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Something to learn from The Flight Attendant

Updated: Apr 22, 2021

Kaley Cuoco and Zosia Mamet in The Flight Attendant

I wanted to try and collect some thoughts inspired by recent TV watching, which I found instructive and others may be prompted to some useful end too. The intention is not to try and write an essay, not to get too formal or comprehensive....

First of all, what is a TV show, as a story? Lol damn.

But actually it's a question with a kind of simple answer:

A TV series is a story with an extended Act II, between extremely truncated Acts I and II.

I.e. we all know a story has a beginning, middle and end. As you start finding out a bit more about the mechanics of story structure and recognising that these parts follow patterns of sub-beats you might start calling them Acts I, II and III. But the principle remains straightforward: a story is something that necessarily starts by establishing an interesting situation, unfolds for as long as the dramatic interest holds, and then brings that situation somehow to a conclusion.

In something like a classic two-hour movie, these three parts are pretty equally weighted in terms of the time they take up. The third act is likely to be the shortest as it trades in answers rather than questions, which are snappier to convey – but not always, and not by much. Films tend to progress along a pretty steady pace through the story, passing from beginning to middle to end in a smooth arc of narrative. All those theories which offer a formula for satisfying story structure from Joseph Campbell's Hero's Journey to Dan Harmon's Story Circle are about how a single-unit story - e.g. a movie or episode of a TV show - can construct a satisfying combination of beginning, middle and end.

But then there's episodic TV. That's not a single unit, it's a series of semi-discrete units. Clearly it must still start somewhere and end somewhere - well, I'll come back to endings.

But these beginnings and ending parts are extremely short in TV. The Act I of the story will take place over the course of a single pilot episode. Or sometimes a two-part opener or a feature-length opener. Even in the longer examples, it's just an hour or two against the maybe dozens or even hundreds of hours that are going to follow. Endings, supposing a show even gets the luxury of that, likewise. So all the rest is an extended middle, an Act II elongated sometimes into potential infinity.

It’s unsurprising that it takes a particular kind of story to be able to stretch in the middle like this.

Imagine if Titanic (1997) was made into an episodic TV series. Episode one would show all the characters boarding the boat and Jack and Rose meeting – all the stuff of Act I of the story. And the final episode would be the sinking and the fate of the lovers. In every episode in between… what? The stuff of Act II of the Titanic movie is the developing love affair and the social friction it causes. Could that stretch to ten epsiodes? Twenty? Multiple seasons? Even apart from the historical ticking clock of Titanic’s sinking – no. The tension that exists in the middle act of Titanic is not one that can sustain for longer than it already does on screen. It drives too hard towards a resolution to be able to take any longer than it already does. It isn’t a rich seam of lots of possible sub-tensions, it’s pretty singular.

Lindsay Ellis once looked at the straight-to-video 'midquel' Disney put out to capitalise upon its hit Beauty and The Beast. Belle's Enchanted Christmas sets a story within the period of the original movie where Belle is imprisoned - though luxuriously - within the Beast's castle and the the two characters are moving towards a better understanding of each other. Which is to say, the movie's Act II. The midquel places itself within this time and plays out more of the same kinds of beats and conflict we already saw play out there, just this time set around a Christmas drama. The characters rub up against each other badly, fall out, reconcile.

The problem - well, one of the problems, but probably the major one - is that, Lindsay Ellis points out, "(Belle and the Beast's) situation is delicate. They can't keep blowing up at each other". So inserting new material which expands this middle act of the story to one where they repeatedly fall out and reconcile really breaks the story.

The original film is very well-constructed, and therefore it has exactly as much Act II as it needs. Adding more of the same upsets the way the story satisfying builds one scene upon another towards satisfying character shifts and an overall arc.

So it's clearly not just any story you can extend the middle act of - and that's just an example of trying to get one extra episode out of an Act II. So how do you get a middle act of a story to be a perpetual satisfaction in itself, rather than a frustrating thwarting of the drive towards catharsis?

