We’re hoping you’ve realized this by now, but TV-land is most definitely not real life. Unless you get a director so obsessed with realism that he makes his fictional characters take regular bathroom breaks, there are piles of tropes that we just accept. Why? Because it’s on a screen, and nobody wants to see Jack Bauer driving through rush hour traffic for an hour and a half, screaming at the steering wheel with impotent fury as the terrorists get away scot-free.
There’s the big, plot-related stuff: the good guys always win, bombs have big red countdowns, and there’s always a solar eclipse whenever you happen to need one. And then there are the smaller, quieter tropes, hanging around in the background and making the world of television that little bit stranger than our own. Here are a few Things You Never Noticed People Only Do On TV.
15. Travelling All the Way to a Minute-Long Meeting
Real Life: Meetings are carefully scheduled, and anything that requires only a brief conversation happens over the phone. Or email. Or iMessage.
TV: Hope you didn’t have anything important to do with the time you spent leaving wherever you were, getting in the car, driving across town, parking, finding the place you’re having the meeting and getting to the actual place… because that important meeting? Yeah, it’s lasting about 45 seconds.
On average, anyway; sometimes scenes will stretch it to a couple of minutes, but once that crucial exposition/threat/confession is done with, that’s it. Meeting over. The person who spent all that time getting there, sometimes even from a different city, will just walk out without so much as raised eyebrows, even though that entire thing could easily have been over the phone, saving so much time and travel costs.
Why?: Conversations in person are a lot more dynamic than two actors in completely separate rooms at different times pretending to talk to each other. Obviously, TV is full of phone conversations, but if they can get away with it, the meeting will be face-to-face. Somehow, they never end with anyone asking why they needed to forge through two hours of rush hour traffic for thirty seconds of dialogue.
14. Everyone is a Flawless Phone Conversationalist
Real Life: If you even pick up the phone at all, the limitations of faceless conversations quickly assert themselves. We have text messaging now.
TV: Forget all that, because phoning someone is the equivalent of just beaming in right next to them and chatting face to face for a few moments. If you’re lucky enough to find yourself in a conversation with someone who the viewing audience can’t hear, prepare for maximum efficiency; you don’t even have to wait for them to talk. Just leave very small gaps between your sentences, as if you’re talking to a chipmunk on acid.
TV phone conversations are devoid of awkwardness, and everyone who isn’t either recently murdered or in the process of being murdered will always be around to pick up the phone. Also there’s no need to use dead-weight phrases like ‘hello’ and ‘goodbye’- everyone instinctively knows when the conversation is over.
Why?: Again, while some shows have made artful use of text messaging (Sherlock, for example), it’s just always more dynamic to show two people talking rather than reading messages. And no one wants to see an actor simulate the everyday panic of wondering how to hang up.
13. Talking is a Perfect Democracy
Real Life: Communication is a multi-faceted skill that no one does perfectly all the time. Sharing your feelings even less so.
TV: Unless you are literally crazy or on drugs, your diction will be flawless.
Every word that flows from your mouth will be perfectly measured, audible, succinct and expedient, with no stumbling over words or replacing them with something you didn’t mean to say. No one repeats themselves, stutters or interrupts anyone. In fact, if five people are present in one location, you can guarantee that all of them will be talking at some point within that scene. Nobody talks over everyone else, because TV conversations are a marvelous democracy of idea-sharing and freedom of speech, where all may contribute without fear of having to repeat themselves if they didn’t quite get their point across, or if someone wasn’t paying attention. Nobody sneezes, nobody hiccups.
If you need to compartmentalize and relate your feelings, then sure, go ahead; everything you say will sum up the yearnings of your soul perfectly, and your conversation partner will totally understand.
12. Teleporting Through Traffic
Real Life: Traffic sucks.
TV: Traffic is awesome!
Short of being stuck in the actual apocalypse with people fleeing major cities, rarely will a person in TV land have any trouble getting to where they need to go. In fact, sometimes you get the impression that all their cars are equipped with teleportation circuits that allow them to jump across town when they get up to a certain speed, Back to the Future style.
You often don’t notice since the amount of time spent travelling is left ambiguous, but it really hits home in something like 24, when the aforementioned Jack Bauer is able to zip around LA’s notoriously congested highways at any time of the day and the roads remain at a zombie apocalypse level of deserted.
This goes double if anyone needs to get into a car chase, at which time the cars of whichever city they’re driving through will conveniently space themselves out for wicked-mad-sweet-ace weaving manoeuvres. Oh, and the congestion caused by the police setting up all those road spikes?
Why?: Obviously you can’t expect characters to spend entire episodes sitting in their cars listening to the radio and developing unfounded animosity towards the car in front of them.
It’s more egregious during car chases and urgent dashes to literally anywhere, but this is usually justified by either possessing a siren or the character behind the wheel being a complete maniac (see: Phoebe Buffay). Just know that telling a cab driver to ‘step on it!’ in real life might not have the results you expect. Those people have jobs they’d like to keep.
11. Everyone’s Memory is Flawless
Real Life: You could probably do a cartwheel and recite every planet of the solar system in order when you were eleven. Twenty or so years later? Your memory has shifted to accommodate what you need to know right now. How to be an adult, for example.
TV: EVERYONE had a childhood hobby. Usually this involved a parent figure, with whom the characters have formed powerful childhood memories that they’ll fondly recount, thus giving them humanity and a backstory.
It gets even better when this childhood hobby relates to the present-day plot, because you can expect them to remember just enough for it to solve the case/win back their crush/save Christmas. This one’s practically a TV drinking game: take a shot whenever a person from TV-land starts a sentence with “My dad used to…” and it leads to a brief, charming story about some hobby that taught them a crucial skill.
This can be anything, from astrology to deciphering ancient Greek, but you can bet that’ll come in mighty handy in later life, just like all the stupid stuff you used to like as a kid. This goes double for the concept of memory in general; fictional characters will recall events with perfect clarity (“yeah, I know that guy. Came in last night, ordered the linguine, left a good tip, 34, silver-rimmed glasses, Serbian accent, nice cufflinks. Why?”), especially when it comes to inconsequential details. If you’ve seen it, it’s right there in your memory, waiting for someone to simply ask.
Why?: Because as we’ve mentioned, it makes a fictional character more rounded and reveals a bit about their past. Nobody seems to mind that hobbies and even memories don’t really work like that. Writing plots is hard.
Real Life: As little as sharing a contact with someone is thirty seconds of button mashing, checkbox ticking and then making sure the person hasn’t changed their number.
TV: Phones are basically psychic. Technology in TV-land has progressed to the point where you can whip out your 2001 flip phone and send anything you like to a person with a couple of taps, almost like the phone knows what you need.
Compatibility is never an issue, either. Sending a picture to someone, even in 2016, is still a game of roulette that fails half the time because the person you’re messaging has an Android or something. No such issues in TV land! If a serial killer wants to send a taunting picture to the detective, it’s a guaranteed success. We never get an awkward back and forth with them trying to make it work:
lol don’t have an iPhone, can u send it thru FB messenger?
srsly? soz, lol. u got it now?
not loading :( maybe the file is too big??
lol stupid megapixelz. kay I cropped it. theres a bloody limb missing from the top corner. u want me to send another pic?
nah lol. got it. thanks
Yeah, what a nightmare. Luckily, TV phones are flawless devices that never fail, never have issues with providers and never run out of charge. Unless it’s part of a wacky sitcom plot.
Why?: Because you can’t spend a good thirty seconds or more watching two people make small talk while one of them sends something over. Instant psychic super-ultra-smartphones mean the plot can move apace.
9. House Calls Are Always Okay
Real Life: Though this might depend on where you live, for us, the days of house calls are practically dead, especially in cities. If you want to visit someone, you’d better give them a good couple of hours to pick up those towels from the bathroom floor and maybe put some clothes on.
TV: House calls are still alive and well, and they bother nobody. On the upper end of the scale, you have investigators of some sort visiting an upper-middle-aged widow. The place will be flawless, the glass cabinets glistening with trinkets, and the lady herself will answer the door dressed as if she’s about to start her shift at the local clothing store for classy middle-aged women.
On the lower end of the scale, someone pays a call to a frat house or a young single guy…and it’s basically still flawless. Maybe there are a couple of those white noodle boxes, a few discarded pizza boxes and a bottle or two, but otherwise, the place is immaculate. Joey and Chandler are meant to be slobs with a dingy apartment, yet we rarely see their apartment with so much as a sock on the floor. The dishes are washed and put away, the surfaces gleam and unless they’re going through a breakup, the inhabitants are always dressed normally.
Why?: This one’s a bit more inexplicable, as the principle of mise en scène means that you should get clues from the setting. The only explanation is that it’s easier to arrive on set and leave a house the way it is, rather than how it would be in real life.
8. Magic Sound Bubbles, Everywhere
Real Life: Sound abides by scientific principles.
TV: Sound is totally dependent on the drama of the scene.
