The suspension of disbelief is imperative when watching (or reading, or listening to) a work of fiction. This is how we can accept a fantasy about giant blue aliens in outer space but get irked when there's a plot hole. Even though I've directed films and thus I know how the sausage is made, I can still easily lose myself in a well-written, well-acted, well-paced movie or TV series. But here are nine annoying things that will make me un-lose myself.
- A familiar pop song, chopped to pieces. I've been a Kate Bush megafan since 1986, so I was delighted that Netflix's Stranger Things propelled her 1985 single "Running Up That Hill" to the top of the charts in 2022. But when the song is first heard in the series, it's fragmented: you hear a little bit of the opening, then the first verse, then suddenly the chorus, all in about 30 seconds. I don't get distracted when a familiar tune pops up in a soundtrack – Licorice Pizza makes great use of David Bowie's "Life on Mars?" – but when the music editor cuts it up just to fit a scene's pace, it drives me crazy.
- 21st century physiques in period pictures. My wife and I watched HBO's The Gilded Age earlier this year. The show takes place in 1882 and is quite realistic in terms of how its characters speak, act, and look. Yet when two men – a closeted gay couple – are shown together shirtless, they are ripped like they just spent all of 2021 in the gym. Preposterous. Absolutely no one was that chiseled in the 1880s, not even circus strongmen. I wish actors would shed some of their vanity and let their bodies go slack when performing in period works. You can hit the weights after wrap, guys.
- Incorrect hair and facial hair in period pictures. I've come to sort of hate the 2016 buddy comedy The Nice Guys, which takes place in 1977, because its lead characters (Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling) each maintain exactly the same level of cool-dude stubble throughout the weeks-long storyline. And that's not to mention their carefully pomaded hair. Look man, I was there: men in the late '70s were either completely clean shaven, sported bushy mustaches and smooth cheeks, or had full beards. Period. And don't get me started on anachronistic facial hair in movies that take place even earlier, like Leonardo DiCaprio's goatee in the 1950s-set Shutter Island. As above, blame actor vanity – and hair departments that didn't do their homework.
- Any phone number starting with "555" or "1". This practice began decades ago in order to prevent morons from calling up a phone number shown or heard onscreen and bothering the real person on the other line. ("Is Kojak there?") No phone number in the U.S. actually begins with "555", so movies and TV shows regularly employ it for their fictitious numbers. But it's so fake – how can you accept a narrative as realistic once you spot that old "555"? Some films and TV shows have lately been use phone numbers beginning with "1", e.g., "Call me at 143-7829." Naturally, no local number or area code begins with "1", so it's safe to use. But for me it's only marginally less distracting than "555".
- Stories that take place in a Covid-free 2020-2022. We can forgive those productions shot in 2019 for assuming that the following three years would be normal – that you could freely go out to concerts, restaurants, etc., and that not a soul would be wearing a face mask or disinfecting their hands. Yet I've seen several shows that were obviously shot during Covid-19 displaying calendars and dates – picture a "Happy New Year 2021!" banner above a packed crowd in a hotel ballroom – that suggest a parallel universe. Folks, if you refuse to acknowledge the pandemic in your story, then have it take place in 2019 or 2023 or an unnamed year.
- Computer passwords that are easily guessed. While I'm sure millions still use "password" or "abc123", there are plenty of people (including yours truly) whose passwords are virtually unguessable – nonsense combinations of numbers and letters that we memorize or even randomly generate. Yet on film and television, even the most secretive characters have computer/phone passwords that can be figured out after a handful of tries: "It's his wife's birthday!" "It's her dog's name!" I realize they need to be easy in order to keep the narrative flowing, but I'd love to see more shows in which someone tries to crack a password, fails, and has to find a more creative solution.
- Obviously false geography. In the 1998 feature American History X, there's a scene in which Edward Furlong leaves Venice High School on foot; moments later, he arrives at a coffee shop at Wilshire Blvd. and Fairfax Ave. – seven miles away! Directors assume that audiences aren't familiar enough with any of their real world locations to notice when they "cheat" a little. But I know Los Angeles pretty well, so I catch these "cheats" all the time. As an example of how to do it right, the 2008 found footage classic Cloverfield does an excellent job of moving its characters around Manhattan realistically.
- Women keeping their bras on during sex. I feel sleazy bringing this up, but lately I've noticed that screen actresses have been keeping their brassieres on during sex scenes – with anything below the waist discreetly hidden beneath rumpled bedsheets. On a professional level, this is totally understandable: who wants her boobs all over the Internet? And it's good that they have more control over what they show than actresses of yore. But it's ludicrous to suggest that a real woman would routinely do this when making love with her partner. When I watch such a scene, I don't think of characters sharing a passionate moment; I think of the no-nudity clause in the performer's contract. (Full disclosure: I find most sex scenes to be filler and not at all titillating.)
- Sunny backgrounds during rainy scenes. Weather is a director's worst enemy: when you need it to be sunny, it's overcast; when you need snow, there's a heat wave. Since the beginning, filmmakers have turned to devices like rain machines to create precipitation in the middle of a California summer. But even as our actors in the foreground are getting soaked – look how bright and sunny it is just 100 feet behind them! Bonus distraction: the distinctly phony way "rain" pours down a window in a movie/TV scene.