Sometimes TV inspires joy. Sometimes it disappoints. But every so often, it’s capable of instilling the viewer with something approaching rage. Inspired by a rant in this week’s Hollywood Prospectus podcast, I decided to jot down the first five in what will no doubt be an ever-expanding list of TV pet peeves. These are clichés, tropes, memes — call them what you will — that have begun to spread like a zombie apocalypse across the dial, infecting good shows and bad shows alike. All of them are ridiculous. All of them are everywhere. Only by banding together and being vigilant can we help rid the industry of these particular scourges. (I reserve the right to update and add to this list as the season — any season! — progresses.)
Let’s get this straight from the outset. There are only three acceptable times for a human being to use the word “gentlemen” in 2014: When starting a NASCAR race; when answering the question, “What’s your favorite Afghan Whigs album?”; and when ordering new signs for a restaurant bathroom. That’s it. Otherwise, there is no excuse for saying “gentlemen.” This isn’t the 19th century. We aren’t playing whist.
Yet people on television say “gentlemen” constantly, usually while sitting down to a table filled with unsmiling men poring over heavy-looking binders. It’s this weird, accepted tic that when characters have Serious Business to convey, they address each other with this insanely outdated phrasing. Everyone does it, from the CIA bosses on 24 and the CIA outcasts on Homeland to the CIA pundits on Meet the Press. And in the rare instances when TV characters aren’t addressing soldiers and/or capitalists as gentlemen, they are generally using it with the mocking insouciance of a supervillain — never mind the fact that not even Dr. Evil would stoop to such a cliché anymore. I don’t have the numbers in front of me, but I would wager that at least 60 percent of James Spader’s dialogue on The Blacklist is just him saying “gentlemen!” while a bunch of government types scramble out of his way lest they be crushed by the oncoming ham tide. As soon as a character addresses other characters as “gentlemen,” I’m out. I’m out on the story, I’m out on the show, I might even be out on a ledge strongly considering jumping off. It’s that grating. We’re in the 21st century, scriptwriters. Just say “guys.” Or, barring that, just get to the point already.
(Note: I am willing to grandfather in an acceptability clause for Mad Men on this only because the characters are literally our grandfathers.)
2. “Am I a Good Man?”
Look, asking the universe about your own worth is a habit far older than the recent golden age of television. (I believe it was invented by John Updike during a long, boozy lunch at a Norwalk sailing club in 1964.) But you could argue that the very best dramas of the past decade have been precisely about these very questions: What makes a man good? What makes him break bad? Who killed Rosie Larsen? (Important follow-up to the latter: Who cares?) Still, the important thing to note is that what made shows like The Sopranos and Mad Men truly great is that while they spent the bulk of their existence wrestling with these sorts of existential quandaries, they never felt the need to spell them out. Their would-be descendants are not-so-doomed-antihero hours like Low Winter Sun, which began with a cop bellowing “I’m not a bad person!” before drowning a rival in a restaurant sink. More recently, The Leftovers made Kevin Garvey’s jacked interrogation of the universe its defining trait. (“Are you a good guy?” asked his pre-rapture hook-up. “No!” he answered with the most good cheer he was able to muster all season.)
Just as characters in filmed entertainment never say good-bye on the telephone, no one in real life walks around point blank asking people if they are good or bad. (OK, no one outside of undergrad philosophy students.) Not only is there no time for it — do drowning men have a moment to declare that they’re drowning? Or are they too busy actually trying to stay afloat? — it’s also patently, obviously ridiculous. We know that people tend to be more complicated than a simple binary. So why do an increasing number of television writers seem to think the opposite? Show me a character who openly wonders about the nature of his soul and I will show you my tonsils because I am yawning so widely. What makes a well-written character interesting isn’t if he’s a good or a bad man — it’s that he’s a fully realized human being. The confusion and contradictions are baked in!
3. Surprise, Side-Impact Collisions
Hey, look at our leads having a long and drawn-out conversation while driving! Good thing there doesn’t appear to be any traffic as they are in a hurry to find an escaped terrorist or disarm a bomb or save a church or whatever! Yes, it’s sure to be smooth sailing from here on … wait, why are we lingering on the side shot and why is that SUV suddenly—
Stop doing this.
4. The Scourge of the Dude-Bro
It started, innocently enough, on Mixology. Though the late ABC sitcom holds the distinction of featuring not one, not two, but ten unreconstructed assholes in its main cast, by far the most odious of the lot was Andrew Santino, who played Bruce, a bearded asshole who called women “pig farts” when he wasn’t trying manfully to “bang [them] out.” Bruce was eventually put down like the rest of his horrid show, but not before infecting Hollywood like a virus. This fall, A to Z, Marry Me, and Mulaney all feature bearded dude-bros lurking just over the shoulders of the purportedly sensitive leads, ready to leer at lesbians or break wind or basically do any of the grotty business that men find hilarious — at least if you listen to focus groups and the 5-hour Energy–fueled rap sessions of terrified development executives, that is. If you are a marginally beefy comic actor between the ages of 22 and 35, you should be growing a beard and practicing your rape jokes now. Employment is imminent. But if you plan to actually watch television and enjoy it this fall, consider yourself warned.
5. Wise, Wise Animals
Sometimes writing for TV can be hard. How to communicate the fragile, unknowable depths of the modern psyche? How best to express the savage id that lurks deep within all of us, the strange flicker of violence and beauty that contemporary society has done its best to extinguish?
Honestly? I don’t know. But I’ll tell you this: It’s not by showing a profound, face-to-face staring contest with a fucking deer.
I don’t care if you are scribbling your scripts inside your all-white wellness bungalow in Ojai or on the cinnamon-caked community table at your local Coffee Bean, but you need to repeat after me: Deer are not wise. They are not founts of mysterious wisdom. Deer are oversize squirrels with bones on their head that are too dumb to run away from you when you accidentally stumble across their path. Sure, The Leftovers was guilty of this, but so were shows that I really like and admire. The Americans did it; so did Hannibal. Enough already. Next time a character needs to be confronted with the natural kingdom, have him trip over a rat in the subway like the rest of us. Or, better, figure out a way to make actual humans do the heavy, emotional lifting. You’re goddamn HBO, not Animal Planet. Time to start acting like it.