I bring up the Belle's Enchanted Christmas example because I think that Ellis's criticism provides the operative word: "delicate". That's a feature of being part of a single, progressive narrative You want your middle act to contain a delicate or precarious situation, because you want it to always be collapsing towards the resolution your Act III will provide. You want that momentum.

And clearly you don't want that in an episodic TV show, or failing to reach that resolution, it's just a tiresome exercise in thwarted expectations. But, and here's the tricky part, you do still want your TV show to feel like it has forward motion and the weight of an ongoing story.

The key, I think, in how good TV shows work is that they find their tension.

I think a successful story for TV can be defined as: two recognisable and rich ideas placed in juxtaposition.

Sounds simple and broad to the point of uselessness, but let me unpack what I mean by each of these terms and I think it will start to come more into focus.

Firstly, ‘recognisable idea’ here means ‘codified’ or ‘immediately understandable in its broad strokes’. This is a little hard to articulate, but it means that though the idea you are working with might (and should) be your own particular flavour and might even be a fantasy you’ve made up, the scaffolding of it should be a recognisable trope or Thing that we all understand.

For example, if we take The X-Files, that’s a show whose two ideas-in-tension are ‘reality as we all understand it’ and ‘a secret and dangerous paranormal world’. The second of those is a fantasy concept, and The X-Files certainly has its own flavour of ‘paranormal’. Viewers aren’t going to know from the start precisely how the paranormal will behave and look in this show, but they do know what the idea of 'paranormal' is already. It’s made up, but it’s a codified idea. Its boundaries are loose and variable but it has a centre. A shared ground we all agree we're talking about when we talk about 'the paranormal'. We know what it tends to include and connote. The X-Files can build upon that baseline it’s own particular version and even surprise some of our expectations sometimes but only with that basic groundwork firmly established.

A great way to identify and start recognising what is meant by 'an idea' here is to take a look at some taglines and pithy pitches for shows we all know, the kind of one-liner summaries that show-runners develop to immediately grab the attention of investors and viewers.

I'll colour code Idea A and Idea B to make things super clear:

Game of Thrones

The Sopranos in Middle Earth” (prestige character-led masculine drama placed in the usually high-fallutin’, airy-fairy setting of classical fantasy)

Star Trek (1966)

Wagon Train to the stars” (earthy Western frontiersmanship IN SPACE)

Buffy The Vampire Slayer

High school as horror movie” (pretty self-explanatory)

Being Human

A vampire, a werewolf and a ghost share a flat… in Bristol” (glamorous Americanised horror-drama placed in tension with parochial, mundane Britishness – pure bathos)

If you look at these examples one thing you'll see is that a lot of these 'ideas' are super intertextual. Game of Thrones names two existing fictions. Star Trek evokes the idea of then-current Western show Wagon Train, Buffy the genre of horror movies. Even where texts or genres aren't explicitly named, they are there tacitly. When Star Trek mentions 'the stars' it is evoking the existing genre of popular space-set science fiction. When Being Human refers to 'vampires, werewolves and ghosts' it is confident that the thing which will most readily come to mind for its audience is the most prominent ways those long-standing fictional inventions have been codified most recently - i.e. we don't think of Dracula or Hammer Horror. In 2008 we think of American supernatural shows like Buffy and, er, Supernatural.

So pretty often talking about 'two ideas in tension' means 'two TV ideas in tension'. TV exists in conversation with itself. Moreso than novels or even movies, TV shows exist as part of a live network of reference points, and so the greatest mileage can be gained from taking something we understand via TV trends, and introducing a new take on it by juxtaposing it with another.

If the examples above do that obviously, let's take a few more examples you have to dig a bit to recognise the pattern. Life on Mars' premise is "a cop travels back in time to 1973" but watch the show and you'll realise that how each of these points is coded has completely to do with TV reference points. Life on Mars' longer summary could be "a modern detective show character has to operate in the genre of The Sweeney".

