You were with the Herald?

Yes. Before.

I'm sorry.

Jake had to come first.

I've changed none of the plot points that Kring made, but in my not-so-humble opinion think it's much more subtle and subtextual. I wish I could include the clip so you could compare. As with the Avatar scene, there is no reason the writing needs to be this bad on anything after a first draft. With the army of craftsmen who come together to produce a movie or TV show, how is it that no one seems to recognize how lousy this stuff is?

As for Touch, I'll watch it when it comes back on, though the Magical Numbers conceit is already being worked by Ben and Jesus' Protective Services Agency, I mean Person of Interest. A lot of people hold the crashing and burning of Heroes against Kring like Star Trek fans spit when they hear the names of Rick Berman or Brannon Braga - I gave up on it about three episodes into the third season when I realized that, writers strike or not (which cut Season 2 short), they had no idea where they were going with the show. That it dragged on into a 5th season was surprising.


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