Sotto Voce.

"Qui plume a, guerre a." — Voltaire

When MacGuffins Attack!

This is a palimpsest of an essay that I’m fleshing out for possible use as a future “37 Minutes” column on Channel 37. Pardon the construction.

As my writer friends know (because I rarely shut up about it), I have been a huge fan of the action-adventure show Burn Notice ever since catching it midway through its second season. From a writing standpoint, the show was a master class. The dialogue was sharp without ever sliding into cliche, possessed of just the right amount of banter at just the right spots, deliciously clever in weaving the minimum of necessary exposition into conversation, and always delivered by top-notch actors who knew how to deliver, not simply recite, their lines.

You’ll notice that I’m using the past tense in describing the show. Well, that’s because this past week Season Five ended, and . . . I have been struggling to say this out loud, so here goes: it was a disaster. A season-long slow-motion derailment. There, I said it.

Heaven knows the core cast is still as brilliant (individually and as an ensemble) as they ever were, but no matter how they tried — and it sure looked like they were trying very, very hard — there was simply no way to make that flat, sawdust-flavored dialogue come alive. There was no way to act convincingly in front of those two-dimensional plots. Oh my ghawd, it was horrific to behold. From a glory to a tragedy in one season. I am in mourning.

When the season finale was over and after we had turned off the TV and sat in stunned silence for a few moments, Mrs. Sotto Voce finally broke the spell and asked the question that had been pounding in my head all season long: “Where did it go wrong?”

I thought about the last time I had watched a beloved show commit narrative seppuku: the rebooted Battlestar Galactica. And while I ran the two side-by-side in my head, I suddenly realized the answer:

It happens when the writers put the MacGuffins center stage.

A MacGuffin, in case you don’t know, is a plot contrivance that authors use to kick off the action and put the characters in motion. It can be an object that the protagonist wants to obtain, or a goal that he wants to reach, or a threat that forces him to act. But regardless of what the MacGuffin is, its purpose is to serve as a catalyst. Once the characters and the plot take over, the MacGuffin fades gracefully into the background, usually to be forgotten by Act Three. The story has simply moved beyond it by that point.

In Burn Notice, the MacGuffin is right there in the title. At the outset of the show, secret agent Michael Westen is in Nigeria on a mission when he is informed (in that immortal line) “We’ve got a burn notice on you. You’ve been blacklisted.” As a result, he is dumped in quirky, sexy, pastel-hued Miami where he must make a new life for himself putting his special-ops training to use helping ordinary people whose problems can’t be solved the usual way — i.e., legally. Along the way, Michael — who is notoriously bad at personal relationships — reluctantly must learn to rely on the help of his only remaining friends: his ex-girlfriend (a former gun-runner for the IRA), best friend (a washed-up ex-Navy SEAL with an eye for sugar mommas and a taste for mojitos), mother (a hypochondriac living in denial about her dysfunctional family), and another spy who Michael had accidentally burned (a straight-arrow who is probably the most psychologically well-adjusted one of them all).

I say all that for two reasons: 1) I love the simplicity of the premise, which is so basic that it can be recited in toto at the beginning of every episode, and 2) because it demonstrates the perfect application of a MacGuffin. Sure, the burn notice is what drove Michael to Miami, but it’s everything that follows that makes the show the show.

Of course, the writers didn’t drop the MacGuffin entirely — otherwise the show would need another title. But it was always tucked away neatly in the B-plot. For 75% of the show, you’d have the A-plot of the team helping some poor schlub who managed to get taken in by a scam or who had stumbled on a nasty piece of corporate espionage, or whatever. But then once that was resolved, you’d get 10 minutes or so at the end of the episode with Michael following the latest clue to finding who burned him. And the writers could, and did, string those clues along forever. A shadowy executive is killed by a sultry operative who gets threatened by a clumsy bomber who was hired by a burned spy who was set up by a smarmy assassin who was hired to free a psycho killer who . . . you get the idea. It was always there simmering on the back burner, to be amped up for the season finale and then dropped from sight as soon as the next season kicked off.

Michael Westen’s quest to figure out who burned him was always part of the story, sure, but its primary purpose (at least in this writer’s view) was to complicate his relationships: the ex-girlfriend couldn’t figure out why he was so determined to get back in, his mother was mad at him for keeping his real life secret from her, and his buddies wanted him to move on with his life before he self-destructed.

Great stuff. It practically writes itself, as long as you keep the proportions right.

For four seasons, they did. Brilliantly. But then suddenly, in Season Five, it was all about the burn notice. Realistically, the show — and the characters — had long since moved on from the need to have any serious closure on that issue. But alla sudden we’re dealing with internal CIA politics and conspiracy flow charts and blah blah blah, and then bam, the whole thing just dies right there on the screen in front of you, bleeding out its vital energy onto the sidewalk.