Now all of this is getting increasingly tangental to the specific show I want to talk about here, but I go through these examples to demonstrate what I mean when I say 'idea'. The examples I give are very intertextual, because I think these help instruct on my theory most clearly.

But usable ideas don't always have to have been constructed by previous TV. We have other cultural mechanisms for constructing shared 'ideas'. One good source is our archetypes and sterotypes of different people according to job, geography etc. For example, the ideas Fargo holds in tension is that of a really gritty, violent thriller set against against characters embodying 'Minnesota nice'.

And that brings us to today's show: The Flight Attendant.

Like Fargo, its tensions are between a thriller plot and a lead character who in key ways seems incongruous to that plot. Here, the latter is specifically the archetype of 'air hostess'.

Now let's unpack another term: tension. You'll spot the pattern from the examples I've given that the two ideas that form these shows' identities are all surprising or incongruous to one another.

So is tension just that - borne of jam any two ill-fitting ideas together?

No, the secret is to find two ideas that appear surprising to couple and to spot or invent why they are, on a more profound level, not really at odds. This is where you find the meaning of your story.

E.g. Fargo shows that though it's initially surprising to see a nice, uncynical character be the detective in a story like this, the film actually has something to show us about what constitutes 'competent', 'strong' and 'grown up' because ultimately Marge is exactly the hero this story needs.

Now, I don't think The Flight Attendant ends up doing this part. It's totally there in potential. There are clear reasons that a flight attendant would seem on the surface a bad fit to thrive in a thriller plot is because the archetype has her as embodying superficiality, vapidity, youth, femininity, loose connections to the 'real' world, the bimbo stereotype. But look beyond the stereotype and you see actually flight attendants have lots of potential to be handy in a thriller. They are likely to be very good with languages; as service workers in high-demand environments they are extremely observant and with expert people (and people-managing) skills); they have access to international travel; they have unusual proximity to the conversations of powerful people.

That's a great tension firstly because it's a really convincing contrast, and also because it contains a strong political idea which makes the story interesting in a broader way than its immediate text. Exploding the idea of the 'flight attendant' stereotype speaks to a feminist theme where we see that someone embodying a highly feminised stereotype isn't made lesser by them, and in fact shows the possession and value of skills we miss or dismiss.

And it's not that Kacey Cuocco's protagonist Cassie doesn't capably embody both these levels.

She has the party-girl lifestyle and it's both problematised to remind us that no one is, in fact, a shallow person without seriousness in their lives, but also not treated as a morality play. Cassie isn't damned for her promiscuousness or fun-loving attitude. Elsewhere we see her proficiency with languages, and her high levels of personal organisation. She demonstrates education and intelligence in how she talks.

The Flight Attendant starts strong. Cassie wakes up next to the guy she spent the night with, and his throat is slit. Complicating the dreadful situation further is that this transpired in Bangkok when this happens - a country in which one would be very keen not to get arrested. So she reacts not by going to the police but instead by cleaning the scene as best she can for anything that might lead back to her, and fleeing incognito.

That's a great opener because it provides reasons for this incident to become an extended problem for Cassie, not just a horrible one-off event that happened, and those reasons are both somewhat sympathetic but also not totally forgivable. It's clear that this character has some inner problems as well as their big external one going on here. It's an understandable instinct not to want to get arrested in a country whose justice system you don't trust to exonerate you of a crime you didn't commit. But it's a pretty selfish and immoral act to mess with the crime-scene of someone who has just been murdered, and to abdicate responsibility as a witness.

The situation is well-built to speak to Cassie's character. Though the incident is something that happens out of the blue, it operates within the beats of Cassie's life and personality. Cassie is a flight attendant with a pattern of hooking up with one-night stands in foreign cities when travelling so the story hasn’t had to reach to get her into bed with a man she doesn’t know in a city with an unfamiliar and daunting justice system. And even better, the show is including Cassie's big internal problem as part of the external problem. I.e. the major reason Cassie doesn't feel going to the police and thus signing up to the justice system is that she does not in fact remember anything about the previous night which puts her in a very weak position as a suspect/defendant. That's opening up the major character arc of the show: Cassie is an alcoholic in denial. Her blackout drunkness the night of the murder is a problem in the immediate, and it's because of the internal problem she also needs to solve.

