Damn Good TelevisionBy
A writer said to me a few weeks back: “I don’t bother with television. I prefer to read.”
Not that I feel a deep, ever-present need to proselytize TV (except maybe for Castle, with Nathan Fillion). Or that I would ever look down upon people who read books. But it was the way it was said. The person’s tone was really saying: “Why do you waste your time?” As if passing judgment on my desire to veg in front of my plasma from time to time, and watch something fun, good, exciting, informative, or all of the above (re: Castle).
Now, I read voraciously. I also enjoy the theater experience, music, plays, and…yes…television. I’m addicted to story. Have been from an early age. Stories that get me emotionally invested in the characters. That change my viewpoint of the world, or at least a small piece of it. Stories that use new storytelling devices (which I can hopefully learn), or use old devices in new ways (see previous).
Okay, so not everything translates, from television to print, but a great deal of it does. I’ve studied large casts to figure out how the writer got me to like/dislike a character in such a short amount of time. I re-watch scenes with emotional charge over and over, to figure out how it was done. Sometimes it is the actor (and there is something to be learned there as well) but often it’s just damn good writing.
One of the better pieces of craft I’ve learned as much from movies and TV as I have from reading is dialog. A long-time diet of The West Wing and Buffy the Vampire Slayer have both helped. Seriously. Aaron Sorkin is a master at snappy banter mingled with serious, intellectual expression (without ever being confusing or boring). Joss Whedon is just as good, though his campy, more comedic style taught me different skills. Stronger emotional expression. Masterful self deprecation. Word play that does not come off as contrived. (And sure, it does hurt that Sarah Michelle Geller isn’t hard to look at.)
Comedic timing can also be learned from television, and applied into fiction. Thank you Big Bang Theory, and Two and a Half Men. The procedural Law & Order helped me ingrain some mystery tropes I was having trouble with. And Lie to Me served one of the best change-up pitches I’ve ever seen by taking a character I didn’t like very much for forty minutes and making him not only sympathetic, but instantly pitiable in about 20 seconds at the end of its pilot show. Sure, some of that was the director and some of that was the actor. But a writer put it together first.
And in each of the shows I’ve mentioned (and a dozen more I could easily throw out here as well) it’s character, character, character. Main characters. Supporting characters. Idiosyncratic throw-away characters. Villains and heroes and sidekicks, oh my.
I’m hunting and pecking around in my memory, and examples keep leaping to mind. I don’t want to go off the rails on talking up TV over books, because in a head-to-head contest I’ll take books any day. But I don’t see why it has to be one or the other, when it can be both.
Some of my time is also spent in some “guilty pleasure” viewing, sure. I’m not sure what deep craft I glean from a rerun of Hogan’s Heroes or The Highlander, but they are fun. And I’ve also intentionally watched a bad piece of work, in critical mode, to analyze where it went wrong from a story-telling point of view. I’m not going to jump up and down on what might be someone else’s favorite show, but I maintain that you can learn as much (or sometimes more) from something you don’t like as you can from something you do.
I think this also works in both video and print mediums.
So this is my opinion. Obviously I felt strongly enough that my friend’s dismissive attitude stuck with me for some time, and I finally decided to write about it. Do I feel I’ve wasted time re-watching The West Wing six or seven time through? Maybe occasionally, when I’ve let it get in the way of actual writing time. But for someone who has also written fourteen military science fiction novels with a healthy political subplot…I can promise I’ve ingrained ideas and craft and character traits that have served me well time and again.
And let’s admit it. Castle rocks out loud.
(In the interest of full disclosure, Loren L. Coleman sometimes believes he continues to write because he can’t act, direct, or create professional grade special effects. He does not, however, watch everything on a daily schedule. This is why God invented DVR technology. Over the fits and splurges of a given month however, Loren might watch episodes of Castle, Burn Notice, Lie to Me, Law & Order, Big Bang Theory, Two and a Half Men, Studio 60, West Wing, Stargate (Any), Star Trek (any), Criminal Minds, Highlander, and/or Twenty-four.