Story analysis: MacGyver vs Scorpions

It’s been a while since I got to watch some shows and so I figure I might as well do some story analysis of what works and what isn’t working for me and how I can apply that to my own writing. 

MacGyver vs Scorpions

MacGyver vs Scorpions

I’m a fan of the show Scorpion. I think the premise is well thought out and they educate audience by sprinkling scientific facts when solving complex problems. The show is loosely (extremely loose here) based on Walter O'Brien. Scorpion is a team of geniuses: Walter has an IQ of 197, Sylvester is a human calculator, Happy is a mechanical prodigy, Toby is a behaviorist who can read people based on their expressions, and Ralph is extremely good with computers. 

MacGyver, on the other hand, only has one genius - the titular character MacGyver. He has to "hack" readily available material through his knowledge of scientific facts to get him out of difficult situations. 

I should note that I was a fan of the original Macgyver series, way back in the 80s.

The original MacGyver

The original MacGyver

So, as much as I would like the new MacGyver to work, it’s currently not working. Ratings have been steadily dropping and I’ve been trying to figure out why from a story point of view. 

Obviously, other factors beside stories (like actors, time slot, etc) are also at play, but I’m going to focus on story. 

The main problem with the new MacGyver is that the Phoenix Foundation, the clandestine organization that he works for, is a very shallow foundation (pun intended) for which to base the story on. It works in the 80s because that was a different time (and I was a lot younger). Now, however, audience are much more sophisticated and discerning and they can sense it when you're just winging it. 

Why is the Phoenix Foundation a problem? 

Precisely because we don't know we're not exactly sure why MacGyver is getting these assignments and not the CIA, FBI, or Interpol. Basically, what kind of assignments can the Phoenix Foundation take on and how is it different from any other clandestine government agency? 

Contrast this with Scorpion, where we learn that they are a for-profit private agency that is made up of various geniuses. The government hires them because the job requires geniuses to solve it. We know why the government is hiring them — the government doesn’t have the brainpower to handle it. We know why they’re doing it — for the money, mostly. They explain why they need the money, but we understand that they're brains-for-hire essentially. Every week is a different problem that they’ve to quickly solve before it starts the next World War or a major catastrophe. We know the stake and we know that Scorpion is the only team smart enough to solve it. If they don’t solve it, then the world is screwed. 

This premise works because we know everything that we need to know — their motivation and what’s at stake. 

Contrast this with MacGyver and we start to see the weaknesses in the premise. 

MacGyver’s motivation is to track down and figure out why his ex-girlfriend Nikki is working for the enemy, but we don’t exactly know why he’s doing what he’s doing.

Why did MacGyver join the CIA? Before Nikki betrayed him, was he motivated by money? 

Is the Phoenix Foundation the government's last resort or the first one?

Can MacGyver afford to fail because the CIA can handle the case later? 

The writer(s) might have thought that MacGyver's goals, motivations, and what’s at stake were communicated clearly to the audience but it didn't feel that way to me. 

I’ve watched the first 3 episodes and I’m hoping that they figure out soon that the audience needs to know these things before rooting for these characters. If they don't figure it out soon, this MacGyver reboot might be short-lived (2 season max?). 

LESSON: Make sure the character’s goal, motivation, and what’s at stake is absolutely clear to the audience. Without it, it’s hard to root for the character.