So it's an opener that kicks off the story with a big, practical problem which also neatly presents a character problem that needs to be solved too: what does it say about her that this thing has happened in her life?

... But unfortunately the show fails to really sustain those good instincts for making story choices that relate back to the core interest of the show.

I’ll mention a couple of smaller issues before getting to the big one.

E.g. I've said that we totally understand why Cassie cleans up the scene and sneaks out in an effort to evade the Bangkok justice system. But then she gets back to the US where the FBI are waiting to interview the flight crew and she continues to conceal her involvement, and this time it's not as convincing.

It’s not that I totally believe Cassie would spill her guts here, but neither do I believe that she wouldn’t. The problem is the show doesn’t convince me of the choice it makes. It’s a big choice, important for the show, and I don’t know why she makes it. In later episodes she’ll be sporadically honest with the FBI, and I never feel any of those moments are motivated by anything very convincing either. Neither does she ever experience any consequence from their direction, whether she is honest or not which further weakens the story from this angle.

It wouldn't matter so much except the show chooses to play the FBI agents as sympathetic POV characters in their own right which unfortunately only serves to weaken our sense of why Cassie doesn't just talk to them. We understand them as conscientious and human people who only want to solve the crime and catch the real killer so it's hard to sympathise with Cassie's rejection of them as a possible source of help.

I mean, you could say - well, that's thrillers. Of course the hero doesn't go to the police because if your hero goes to the police then there's no story. We can get a bit hung up on fiddling about with justifying tropes that actually the audience will take as read just because we're used to the convention and/or because we're rooting for the story to be as interesting as possible. We don't want Cassie to get help from the police/FBI because then the story we are just getting interested in would be over. So we'll go with the idea that she doesn't.

So the show could probably get away with this on the basis that we tacitly understand/root for the genre convention that civilian heroes caught up in thrillers don't find friends in the police because competent police work would kill the story...

Except there's Annie, who does exactly that.

Annie isn't a cop but a lawyer. She's introduced as Cassie's best friend and the person Cassie does go to with her problem. And Annie kills the central tension.

Because remember, the central tension was ‘what happens when someone as incongruous as a flight attendant has to navigate a murderous thriller plot?’. And introducing Annie means Cassie no longer has to navigate it. There's a grown-up in the room, someone that knows that best course of action for getting Cassie through this with the least harm.

Once she's there, the only way the writers are able to keep Cassie active in the plot is to have her behave stupidly.

And by stupid I don't mean that she slips up in accordance with established character. I mean she has to do things that don't feel motivated or in line with a way in which any person would ever act.

Characters can act stupidly without it being a problem. Indeed I'd say they should. Our basic drives are not turn-off-and-on-able and good character stories are built on characters who act according to this rather than out of convenience to the plot.

The example I always go to is to see this done well and clearly is The Fugitive and its protagonist Richard Kimble. His basic characteristic is ‘doctor’. Now, like Fargo or The Flight Attendant that's something of a case of putting a person into a thriller plot who is incongruous to it. A doctor isn’t equipped in any obvious way to go on the lam and investigate a murder all without detecting police interest. But dig down, as the writers have, and you find those hidden advantages. As a doctor he’s smart, thinks fast in a crisis, and is equipped to follow up on the one clue he has about his wife’s real killer – that he has a prosthetic arm and therefore a medical paper trail somewhere.

But Kimble’s basic ‘doctor’ characteristic isn’t only there when it’s helpful. It also leads to consequences which are bad for him. When he sees a woman being given flawed treatment in the hospital he’s investigating within, incognito as a cleaner, he can’t stop himself correcting her treatment according to Hyppocratic instincts. Sure enough, this medical expertise is clocked and he brings renewed pursuit upon himself.

