It's Totally Normal to Take a 7-Hour Plane Ride on My Private Jet to Have a 1-Minute Conversation
In “The Kingmaker,” an episode of Billions season two, Bobby Axelrod, a vindictive and charismatic hedge fund manager played by Damian Lewis whose wealth gives the show its name, takes his private plane to an out-of-state meeting. He shows up at the office of a guy who provides the ore for a steel company on whom he is trying to get revenge. Axelrod offers an absurd sum for his entire stock. The offer is declined. He ups it and is declined again. Then he leaves. He goes back home. He took two plane rides for one conversation that lasted a little more than a minute.
I don’t know a lot about how private planes are paid for—do you pay the pilot the same whether he’s on call or he’s flying?—but I do know that flights pollute like crazy and fuel is expensive and this was not a cheap endeavor, even for a multi-billionaire. It also took a lot of time. At least five hours. It certainly took way more time than a phone call, which would have accomplished the exact same thing. Welcome to the Completely Unnecessary Travel phenomenon (CUT for short).
Billions is one of the more extreme examples of the phenomenon that feels increasingly common on television: characters’ travel times and conversation times are severely, even ridiculously, out of proportion. Sometimes it’s smooth enough to go unnoticed, but often it’s jarring, drawing attention away from the good stuff, like logical plot. It’s inevitable: writers have to do what they can to get their actors occupying the same physical space on screen. I just wish they were better at it.
Here’s a more innocuous instance: In the beginning of a season-three episode of Silicon Valley, Richard Hendricks, the CEO of his company, and Jared, his right-hand man, are sitting in their lawyer’s office only so that the lawyer can explain to Richard and Jared that there is nothing he can do about someone they hate ending up with a ten-percent ownership stake in their company. The whole exchange lasts a minute or less and then they’re out of there. It’s sneakier than other examples of CUT. The travel is implied because the episode opens in the office and Richard and Jared continue discussing the same subject at the beginning of the next scene. Even still, the same mechanisms are at play.
Perhaps the most glaring example of CUT came in season seven of Game of Thrones. Not only were characters travelling long distances for short conversations, they were covering those distances at blistering speeds, leading critics to annotate maps expressing how illogical it all was. This traveling-at-the-speed-of-plot culminated in Jon Snow, who was all the way north, and Cersei, who was far south, meeting to have a pointless peace negotiation. Snow can’t convince Cersei that the White Walkers are enough of an existential threat to band together. The gambit fails, like every viewer knew it would. So many miles wasted.
When I asked critic Sean T. Collins about CUT, he cited Hulu’s The Path as another egregious offender. “Virtually every scene was someone just popping over to someone else’s place, often [requiring] a multiple-hour drive, to have an angry confrontation that lasts a minute,” Collins said. Tom Hardy’s Taboo also falls into the trap. As the critic described to me: “Hardy’s character would walk through waist-deep London horseshit just to grumble at someone he was pissed at for as long as it takes to sing ‘God Save the King’ and then split.”
Did things used to be this way? Perhaps as television has gotten more ambitious, the CUT problem has gotten worse. The major shows from the 1990s and early 2000s had strategies to prevent this type of conundrum. The friends on Friends lived near one another and had a coffee shop they frequented. The same is true of Seinfeld. The women on Sex and the City visit each other’s apartments, but also meet at restaurants and make use of their landlines.
Smartphones present another challenge. As a 2016 article in The Verge on how TV shows and movies handled texting pointed out, as phone calls have been supplanted by various types of text messaging in everyday life, they’ve necessarily been phased out of entertainment, too. Even when phone calls weren’t out of date, they lacked a certain dynamism. Filmmakers are still searching for the right way to represent short-form written communication on screen. It doesn’t look right or feel right. Phones are difficult to dramatize. It is hard to act a text message.
There have been some novel solutions: The Mindy Project had their actors read texts out loud when the messages popped up, and it sorta-kinda worked and it sorta-kinda didn’t. There wasn’t much verve in their vocalizing. On Brooklyn Nine-Nine, the characters just describe the text they’ve received to other characters. Jane the Virgin finds a middle ground, overlaying music with the sounds of keyboard clicks and letting viewers read the messages themselves. This is the most natural of all the options, but still leaves something to be desired.
The main problem seems to be that, all of the emotional drama of texting comes from the anticipation of getting a text, which comes from the passage of time. That’s even harder to represent in the space of a TV show.
So what are writers left with? “You can view it as an obstacle or an opportunity,” Collins said. “Filmmakers are always going to have a hard time resisting putting two actors in a room together, and rightfully so, since it’s where so much of the magic of live-action filmmaking and theater comes from.”
One option is to embrace a middle-ground. In a profile Collins wrote of Sam Esmail, the creator of Mr. Robot, for The Verge, Esmail shared his disappointment with the trope of characters spontaneously showing up at other peoples’ houses or offices. “Filming Mr. Robot, I took the opportunity to say, ‘Wait a minute, what would actually happen?’” The result is moderation. People act reasonably and travel long distances when it makes sense. The secret society that the show’s main character, Elliot, falls into is headquartered on Coney Island. He frequently travels there from his office in midtown Manhattan and, while it certainly sucks for him, it is justified by the sensitive nature of their work. But, importantly, it doesn’t happen all the time — only when necessary.
In situations where writers are pressed for ideas on how to get somewhere in a reasonable manner, making the unreasonable part of the show can be a salve. On the aforementioned episode of Billions, Collins rightly pointed out that “taking a private jet to have a thirty-second face-to-face [conversation] sounds exactly like something a guy with more money than god would do.”
But the ridiculousness of the scene in Billions might not matter to the average viewer: The confrontation sandwiched between Axelrod’s flights is cool as hell. He arrives at the airstrip with his wife with one private plane in view. They say goodbye to one another as she goes to board her private plane while he keeps walking and the camera reveals a second private plane. When he gets to where he’s going, Damian Lewis acts a rich man’s threat better than almost anyone. It’s exhilarating.
So, maybe some CUT can be acceptable. If the show sucks, the bad travel-time-to-talk-time ratio can be backbreaking. In The Path, it’s maddening because the conversations are not exciting and they’re too frequent. Game of Thrones can get away with it because even if the writers didn’t exactly earn it, they made the scenes bookending the CUT dramatic and significant. Who doesn’t want to see Jon and Cersei speechifying regardless of how they got there? It allows the actors to act. After all, that’s what we’re watching for.