awkwardly

Thursday

Opening with Strangers Formula

The X-Files: Characters we've never seen before open the show. Something extraordinary happens, usually resulting in one or more deaths. A villain is usually introduced. Mulder and Skully investigate. They usually track down the villain, but can't always stop him.

Fringe: Characters we've never seen before open the show. Something extraordinary happens, usually resulting in one or more deaths. Olivia, Walter and Peter investigate the event, but can't always find whodunnit in the same episode, let alone stop the villain(s).

Law and Order (all incarnations): Characters we've never seen before open the show. One of them gets killed or finds a body. Whodunnit? The guest star. The bigger the guest star, the more likely s/he dunnit. For smaller stars, the more against typecast their part is on the show, the more likely s/he dunnit. Cf. Robin Williams, Linda Lavin, Vivica Fox, etc.

What formulas have you noticed lately?

This probably applies to lots of other mystery and police procedural shows, but Law and Order follows it strictly every time. Flipping through channels a few days ago, I caught some unknown actors talking, establishing character, one of them getting killed. For a minute I thought it might be an episode of Fringe I had missed, or the start of yet another L&O. Turned out to be CSI:NY.

I think I understand why they do it, and why it's important enough that they don't change the formula. These are all mystery shows. You could have a mystery about who a secret admirer is or who stole the Maguffin. (Cf. Ghostwriter.) But for higher stakes, somebody has to die.

You won't get viewers to care much for the victim at the start of every episode if it's just another corpse for the investigators to find clues on. You have to invest a few minutes in getting viewers to know or like or hate the person, so they'll feel something when the person gets murdered. That means showing the victim in action, talking with people, establishing character.

Another advantage of this opening gambit is that at least viewers are seeing a character and maybe a place they haven't seen before in the show. They're going to settle in with their favorite regulars soon enough. A few minutes of fresh faces will keep things interesting. . .until the fresh faces go pale from bloodloss.

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