April 14, 2021

True-or-false jeopardy

A couple of weeks ago, we were watching an episode of 77 Sunset Strip in which Kookie (Edd Byrnes) was arrested on a trumped-up murder charge and thrown in a small-town jail. Will our hero escape the clutches of the crooked police and live to fight another day? What do you think?

The following week while we were watching an episode of Mannix, Joe (Mike Connors), in a small town investigating a murder, finds himself arrested on trumped-up charges and thrown in jail. Will our hero escape and find the real killer before the crooked cops finish him off? What do you think?

That these two episodes aired, at least in our household, on consecutive weeks, probably exacerbated my already-intense dislike of a hoary television trope that I like to call "false jeopardy." (Actually I only started calling it that a minute ago as I was typing this, but we'll let that go for the present.) 

False jeopardy—and I'm not referring to a game show hosted by someone other than Art Fleming or Alex Trebek—is what I call it when one of the lead characters in a TV series is put into an extreme life-or-death situation that is supposed to keep us in suspense. Now, I don't mean the ordinary kind of risk that private detectives or policemen encounter on a weekly basis, like being shot at, run over, beaten up, caught in a room filling up with water, being trapped between two walls of spikes closely closing in on you—well, you get the point. After all, these shows would be pretty dull without some kind of action.

No, what I'm talking about is the kind of jeopardy that serves as the catalyst for the entire episode. For at least two of the four acts, Kookie and Joe are slapped around by bully boys in blue, menaced by fellow prisoners, or threatened by corrupt officials. Their protestations of innocense are ignored; their basic constitutional rights are trampled. It's all very manipulative, designed to work the viewer into a simmering rage against the injustice of it all. And when the bad guys get their comeuppance, as they invariably do, it's seldom satisfying enough to make up for it all. 

I don't want to say that this kind of thing happens all the time, but any drama that runs for more than a season or two will have at lesat one episode involving false jeopardy, whether through imprisonment, kidnapping, a hostage situation, a life-threatening disease, or something of the sort. And for the better part of an hour, we're supposed to think that the outcome is in doubt. 

What it does is create impatience on the viewer's part; since we already know how things are going to end (at least insofar as the lead character is concerned), we just want to hurry up and get to the end so we can see the happily-ever-after ending. That's about the time when I reach for the fast-forward button on the remote. I think we're supposed to be curious as to just how things wind up the way they do; who the real killer is, how the police find out where the hostages are, what the doctor comes up with at the last minute. Maybe I'm just not that curious; I'm a cut-to-the-chase kind of guy.

Perhaps we're supposeed to put ourselves in the place of the lead, what it would feel like if we were the ones in a seemingly impossible situation. What we would do, how we might escape. If you ask me, the best series at creating that kind of atmosphere was The Fugitive; after all, the prospect of being executed for a crime you didn't commit has got to be horrible. (Think about it; you didn't even get the satisfaction of murdering someone you hated like the guilty parties in Perry Mason.) But in The Fugitive, this wasn't a gimmick; it was the premise of the whole series. There's a big difference. Sure, there were episodes that put Kimble in the same kind of false jeopardy I'm talking about, and those episodes are subject to the same criticism. But you can't use the premise of The Fugitive as an excuse for the other series that put their leads in false jeopardy.

I remember an episode of Hawaii Five-O in which McGarrett (Jack Lord) was temporarily blinded. Maybe I should say apparently temporary, because the doctors weren't sure he'd regain his sight. Now, we all know that he's going to see again, because the name of the series is Hawaii Five-O, not Longstreet. But I'd argue that the threat of permanent blindness was nothing more than a McGuffin. The suspense wasn't in whether or not McGarrett would recover; it was how he'd cope with being blind while the bad guy was out there looking to finish the job. Of course, that outcome wasn't in doubt either. The point is that this was a battle of wits, with the false jeopardy just a backdrop against which the real drama was played out.

Defenders of these plotlines would, I suppose, say that this is the point with all of these false jeopardy stories, that we're supposed to be taken in by the chess match between good and evil. But this isn't The Seventh Seal we're talking about, and it's only a superior storyline that can make the suspension of disbelief work long enough to get to the end of the episode. And the word I keep coming back to is maniuplative

We're supposed to hate the dirty cops that keep Kookie im jail, the corruption and the injustice in the system. That's not suspense; that's advocacy. We're supposed to hate the killers that hold Cannon and his client hostage, and thirst for the retribution that awaits when they get what's coming to them. And that's great, until you realize the writers have stacked the deck, that they're counting on you to react that way. Once you figure that out, the anger lessens. So does the suspense, though. It can't make us worry about the lead, because we already know he or she is going to be all right. (Unless we've read in the trades that their contract is up for renewal.) And the premise is too sustained, over the course of an hour, to keep the level of suspense high enough to take us along on the ride.

That leads to another kind of false jeopardy, one that's become much in vogue over the last decade or two: the season-ending cliffhanger. One of the first, and most famous, cliffhangers (I can't remember right now if it was a season-ender or not) was the "Who Shot J.R." episode of Dallas. It was a great gimmick, because it kept people all over the nation talking for months. It was also a shrewd one, one that kept the concept from slipping into the clutches of false jeopardy.

What was shrewd about it was that the purpose of the cliffhanger was not to keep us guessing as to whether or not J.R. was going to pull through; without Larry Hagman, there's no Dallas. No, what the braintrust did was to make us guess who shot him, and this created some real suspense. Nobody could be ruled out; a trial could have sent ratings shooting even higher (no pun intended). A clever team of writers could have figured out how to keep the storyline going without endangering the tenures of any of the regulars. If need be, they could even have played it all off as a dream, right?

I know that all entertainment is manipulative, to some extent. Whether it's music, literature, movies or television—they all play on our emotions, condition us to respond. That's OK; we like being manipulated, just as we like being scared. We don't want it to be too obvious, though; we don't like knowing that it's happening. And that's how I feel when I see the lead in false jeopardy. 

It doesn't have to be that way, of course, and next week we'll look at a series that understood how to play the inevitable outcome for all it's worth, and succeed spectacularly. TV  


  1. There was once a show where the lead was killed off. James Garner starred as Nichols in the series by the same name on NBC in the 1971-72 season. I haven't seen it, but I read that the cowardly Nichols was killed off but replaced by his stronger brother, JIM Nichols, who Garner also happened to play.

    1. That was the last show. They were hoping to get renew by setting up the stronger version of Jim Garner for the second season.


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