So I support character 'acting stupidly' in the sense that I think characters should be themselves in ways that both benefit them and hurt them.

This comes back again to TV stories working by being 'two ideas in tension with each other'. In these thriller examples - Fargo, The Fugutive, The Flight Attendant - the tension comes from all the ways the protaongist's basic character disadvantes them and makes them vulnerable. We need to see that. And the hope we have that they'll find hidden depths and deploy those talents and connections that delight us by being unexpectedly useful.

But Cassie isn't forced into errors founded in her character, nor prompted to find strengths within her character by the situation, because the situation is being handled by someone else much more able to do so. Once Annie is involved, the writing has to get really contrived to keep Cassie actively involved, let alone vulnerable. As soon as she goes to Annie, Cassie is no longer being forced into this situation. She's seeking out situations she's ill-equipped for with scant motivation.

Annie is a mistake as a presence in general but it’s worth pointing out some specific reasons she doesn’t work, or ways in which she’d be less of a deadening presence upon the plot if some things were adjusted.

Lets consider her and Cassie’s relationship. If I go back to the way I summarise the ‘flight attendant’ archetype, where does an Annie fit into that? A flight attendant is archetypally flighty, superficial, lacking in meaningful community, a party girl, whose friends are other fun-loving young people. What we have seen of Cassie plays that up to a high, problematised level. Where does Annie comes from?

In real life, well, people and their lives are complicated and all sorts of people are friends with all sorts of other people… to some extent. But even in terms of realism it is odd to see two people with lifestyles that are so wildly different be best friends. Cassie is wild, low-responsibility, low-ish-income and powerless. Annie is in a serious job that presumably takes a huge amount of her time and pays really well. Why are these two friends? And best friends at that?

The high-powered lawyer best friend is not something from the rich pool of possible Stuff within the ‘flight attendant’ archetype. And since Annie is such an benefit to Cassie in the story, it feels baldly convenient that she is present without it feeling natural.

There are ways that the apparent incongruity of their friendship could be used to tell Cassie’s character story. For example, we could learn that Cassie and Annie met studying pre-law. Cassie dropped out of college but she and Annie stayed close. That would tell us a lot: that Cassie is smart and on some level has ambitions but something else got in the way – probably the alcoholism and the underlying lack of self-worth. That people love her hard enough to sustain connections despite obstacles and differences. That Cassie has a little legal knowledge and understanding.

The idea of Cassie having hidden intellectual depths is kind of hinted at. She’s certainly never painted as dumb or ignorant. Her flirting with future-murder-victim Alex is around Russian literature. She speaks several languages.

It’s just not a trait that gets to be narrativized. She doesn’t have to be smart or dredge up half-remembered pre-law stuff, because Annie is there.

But even if Annie was better incooroperated into the emotional truthfulness of the show, she’s still a misstep. Remember how in The Hobbit Gandalf disappears every five minutes, leaving the dwarves and Bilbo on their own? That’s because he’s too powerful a character to be present. As long as Gandalf is there no one gets into real adventure. No one but him has any real agency. He’s the responsible adult. If anyone gets into peril while he’s there it’s a story of his negligence and/or their stupidity. That’s the problem in The Flight Attendant. The basic story is interesting because it places a character who, unequipped with conventional thriller-hero traits, is extremely vulnerable to the world and events she finds herself in – and we’re excited to see what inner recourses she will discover that help her. But the show dumps a Gandalf on her.

I go into all this not to snipe at a show that had a lot of enjoyable, smart stuff to offer, but as ever in the hope that recognising these flaws in an existing story helps work out what might be impeding our own.

All the stuff about tension I talk about here is something I've recently articulated and internalised to a really useful degree with regards to my own writing. Understanding what the basic tensions of my own story are gives me something to steer by.

