The Problem with TV McGuffins – Procedurals vs. LOST vs. Battlestar

Chances are you know what a McGuffin is. Even if you’ve never heard the actual term, you’ve probably thought about it or discussed it. Then again, to the passive film and television viewer it may have gone unnoticed, thus proving the magic of the McGuffin itself. Here’s a fabulous little audio clip from my hero, Alfred Hitchcock, and an even more fabulous video to go along with it, which explains the phenomena:

Sigh. Nothing like the Vertigo theme to get your day going, eh? So just in case you’re only further confused, here are a couple of famous film McGuffins:

  • The contents of the suitcase in Pulp Fiction
  • The meaning of “rosebud” in Citizen Cane
  • Mrs. Thorwald (the missing/murdered wife) in Rear Window
  • Fisher’s inception in Inception

In all these films the characters are obsessed with getting their McGuffin; but really, did it make a difference to you what it was? In the case of Pulp Fiction and Citizen Kane, the McGuffin was a mystery all along. (Lets call these “Mystery McGuffins“.) For all we knew they could have been a can of spam, or a dirty condom… but still we watched. In heist, spy, or thriller flicks like Rear Window and Inception we know exactly what the McGuffin is (these are “Classic McGuffins”), but just the same we could have replaced the story of missing wife with the story of a missing child (Rear Window), or an inception to be directed at a suicidal young heiress who was going to give up her fortune to an evil uncle instead of Fisher (Inception)… and again, we still would have watched! Why? Because while the characters may think that thing is so important, we’re busy thinking that they are what’s important. We care that they get “it” but we don’t care what “it” is.

Okay, so what about McGuffins in television? Where are they?

In procedurals, the McGuffin is always the case-of-the-week. On House, we tune in to see how Dr. House and Staff react and interact with each other, with their co-workers, and with the issues surrounding the McGuffin (i.e. the case), but we really don’t care all that much about who did it, why, what it is, or where it came from so long as our characters figure it out. Procedurals are built on the whole concept of the Classic McGuffin with a new one showing up in every episode! Generally, they function fabulously and the show can last for 5+ years so long as there’s a new McGuffin every week and the characters remain consistent and entertaining.

But what about serialized McGuffins on serialized shows? You know, the Mystery McGuffin that year after year the characters have still learned next to nothing about. And along with them, neither has the audience! I searched deep into my memory to recall some over-arcing, multi-season, serialized Mystery McGuffins and found these:

  • Rambaldi on Alias
  • Laura Palmer’s murderer on Twin Peaks
  • The mother on How I Met Your Mother
  • The island on LOST
  • The myth of Earth on Battlestar Gallactica

Now some of you may be thinking: “Hold on, I care about who the mother is on HIMYM! I cared about what the island was on LOST! I was dying to find out what ‘Earth’ would look like on BSG! These aren’t McGuffins. They are plot!” And, yes, I see your point, but here’s where the problem lies… if the answer to what the Mystery McGuffin is is anything less than perfectly satisfactory by the series end, then it loses its credibility as plot and was simply a McGuffin all along! It was fluff. It was stuffing to fill in for the character’s motivation. This would be fine if the series treated the McGuffin with the careful distance with which it should, but to make an audience think that the McGuffin is anything more than a McGuffin is just wrong. Just as in the Hitchcock’s story, as soon as the second man on the train realizes that “there are no lions in the Scottish Highlands“, and the contents of the McGuffin are not what we theorized they might be at all, what it is becomes totally meaningless. So, when a series turns their Mystery McGuffin into part of the plot which affects the characters’ lives and it takes on a life of its own, they better find a way to make sure that there are some lions in those highlands! Either way, creating such a larger-than-life mysterious object of desire runs the danger of becoming an obsession for the audience, not just for the characters. Why a ‘danger’, you ask? Because while the mystery may work on film for an hour or two, the time investment and emotional investment put into a serialized television show (especially a drama) can easily create a situation in which the audience will care more about the McGuffin than the characters and their relationships, and this should never be the case. Caring about “it” is a job that must always be left primarily  up to the characters themselves! Can you see where I’m going with this?

Credit Unknown

LOST – Year after year we watched a show in which what the characters wanted became the same thing that we wanted: to know what the Island was. Actually, I regress, most of them just wanted to get off. It was us that wanted to know what it was more than anything. Instead of rooting for them to get off and to grow and change, we wanted answers about the McGuffin. What ended up happening was that a show which had such beautiful characters, tremendous acting, heartbreaking stories, and moving relationships in its early seasons, began to build so heavily and unnecessarily around its Mystery McGuffin (“the Island”) that the audience began to lose their initial connection to the characters and stories. (Of course, adding 10 new Losties every season didn’t help in strengthening our connections with existing characters either, but hey, that’s a different bone to pick.) If you’ve never read the Alan Sepinwall Interview with Lindelof and Cuse which came out the week before the series finale, I suggest you do. In it, the LOST showrunners claim that their show has always been about characters first and that the finale will resonate to that. Indeed the finale did go back to the characters stuff, and I thoroughly enjoyed it as an episode (tears and all!) but to claim that the show always put these characters as its focus, and not the Island, upsets me in ways I can’t even explain because its simply not true! They certainly may have wanted to do that but unfortunately they failed by creating the fluffiest and most complicated Mystery McGuffin ever put to film.

Battlestar Gallactica –  If you ever get a chance, read the BSG Bible by Ronald D. Moore. It’s a fascinating guideline on how to create a serialized drama without getting lost (inadvertent pun!) in the meaningless details of ‘coolness’. Time and time again Moore repeats how important the characters are and how the story is about them and their reactions and how vital it was to keep them flawed but real above all else. This series too was built around a Mystery McGuffin: the myth of planet Earth. It was that thing that that the entire fleet was looking for, the thing which kept their hopes alive, which kept them going despite death and chaos biting at their heels and plaguing their memories. Let’s think for a moment, though, when you talked about BSG then, or when you talk about it now, how often do you talk about the need to reach Earth and what it was and whether it was real and who was there and how it all happened? Pretty often, perhaps? Good, because it was important, as it should be with such a heavily serialized and mythological series. But nonetheless, while watching an episode, reaching Earth was a question which lingered in the back of our minds, meanwhile the conflict of each episode or each season was what kept us going. In my very humble opinion, this is a point under which LOST failed and Battlestar Gallactica played it just right.

How can we tell? While there are always going to be people who were disappointed in the way that both of these shows ended (and we all know there are plenty of angry fans in both corners), a less than satisfactory answer to the mystery of the Island in LOST is significantly worse than a less than satisfactory answer to the mystery of Earth in BSG because the myth of Earth remained as much of a McGuffin as possible, while the Island grew to pseudo-plot of epic proportions. If Hitchcock could retell his McGuffin allegory for LOST, the package wouldn’t be above the man’s head, it would be sitting smack dab in the middle of the room in a box covered with the words “DANGER. BEWARE. SECRET”. It makes for a much more tension-filled story, perhaps, but by the time the second passenger gets the nerve to ask about it, the thing has grown to such a size that it has taken over the entire train car and he can’t even see past it. The poor man has to sit on the longest train ride of his life, staring at the thing, and wait to arrive at his destination in order to be able to ask the man sitting across from him what was inside it all along, at which point anything he had made up in his mind about what it was, was far more interesting than the answer he got.

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