I originally wrote this for I Fry Mine in Butter in 2010.
When I get a little afraid to admit just how many hours I’ve spent watching cop shows and courtroom dramas, I just add up all the hours spent reading, which is impossible, I suppose, and then I feel better. Because even loving popular culture the way I do, I still worry that what my elementary school teachers told me is true: TV will rot my brain.
Here I am, still intact in the higher functioning way. I must still have a few capable synapses. So since I’ve made it with all these years of television viewership under my belt, I’d like to spend a little time looking at one sliver of television narrative: the giveaway shot.
I want to give some due to the camera action that does what foreshadowing did for Mary Shelley. It’s usually less than a second, sometimes is accompanied by dialogue, but mostly not. I like to think it’s something TV picked up from Alfred Hitchcock, because he really started the quick cuts and shots that we have come to expect in suspenseful storytelling.Psycho gave us The Shower Scene, and nobody (and I mean nobody) had ever spliced together so many quick snips of film in one tight, 2-minute sequence before. It was shocking to audiences in 1960.
Okay, so we’re down with the idea of being able to see and register quick shots of the camera, we’ve been trained into it with 50+ years of cinema and television giving us this device.
Nearly every episode of Murder, She Wrote is handed to the audience on a silver platter with the quick cut sitting in a pile of lettuce. A shot of a scratched up lock. An album cover with a picture of hands on a piano, both of which belong to someone in that episode. A quick glance at a watch with mention that it keeps running 5 minutes fast.
Many of these quick shots come from a wonderful history of the small clue, a.k.a. the red herring. Agatha Christie was fond of these, often letting Hercule Poirot deliver the line, “but that was just a red herring.” As such, we avid armchair detectives realize these 1- and 2-second glances for what they are: dots on the deduce by numbers page, with a few nonsense points thrown in here and there for good measure. Whereas Christie buried many of the most critical clues in pages and pages of stilted, sometimes off-putting dialogue, television makes them more plain.
The next time the camera cuts to broken coffeepot, the unlit pipe, the uneven planters at the end of the walkway, or the squeaky floorboard, suspect right away that it will figure into whoever gets killed in minute 22. Unless it’s the first season of The Closer, because those writers clearly have watched a lot of detective dramas.