Take literally any scene set in a nightclub, for example. They all seem to have developed sound bubble technology that lets you have a conversation at a completely normal level, regardless of where you are in the club or how intimate said conversation may be. In fact, you might as well be stowed away in a broom closet together for how easy it’ll be to talk to your friend across the table. No yelling, no squinting and cupping one hand to your ear while yelling “WHAAAAT?”
Sound also seems to bend around houses in mystical ways, forming solid walls of silence between rooms even when there’s no door. Case in point: the Barone house from Everybody Loves Raymond, which features nothing between the kitchen and the lounge. Yet step into the kitchen and you might as well be inside the cone of silence. The eavesdropper’s only option is to find a slightly open door through which the sound can leak out, and then hover in the corridor with a distressed look. Unless you’re in a comedy, in which case the old ear-glass-wall trick will do just fine.
Why?: Unless all nightclub conversations were forever banned from television, this trope has to be in place. Same goes for private home conversations, since the only alternative is having every piece of secret exposition hissed into the camera in a very carrying whisper.
7. Perfectly Wrapped Gifts Every Time
Real Life: There are services that perfectly gift-wrap items. Otherwise, that present is probably ending up in a bag, unless you were blessed from birth with supernatural wrapping skills.
TV: Again, unless it directly relates to the plot (usually singling someone out as terrible/neglectful), TV gifts are awesome. 90% of the time they come in a perfectly wrapped box, gilded with a ribbon that nonetheless doesn’t stop the recipient from gently lifting off the lib, because no viewer wants that harsh tearing noise interrupting their dramatic moment.
What’s more, don’t expect them to find a gift card, or any of the things that normal people would get you for a significant occasion. Nope, once again the odds are totally stacked in favour of that gift being something amazingly significant, either evoking powerful emotions from your past or a thing that’s amazingly poignant in some other way. It probably won’t be new, because truly good TV gifts rarely are. Do expect it to be sitting on a cushion, however, with a suspiciously perfect indentation.
Why?: This is just an example of the hyperreality of fiction. They can’t show someone getting ordinary, somewhat thoughtful gifts when this is the perfect opportunity to give someone depth. The opening scene of Guardians of the Galaxy didn’t have Peter Quill’s mother giving him a hastily wrapped cassette tape, because it was more special and dramatic to give him a perfect box with a cushion and succinct message that the audience can all clearly read.
6. Nobody Has to Make Time
Real Life: People have real lives, full of real life events and obligations.
TV: People don’t have those, because they have to be free pretty much all the time for plot-related things. You know the ones.
Appointments in TV-land are as easy as snapping your fingers. Suggest a date, and they’ll be available. Adding a time is optional; if you don’t, everyone knows when to show up anyway. There’s no sense of ‘making’ time or having to shuffle your schedule, because the very act of the invitation seems to magically clear all other appointments away. Decided to surprise your workaholic buddy with a trip to the country? His only protest will be wanting to get back to work, and not that doctor’s appointment, family dinner, wife and children who weren’t expecting him to be gone etc.
Even when work is the focus on the show, the characters seem to spend an inordinate amount of time there, even on their days off. Their entire lives revolve around the rest of the 3-7 main cast members. If you are ever shown having to cancel something, it’ll be for the sake of drama. You had to go into work on a Saturday? You’re a bad parent who breaks promises. Cancelled on your date because you were stopping a clandestine alien invasion? They’ve broken up with you because you keep too many secrets.
Why?: Because while these fictional characters are supposedly fleshed out people, their lives still revolve around the plots and not the other way round. The main characters of Arrow and The Flash might sort of have jobs, sometimes, but the main focus of the show is still vigilante justice at 3am, so how they manage their lives gets swept under the rug.
5. Video Games are Stuck in the Eighties
Real Life: Have you seen video games recently? People might complain about them far more than they used to, but that’s only because the standards have gone through the roof since the arcade days.
TV: We might as well be back in the 1980s.
Rarely will you get to actually see much of TV video game being played, except in very small chunks. They’re not often relevant to the plot and more or less just serve to show that a character is a) a childish adult or b) a child. Most screen writers don’t seem to have much of a concept of gaming either, which is why whenever it comes time to talk about them, the English language turns to mincemeat. In TV-land, getting the high score on an MMORPG is totally possible. They even have numbered levels, just like every game ever!
Even if you get to see the game and it isn’t some Pacman-level 8-bit monstrosity, there won’t be much in the way of HUDs, with most of the screen completely blank and devoid of even so much as a health bar. As for the person playing the game…well, let’s just say they probably go through a controller a week with that frantic button mashing.
Why?: Things have to be simplified a lot for a broad audience, and there’s copyright to consider. That’s why TV games seem to be chronologically stuck in the eighties and played entirely by repeatedly pressing B and left on a weirdly square controller.
