Episode 297: I’m Gonna Write a Bad Story that People Will Hate!

The Overthinkers tackle television that wants you to figure it out, and what makes a satisfying Series Finale.

Ben Adams, Matthew Belinkie, Peter Fenzel, Mark Lee, and Matthew Wrather tackle television that wants you to figure it out, and what makes a satisfying Series Finale.

→ Download Episode 297 (MP3)

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Your Panel

Alternative Titles

  • Pooping into the Cistern of Your Point
  • A Now Little-Used Bucket Called Things Too Stupid for George Lucas
  • Would He Fall into the Pit Because You Kicked Him?
  • Toto, You’re Not in Persia Anymore
  • An Episode of Friday Night Lights by Other Means
  • A War With Its Audience
  • The Only Spoiler is Galactica 1980 is the Worst Thing That’s Ever Been on Television
  • I Got Distracted Writing an Episode of Frasier
  • The Zero Hour, Where the Mother Shall Be Met
  • It’s Not Madness. It’s Sparta.
  • How I Met Your Spartans
  • Pattern-Suggesting Machines
  • J. J. Abrams Pulled the Trigger
  • Are you angry at us for any number of things?

16 Comments on “Episode 297: I’m Gonna Write a Bad Story that People Will Hate!”

  1. Chris Morgan #

    First, I think you guys should keep the question of the week because A) I enjoy it and B) I feel you are less likely to lose listeners from keeping it than from getting rid of it. I mean, if people really don’t like it, they can always skip it. Of course, the main beef may be they want more of the central topic, but it’s not like you guys cut yourselves short most of the time. You’d just have shorter podcasts.

    Also guys, I didn’t want Lost, but even I know that the show had little to nothing to do with J.J. Abrams. That was Cuse and Lindelof’s show. So stop talking jive about Abrams vis a vis Lost. Barking up the wrong tree, dudes.


  2. Connor Moran #

    I want to respond to Wrather’s claim that “I’m just saying….” is precisely true and empty of any other meaning. That may be true if the claim was “I’m saying….” The key to the phrase, though, is “just.” What a person is saying when they say “I’m just saying” X, is “I’m not *implying* anything other than X.” It’s the general case of “I ain’t saying she a gold-digger.”

    What gets tricky is that the phrase is almost always used either ironically (as in the gold-digger example) or disingenuously. It’s often used to call attention to the fact that your words could be taken to imply something other than their simplest meaning, thereby doing exactly what the words disclaim–do more than say X. It is perhaps this fact, and not the vacuousness of the statement, that really makes it annoying.


    • Matthew Wrather OTI Staff #

      See, that’s the thing I like so much about that phrase in particular: It’s an example of how, in natural language, a tautology can express a falsehood.


    • Stokes OTI Staff #

      I always understood “I’m just saying” as the casual equivalent of “let the record show that I object to this line of questioning.” Because the alternative, obviously, is to both say AND act.

      “Hey, let’s go to TGI Friday’s!”
      “TGI Friday’s is a terrible restaurant. I’m just saying, is all.”
      [They go to TGI Friday’s.]

      “Hey, let’s go to TGI Friday’s!”
      “TGI Friday’s is a terrible restaurant.”
      [They go somewhere else.]


      • Stokes OTI Staff #

        While I’m at it: isn’t the point of “This is madness”/”This is Sparta” that the first speaker is making an evaluative judgment, and the second speaker is countering with a bald statement of fact that is somehow meant to absorb and/or excuse the evaluation? (I’m sort of splitting the difference between Wrather and Fenzel here, I think.) Further examples:

        “He’s a jerk!”
        “He’s! A! Teeeenaaagerrrr!”

        “This is disgusting!”
        “This! Is! Geefiiltee fiiish!”

        It wouldn’t have to be a negative judgment, at that:
        “This is delicious!”
        “This! Is! Baaaacoooon!”

        “This movie is awesome!”
        “It! Was! Written! By! Jossssssss Wheeeedoooon!”



        • Richard Rosenbaum OTI Staff #

          Woah, woah, woah. Let’s not slander gefilte fish categorically here.


