Monday, November 18, 2013

Storytelling Tips from "Melissa and Joey"

One of my guiltiest pleasures is the ABC Family show, Melissa and Joey. It's adorable and funny and just cheesy enough that I can't turn it off. (No, seriously, I can't. I'm completely addicted.) I've been bingeing on Netflix since they added new episodes, and I realized there are a lot of lessons to learned from this show.

Not good lessons, more like a long list of "what not to do" tips.

The writers on this show take a lot of shortcuts. The most generous explanation for this is that they are deliberately hearkening back to the cheeseball nineties sitcoms that created the stars (Melissa Joan Hart and Joey Lawrence), but who knows?

In any case, here are the lessons I've been learning from this show:

- People are not plot points.

Or, more specifically, people are not merely plot points. During the first two seasons of M&J, characters marched onto the show, served as a plot point for a single episode (Lennox is thinking about having sex! Joe has a new girlfriend! Mel has an archenemy at work!), and then were never heard from again.


- Characters should grow over time.

Mel and Joe never change. They even make jokes about how they're the same people they were before they were in charge of these kids, and even all the way back to high school. We start to see the slightest inklings of a change at the end of season three, but that's nearly sixty episodes in. That's too far.

- Keep track of time.

There have been sixty episodes to date, over the span of three years. Mel has had approximately fifty new "boyfriends" during that time. First, that's a LOT of sexual partners for that amount of time. It's not impossible, of course, but it's improbable. It's even more unlikely given how much she cares about her political career and she's in a pretty small city. But beyond that, she's a woman in her thirties. She knows better than to think of a one-night-stand as a "boyfriend". Most of these men come and go within a single episode, meaning she starts dating them and then moves on within a week of TV-time.

When they do finally decide to make Mel get serious with someone, she's talking about settling down and having a family after two or three weeks together. It's not true to the character, and it's not true to life (deciding to have a baby together after only three weeks is fast by anybody's standards and would be a shocking revelation on any other tv show), and it's just not fair to the audience.

- Pay attention to where you are.

The show takes place in Toledo, Ohio. This is a city that is warm-ish in the summers, has distinct spring and fall, and a cold, snowy winter. Yet no character ever dons a winter coat, or wears functional boots. Everyone is perpetually dressed as if it's an early spring day: light layers and fashionable shoes. An episode set at "Christmastime" features Mel in a sundress with a light cardigan, no tights, and sky-high stilettos, and the dudes are all in jeans and t-shirts, no jackets.

On a more serious note, the city in real life is ethnically diverse, yet the show is overwhelmingly white. Real-life Toledo is only 64% white, and yet only a handful of black characters have walked through the M&J set.

The real lesson:

If you craft something that is cute enough, or reaches your target audience in just the right way, you can probably get away with making a lot of "mistakes." I forgive this show a lot of its "problems" because I like the stars, I think they're funny, and I like the veritable parade of 90s teen stars that marches across the screen.

We all know books that have been a huge success but have been riddled with problems, things that make most authors tear their hair out.

But you know what? It doesn't matter. You need to strike the right note and understand what your audience wants. Make sure those pieces are right, and let the rest fall where it will.

For me, personally? I'll work hard to make sure I don't fall into the M&J problem areas.


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