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BLOG Suspension of Disbelief

You know when you watch a show and you’re immersed in the world and the characters and the drama and suddenly something just doesn’t gel and the spell is broken? I’m a sci-fi fan – I assume all of you reading this are too – so I’m guessing we’re all willing to suspend our disbelief; after all, we like adventures in space and superheroes and elves and dragons. But sometimes that suspension of disbelief can be stretched to breaking point. I’m talking about the point at which you’re thrown out of a story. Those times when you say “Hang on a minute…”

It happened to me a few weeks ago with episode five of the latest season of The Walking Dead (slight spoilers for both the TV series and the comic follow but nothing major). The episode depicted the use of zombies in a barbaric form of entertainment in the Governor-led safe haven Andrea has found. This aspect of life in Woodbury had been seen before in the original comic but seemed to sit more comfortably with the “rule by fear” set up in the comic book’s plotting. The whole set-up of The Governor and Woodbury in the comic was more barbaric and cruel and the leap to zombie gladiator fights was an easy one. The TV version of the town has been a lot more relaxed and has given the impression that not everybody in the town knows how cruel and sadistic The Governor can be.

The Walking Dead may be about the end of civilisation as we know it, and feature plagues of un-dead ghouls. And season two may have dragged in places, but never did I not buy into the world. Never did the events or characters seem as though they weren’t living in a well-crafted, well-thought-out world. Until episode five of this latest season. The whole zombie/bare knuckle fight seemed as though it came out of a different universe to the rest of the events in the episode; it didn’t suit Woodbury as it had been set up on screen, and it didn’t seem to work with the tone the series as a whole.

I just couldn’t see how this town – these people – would partake in this barbarism because everything dodgy or shady which had happened in Woodbury, or involving Woodbury folk, seemed to be done in secret by a select few. Having my brain confronted with something that just didn’t seem to fit made me lose the sense of immersion because I was busy thinking, “Eh? Hang on.” It felt like the TV makers wanted to include the aspect of Woodbury life because it was in the comic but they didn’t stop to see if it actually fitted with the TV version of the town they had created.

It’s not the first time my suspension of disbelief has been broken by a film or TV show. And I hate it when something happens in a show that defies the logic or breaks the rules the show has set for itself. Sometimes it’s a character doing something you know that character just wouldn’t do or sometimes it’s something where the show disregards its own internal consistency. Sometimes it’s just a moment of bad writing.

Reasons why suspension of disbelief becomes broken can be many and varied, it doesn’t have to be bad writing or silly character moments. Special effects can be a major culprit. For instance: the part in The Matrix where Neo fights the hundreds of Agent Smiths and the fight just goes on and on and the figures look more and more like fake rubber men. The first Matrix film did some truly wonderful things with fight scenes bringing the often copied “Bullet Time” to the masses. But then it goes and throws out all the great strides it made by trying to go too far with its sequel and managed to give us some of the worst special effects seen. Not technically, so much as conceptually. For me, the increasingly ridiculous and pantomimed effort of the supposed “Burly Brawl” was the point at which they lost me. The effects in The Matrix Reloaded are far from the only effects that are so bad they’ve brought my disbelief crashing down, but they are one the most memorable.

I’m not trying to rubbish The Walking Dead , or any of the The Matrix films; these little blip won’t usually make me run from shows screaming that they’re crap. It hasn’t suddenly made these shows unwatchable for me; it’s not “jumping the shark” levels of silliness… Well, maybe it was in the case of The Matrix sequels.

I’m willing to buy into superpowers, aliens, killer zombies and any number of fantastical things but the show has to have a level of consistency, they have to a have a framework in which these fantastical elements sit which gives them a grounding and a world where they work. I suppose it’s all to do with how much rope I’m willing to give a show. If they’re internally consistent then I’m usually willing to give them more time. If a show sets out its world rules and then disregards them I’m less willing to stick with it.

We all know this kind of thing happens occasionally with sci-fi, and probably other genres too, and I wondered what other people’s level of tolerance for these sorts of things is. How much wiggle room do you give a show or film before you switch off? Are you as nitpicky as I am sometimes? What shows or films have broken your suspension of disbelief? Are these moments transitory like with me and The Walking Dead or have you ever given up on something because you just don’t buy it anymore? What are the most memorable moments when a show or film lost you?