I've managed to watch every episode of The Persuasionists. As you might have guessed, I've been disappointed. I blogged that I rather liked the show - based mainly on Episode 2, which did make me laugh a lot. Clearly I haven't been as disappointed as the BBC who buried the show after Newsnight and dumped the last episode on a Saturday night. This is, I guess, their right. The show will have cost them over a £1 million so they can do whatever they like with it.
I've been trying to work out why it hasn't come together as a show. Failure was not inevitable as some like to suggest. People like to say things like 'I could have told them at the start why the show was never going to work'. The fact is, for me at least, Episode 2 did work quite well. Failure is not always predictably inevitable.
So here's one thought about that particular show - suggested by the title of this blog post. I didn't know when to be happy for to the characters, because their terms of success were very unclear. For example:
The last episode featured the boss wanting to make the office 'more australian', which is a funny enough idea in principle. But what did he mean by that? There seemed know way of knowing when this was the case - we didn't know how well the characters were succeeding at any given time because the boss did not give terms.
In another episode (maybe the fifth), the boss told the characters to 'be more creative' or prove their creativity. And a threat was issued. Setting challenges is always a good start in an audience sitcom - that is, if we know what success looks like. And threats are good too to discourage failure and keep the characters keen. But we have to know what constitutes failure and success. In that episode, the next thing we knew, two of the characters went to buy ultra-cool trainers - for no particular reason. It then transpired that they simply wanted to look creative. It was rather nebulous. I was left wondering 'What's going on, and what the characters trying to do?'
Here's the thing. If I, the viewer, don't know what success for the characters looks like, I don't know if they're winning or losing at any point in the show. If I don't know what they're trying to achieve, then I don't if they're winning or losing. Confusion is the enemy of a laughter. And audience that is baffled can't laugh. I've learned this from experience. I've written a few sitcom episodes for Radio which sounded terribly clever and complex, but the audience just didn't know what was happening, so the laughs dried up.
THis is not to say there is no place for randomness or bizarre events in show. A show can have random beats and moments and unexpected events of course, but they happen within a context. if that context is confusion, and chaos reigns,
When storylining Miranda with, er, Miranda Hart and Richard Hurst, I came up with a term that we used quite a lot. It was 'Clear TOSS'. It was an abbreviation for 'CLEARly defininable Terms Of suceSS'. That is to say, when the character has succeeded, it is obvious, and demonstrated with a single gesture or object. Of course it's contrived and real life isn't usually like that. But this ia s sitcom. It is, by its very nature, a contrivance. The audience know that people aren't that funny in real life. They are suspending of disbelief. They are offering you their hand. You have to take that hand and guide them. And you blindfold them and send them spinning at your peril.
Incidentally, this is why dumb characters are useful. The characters get to explain what's happening to them. They sit there looking vacant and someone says "Look, if we don't sell all these watermelons by 5pm, we're all fired" or "Hey, don't drop that painting or you'll owe Mr Peterson £5million". You get the idea. Hooray for idiots. They really do make life easier for the rest of us.