Find Me the B-Roll, Fred, This Episode Sucks

There are mornings when I want to phone it in. I sit at my computer resisting the urge to head-desk until an idea pops in there. If only I could do what the Hollywood screen writers do when they’ve had too late of a night with too many Cosmos (or whatever douche-baggie booze screen writers might drink.) I would cobble together a blog from the highlights reel of several recent blogs tied together with some flimsy premise that wouldn’t stand alone because it would be three sentences long, which in TV terms is like 16 minutes of new material in a 50 minute episode. Ladies, gentlemen, and androgynous persons, I present to you: the clip show.

Writer: Picture an archaeological dig site, the intro sequence opens with Garbrielle dressed like Indiana Jones engaged in a gun fight with Nazis. Xena: Warrior Princess, dressed like Rosalind Russell in His Girl Friday, steps out of an old timey taxi just in time to thwart Ares, dressed like Ares, who’s searching for a McGuffin during WWII. Gabrielle is angry about her fedora being riddled with bullets and Joxer has a bad French accent.

Exec: That’s only going to be 12 minutes of screen time.

Writer: Yeah, we’ll just fill up the time with flashbacks to Xena and Gabrielle’s past lives. They can read about themselves off of scrolls they find in a pyramid.

Exec: Brilliant! Tell wardrobe to get Lucy some fishnet stockings.

Clip shows are a dying art. Or maybe it would be more accurate to say they are a zombie art. They are, after all, made up of a bunch of parts from already dead episodes, and then stitched together through some lame-o plot device like a memory or dream; what we writers call “a contrived bit of crappy nonsense” AKA exposition. Some of my most favorite shows in all of television history have their shining moment in the clip show sun, where the clunkiest dialogue ever gets delivered by the lead actors attempting to make such exposition sound like normal conversation.

For example, one of the worst clip shows ever is "Shades of Gray." It's from one of my favorite shows ever, Star Trek: The Next Generation, and features Deanna Troi and Doctor Pulaski treating a mostly unconscious Commander Riker for what is basically a sting from carnivorous poison ivy. The episode opens with an unexplained romp through the jungle where Riker sustains said plant-borne life-threatening wound. Thanks, Geordi. Way to see things no one else does. The remainder of the episode is just Pulaski mumbling standard Trek medical mumbo-jumbo (“His acetylcholine levels are dropping! Hand me the hypo-spray.") while Troi tries to get him to feel better. Literally, that’s the plot. Troi tries to make Riker remember strong emotions because the treatment for being stung by a meat-eating vine is feeling angry. Every Star Trek: TNG fan will tell you that this is the worst episode in the seven season run of the series.  Also, it was the season two finale. Way to end the season, Roddenberry.

I haven’t seen a clip show in a while. Maybe TV execs have wised up to the notion that there are too many other channels to surf through. When the viewer figures out the “new” episode is actually reheated leftovers from earlier in the season they grab the remote. I can’t remember the last time I saw a clip show. I think CSI: Crime Scene Investigation had one. Hollywood must be getting sneakier with their clip shows by making the “remember when” transitions more organic. Also, TV is now saturated with sh!tty reality television that doesn’t require any screen writing.

Usually, clip shows are stop gap episodes that writers (or god forbid, producers) throw together at the last minute because external pressures beyond their control, like guild strikes or main actor injuries, have made that week’s episode plan fall apart. Or in the case of Star Trek, they blew their budget wad on special effects for the Borg. Being the cynic that I am, however, I usually just think of them as lazy answers to writer’s block. At least when The Simpsons crapped out a clip show, they had the decency to acknowledge their laziness and apologize in song: “Sorry for the clip show. Have no fears, we’ve got stories for years.” 

In summation, I really wish I could do a blog clip show. In all honesty, that’s what my doctoral dissertation was: a 250 page clip show of my first three seasons as a Ph.D. candidate.