      • Connor Moran #

        Under my theory, the first exchange would be interpeted as
        “Hey, let’s go to TGI Fridays”
        “TGI Fridays is a terrible restaurant. I’m just saying (that TGI Fridays is a terrible restaurant but not implying that we should not go there).”

        And the second exchange would therefore be:
        “Hey, let’s go to TGI Fridays”
        “TGI Fridays is a terrible restaurant. (So let’s go somewhere else).”

        It all boils down to Gricean conversational implicature. The Maxim of Relation states that statements should be relevant. When the surface meaning of a statement is no relevant, the listener looks for a relation in implied meaning–the textbook example being very similar to the second exchange above (if your textbook is Wikipedia, anyway)–where a person says “It’s raining” in response to the statement “let’s play tennis.” From a strict reading of the words, the statement that TGI Fridays is terrible does not respond to the suggestion to go there. In context, however, the implication in parentheses is clear.

        So when you are saying “I’m just saying” what you are saying is “Yes, Il apparently violating a conversational maxim but you shouldn’t draw the conclusion from that fact that you otherwise might.”


  3. mezdef #

    This immeasurably bottomless pit is an unsolved mystery!

    Another vote for keeping question of the week. At the very least it’s a nice warm-up for listeners to get into the OTI mindset before hitting—ostensibly—the main topic for the show. More importantly, if you’re not having fun doing it, then that should be the main factor. If size is an issue perhaps you could vary the format / style of the beginning festivities based on panel composition or size?


  4. yellojkt #

    On recent series that managed to pull off a credible series finale despite not getting the run it expected was Smash It wrapped up lots of plot lines and gave most of the characters a happy ending. It even pulled off a nice fourth wall breaking meta-sign-off.

    Compare that to the overhyped disaster that was the ending to Seinfeld.

    Here is a comment thread on another blog that discusses lots of show endings in a thoughtful way:



    • cat #

      I question whether Smash managed to have a credible series finale. If I’m remembering correctly, the show had the Tony Awards and then basically just threw every female character into a romantic pairing in the last few moments of the episode. It still do much to fix the questionable decisions and abandoned plot lines that made up two seasons of that show.


  5. clayschuldt #

    I think one of the best sampling of good “last episodes” comes from the Star Trek Franchise. Of the five Trek series the ending to the shows cover a wide range.

    I think each ending was a good representation of the show. Each is similar and different in its own way.

    The original Trek did not have a real ending, it was just cancelled, which does happen sometimes.

    Next Generation had a very good last episode, framing the entire series as trial for humanity with Q as judge, but also giving emotional payoff for the main characters.

    Deep Space Nine, had several serialized story lines to wrap up, yet still had an ambiguous open ending for the main character.

    Voyager’s last episode had to resolve the series long conflict of returning home, the major conflict being weather they would make it home in 7 years or 70 years and the nature of “home”.

    Enterprise had the most bizarre ending, the last episode of the prequel series was revealed to be a holodeck simulation run in the 24 century by Commander Riker.

    Oddly enough, the last episodes to each show dealt with time travel in some way, though in DS9 it was more that Capt. Sisko had transcended time.

    I think each of these finales has something unique to look at, either individually or as a whole.


  6. cat #

    I really should not be commenting on this episode. Maybe it’s my years of conditioning on OTI but it’s very difficult for something to be “spoiled” for me. And if I watch anything that could be considered speculative fiction, I am not among the number of people who speculate about it. I don’t spend much energy trying to predict where a show will go as much as I respond to the places it went.

    The one television show I’ll throw out as having a good series finale would be Leverage.


  7. Count Spatula #

    Please keep the questions, I love them!

    If we’re talking twisty endings and expectations, I think we should mention the movie The Prestige.

    I think there are three clear types of “ending” that are represented in this film – one that’s simple, one that’s complex and one that’s ambiguous.

    Like Christian Bale’s method, writers can choose to go with a simple ending, one that’s been staring us in the face all along. I personally think these are the most satisfying endings – like Usual Suspects or Sixth Sense. They must be carefully woven into the whole plot, not just tacked onto the end.

    Like Hugh Jackman’s method, writers could choose the complex ending – something that’s convoluted and inflated, that doesn’t really make sense, or doesn’t quite tie in with the rest of the show.