4. Nobody Showers Right
Real Life: You turn on the shower, wait for it to get to a normal temperature and then get in.
TV: You get in the shower, then turn on the shower, and… wait, what?
It’s true. Showering in TV-land is truly a technological marvel, since you have the liberty of standing in the shower, turning the taps and instantly being showered with the perfect temperature of water. What’s more, the removal of the modesty towel is usually after the water starts, meaning that you’ll be throwing out a sopping wet towel every time. It’s that, or fictional characters just don’t care that they’re standing under a jet of water that’s almost certainly freezing cold or scalding hot until they get it right.
Modesty goes deeper, as even romantic partners (including long-time married couples) will always cover up around each other, whether they’re in bed or just walking around the house. The same goes for single folks. The level of modesty will vary, but it’s otherwise totally normal for you to lounge around the house in a pair of chinos, loafers and a polo shirt. Because that’s…comfortable.
Why?: Censors, obviously. As the age rating goes up these laws are slackened, but anything below an R will have couples acting like inexplicable prudes and people living alone dressing for a day in the office, all the time.
3. Those Ghostly Hordes of Party Friends
Real Life: Parties are full of people you know. They rarely involve massive numbers, because few people would bring that hassle on themselves if it isn’t a wedding or something.
TV: It’s not that they don’t know these people, but you can’t help but wonder how this one fictional character you’ve only seen interacting with about six people can suddenly fill a room with about fifty friends.
Ghost extras are the lifeblood of TV parties, and even the most socially inept person will be able to go full-Aragorn and summon a spectral horde of them with practically no notice. Never mind that they shouldn’t have that many friends, let alone ones that would all gather in the same place at once. The room needs filling, so we the viewers just have to assume that there’s a deep story behind each face that we’ll never get to explore.
And we truly never will, because these folks will have about as much effect on the proceedings as a room full of pot plants. The party might as well be populated with hat-stands, which only causes the plot to thicken as the main characters continue to talk only to each other.
Why?: Because parties need people, and it doesn’t matter if there’s no realistic explanation for how it happens. Shows are often filmed on bigger sets than an average living room, which means they have to go overboard in making the place look alive.
2. Finances Are Never Really a Problem
Real Life: Finances are a serious issue.
TV: If the plot isn’t directly related to finances, then anything is possible.
Buying your girlfriend an engagement ring with a diamond the size of a plum? No problem!
Affording a gargantuan apartment when you work at a grocery store? Easy.
Running a business that never sells anything? Just keep on rolling!
Bills are rarely an issue, rent only really comes into play when your grouchy, ambiguously-foreign landlord starts causing problems and you can afford to go out any night of the week. Your workplace can be on the verge of collapse (as in the case of most TV private investigators) or actually collapsed (Star Labs) and you can just keep showing up, throwing in the occasional complaint about your money troubles. Everyone shows up to weddings in perfectly tailored suits and dresses, and weddings themselves seem to be government funded since nobody seems to be paying for them.
Why?: This seems to be wish-fulfillment for the sake of the viewers, as we like to think that hanging out in coffee shops all day and booking last-minute flights to Tahiti is totally within a regular person’s capacity. Apartments are huge because it’s easier to film in a large space, and…well, you can’t have the supposedly poorer characters showing up to a fancy event in anything less than a spotless, perfectly-fitting tuxedo.
1. Flawless Conversation Entries
Real Life: You get somewhere when you get there, with no knowledge of what’s been happening beforehand.
TV: You get somewhere at the exact perfect time to butt into the conversation. Also, no one needs to bring you up to speed.
It’s either that, or Malcolm Merlyn literally waits around the corner, maybe jotting down witty zingers in his handy pocket notepad, until the perfect time to stride into the room. And then we all pretend that he’s just got there.
This goes for pretty much any time a character enters a scene when they weren’t present from the start of it. No one is ever interrupted by a knock on the door, because it always falls in between sentences. That aforementioned magic sound bubble also makes it possible for a non-stealthy person to sidle into the room without anyone else noticing, ready to deliver the perfect expositional zinger. None of this business of entering, greeting the people within and waiting for them to finish what they were saying. No, you’re the newcomer. That gives you instant priority over everyone else in the room.
Why?: Drama, plain and simple. Also, having someone walk in, everyone pausing the conversation to say hi and then going back to what they were doing is just time-wasting. There’s also the law of conservation of detail; if a person is IN a scene, they have to say something. If they enter a scene, then the audience has to know pretty quickly what they’re doing there.
TV-land surely has many more rules that we don’t always notice. Thought of any more? Let us know in the comments!