I watch TV and movies. This is shared as both a confession and as a critic. Media teaches and entertains me (which I love) and mesmerizes me (which I hate.) A baseball game is on the tube now, but often you will find Heroes, LOST, Good Eats, a History channel special, or even Star Trek: TNG reruns. After too many shows and films to count, I have recently come to a conclusion: almost all plots are based on the “Mr. Wizard Effect.”
This term comes from a 1960’s, cult-fav cartoon called Tooter Turtle. As a child, I watched Tooter seek out his friend, Mr. Wizard, a petite lizard with a magic wand. Bored with his own life, Tooter always was seeking to BE something, almost anything, other than himself. He wanted to be changed. Tooter would whine until Mr. Wizard would finally transform him into someone else, usually a heroic figure in history. Tooter’s adventures of “being more than himself” included all kinds of trips: being a knight at the Round Table, Robin Hood, an astronaut, a master builder, Babe Ruth, a bull fighter, a sea captain, Superman, an Olympic athlete, a fireman, and even General George Custer. Given the last example, it’s not hard to see that every trip always ended with poor choices and catastrophe. As disaster neared, Tooter always called out the same thing, the famous cry for salvation, “Help me, Mr. Wizard!” Mr. Wizard, listening and following the action from a distance, would rescue him with the incantation, “Drizzle, drazzle, druzzle, drome; time for zis one to come home.” This is the Mr. Wizard effect.
There was a moral: at the end of every Tooter adventure, Mr. Wizard would always give Tooter the same sage advice: “Be just vhat you is, not vhat you is not. Folks vhat do zis are ze happiest lot.” No matter how often Tooter was grasped from the crush of failure, he sadly never learned any real lesson. But media has. Media moguls get this Mr. Wizard effect. For example, Neo in the Matrix cries out over the phone for Mr. Wizard to save him, and Sawyer and Miles (LOST) discuss whether Daniel Faraday is going to be their Mr. Wizard. Unspoken, we see this effect all over, too.
Almost every plot in dramatic media is based on the Greek comedy formula, wherein: 1) our hero (all genders and pluralities) is seeking or on an adventure, 2) our hero fails or struggles to be heroic, and 3) help/resolution comes and the hero is saved, but from an unexpected direction. (The key for a Greek comedy is not humor, but surprise. Which is, by the way, the real key to humor.) In a TV show or movie, a tension is created in characters we love or hate, and we await some resolution. Pay attention–this resolution usually comes from an unexpected direction or source. Seldom do our popular heroes simply save themselves. Something or someone intervenes. The “heroes” remain lovable, but human, and not too heroic.
Writers understand the human condition, and write to touch it. We all have the itch, the desire, to be more than we are. We want to be Heroes! We also feel like we are LOST, in way over our heads on an island no one really understands. There is too much change in our world, and too much responsibility, and too little control. We don’t feel heroic, and we know our own failures. Finally, we are all–deep inside–hoping for a personal Mr. Wizard. We desire someone we can cry out to, who will always hear and always come. We hunger for someone who can save us from our frailties, and lead us to the happily-ever-after credits. Deep inside, we want to cry out, “Help me, Mr. Wizard!” and be saved.