    Or the writers can leave the ending ambiguous like the end of Inception. We never know how it ends, not really, but it can be fun to wonder.

    I think True Detective does warrant some analysis, because it’s still a murder mystery at the end of the day and we’d be crazy to not wonder whodunnit before the big reveal. But people can tend to be a bit like Hugh Jackman’s character – we can take our curiosity a bit too far, analyse a show to death, refuse to accept the simple answer, and ultimately come away disappointed because it didn’t live up to our inflated expectations.


  8. lofgren #

    I listened to this episode in the car, which turned out to be a mistake because there was so much in it that made me scream at the stereo. I’ll just list my comments in order and let y’all figure out what I am responding to.

    1. One of my pet peeves is people who claim that “I’m just saying” is meaningless. Sure, if you’re a robot or non-English speaker it might seem contentless, but for anybody familiar with the language denying its meaning requires deliberate obtuseness. As noted by others above, it means essentially “I take no responsibility for any extrapolations, interpretations, or inferences you may derive from this statement.” The same goes for “it is what it is,” which means that it cannot or will not be changed.

    2. Early German submarines could not actually dive for extended periods. Especially in the Mediterranean, they would have spent most of their time on the surface and would only dive if they absolutely had to. The first German submarines built to operate submerged for long stretches were built in 1943, seven years after Raiders of the Lost Ark takes place.

    3. SPOILERS FOR TRUE DETECTIVE AHEAD. I was also perplexed by a lot of the discussion surrounding True Detective online. As late as after the seventh (second-to-last) episode, I saw comments speculating that Hart’s wife was in on the conspiracy, and the final episode would revolve around her attempt to sacrifice one of his daughters. I honestly couldn’t tell if that viewer and I were watching the same show. Here is the extent of my speculation about True Detective:

    After the first episode:
    MY DAD: “So is it a copycat or did they get the wrong guy you think?” (Said in a way that makes it clear he thinks both of those ideas are lame.)
    ME: “I think it’s a cult or something like that.”

    After the second episode:
    MY MOM: “OK, so obviously they think that Matthew McConaughey is the guy.” (NOTE: The second episode is the only episode my mom watched.)
    ME: “Yeah, but I think it’s just because Hart and Cohle are covering something else up.”

    After the fifth episode:
    MY SISTER-IN-LAW: “Do you think he (Cohle) did it?”
    ME: “No. He’s been conducting his own investigation off the books because he thinks the reverend from the first episode is trying to cover it up. Probably it’s somebody in his family or something. It only looks like he’s involved because he keeps showing up at crime scenes. Eventually the two black cops are going to have to decide whether or not to trust him or to bring him down and pin it on him because it’s the easy solution, just like Hart and Cohle did the first time.”

    After the seventh episode, discussing some of the wilder theories with my wife:
    ME: “I don’t get it. It’s basically solved now. All that’s going to happen in the next episode is the big showdown with the spaghetti man. He’s just the craziest guy in a crazy family. Why do people think he’s going to suddenly manifest actual Satanic powers?”

    4. I also figured out Sixth Sense and Usual Suspects very quickly. I think Nick and I would get along. While I’m bragging, I recently had the chance to share with one of my favorite mystery novelists my running theory for how her most recent book would end. Her response was, “Oh… That would have been much better.”

    5. I was surprised that nobody mentioned Twin Peaks in the discussion about TV shows and twists. I believe that X-Files, Lost, and other similar shows owe a lot to Twin Peaks. SPOILERS FOR TWIN PEAKS AHEAD. Twin Peaks was built around a central mystery that was originally intended to last the entire series. But pressure from the network made the writers decide to solve it early. The show lost direction after that, so the writers simply reopened the case and ultimately revealed that culprit was actually a shape-shifting demon from hell. There was a lot of weirdness on Twin Peaks but that solution was way out there even for them. Twin Peaks was a big hit and pioneered Lost’s “at least one totally inexplicable, semi-random event should happen every episode” style.

    6. I have lately become immensely annoyed at TV shows that seem to think that I care about the characters. I was happy to hear that the panel had some similar reactions.

