Here is a dangerous activity: getting in a car on a television show. If you do this, especially on a show that rarely features the inside of an automobile, chances are close to 100 percent that you are going to get into a crash. TV’s astronomically high incidence of car accident per appearance of car rate was on display in last night’s episode of Parenthood. [Spoiler alert, even though the crash — the very last scene in the episode — was featured in last week’s “scenes from.” Mad Men may try so hard to keep any pertinent info out of the teasers that they’ve become a joke, but NBC might want to leave last-minute car crashes for the episode itself.] Amber (world-champion crier Mae Whitman) was drinking and smoking in a moving automobile, and lo, it was hit (to be fair, it also blew through a red light). This is scary and dramatic, but would have been a lot more so if we weren’t at the point in savvy viewership when, as soon as you see an interior shot of a car in motion, you know a crash is coming. You hit the egg timer in your mind and sit through the character’s conversation, the timer ticking, just waiting for the “Wham!” — usually of another car T-ing into the passenger side, but occasionally of a head-on collision.
Not all cars in motion cue this response. In shows where the characters are often in automobiles — the backseat of a taxi cab is safe on How I Met Your Mother, a limo on Gossip Girl, Booth’s SUV on Bones — you don’t expect anything bad to happen. The cars are in almost every episode. But on shows that hardly every feature cars, it’s a giveaway. Driving is likely a pain for production. They have to create vistas for outside the windows, and those almost always look fake (it’s not a coincidence that you can hardly ever see anything through the window of Chuck Bass’s limo). If they’re going through the trouble, it’s for a reason, and that reason is almost always an accident.
Crashes you probably knew were coming as soon as you saw a character in a car have recently gone down on Grey’s Anatomy and in the Pretty Little Liars season finale. They’ve happened on 90210, in non-limo scenes in Gossip Girl, on Desperate Housewives, and in the huge pileup onBrothers & Sisters. Anytime anyone touched a car on Lost it was bound to hit something, but at least Lindelof and Cuse didn’t use the interior shot that often, preferring to have their characters sideswiped. So, TV shows, if you want your big car crashes to be big and dramatic, consider using cars more regularly so they’re not an automatic tip-off. Alternately, come up with a big, dramatic twist that is actually in keeping with your television show.