Sunday, July 22, 2012

The dead-wife contrivance

Another contrivance that bothers me is the dead-wife-running-sub-plot. "The Fugitive" invented this so they get a lifetime pass. The premise being, through the course of a series, there's a background mystery in which the hero must find his wife's killer. But in practice, only relatively few episodes hit on this, or they might mention it once in a while. The unspoken promise is by the last episode the mystery will be solved.

Let's look at "The Fugitive," sure he was looking for his wife's killer, but that was the string that pulled him from city to city where he'd eventually do other stuff. Protect a single mom from the town bully, stand up to union busters, whatever. All the while he's on the run from Det. Girard.

This was of course wonderful. It started turning into a cliche when others jumped on the bandwagon.

The worst offender was the '70s TV version of the Hulk. A man who occasionally turned into a big green monster wasn't enough of a plot, someone thought, so the running subplot was he was on the run because he was somehow framed for his wife's death, but in the meanwhile he's protecting single moms from town bullies and standing up to union busters. You can see the pitch meeting, "I tell ya' J.L., it writes itself. It's just like "The Fugitive," but David Janssen turns into a big green monster every week!" And, he's being pursued by a tabloid reporter instead of a dogged cop. Absolutely unnecessary. It's the Hulk for heaven's sake.

The X-Files variation was Mulder was on the trail of the aliens (or shady government arm) who kidnapped his sister. The producers seemed almost embarrassed by this, and it was only brought out once in a great while, mostly, it was hardly ever mentioned.

Then came "Monk." Once again, you can hear the pitch meeting. "He's a brilliant detective, but he has crippling, hysterical OCD. It'll be just like those NBC Mystery Movies back in the '70s, like Columbo or McCloud, the brilliant detective with a quirky personality." And then some TV executive pees on it by saying, "Yeah, sounds good, but he needs a dead wife subplot in the background." And the creators relented and said, "OK." It seemed very tacked on.

I was disappointed in the "Night Stalker" remake of a few years back. They totally disassembled it and reassembled it as "The X-Files II" (this is funny because Chris Carter listed "The Night Stalker" as one of the influences of "The X-Files.") So instead of a shlubby down-on-his luck reporter in a beat-up Mustang, the new "Night Stalker" had a handsome, well-dressed reporter who drove a new Mustang. Guys, you sucked the fun out of it! Also he was given a skeptical partner, and, finally.... a subplot dead wife mystery going on in the background. How disappointing, instead of "Night Stalker" they just should have called it "X-Files: The Next Generation."

In fairness, as a "Night Stalker" reboot it was awful, but as an X-Files copy, it was really good.

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