The story, as told by the Netflix blurb:

To save their beach, elite lifeguard Mitch Buchannon and a former Olympian probe a criminal plot that threatens the future of the bay.

Directed by Seth Gordon

IMDb page

Interesting, this one, from a story/character perspective. I don’t like to what-if movies – it’s not fair to judge them on something they’re not trying to do – so let’s just take this as a little thought exercise, shall we?

First of all, I very much enjoyed Baywatch. It’s a lot of fun, very funny, and very entertaining (can never go wrong with the Rock, right?).

The part I want to look at is the arc of the character played by Zac Efron, Matt Brody. This is the main character – I’m using this term to describe the character with an arc, with a flaw to overcome.

And Brody is the one with the hill to climb. He comes to the Florida beach patrolled by Baywatch as a washed-up, homeless, broke former Olympic swimmer who drinks too much. He won’t take orders. He’s a sarcastic, unappreciative jackass. He’s a selfish brat, to sum it all up, something that clashes heavily with the whole team-focused Baywatch thing.

And let’s be clear: Brody is just awful when he shows up. There are all those things I mentioned above, but there’s also the fact that everyone else is just so much better at everything than Brody is, it’s comical.

He shows some flashes of bravery in the early going, but that’s routine for the rest of Baywatch. When Brody does take a risk and do something dangerous to make a rescue, it goes badly (twice), and he ends up needing help.

There is no reason whatsoever for them to keep him around. None. They only get into trouble when Brody screws something up. There is no doubt that they’d easily pull off whatever they’re doing – rescue, fistfight, undercover drug investigation, jet ski chase – easily without any help from Brody. In fact, he’s an active detriment to them; he bogs them down.

But – he has to be there. See, Brody tries out for Baywatch, assuming he’ll get a spot because of his background. He is guaranteed a spot, but not entirely because of his past – Brody needs to do some community service due to some vague criminal history, and besides, bringing him on and helping him out will in turn help Baywatch stave off some looming budget cuts. Can’t hurt to have a celebrity Olympian on the team, right?

This is plot armour. It’s written in the story that Brody can’t get booted. He’s invincible. That cancels out the fact that, as I said, there’s absolutely no reason any elite lifeguards would keep this guy around. 

Therefore, despite some rough patches, Brody stays with Baywatch. In doing so, he overcomes his flaw of selfishness, learns to be a part of the team, and is transformed, earning a permanent spot alongside Mitch Buchannon, CJ Parker, and the rest, by film’s end.

Now the thought exercise. The one thing that bothers me about Baywatch is that “oh, by the way, you have to keep this guy” thing that drops in Buchannon’s lap.

Sure, it puts pressure on Mitch. But, again, he’s so good – they all are – he’ll adjust. And Mitch isn’t the one who needs to learn something here. He has no arc. He’s the ideal, the mentor – he’s the Rock.

Character is key

I think there’s another way to handle this, and give Mitch a reason to keep Brody around without tying his hands. And it’s rooted in character.

As it stands, Brody isn’t really given much in the way of redeeming qualities, but a few small changes to his character could switch things up nicely.

First, give him something, a skill, that fills a hole in the Baywatch lineup. Give him a dream, and the drive, to be a lifeguard as respected as Buchannon. Make him absolutely fearless in the water, willing to do anything to save a life. Make him the fastest swimmer they’ve ever seen (he may well be that, actually, but we don’t see it).

Give him, in short, something that will make Mitch want to work with him, and keep him on.

The other side of this is a flaw, of course. Currently, it’s selfishness, and all its sub-flaws – disobedience, carelessness, a big ego, etc.

And while selfishness could work, it’s a bit vague, isn’t it? Perhaps Brody needs something more specific when it comes to a flaw, something that’s tied to his role as a lifeguard.

Maybe he’s scared of drowning due to something that happened in the pool years ago. Maybe he’s afraid of deep water, or undertows, or, hell, maybe he’s just desperate to regain some of his lost glory, his competitiveness causing him to rush to be the first to make a rescue so he’ll get his picture in the paper and voice on the radio. Maybe he’s riddled with self-doubt, and doesn’t think he’s the type of person who should be counted on to save lives.

I’m spitballing here. The point is, make Brody someone who has a crippling flaw that interferes with his duties as a lifeguard, and even risks lives. At the same time, however, he’s bringing enough to the table that Mitch and the others want to help him overcome that flaw, because it will benefit everyone in the end. They see his potential and want to help him reach it.

That way, there would be no need for plot armour. No need for an ultimatum from the top.

It would give Brody something real to work for, and puts it all on him. If he screws up, he’s out, back to being a washed-up, homeless, broke former Olympian – and it would be his own fault.

More importantly, though, it would bring some conflict to Mitch. As it stands, Mitch is almost too perfect. We see him get in a dangerous situation, but we know he’ll be fine: it’s established early on that he’s just that good.

Now, Mitch may well be conflicted. Drop this kid? He’s endangering people, after all. Or, do what’s right for the team, fulfill his own role as a mentor, and try and help Brody overcome his flaw for the benefit of Baywatch?

There’s an old adage in screenwriting – the main character is the only one the story could happen to. It has to be built around them – the story is designed to challenge the main character’s flaw, and they either fail and sink, or overcome and swim.

With Baywatch as it stands, you don’t really need Brody. He’s not specific enough. He’s missing something, and the film is, too, as a result.

Baywatch really is an entertaining and enjoyable film, but it may have missed a chance to be a compelling one, as well.

As usual, let me know if I missed something, or I’m flat-out wrong.

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