Our heroine strides boldly into an area filled with the enemy, shouldering an assault rifle and taking them out one by one. They are a slow, faceless enemy, not one is an individual threat. Their numbers make them lethal, however, and what will happen to her if captured in unthinkable.
Behind our heroine are two more members of our trusty team. They are deeply concerned for her. She is putting herself in grave danger, wandering away from her friends to confront the numberless enemy one-on-one. It was tragedy that drove her to it, emotional trauma so severe it made her snap. She stops to tell them to leave her alone, but they won’t. So she ignores them and continues taking out the enemy, headshot by headshot, quick and efficient and merciless. She is a sight to behold, and we stand in awe.
Suddenly, one of the women following her begins to have flashbacks. The violence here, the wrath of our heroine in her crowning moment of awesome, reminds the second woman of her own trauma, and of her own awesome abilities. She lifts her handgun and begins to fire.
“I don’t need your help,” the heroine says.
“I’m not doing it for you,” says lady number two.
Now we have two people simultaneously snapping, simultaneously having reached the breaking point in their separate story arcs, each with their own trauma to deal with. And they are both blowing the enemy away. Third girl goes in with a knife, and is awesome, because why not?
Heroine number one runs out of ammo and gets pinned by a bad guy. Just as we think she is about to die, heroine number two casually blows the bad guy’s brain out from point blank range.
“I almost had him!” heroine number one snarls. Resume combat.
At this point, I left. I just couldn’t keep watching. Each of the heroines’ outbursts of righteous anger, their thirst for just vengeance, and their remarkable ability to make it happen would have been awe inspiring—on its own. But heroine number two undercuts heroine number one, and heroine number one distracts from heroine number two. In this single climactic moment, multiple good guys are confronted by the same dangerous situation, and their separate stories reach a climax, or at least a turning point, but we can’t enjoy either. It’s like Eminem and George Strait blasting from speakers in the same room—separately, each song might be the best in its genre, but together it’s just a lot of loud, foul, twangy noise. This kind of writing drives me up the wall.
It’s easy to imagine where it comes from. If one person snapping and taking out the bad guys is awesome, wouldn’t two be twice as awesome? Especially if we can work them into the same situation, and get them interacting with each other? On a surface level it’s very appealing. One could even see how someone might enjoy watching it. If you take the stories out of context, heroine number one’s story is incredible. The same goes for heroine number two. But set beside each other, it’s distracting.
This is the kind of storytelling that grows out of playing pretend. As a kid, I used to do this all the time. My buddies and I would be running through the woods, killing aliens, orcs, dark elves, demons, Nazis, zombies, whatever kind of bad guy we could come up with. We’d been playing all afternoon, and there had been plot twists, betrayals, romances, secret missions behind enemy lines. But now one of us would be facing the Big Bad of our story. Now was the moment when all of that back story came into play, where that one person’s character would be put to the test.
But, hey, we have to play fair. We can’t let him hog the awesome. My character is cool, too! So one person interrupts the other’s moment of truth to have their own drama-filled moment, their own trial. The story gets adjusted to accommodate them, and then a third kid wants to be awesome too. It quickly turns into an episode of the Expendables, each person trying to match or outdo the other, trying to play just as awesome a part in the story. And as a result, the story breaks down. Nobody really defeats the bad guy or becomes a hero in a satisfying fashion. We are just a team of Supermen, all invincible and of sterling character. And most of us slightly annoyed.
The problem here is that no one is actually interested in telling a good story. We’re interested in constructing a fantasy where we can be better than we are in real life. This is an escape into wish-fulfillment. The same thing happens in a lot of sci-fi TV shows featuring a “team” or a “family” setup. Our crew of space cowboys each functions as a stand-in for a separate section of the fandom. A whole bunch of people want to be Mal, others want to be Jayne, or River Tam, or Zoe, or Wash. These characters are them if they were awesome, are them if they had a crew like that, and could go on wild space adventures.
Given this setup, what happens when we reach a climactic episode? Well, we can’t focus on Mal, because the fans want more of River Tam. But we can’t focus on River Tam and not Jayne. And so on and so forth. We try to please everyone by making their favorite character as awesome as possible, and end up losing sight of the big picture.
Now, I use Firefly as an example, but Joss Whedon is actually pretty good at balancing his characters and blending their arcs into a solid overarching story. He is, perhaps, the example of how to pull this off, if you really have to. But so many sci-fi shows are bad at this. Kids’ cartoons do it as well. And as a result, they keep devoted fans, but they are fans of the superficial awesome, people who just want their characters, the vessels they escape in, to continue existing whether the story needs to continue or not.
And so Sunnydale is saved from destruction, and everyone is happy, until the next time, when the stakes are a little higher. And the stakes are a little higher. And the stakes are a little higher. Eventually people start coming back from the dead just to keep the story going. And we have to bring in new characters so things actually happen. They story that was supposed to be told in the first three or four seasons turns into a twelve season monstrosity that only the diehards can stand, because this alternate universe is their alternate life.
Am I dissing Joss Whedon again? I don’t mean to. Again, he’s basically the only person I’ve seen who can take this sort of fandom and this sort of wish-fulfillment angle of ensemble-cast storytelling, this pretending writ large, and pull it off. But even with him it gets old. And with others, it’s downright unbearable. Fox Mulder found “The Truth” so many times, eventually Scully had to ask him, “What Truth are you looking for? You’ve already found it again and again.” Yes, Scully. Yes he has. But we all need Fox to keep going, so we can keep going.
All this is not to say that there’s no place for escapism, or for ensemble casts. But we do sometimes settle for cheap writing when we could have so much more. We could have a good story, where we explore a character, and their motivations, carrying the story through meaningful tension to a solid climax, and a denouement that leaves us feeling we’ve learned something. Instead, we often sacrifice that for something that looks awesome on paper, and never really goes anywhere. We prefer noise to music.