People don’t talk as much about it now, but for a few years it felt like aspiring critics (and some actual bad critics) were wibbling on constantly about stuff “subverting expectations,” which they treated as if it were the Holy Grail of storytelling. The actual quality of the storytelling in question was rarely actually examined – all they cared about was that the showrunners and directors didn’t give audiences what they wanted or expected.
Thankfully, the end of Game of Thrones seems to have killed the popularity of this trend, as I haven’t heard much about it for awhile. I will admit that I still hear it pop up occasionally when a failed intellectual sings the praises of The Last Jedi.
And yes, I’m going to go there – I’m going to say that The Last Jedi sucks. It is not subverting the audience’s expectations to create whole subplots and characters in a movie that ultimately achieve nothing and lead to nothing. That is just wasting the audience’s time, and the fact that people expected competent storytelling – and were disappointed – doesn’t make it genius when that expectation is subverted.
Simply put, people like the Game of Thrones showrunners and Rian Johnson are the sort of people who like to break things for the sake of breaking them, because that is what subversion for its own sake is. That doesn’t lead to good storytelling.
But… subverting expectations is not always horrendously bad. It can be done well – it just usually isn’t.
That brings me to Mob Psycho 100.
In case you haven’t seen it, Mob Psycho 100 is an anime series centering on Mob, a young boy with apocalyptically strong psychic powers that are unleashed when his repressed emotions reach 100%. Despite his powers, Mob’s personal life is filled with very relatable concerns – he wants to be popular, he wants to win the affection of his first love, he wants to improve himself physically, and he works a part-time job with a con-artist pretending to be psychic.
So how does this show subvert your expectations? Well, that happens in the second episode, which is about a Telepathy Club at Mob’s school attempting to enlist him so that they won’t be abolished and lose their meeting room. If they don’t enlist another member – and Mob is their only potential candidate – the room will be given over to the Body Improvement Club, a gathering of musclebound jocks.
Anyone familiar with anime – or high-school settings in general – would probably expect the episode to end with Mob joining the good-hearted oddballs in the Telepathy Club, saving the day and protecting the club from the intrusive, probably bullying jocks. But… it doesn’t.
Throughout the episode, we see that the Telepathy Club is less a bunch of open-minded oddballs being picked on by the establishment, and more a bunch of slackers who hang out and eat junk food. At the end of the episode, he joins the Body Improvement Club instead, and it’s revealed that rather than arrogant bullies intruding on the club, the Body Improvement Club is actually made up of very nice, good-hearted guys who happily welcome a new member to their club.
Part of the reason that this works is that the episode doesn’t waste your time, as The Last Jedi does. It’s lean and well-written, with every scene ultimately serving a purpose in the narrative. Furthermore, when you get to the end, you can look back on everything that happened before, and realize, “Oh yeah, that makes sense now.”
But another way in which it succeeds in subverting your expectations is because those expectations are based on tropes and cliches, not in subverting the story progression up to that point. At no point does Mob Psycho 100‘s second episode try to overturn what has been previously established, as The Last Jedi and Game of Thrones did. So it doesn’t need to twist characters or waste build-up – all it needs to do is tell a familiar story from a different angle.
Here’s an example – take the Chekov’s Gun. In the first act, we focus on an antique rifle on a mantlepiece, and mention that it is the only weapon that can kill vampires. In a Rian Johnson movie, the third act would have someone irreparably break it, and toss it out like so much garbage. A waste of your time, and bad storytelling.
So the lesson is… avoid most media that “subverts your expectations,” and focus instead on stuff like Mob Psycho 100. Embrace media that wants to tell a good story first and foremost, and has expectation subversion as a natural and organic part of the process rather than an attempt to flip a table into the audience’s faces.
So… watch Mob Psycho 100. It’s really good.