Tuesday 20 September 2011

Everything Happens for A Reason

The last forty hours haven't been good for me. I'm fine. Everything's fine. Really. But like my escapade to B&Q last week, I find myself being constantly blown off-course and distracted by the tedious minutiae of life.

The long and the short of it is that my wife has tonsilitis and has been, to use a cricket metaphor, knocked for six. Looking after her is the easy bit. I have two girls, aged 3 and 1, who need looking after and that's been the main task in hand for the last couple of days. It's been fun. Kind of. When I haven't been thinking about all the work I haven't been doing, and the scripts that haven't been started and the other scripts that haven't been finished.

This simply means that in the evening I put the kids to bed. Have dinner. Put my wife to bed. And then work. Except last night I had to attend a PCC meeting because, as I have said before, I'm a church warden. Meetings must be held. Fetes must be planned. Pews must be arranged to be fixed. And so forth.

The Dishwasher. Yes, really.

So last night saw me frustrated, tired and about to start work at 11pm when the dishwasher started winking at me. With a light I've never seen before. And a fault called F11 flashing on the screen. Something was wrong with it.

Let us pass over a number of observations here - and potential for sitcom storylines and scenes. At first, I couldn't find the manual. Had no idea where we kept manuals. Guessed right fairly quickly. Found a bunch of manuals for all manner of appliances past and present, and turned the right page and got to work. Let us pass over the fact that my heart sunk at mere sight of the instructions, which were optimistically written. Let us briefly note that, despite comedy stereotypes and my expectations, the instructions were right to be optimistic. I followed them. Washed out various components. Refitted them. Didn't get wet. Pressed the button to restart the programme. And it worked. Hey presto. Call me Dwayne the Drain. I have troubleshot the problem.

Here's what I thought as I saw the dishwasher was faulty. I thought "For this to work in a sitcom, the malfunction of that dishwasher has to have been my fault". I needed to have ignored the careful instructions of my wife, or tried to fit too much in, or gallantly tried to fix the washing machine next to it despite the protestations of a housemate. In real life, things just break for no reason. But they don't half way through a sitcom. I am the protagonist in my life. If there's a problem that gets in the way and needs fixing - and it's not another person - it should be my fault, or at least another character's fault.

I was watching Downton Abbey on Sunday night and noting how carefully plotted it was - and that every single thing was done for a reason. Nothing just happened. Even more masterful is Modern Family in which a dozen characters move in and out of each other's lives and nothing simply happens or goes wrong that isn't the result of one character doing something in character.

Why is now the worst time for this to happen?
Sometimes, when I'm bashing storylines with people, one of the questions I ask is 'Why is now the worst possible time for this thing to happen?' So let's say our hero has had a run-in with a dry cleaner and his suit is ruined. Why is now the worst possible time for that to have happened? He has to go to a wedding. Great. Escalation. Our character has a quest. But whose wedding? Why are they getting married now? Why does he have to wear that suit? Why couldn't he get it cleaned earlier? Or somewhere else? Why does he have problems getting another one? And crucially - how has our protagonist brought this on himself? The wrecking of the suit somehow needs to be the fault of the protagonist. Or a lead character.

I'm tired. It's late. I have to work. The dishwasher is now broken. Why? What did I do wrong? In real life, things just break. Not in sitcom - where everything happens for a reason.


  1. Thing is, though: tomorrow is the day you've vowed to win the local Lovely Dishes 2011 competition, in order to win prize money for the orphanage!

  2. This is absolutely right. That's why that supposed formula for sitcom 'Get your character up a tree. Throw things at him. Get him down' annoys me - because bad sitcoms do exactly that; but good sitcoms arrange for the character to throw things at himself; and (maybe) get himself down. Basil's predicament in Waldorf Salad is so much funnier because he persuades Terry to stay... but then actively gets rid of him.

    The one time an arbitrary event is allowable, I think, is as the very first event of the episode, where the author is implying the breaking of the dishwasher is where the story started, and hence why we're watching this week. Even so, the fixing and / or eventual explanation for breaking of the dishwasher had better come from character (eg Phil and the smoke alarms in Modern Family).