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‘Silo’: A Three’s Company Story
Some stories don’t work if you imagine a single character just having a normal conversation with someone.
Depending on your age, you may or may not be familiar with an old situation comedy called Three’s Company. It was a bad, no good, very terrible show, so naturally it ran for eight seasons. The show got a lot of notice for its premise, considered somewhat shocking in 1977: Jack Tripper is a swinging hetero bachelor type who pretends to be homosexual in order to rent an apartment (the landlord won’t allow unmarried men and women to live together, you see). It is deeply unfunny, but has a certain amount of cultural cachet due to its politics and the sheer volume of extremely offensive gay jokes that were deemed perfectly okay for Prime Time television back in The Day.
Why are we discussing this terrible old TV show? Because Three’s Company frequently used miscommunication as a plot device: Many of the episode’s plots revolved around people overhearing and misunderstanding situations, and then steadfastly refusing to just ask the other people a simple question that would clear everything up. It’s like if you came home and found your spouse covered in red liquid and immediately called the police to accuse them of murder instead of asking hey, why are you covered in red liquid and hen they explain it’s actually jelly doughnut filling because they got a little overexcited about having a jelly doughnut.
I am reminded of this awful trope because of Silo, Apple TV+’s adaptation of the Hugh Howey book series about the remnants of humanity living in an underground Silo in a postapocalyptic future. Because the story told in the first few episodes trades hard on the Three’s Company trick: No one has a conversation.
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Silo begins as a mystery show set in a ruined future. No one in the Silo knows who built it or how humanity got there—a rebellion of some kind a century before destroyed most of the Silo’s records—but everyone knows that the outside world is poisoned. By the rules of a constitution of sorts called The Pact, anyone can demand to leave the Silo, but they can never return. Anyone who asks to leave is in turn asked to Clean—to wipe dirt and debris off the Silo’s sensors in order to help it monitor the outside world. Everyone who leaves does, in fact, Clean, but then also dies very rapidly.
Allison (Rashida Jones), wife of the Silo’s sheriff, Holston (David Oyelowo), stumbles onto some illegal information on a “relic” (an old hard drive) and becomes convinced that the outside world is fine, and everyone in the Silo is being lied to. She demands to go outside, and tells her husband she will give him a sign when she emerges to let him know if her suspicions are correct. She gives the sign, but then appears to die like everyone else. At the request of engineer Juliette Nichols (Rebecca Ferguson), Sheriff Holston begins investigating the death of the man who gave Allison the data, then eventually asks to go outside himself. And also promptly dies, naming Nichols as his replacement and leaving her a series of cryptic clues.
That’s a lot of dense story to summarize, but the problem is easy to see: If Sheriff Holston simply drops in on Nichols and tells her what’s driving him to leave the Silo, and why he’s hiding information related to the murder case, the story either collapses into a cloud of disinterest or accelerates into the next phase immediately. The whole narrative pivots off us believing that people wouldn’t simply tell each other what’s going on.
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Withholding information from characters and/or the audience is a legitimate writing trick, of course, and can be leveraged for tension and pathos. What’s essential, however, is plausibility. If I am investigating a murder in a depressing future dystopia and I stumble on proof of some diabolical conspiracy or Big Lie, it’s certainly plausible that I might be wary about who I tell. But when the story has already introduced a trusted confederate—someone you’ve already had secretive adventures with—that plausibility gets real thin.
This trick tends to get played in stories like Silo that are essentially mystery boxes: The whole show is about What the Fuck Happened. The world ended, and we don’t know why. Someone built the Silo, and we don’t know who. There was a “rebellion” that destroyed all the records, but we don’t know what happened. There are various shifty folks and happenings that seem like they’re hiding the answers, but we can’t be sure.
One thing we can be sure of is that the Three’s Company approach to storytelling gets frustrating, because it undermines our suspension of disbelief in these characters. All characters are fake, made up people. Writers work furiously to convince you that they are actually real people despite the fact that they have never actually existed, and strange, plot-convenient decisions like choosing to hide secret information instead of simply passing it on to your allies like a Normal makes that much more difficult.
Of course, everything comes down to the resolutions we’re offered: Maybe I’ll take all this back when everything is revealed, because the clever story justifies it all, including why characters stand around with one finger alongside their nose as if they’re extras from The Sting instead of just saying what’s on their mind.
At least so far Silo has resisted the other No Good Plot Device of having the character with all the answers be killed just as they’re about to speak, but there’s time yet. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to start digging down under my house to finally build that fallout shelter I’ve been dreaming about.
Next week: The Diplomat and character grit.
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To be fair, this was in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when people thought The Love Boat was a good idea. In other words: Primitive times.
It’s frankly amazing how recently it was perfectly okay to mock all sorts of people or groups of people in mainstream entertainments. You’re watching something from 2010 and BAM you’re hit in the face with some pretty plain-view homophobia that was deemed hilarious at the time. Luckily all my humor focuses on pants and cats, two evergreen subjects that will never be retconned.
The last time this happened to me, I woke up in Hawaii and was informed I was getting married in three hours. True story.
Also: True story.
If I recall correctly, this is also how World War I started.
This is also one of those dystopias where the world organizes itself into a neat little pattern, as your social status is directly related to the level of the silo you live and work on, with the grubby engineers and sewer experts on the lower levels treated like sub-human assholes. While I heartily agree that humans frequently treat each other like sub-human assholes, having observed my fellow shaved houseapes over the years I do not believe for one moment our future dystopia will be that organized.
Cleaning is therefore a capital punishment in the Silo, which is hilarious considering the show has designed the sets to look absolutely filthy.
One thing to consider is that whenever I go out for drinks with people, we all announce loudly every time we have to go to the bathroom, as if fearing the rest of the group would just forget about them and leave otherwise. And yet we’re asked to believe if I stumbled on some Narnia-like pocket universe in the bathroom I would spend the next few years crafting a scavenger hunt of riddles instead of just telling people.
Note: I’m not referring to the fact that we’re secretly ruled by Lizard People, because that’s obvious.
Is “What the Fuck Happened” the new title of my memoir? Yes.
Unlike me, who is absolutely definitely not a trio of children standing on each other’s shoulders wearing a trench coat named Vincent Adultman.