21 March 2018

Get Off the Premises

Fairy Glen, Isle of Skye, Scotland
by Robert Lopresti

There is a comedy adage  attributed to Johnny Carson: If you buy the premise, you buy the bit.

I translate that as follows: If the audience accepts the underlying concept of the joke, they will laugh at the punchline.

In fiction we call that the willing suspension of disbelief, which comes from the well-known stand-up comedian Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

This is on my mind because I recently watched (or tried to) a TV movie called Bright, on Netflix.  I gave up halfway through because I couldn't buy the premise.  It takes place in a world in which elves, fairies, and orcs live side by side with humans.  Will Smith plays an L.A. cop partnered with the first orc police officer.

And none of that is the part I have a problem with.  In fact, I was excited about it because it reminded me of a TV series I  loved, Alien Nation, which also featured an L.A. cop, this time in a world adjusting to the arrival of half a million extraterrestrials.

But therein lies the problem I had with the premise of Bright.  It suggested that humans and faerie folk have knowingly  lived side by side for thousands of years, and yet we ended up with a society essentially the same as our own.  And that's what made my disbelief go splat on the floor.

See, Alien Nation took place just a couple of years after the Newcomers landed.  It made sense that our society would be changing as we got  used to them.

Now, compare this to a TV series from New Zealand I have recently been watching.  The Almighty Johnsons is a dramedy with another far-out concept.  Axl is the youngest of four brothers living in the modern N.Z. city of Norsewood.  On his 21st birthday his siblings inform him of the family secret: they are all Norse gods and are about to find out which one Axl is.

Far-fetched?  Of course.  But so far (I'm nine  episodes in) the premise works.  These incarnated gods are weak shadows of their former selves so the society they live in looks just like the reality we know.  Of course, there is a quest and if Axl completes it successfully they will gain their full powers.  If he fails they will all die.  "So, no pressure," he says dryly.

Have you ever given up on a book or a show because the premise went to far?  Tell me about it in the comments.  And watch out for Thor's hammer, because that dude is crazy.

11 comments:

Stephen Ross said...

They film The Almighty Johnsons out in my hometown, Henderson. It's all true. Every word. :) And I agree, Alienation was excellent. I never got past the trailer for Bright.

O'Neil De Noux said...

The older I get, the less time I give a book and especially a movie or TV show. The number of books I've given up on isn't that high but I've walked out of movie theaters often. Movies and TV shows my wife and I start to watch on TV are another thing. I give up easily, go back into my office and get back to writing. Most of the time the premise loses me but often it's the execution of the premise.

Michael Bracken said...

I watched Bright through to the end. As mindless entertainment, it wasn't too bad. But the moment you stop to think about any element of the story, it falls apart.

Paul D. Marks said...

Rob, love the line about that "well-known stand-up comedian Samuel Taylor Coleridge."

I think we can suspend our disbelief for almost anything if its set up properly and remains true to itself and the world they've created. Too often they don't follow through on things like that because it's more expedient not to and that takes one right out of the story.

Melodie Campbell said...

I actually dismissed The Handmaid's Tale the first time around (going back decades) because I thought the premise was too far-fetched. Men allowing the few powerful men to own all the fertile women? No country with red-blooded men would stand for that! No men that I knew then in Canada, anyway. They would rebel. Well...new decade...new government in the US, and I have a new level of suspension of disbelief. Things that seemed ridiculous then just seem cautionary now.

Eve Fisher said...

Oh, let's see: "A Simple Plan". The minute the FBI agent showed up, I knew this was BS, and I was done.
Any movie, show, novel, or short story, where a lawyer yells at a judge and does not get removed for contempt or court; or where a master-mind criminal is absolutely 100% dead perfect in everything s/he does until, for no reason except the convenience of the detective, they screw up.
The appalling number of "historical" mysteries (or other novels) where everyone speaks in a combination of modern slang and "thees" and/or ALL the women are strong, brave, independent, and rowdy with it. (Look, someone's spinning the thread for all those wimples and long dresses.) I remember throwing one across the room because they (for obvious padding reasons) decided to dedicate an entire chapter to the life of Hildegard of Bingen, who's a fascinating woman, but had nothing to do with the plot. Or time period.

I, too, love the line about that "well-known stand-up comedian Samuel Taylor Coleridge."
Thanks, Rob!


Steve Liskow said...

You've nailed a crucial issue on the head, Rob, and I seldom see it mentioned. I'm re-reading a novel I'm slated to review for a website, and while it has several minor problems, the tenuous premise stopped me dead in my tracks when I read it. It...doesn't...work.

I've never heard the Johnny Carson line before, but it makes perfect sense. And I've loved Coleridge's stand-up routines for years. The Ancient Mariner bit is one of my faves.

Thoughtful post, as usual.

Robert Lopresti said...

Great comments, thanks. Anyone watch the TV series "Designated Survivor?" I watched four or five episodes but the FBI agent did so many stupid things I wanted to slap her. So that one is gone...

David Edgerley Gates said...

Ah yes, down to a sunless sea. Twenty-odd years ago, a real stinker called The Day After Tomorrow, which required you to erase the Manhattan Project from history so the Nazis could rise again (the punchline was Hitler's severed head in an Igloo cooler). Truth is, you could sell me almost anything if you get the commonplace right. But dumb, I don't forgive.

David Edgerley Gates said...

PS Somewhat to my surprise, I got into the SyFy network's series THE EXPANSE, despite some gaping holes, and having almost finished Season 1, will go on to Season 2. So sue me.

Don Coffin said...

Let me go back a few years, to the original run of Twin Peaks...

This was one weird series. It felt weird. It was supposed to feel weird. And it worked...Until about 2/3 of the way through, when it felt like David Lynch no longer bought into his own premises any longer, and turned the weird up to 11...Oh, I watched it until the end, but it no longer worked, and I no longer really cared.