Throughout the season, the amount of screen time for the A and B plots gradually inverted until, in the season finale, the great Eric Roberts shows up as the bad guy du jour, and he gets, what, ten minutes of screen time because the rest of it is devoted to sitting around expositing about a plot that’s more hopelessly tangled than your grandmother’s Christmas lights? That’s the best they can do? Dean Cain was the other guest star, and he had like, what, five lines? The man used to have his own show, people. Surely we can do better than that.

So, here beginneth the lesson:

The sure signs of a Macguffin takeover are: 1) a complete loss of humor, 2) ridiculously complex story lines, and 3) characters speaking primarily in exposition. Plot, characters, and setting are all shoved tactlessly into the background.

Look at Battlestar Galactica. The MacGuffin there is pretty simple: the Cylons. They come in and blow everything up, forcing a ragtag band of survivors to flee into deep space in search of a new home — the mythical Planet Earth.

Wow. Bingo bango, there’s your catalyst. Now it’s time to go tell stories about how the survivors learn to rebuild their society out of the rubble, feed and house thousands of starving refugees, find a workable military/civilian balance, and deal with the paranoia of knowing that your best friend could be a Cylon infiltrator. Every now and then, bring the Cylons back again to raise the tension and stir the pot a bit. The formula made for two seasons of brilliant television.

Then they started gazing deep into the navel of the whole Cylon backstory. Hours and hours of tedious exposition about the Cylons’ motivations and justifications and theology and class divisions and realpolitik and gross domestic product adjusted for inflation. For the love of all that is holy, who gives a flying ram’s damn? They’re the freakin’ Bad Guys, people. Their job is to show up and give the Good Guys something to shoot at and be heroic about.

And so what did we end up with? Utterly humorless characters consumed by their one-dimensionial angst. Episodes that were nothing but sausages stuffed with an hour’s worth of disjointed standalone scenes and tied off on either end with credits. Characters spouting dialogue that sounded like verbatim transcripts of discussion-board debates. Some people will point to the fact that the fanboi went positively jizmatic over all that stuff as evidence that it was good television. I, on the other hand, point to that and say it was evidence that it was all just overblown fanfic.

That’s all I have to say about that for the moment. I have an article on deadline that isn’t going to finish itself, but I really needed to get this off my chest. All I can say is, if you’re a writer, be on the lookout for the three warning signs of MacGuffin Creep in your work. Don’t end up like Burn Notice or Battlestar Galactica. Your audience deserves better. If you’re tired of writing the story, don’t start eating your seed corn. Just sign off.

There’s always syndication.


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6 Comments

  1. Mrs Sotto Voce says:

    I thought the Battlestar Galactica mini-series was some of the best television ever, right up there with the first episodes of The Riches. But too quickly it became clear that each had a great premise but no plan. This was incredibly disappointing in Battlestar because we all assumed our storytellers “had a plan” because we heard that each week. That lie I will never forgive.

    I must give Burn Notice credit, Matt Nix kept things going with flair and polish for four seasons. He knew exactly what he was doing But when the number of producers reached double digits and the MacGuffin was gone, Michael was no longer a burned spy, the
    magic was gone. Season 5 was like an extended epilogue.

    • sottovoce says:

      Interesting point, Mrs. SV. I agree that the show really could (should?) have ended with Westen’s un-burning at the end of Season 4.

      I should have been clearer in the post that while the MacGuffin that kicks off the show is Westen getting burned, it’s the circumstances *behind* it — who burned him, and why? — that fuels the B-plots throughout the show but which then get pushed front and center in Season Five.

      So while the MacGuffin per se disappears with Season Five (good point!), the character motivation that it created doesn’t — rather, it intensifies.

  2. You have answered one of the great mysteries of life for me–why a show that I love and admire for X number of seasons one day turns to dust. Sometimes the show jumps the shark, which True Blood did two seasons ago. But looking back on so many other shows, I realize how brilliant your analysis is–MacGuffin takeover ruins shows. That’s why The Wire stayed great to the end. Now, about the reason for suffering in the world. . .

  3. sottovoce says:

    Next on my to-do list: “Find reason for suffering in the world.” Roger that, I’m on it. ;-D

    When I was doing some background reading for this article, I read the Wikipedia entry on MacGuffins, and it quoted George Lucas on the subject: “The audience should care about [the MacGuffin] almost as much as the dueling heroes and villains on-screen.”

    One word: midichlorians.

    I rest my case.

  4. […] Paul Lagasse, a colleague and wonderful writer, wrote about the demise of the excellent writing in Burn Notice, something began to roll around in my […]

  5. sottovoce says:

    The ever-insightful Quinn McDonald uses the MacGuffin as a most apt metaphor in a new blog post: “Stop Living Your MacGuffin.”

    Holy cow, I think she may have found the answer to her own question about why there is suffering in the world.