What are the worst movie and TV clichés you can think of? Whether it’s the escalating misunderstandings that could easily be cleared up if someone just explained; the action hero effortlessly walking away from serious crashes and outrunning explosions; the off-screen gunshot that turns the tides, or the woman throwing up as the only way people ever apparently discover they’re pregnant, so often stories resort to lazy, easy shortcuts we’ve seen a million times before. When are they effective or timeless, and when is this just a boring lack of imagination? Here are some of our favorite—or least favorite—movie cliches.
Why is it that characters are always just about to kiss, only to be interrupted? Sometimes, the distraction is something catastrophic. Other times, the characters themselves just can’t handle the romantic tension. A big romantic kiss is seen as the end of an arc for characters—so it can’t happen too early, and writers are often scrambling for reasons to delay this moment. This is spiritually related to the “will-they won’t-they,” where characters with obvious romantic chemistry on a TV show are kept apart in order to keep audiences coming back. It’s a cliché but an undeniably effective one: If Sam and Diane or Ross and Rachel or Jim and Pam fully get together, it takes some of the air out of the show—even if we don’t admit it, we’d rather see Jim and Pam pining for each other, or Sam and Diane fighting.
Sam: “I’ve never met an intelligent woman I’d want to date.”
Diane: “On behalf of the intelligent women around the world, may I just say… phew.”
- Cheers: Season 1, Episode 2
“Let’s Split Up”
If there’s one thing we’ve learned from TV and movies, it’s that there’s strength in numbers. But groups of people facing an unknown threat so often decide to split up into pairs or lone individuals. This cliche exists not to show how people would reasonably react in a horror movie situation–would your first instinct be to go off by yourself? It’s just an easy setup for attacks as members of the party are picked off, one by one, for dramatic effect. This trope has become so prevalent that it’s been widely mocked, and most characters in action and horror movies are now entirely aware of it. The Cabin in the Woods explicitly includes this in its satire of horror movie tropes: The group initially wants to stay together, but the scientists manipulating the group simply use subliminal messaging and mind-altering drugs to drive them to the conclusion demanded by the genre.
Brenda: “How come every time some scary shit happens that we need to stick together you white people always say “Let’s split up!”
- Scary Movie
Removing Glasses Makes Someone Hot
Taking off glasses to make someone hotter is one of the oddest cliches of visual media. If someone wears glasses, it’s a shorthand that they must be an incorrigible nerd, and incapable of attracting a partner. But once the glasses come off, it’s a whole new ball game. This trope includes characters like The Princess Diaries’ Mia, who literally transforms into a princess; She’s All That’s Laney, an unpopular kid who stuns the cool kids at school with her beauty as soon as her glasses are removed; and Scooby-Doo’s Velma, who does a lightning-fast makeover in order to win over a guy. It’s not just women: Historically, the character Superman uses thick glasses to maintain his civilian identity of Clark Kent—because there’s no way that anyone, even intrepid reporter Lois Lane, would think that the bumbling, bespectacled Clark Kent could be Superman. The Sam Raimi Spider-Man movies use Peter Parker’s glasses to communicate whether Peter has his powers or not, since getting bit by a radioactive spider cures his weak vision—and makes him stronger and more confident. Strangely, many movie and TV characters seem unable to recognize a person if they’re wearing glasses. A variation on this trope is the countless times in movies when characters toy with sunglasses to emphasize their hotness or coolness.
One Last Job
A professional begrudgingly agrees to do “one last job” before they retire, and you just know something major is going to go wrong. They might be an assassin, a soldier, or a thief, the crew of The Italian Job, or Robert DeNiro as aging criminal Neil McCauley in Heat—or, really, any of a number of Robert DeNiro roles. This trope sets up emotional character stakes: If the protagonist can simply get this one job done, they’ll get to live happily ever after. In these movies, getting to “retire” is also a stand-in for redemption, for earning their way out of a life involving violence or deception. But the “one last job” trope has been done enough times that it feels hollow. It’s easily mocked in characters like 24’s Jack Bauer or The Fast and the Furious’ Dominic Toretto, for whom every job is seemingly the last one, but who must keep coming back for additional seasons or sequels.
Cobb: “Those kids, your grandchildren, they’re waiting for their father to come back home… And this job, this last job, that’s how I get there.”
“Turn on the TV”
“The suspiciously convenient news piece is one of numerous movie tropes that exist because of the need to provide exposition. In this clip from The Terminator, the news broadcast is used to communicate that someone is murdering people named “Sarah Connor,” setting up the threat to our Sarah Connor. In some cases, the coincidental broadcast conveys information to the characters right at a critical moment—like in Watchmen when Ozymandias is able to prove that his plan to create a tentative world peace worked. Eventually, this cliche became prominent enough that a comedy like Arrested Development could mock just how contrived it is for the exact right news segment to come on at the exact right moment. Turn On The TV”
Wayne Jarvis: “And imagine the impact if that had come on right when we turned on the TV.”
- Arrested Development: Season 3, Episode 12
Hacking the Mainframe
How does technology work again? Even to this day, plenty of movies fall back on the old saw that just typing away at a few keys is enough to do basically anything. In this cliche, “hacking” is basically the same thing as casting a spell–you just have to be one of those techie magicians who knows all the secrets.
Lex: “It’s a UNIX system, I know this!”
- Jurassic Park
On one hand, it makes sense that this is such a trope—as science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke famously wrote, “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” But in a world where technology is increasingly omnipresent and we’re all aware of how incredibly complicated it is, we’re still getting scenes like The Fate of the Furious’ car hacking where a bit of typing can take over a fleet of cars. By contrast, it’s far more interesting when films and shows go the opposite direction: Silicon Valley’s send-up of the modern tech world finds humor in just how hard and time-consuming it is to bring new tech into the world–and also underlined how important it is to consider the consequences.
So what’s the cliché that most annoys you––the way every character’s home is impossibly clean, and parents always have time to prepare a picturesque breakfast for their children while being all ready for work? How no one ever says goodbye on the phone and kids are like impossibly clever mini-adults? Let us know which clichés you think we should make a video on next.