Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Incompetent, Irrelevant, and Immaterial

I've always been a Perry Mason fan--well ever since I was twelve, and bored, and found a paperback copy of "The Case of the Substitute Face" in the glove compartment of a friend's pickup truck. The court cases were a large part of my education in political science, logic, and vocabulary. At least I learned the meaning of  "incompetent, irrelevant, and immaterial."

That was long ago. Recently a friend of mine recommended the online classic television series, which stars Raymond Burr and Barbara Hale and takes place in a nostalgic black and white fifties setting. So, for the last few weeks, Claye and I have been watching one episode every night and then discussing it to death.

While taking my "much scaled down" exercise this evening, striding through the cool gray evening streets, I pondered one of life's mysteries: Why are fictional TV detectives so dumb?

No. No. Don't protest that they see every callus and speck of orange mud on a suspect's trousers and manage to win their cases due to brilliant ploys and sudden insights. That's not what I'm talking about. I'm talking about scenes like this:

Detective-(picks up ringing telephone in the safety of his well-lit office) Hello. This is the office of the detective you just called.
Anonymous-(whispering in a sinister, muffled, obviously disguised voice) I have some information that will win this case for you.  No. I can't give it over the phone. I think your phone is tapped. You know the bus station? Good. There is a row of phone booths along the left wall. At 8:15 the phone in the middle one will ring. Pick it up and I'll give you further instructions.
Detective-Who is this?
Anonymous-Just be there. Oh, and be careful. I think you are being followed.

Whereupon, the detective grabs his hat and hightails it down to the seedy-looking, dimly-lit bus station. Just think about this. If his phone is tapped and he is being followed, what's to stop anyone from :  a. intercepting the call, b. waiting in the booth to hit the detective, and/or c. following the detective to the newly arranged meeting place where he will be just in time to witness the detective's descent into a cleverly laid trap.

Or scenes like this?  "Hmm. A secret compartment in her purse...and there's white powder in it. I don't think it's face powder. Let me taste it. Sure enough. (Licks finger) It's heroin." Not too bright, I'd say. It could have been: cyanide, ptomaine, arsenic, chalk, dust mites, laxative, high fructose corn syrup--any one of an infinite selection of noxious substances. And I also wonder just how much heroin this guy has tasted in his lifetime?

His clients are even less intelligent:  "Oh no. Here is a dead body of somebody I knew and hated. There's a gun beside the body. Quickly, let me snatch it up and walk away before anyone finds it and proves that it was mine. Let me see. How can I make up a good alibi?"

 Fortunately for them, Perry Mason is on the job, figuring out a legal way to get rid of the weapon, find the true criminal, badger him or her in court, and extract a confession that is nothing short of incredulous. 

 Of course, the same plot in the original book was three times as long, made a lot more sense, had a different murderer, and revealed a much more probable scenario. I'm convinced, however, that the TV script writers considered that irrelevant, and immaterial. We won't talk about "incompetent".


Carina said...

If it weren't for poorly thought out plot lines, there would be nothing to watch.

aftergrace said...

I liked watching this show too, "back then" the plots were prertty inticing. Nowadays, things are so complicated.

Anonymous said...

Funny, I've been watching those old Perry Mason shows too. :) (Myrna)

Rose said...

i loved watching Perry Mason. these shows are a major difference from shows oftoday. uncertain if that isgood. rose