Expectation and Fulfillment in Dramaland
Yes, I know it's been three weeks since we've blogged. You can blame a combination of hiding out in a cabin in the mountains for a week, having to work extra to make up for hiding out in a cabin for a week, and then just feeling like I wanted to vegetate and watch dramas instead of writing about them. But now I'm back in a writing mood, so look forward to more consistent posts!
In all of my vegetative drama watching, I've developed kind of a bad habit. I used to be a pretty strict one-drama-at-a-time kind of girl. Maaaaaybe two dramas if they were airing simultaneously. Over the last couple of months, however, I keep starting new dramas, getting to the last three to five episodes, and then putting them on the back burner for a new drama.
Part of the problem is that I'm woefully behind on reviews, so I don't want to finish more dramas before I review the old ones, but that's just a big fatty excuse because the truth is that I love drama beginnings. I love the excitement of a new drama. I love the suspense that builds to the moment of romance shared and feelings expressed.
This obsession with beginnings has made me think about what it is that compels viewers to watch (and love) entire dramas. I think a lot of it comes down to the balance between expectation and fulfillment in the drama structure.
The best writers build a sense of expectation at the front end of dramas. They give us little moments of partial fulfillment throughout the first few episodes, pushing us to keep clicking the "next episode" button in hopes of getting more. And more. And more.
The problem with expectation is that you can't put it off forever. If you only give your viewers little breadcrumbs for too many episodes, they will eventually feel bored and move elsewhere. For me, this was one of the big problems with Heirs. I think we all kept hoping that interesting things would happen, but nothing ever did. It was just the same love triangle standoff at the end of nearly every episode, and it eventually got dull.
Similarly, one of the fastest ways to infuriate viewers is to build infinite expectation without an equal payout at the end. If you're going to put off viewer fulfillment for a full twenty episodes, you'd better be a screenwriting genius and give us an entire episode that is twenty episodes worth of satisfaction. If you give us a handshake at the end of it all, we're gonna start throwing things at our televisions and inventing new profanities to express just how cheated we feel.
|Not to name names, but....|
You know who you are. Now go in a corner and think about what you did.
Sometimes, drama writers want to play with expectations, and that's okay. It's refreshing when the second lead suddenly turns into the first lead or when a clever twist pushes viewers to think. But even if you toss in a twist, it needs to have some hint of expectation. We want the second lead to get the girl, but it has to feel earned. We want to know that she's going to be happy with her choice. That's why the ending of Marry Him If You Dare was so infuriating. The show focused so heavily on building romantic expectations that refusing to fulfill that expectation made the entire series feel somewhat hollow. I would have been okay with a series about her personal journey and individual development if the every episode hadn't shouted "WHICH MAN WILL SHE CHOOSE???"
|"No, no, we meant for it to be a searing statement on women and romance! That's why we spent the whole series building a tedious, endless love triangle! We swear!"|
At the other end of the spectrum, you have dramas that are great at building tension for the first half of the series, but they fulfill the expectation too early, leaving empty space for the second half of the series. It's pretty typical to have the leads first kiss somewhere between episodes 7 and 12, which is a great gift to keep viewers invested. The problem is that many writers seem genuinely baffled after the big kiss. They spend the rest of the series scrambling to come up with appropriate romantic hurdles, but we all know they're just killing time to the inevitable finale. Does anyone actually get excited when a drama moves into the noble idiocy/birth secret/corporate shenanigans phase of the show?
This is one reason why I'm a pretty strong advocate of the 16-episode series for most shows. Series extensions are one of the biggest enemies to narrative tension. I have seen only a handful of shows where the episode extension was okay (and only because I loved those shows), and I'm not entirely convinced that I have seen any shows where it was a narrative necessity. Even shows that feel rushed in the last five minutes could have avoided trouble with better pacing in the middle sections. Wait, I take that back. The extension for Queen of Reversals allowed it develop a satisfying, if unexpected, ending, so that one is the exception that proves the rule.
Maybe it's just because it was my first drama, but a good example of the balance between expectation and fulfillment has got to be Coffee Prince. As I watched, one of the things that enthralled me was how many heartfelt, meaningful moments it had sprinkled throughout the show. Unlike American romcom movies that ended after the big confession, Coffee Prince kept giving, and that's why I kept watching. It's proof that you don't need seven rounds of amnesia to keep people involved. With smart pacing, characters we can care about, and obstacles based in reality, shows can keep viewers engaged and satisfied.
One of the things that keeps me so engaged with You Are All Surrounded (aside from my love of action comedies) is the way that it builds expectation. With both the central mystery and the romance, the first ten episodes gave us enough hints to string us along. Episodes 11 and 12 get a pass because Lee Seung Gi's eye injury probably altered some of the script plans, but I keep hoping that the show will fulfill my expectations. It's getting to that stage in the series where the romance needs to start moving if it's going to keep my interest, and there's an opportunity for an engaging mystery as well.
In episode 12, we finally get a scene where Soo Sun starts to recognize Dae Gu as more than a little brother or a detective partner, but I have to admit that the reliance on the old rescue hug left me wanting more. Here's hoping episode 13 starts to move towards the fulfillment end of the spectrum!