Old Yeller

January 25, 2014

Let me start out by saying, if you like to be scared and aren’t watching Helix, you probably should be. I love Helix.

And now, if you are watching , and aren’t caught up, stop reading this until you get caught up, because I am going to spoil the hell out of it. But first, some backstory.

When I was little, I watched too much TV. I should have been out playing. Perhaps I would not be fat now, if, after 3rd grade or so, I’d turned off the set and gone outside. But it was really good for the writer in me. TV, especially TV in the 60’s, is like story telling with training wheels on it. If you watch enough of it, you are stuck with 3 act structure permanently burned into your head. The turning points are before commercials. The monster is always some adult in a mask, who totally would have gotten away with it, if it weren’t for those meddling kids. And if the male lead falls in love, she’s going to die.

If you are in grade school, it takes you a while to catch on to the fact that there is nothing new under the sun. Everything is still a surprise. But if you had a father like mine, things are a little different. My Dad would announce the way the plot was going. He would tell me who was going to die. If it was a mystery, he always knew whodunit.

He would spoil the ending. And I would ask “How do you know?”

His answer, “Because I wrote it.”

I knew this was unlikely. I was pretty sure Hollywood writers were not living in dumpy little houses in Wisconsin, and eating pancakes for supper when the money ran a little thin. I also knew that, whenever he built something, or dug a hole, no matter what he claimed, it was probably not an elephant trap. There were no elephants in Wisconsin. It was probably why we never caught one.

But I also knew that he was right about the TV plots.

Mostly, what I learned was, it was OK to lie to children with a straight face. And to my #1 son James, I am really sorry about any embarrassment you experienced at school the time I told you that Oz was real and Kansas was made up.

But back to storytelling.

I learned at a very young age, the mechanics of storytelling. Don’t hang a gun on the wall unless you mean to fire it. Don’t introduce characters that have no purpose. And recognize that the purpose of some characters is cannon fodder. If you have a serial killer and no one dies, there is no rising dramatic tension.

But once it becomes predictable, you disengage from the characters, especially, if you are sensitive, like me. I look at Old Yeller, and see the Grim Reaper holding the leash. I look at Skip and wonder who’s going to hit him in the head with a shovel. And when I took my kids to the movies, I spoiled the plot for them, to spare their feelings.

Samuel L Jackson in Jurassic Park? “Don’t get attached, son. Don’t get attached.”

And this was before he started getting the roles where he’d have called the dinosaur a motherfucker, ripped its arm off with his bare hands and carried it back to Sam Neil to add to his collection of raptor claws. Back then, Mr. Jackson was just a man with a significantly darker complexion than the people who always survived.

So, now, I am watching Helix. It’s like a cross between The Andromeda Strain and Alien. I am digging it. Strand a bunch of people in the Arctic with a killer virus that they created. Bring in the CDC to ‘save’ them. Throw in some characters that are rooting for the virus to win.

The smart viewer is expecting some casualties. At least, I am.

On the CDC team, we have:

Main scientist guy who is here because his brother is infected. Main guy never dies in the first few eps. Maybe as a season one cliff hanger, but probably not even then.

Ex wife of main scientist guy (who also slept with his brother). Let’s call her Sigourney, shall we? Everyone is clearly obsessed with her and she’s going to survive for a while, even though she should be dead already. Why is she not dying?

Perky assistant of scientist guy (who looks strangely like his ex wife. Would it kill her to get a different hair style so she’ll stand out?). Perky is young (obviously) Perky is smart (they show us so, repeatedly). Perky has a brain tumor, and will still outlive most of the other characters. Because #1 you don’t kill cancer girl with a virus, and #2, she is too perky to die. You cannot kill perky with a shovel, even though some of us would like to.

Rounding out the team: The army engineer. Clearly cannon fodder. Except he knows too much. He has an agenda. He is running the long game. Therefore, he has immunity for several episodes at least.

And finally: The older, wiser scientist, who has seen some shit. She is blonde but with a bad hair cut. She is fat, with a mannish look to her. She has a good brain, smart mouth and a personality with rough edges. She is not afraid of rats.

Let’s call her Old Yeller.

In the first half hour of the show, I went to IMDB, counted the number of episodes that the actress was listed as starring in, and waved goodbye to her. She is/was the most interesting person on the team. She delivered a lot of exposition without being too obvious about it. She was as close as a series full of dead people was going to get to comic relief.

She was fat. And she was doomed.

There is also the fact that she liked the rats she worked with. So, of course, they were involved in her death. Plus one point for tidy foreshadowing in the writing. Did not see that coming. Plus one point for scary, since the thought of being nibbled by rats, even if we are dying of an embolism is scary to most of us.

Minus one and a half points for killing the fat girl. Again.

I understand that it is more effective if we bond to a character before killing her. I appreciate the casting of someone nonstandard in gender and size. Although, in this case, female isn’t non standard. Girls are pretty well represented in the base staff, and more than half of the CDC team. Go us.

But fat girls are not. What with Rebel Wilson and Melissa McCarthy, there are more of them on TV than there used to be. But the fact that they are fat is still a significant plot point. The brutal truth is that a part of the series revolves around that extra fifty pounds they carry.

Then you take a character like the one on Helix (whose name I did not bother to learn because she was going to die. Because fat girls always die.) She doesn’t exist because she is fat. She is a scientist who happens to be fat. She has field experience, and the sort of brittle personality you get when you’ve had to push a little to get past the men and pretty girls. She is not afraid of rats, plague monkeys, or the military. She is strong. She is the fictional CDC equivalent of street smart. If her fictional universe is like the real world, she’s had to be just a little bit smarter than everyone else, since she is not male, thin, or perky, to overcome the prejudice against fat people. But not in a way that is too challenging to male authority because then the army ‘engineer’ would dismiss her input and go look for the perky girl.

Worse yet, he might kill her and not even say he was sorry.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *