Don't Substitute a Cliché for Conflict

Why the same moment works in one story, but fails in another

I love romantic comedies. I admire the folks that can tell that kind of story well, because the genre itself telegraphs the ending. Suspense and conflict drive stories forward, and when the audience already knows what the destination is, it’s difficult to build suspense. So if one of these films can deliver on its premise, earn your emotional investment, and keep you interested while heading to a well-known destination, then it is well-crafted indeed. Notting Hill, When Harry Met Sally, and How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days are all excellent examples of stories that do just that. But we don’t see that many good examples of the genre anymore. So when I saw ads for Hulu’s new series Four Weddings and a Funeral I was hopeful. But after the first episode, it was clear that this was not going to be good.

It should have just been a funeral

The primary failure of the show is the lack of meaningful conflict. From the moment the show starts and the couple in the main storyline meet, it’s clear where the story is going. And then the plot draws the straightest line possible through the required obstacles to its inevitable end. With only one interesting twist and astonishingly flat (if likable) characters, the show takes too long to get where everyone knows it’s going. This remake attempts to be a fun and loving homage, but it just feels bloated and obvious.

But this is not a TV critic’s newsletter, so let’s get on with the business at hand. The story falls flat because the emotional stakes are not high enough. The genre tropes it employs are telegraphed from the beginning. Meaningful conflict reveals a character through their choices. In this show however, the characters are identified via trope as soon as possible. For example, let’s look at Duffy’s first interaction with the female lead, Maya.

Maya: No one gets my costume.

Duffy: Monica, from Love & Basketball. Yeah, we watched it spring of freshman year. Remember?

Maya: Yeah, how could I forget? We killed that box of wine and then I had sex with Kyle.

Duffy: Kyle, my roommate. Right.

Oh, and this is Duffy.

Duffy is the best-friend-with-unrequited-love guy. We know this guy. He’s always pining and never succeeding, and that’s exactly what happens in this case, too. Duffy does in fact date Maya for a brief moment. But she’s never into it, and seems to be simply going along. The viewer cannot believe for one second that this relationship will work. It feels like nothing more than an empty plot point. The audience learns nothing new about the characters, nothing new about the situation, and when the breakup happens they are most likely relieved.

It’s not compelling because the stakes aren’t high enough. Duffy is not defined by his choices, he’s defined by a cliché joke. There was never any tension, because there was never any other possible outcome.

A better use of the same trope

Let’s take a moment to look at another story with a moment that aludes to the same kind of relationship. Near the midpoint of Notting Hill, Will (Hugh Grant) is trying to get over his near-miss with international superstar Anna Scott (Julia Roberts), and is chatting with his friends after a setup date.

William: I think you have forgotten what an unusual situation you have here—to find someone you actually love, who'll love you—the chances are always miniscule. Look at me, apart from the American, I’ve only loved two girls, both total disasters.

Max: That's not fair.

William: No really, one of them marries me and then leaves me quicker than you can say Indiana Jones—and the other, who seriously ought to have known better, casually marries my best friend.

Bella: She still loves you though.

William: Yeah, in a depressingly asexual way.

Bella: I never fancied you much actually... I mean I loved you—you were terribly funny. But all that kissing my ears...

William: Oh no—this is just getting worse. I am going to find myself, 30 years from now, still on this sofa.

First observation: The dialog is much less direct. As a result the whole scene plays softer and the man seems less, well, pitiful. This reference to the same situation we saw in the last example is much more subtle. Second: While the movie is a comedy, this moment is not played for laughs. It uses a conflict from the backstory to shed light on the current conflict. It creates a deeper understanding of multiple characters. This one moment paints Will in a way that continues his character development as a genuinely good guy whose romantic luck continually falls short. It adds texture, and helps the audience understand that the current conflict is really part of a longer, sadder story than we thought.

Why does one moment work better than the other?

So, why is one of these moments subtle and effective, while the other falls flat? The scene in Notting Hill comes at the midpoint where Will recognizes that he’s been ruined in some sense by his fling with Anna. He’s just had a date with another woman he describes as “perfect,” yet he’s not happy. So when we finally get this piece of backstory we see him for who he is: a nice guy whose unlucky in love. This sets his crisis in a broader context and increases the audience’s emotional investment.

The similar moment in Four Weddings and a Funeral is used as the sole exposition for a major story line. We are simply told about this pivotal moment, we don’t see it. We don’t feel it. And on its face, this greatly reduces the tension. Second, the obliviousness of Maya mixed with the wounded puppy dog performance of Duffy makes it not just a joke but a sad joke. We all know this character. We know his type, we know his hangups, we know his moves, and most of all we know the outcome. This guy never gets the girl. We all know that. So then when the story proceeds to run exactly that play, there is no tension, no suspense, and spark. It’s just a sad, slow car crash.

Context is everything

The same moment works in one situation and fails in another. And let’s be honest, there is more going on in the difference between these two stories, but this is a huge narrative problem. The main conflict for the female lead in this TV series—will she go with the best friend or the guy she has a spark for?—falls flat because the question never matters. Not for one second will the audience think this story will end any other way than it does. There is no tension. At that point, the creator has to ask themselves: Without tension, is my work good enough for people to keep watching? For a classic like Notting Hill, we know the answer. I think we know the answer in the other case now, too.

Thanks for reading! If you enjoyed it, please share with someone else who loves good stories.

Have a good week,

Brian Lundin