Let’s face it: there are a lot of things in life that are just plain shitty. I’m sure if you mentally go through your day you’ll think of several.
As a writer, I prefer to make things realistic. I write in all the little foibles and annoyances because that helps me to identify with the character, and hopefully helps the audience as well. A lot of writers do this.
But once the book becomes a TV show or movie, all the little annoyances are magically gone. And all I can do is notice them — or their absences. So here are six of the best changes movies and TV make to little annoyances (that I can’t ignore).
6. Unless it’s a comedy, airplane seats are A-OK. — When’s the last time you flew in coach? Or even “slightly better than regular because you paid an extra $100” coach? I flew a lot this year for work, and except for the two times I bought upgrades to Economy Comfort (on my own dime) I was stuck in coach. I’m six feet tall. On most planes I can just barely fit my legs into the tiny space offered to me. And I’m far too tall to reach under the seat in front of me to get to my bag. But if you’re on TV or in a movie, no matter what seat you’re in, you’ll have enough room. Unless it’s a comedy, and then it’s usually the writers making fun of fat people spilling over into the character’s seat — which, by the way, is really mean. Fluffy fliers are not stupid; we know that we have to be careful not to encroach on other people’s personal space, and we try our best. People need to be nicer to fluffy fliers who look like they’re at least making an effort.
Egregious Offender: Lost — I just finished re-watching the first season of Lost, and it seems like everyone fit perfectly in their airplane seat — with the exception of Hurley, but he purchased a second one and seemed just fine as well. Even Matthew Fox and Terry O’Quinn (Jack and Locke), who are both 6’2, didn’t look like they had to adjust their legs at all to sit in their seats — which appeared to be in coach, because IIRC premium economy seating wasn’t widespread back in 2004. And the plane wasn’t overbooked, either, which would never happen, especially on a trans-Pacific flight ending in Los Angeles (a hub to many other American cities).
5. Apartment bathrooms are big enough for multiple people. — With the exception of one, no apartment bathroom I’ve ever had was big enough for two people to do anything, unless one was in the shower. If you’re lucky, you get enough counter space for one person’s stuff, and the room is only as wide as the tub — so, about five feet. Drop two feet for the sink and that’s three feet for people to move around in front of and behind each other. I know that in some big cities apartments are more like actual houses, but for the most part, if you’re living in an apartment building, your bathrooms aren’t going to be very large. Arguing (which is what happens in many TV and movie scenes) in a tiny bathroom feels claustrophobic, and one or both people will quickly move out into the hallway or another room.
Egregious Offender: Buffy — Buffy and her family lived in a house (I know, it’s not an apartment, but go with it) in Sunnydale, which is supposedly “near Santa Barbara”. First of all, her mother owned a museum and was also an art dealer of sorts, but a three-bedroom in Santa Barbara is over $500,000 these days (usually closer to $1 million), so with a median salary of about $56,000/yearly, I don’t know how Joyce Summers could afford a home with a bathroom as big as the one on Buffy. Several important scenes took place there, and that bathroom was big enough to hold about four people comfortably. Look, my parents have a 2000-square-foot house with two large bathrooms, but even their bathrooms can’t hold that many people. Most of the time, two is pushing it.
4. Your non-newspaper journalism career immediately starts at a major publication, even if you’re just a line editor. — This. Never. Happens. Well, unless you have a highly-trafficked blog or something. Then you might get picked up. But otherwise most journalists have to spend years toiling away in obscurity before making it big. And they jump around a lot, too; you might go from Des Moines to Buffalo to Phoenix to Atlanta, and then back down to Knoxville or Little Rock because you’d get a senior position. Most journalists never make it to NYC, Chicago, or Los Angeles.
Egregious Offender: Daredevil — Karen Page worked in accounting when the show started off, and when she was told to leave her job, she moved onto being Nelson and Murdock’s legal secretary. That’s all well and good. But then, when Ben Urich was killed, somehow the managing editor of the New York Bulletin decided that Karen of all people should get Ben’s position. I imagine this conversation happened shortly after that decision was made:
Bob on the City Desk: Hey, I heard Ellison has to fill Ben’s position. Do you think you’re up for it?
Susan, who has been a Bulletin reporter for 15 years: I think so. He told me he thought I should be a long-form investigative reporter, that I had a good eye for it. I submitted my resume already.
Bob: That’s great. I think you’d be awesome at it. And you put in a ton of time already; you have to have what he wants, right?
Susan: I know, right?
Bob: Hey… who’s that blond woman in Ben’s old office?
Luis from the Sports Desk: That’s Karen Page. Ben’s replacement.
Susan: Hang on, let me google her name. (long pause) What. The actual. Fuck.
(Bob and Luis come over to shoulder-surf Susan.)
Bob: Is she… I mean… she’s not… there’s nothing here about being a writer of any kind.
Luis: Is he kidding? I mean, Susan, you should get that spot. He practically promised it to you.
Susan (fuming): Yeah. No shit.
Luis: Look, I heard there’s some openings at the Times. I bet you could get one of those in a second.
Susan: They already tried to headhunt me, but I wanted to stay here. I had seniority. This is bullshit.