    My latest annoyance is the 3rd season of Sherlock. SPOILERS FOR SHERLOCK AHEAD. I love Sherlock. I like the characters. I even liked the last episode. But there is no way you can get me to give a shit about whether or not Watson’s marriage will work out. There was a lot of time and suspense invested in this, and I just don’t care. Whether he’s married to a former assassin or not, next episode he’s still going to be grouchy John Watson, running around England solving crimes with Sherlock Holmes and being generally exasperated with the world. Whether or not Watson is married makes no difference to me at all, and I was bored during the long pauses when I think the director thought the audience would be on the edge of their seats wondering what he was going to say next. The only question was whether or not the actress who plays his wife will be in the next series. It’s not like Watson is going to find happiness, retire from crimesolving, and the next episode will be about his life as a country doctor treating the comical ailments of the quirky residents of some British seaside village.

    7. I have watched exactly one half of one episode of Galactica 1980.

    8. In my opinion the abuse of television occurs when the writers tip their hand and allow the audience to see that nothing in the show means anything, that the show consists only of one thing after another.

    Soap opera style shows suffer from this a lot, because they are striving so hard for status quo. An example that comes to mind would be the ending of the first season of Grey’s Anatomy. SPOILERS FOR GREY’S ANATOMY AHEAD. In the second-to-last episode of the season, Izzie deliberately puts her patient at risk of dying in order to bump him to the top of the transplant list, because she is in love with him. That was actually really intense. Then the guy gets the transplant but dies anyway. That was actually a really intense storyline. Unfortunately, Katherine Heigl decided not to leave the show after the first season, so the writers weren’t able to take the story to its only logical conclusion: Izzie is washed out of the intern program, probably barred from ever practicing medicine, and possibly sent to prison. At the very least she gets sued into oblivion by the families of the guy she almost killed on purpose and the guy she did kill because he didn’t get the transplant that was rightfully his. I can’t invest myself in a world where random shit happens and there are no consequences. Izzie making the choice to risk her career and possibly her freedom to save the love of her life is intense drama. If it turns out that there was never any risk at all, then who cares? I honestly wouldn’t have been surprised if Sandra Oh took a swan dive off the building and showed up next week totally fine, wondering why everybody is crying.

    Lost and the X-Files suffered from the same problem on a different order of magnitude. I was really into the first couple seasons of Lost because I thought that they were setting up these mysteries in order to knock them down in later seasons. It soon became evident that they weren’t setting up mysteries per se, because mysteries have solutions. They were just throwing random shit at you. You could spend a hundred years trying to figure out what it all meant, because it didn’t mean anything at all. It was the “anything can happen, because it makes no sense and all the characters are morons” approach to writing.

    If the writers want me to expend any effort wondering what it all means or where it’s all going, then I expect that they should be putting at least three times as much effort into the same thing. After all, they’re getting paid for it. It was obvious after a couple of seasons of Lost (maybe even earlier, in retrospect) that the writers weren’t spending any effort trying to figure out what it means and where it’s going. That show could have been written by a random number generator and nobody would have been able to tell.


  9. lofgren #

    Oh, and I forgot. SPOILERS FOR INCEPTION. It doesn’t matter whether or not the top falls at the end of Inception. The top isn’t Cobb’s totem. He carries it because it was his wife’s totem. Cobb’s totem is his wedding ring. In dreams, he’s wearing it (you can see him fidget with it whenever he first enters a dream). In real life he’s not.


  10. Connor Moran #

    Way late, but someone just posted in a reddit thread a link to the following quotation from Herodotus’s The Histories:

    “No heralds were sent by Xerxes to Athens and Sparta with a demand for earth because Darius had done exactly that earlier, and the heralds had been hurled into the Pit in Athens and into a well in Sparta, with the suggestion that they fetch earth and water from there to take to the king.”

    So not only is the whole kicking-the-messenger-into-the-hole thing attested in an early history of the Persian wars (albeit one known for reporting dubious stories), there’s also evidence of a one-liner delivered while doing so. Granted, the one-liner comes off at least in English translation as a bit of a doofy comeback instead of a Single! Shouted! Phrase! but still.

    The part that really intrigues me is that while the Spartan hole is just the boring old well, Athens has something called The Pit meriting capitalization in the translation. Could this actually be the dedicated killin’ pit discussed in the podcast? Let’s get some history grad students on that.


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