That means that when writing a scene and finding it's not really working, I don't start wondering if the scene is just badly conceived which more often that not spirals into an an existential meltdown about what even if this story of the millions of different things my big basket of ideas could be made into? Understanding what my fundamental tensions are gives me something very clear to steer by while leaving me loads of room to be creative in the particular.

My tensions are "my character is in tension with my setting". Of course in my mind 'my character' and 'my setting' are shorthand for complex ideas of my own invention, as is the reason for the tension between them. But it boils down to this simple summary. Character vs. setting.

With my eye on that guiding truth, I plan a scene, or set of scenes that form a beat, in broad terms. For example,

"The character, newly arrived in Setting and currently with no strong feelings about it, is trying to get to Point A and from there Point B where she hopes to find Person X. However, at Place A she spots some people who she not only personally has Strong Feelings about but whose presence colours her whole idea of this setting and who populates it. With an anxiety response quickly manifesting, she pushes on towards her final destination now more from a sense of needing to move, a flight response. But when she finally arrives at Point B, she finds it too is populated by more people who seem just like those she's running from. Cornered, her ability to further flee thwarted, she instead turns to 'fight' and has a confrontational conversation with the person at Place B"

Now on paper, that all works. This is a logical sequence of events that in theory align with my understanding of my character. She would have that strength of reaction to the people she sees, and she's someone whose fear response will always be 'flight' unless she's absolutely cornered and her feelings are forced to take another path. then she'll get snappy and unfair.

I'm confident it all works to build a strong part of that overall story: "the character is in tension with the place".

But when I was writing any individual part of that, I found myself grinding to a halt. I'd write a little, then find it lost momentum. Within a few paragraphs it would feel like the characters were having to be forced and falsely represented to do what I imagined them doing.

Before I understood the idea of my basic narrative tensions, this would have been enough to make me despair of the scene, and often, ultimately, the whole shebang, because I had no way to gauge whether the basic ideas were flawed or not. I had nothing against which to measure my plans to see if they were building towards something relevant.

But more recently, I am able to keep hold of the idea that yes, the basic scene plan is good because it obviously works towards telling that overall story "character in tension with setting (specifically according to the particular way I conceive each of those points).

And so now each time I found the described scene running out of steam as I wrote it, I didn't despair of the scene but was able to examine my plans for what detail/s were letting it down

E.g. the character was reacting with horror to seeing those people at Point A perfectly well, and running away, but the horror wasn't really sustaining. Why? Oh, because I let her be alone on the road again. Once she saw those people, I needed to keep that external pressure up. If I wanted her to feel the wider anxiety of, "Oh no! This whole place is full of People Like That" I needed to keep her surrounded by People Like That.

That got me a little further. But then the character wouldn't go into the building at Point B. She's at this point in a full-on anxiety, or even panic response, and not capable of crossing a threshold or making a choice like that.

So I needed to force it, both practically and, for full satisfaction, emotionally. Have someone yapping at her heels so that no place feels safe or like a better option and I can believe she'd go in.

And one of the final pieces I had to solve was the removal of a character. Because I realised that character was by nature of her very existence, too much of a comfort to let the tension thrive.

To whit, my character is a teenager, and the issues at play are to do with how she relates to people of her own age. But I had put an adult in the scene. It was just a thoughtless thing on my part, something I didn't question until I had the right lens to do so. This adult figure wasn't even doing much, she was just there as scene dressing really. But once I had a clearer view of what the important tensions were, that I could keep running individual moments by, it became clear: of course I couldn't have an adult in the scene. No matter what they're like or what they do in the story, given the particular tension at platy in the story, the mere presence is a tension-killer. A literal grown-up in the room, just where I need my character to feel at her most vulnerable and alone. This scene needed to feature only teen characters throughout. I cut the adult, and it was the final big decision to making the sequence work in practice as I had expected it to in theory.

So if you're finding yourself often hitting a wall of listlessness or inertia, maybe you too will find it useful to try out working out what the basic tensions of your story are, and then trying out your current elements against that to see if they're helping to make that tension work - or are acting against it.


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