Bob: Well, if you quit over this, I’ll back you. I don’t want to work for a company that throws someone with no experience into a role like that. I don’t care how good she turns out to be.
Luis: Yeah, me too. We should all go to the Times.
And a month later, Susan and Bob were at the times, and Luis had jumped to Deadspin. Because that’s what would happen if an unknown, untried talent immediately got a job at a major city paper with any seniority other than “stringer” or “copy desk grunt” — an exodus of talent who just saw their advancement opportunities dry up. Karen would never have gotten hired at the Bulletin to replace Ben Urich. Never.
3. You can’t make a living writing one column a week and doing nothing else. — No publication, no matter how prestigious, can get you the amount of money you need to live on if you’re only writing one article or column per week. You’re always working on a million different things. House of Cards shows Tom Hammerschmidt on the Underwoods’ trail 24/7, but he’s a senior writer/editor. The people on his staff, though, wouldn’t be working on this story exclusively. They’d have a bunch of political stories in the hopper at any given time, and they’d also be responsible for making sure those stories look good on the website and get tweeted and Facebooked. Journalists are overworked and underpaid, except on TV and in movies. Don’t get a job in journalism if you want to make a nice living.
Egregious Offender: How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days — This movie is endearing enough, sure, but I couldn’t suspend my disbelief when Andie was allowed to spend a week writing a column and didn’t have any other assignments or deadlines, and this was her only job. Now, Michelle (Kathryn Hahn) living in a tiny apartment in NYC on her salary, that I could buy. But Andie had a nice place, and money to spend, and free time, and all she had to do was turn in one column a week (or month?) on deadline. If you read a column by someone who does nothing but write that one column, that person either has other jobs and just writes the column on the side, or that person has made enough money during the course of their career to not need the additional compensation. Kate Hudson was 24 at the time of the film, so if Andie was 24, then she had no business being that highly-placed and highly-touted. None. Trust me; I’m a columnist.
2. Even bad traffic doesn’t make commutes unmanageable. — Shows and films set in big (or even medium-sized) cities often show the traffic situation (when it’s convenient to the plot), but for the most part, unless it’s necessary to the story, characters arrive at work on time no matter what city they work in. Seattle, Chicago, New York, LA, Atlanta, Dallas… the traffic is ridiculous in all of them during rush hour, and in most shows or movies the main character has a car because then the production company can get sponsorship money. If you are a well-to-do surgeon living in Seattle and you drive to work every day, that’s an hour of traffic round-trip at least — and on Grey’s Anatomy, last I remember Meredith needs to take a ferry to work. I’ve been on the ferry in Seattle, and it’s a good half-hour trip, not including loading and unloading. But Meredith is always on time, except when the plot says she needs to be late.
Egregious Offender: 24, especially the first season — I remember watching the first season of 24 and wondering how Jack Bauer got everywhere in Los Angeles in just a few minutes. In the beginning it was the middle of the night, but LA doesn’t really sleep; I’ve been there, and even late at night there was a little traffic. During the day he shouldn’t have been able to get anywhere fast, even using the surface streets. But I guess we couldn’t have two hours of Jack in his car, stuck on the 91 or the 110, because that wouldn’t be dramatic enough. It’s just not believable.
1. Living in big cities is not cheap. — I’m going to give movies and shows set in LA a pass on this because often those films show how shitty small apartments are most of the time, but almost anything set in New York or Chicago completely ignores the reality of living there. Even tiny apartments are expensive; the ones characters in New York-set movies and shows seem to be able to afford are ridiculous. Especially when you consider how much media set in New York is about people just getting started in their careers. People who work in the city are much more likely to rent a place outside of it and take the train — or get a job that allows generous telecommuting benefits. My aunt, for example, lives on Long Island and works in the city, and she has a two-hour-plus round-trip commute every day. ITP real estate in Atlanta is often extremely expensive, so many people move to the suburbs and deal with a long commute because you can get so much more for $200,000 if you don’t live in the city. Miami’s not cheap either. Dallas-Fort Worth prices are manageable if you pick the right place — Arlington is very affordable, for example — but that’s an anomaly. I can’t get past it when people don’t make the money they need to live in the nice places they’re shown to be.
Egregious Offender: Friends — This is well-traveled ground, but with the jobs they had at the beginning of the series, Rachel and Monica couldn’t possibly have paid the rent on their apartment, even if it was inherited from Monica’s grandmother. A 1/1 in the area costs almost $3000 per month, and it wouldn’t be nearly as photogenic as what the friends had.
Look, I get it: drama is important, and you have to have attractive locations with enough rooms for drama to occur. But in order to make things more realistic, I’m going to start needing good explanations as to why and how people own the kinds of places they do. Or else media is going to have to start making homes reasonable for the characters who live in them. It’s really hard to suspend disbelief otherwise, and if I’m supposed to believe that Joey and Chandler can afford an apartment in Monica’s building, I either need to know that Chandler works for a high-powered attorney who pays him a ton to keep his laptop working or Joey is bringing in big bucks on the side as an escort or whatever. Just… give me something.
It’s either that, or make things more realistic and find ways to shoot around it and make it work in the script.
Yeah. Like that’ll ever happen.
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