What I’ve Learned from Bad TV

My insomnia peaked again this month, and I shoved off night’s solitude with Netflix. I’ve hardly been reading (unless you count graphic folklore summaries) and I’ve hardly been writing (unless you count microblogging with serious typos). But I’ve justified my midnight addiction.

When I was growing up, my father wrote and directed documentaries for PBS (including The World Chemistry series, with this real gem on +/- charge). My brother and I complained that our father had the easiest job on earth—all he did was watch TV, talk on the phone, and write scripts, which hardly seemed like work. And we learned the lingo quickly. In the second grade, my brother was punished at school for complaining that some Disney video was nothing but a series of plot conveniences, thereby ruining the magic and mystery of the Mouse. We teethed on Twin Peaks, encouraged to compare relevant themes to those found in The Simpsons and America’s Funniest Home Videos.

My brother and I learned to enjoy TV and clocked serious hours indiscriminately—Worldwide Wrestling Federation, after all, had nearly the same 31 functions as a Russian folktale. But when I left for college, I said good riddance to bad TV, as I’d rather be reading On the Road or Siddhartha or some other hip freshman lit. I’d never heard my father so sad as when my brother confessed to throwing his TV out of a second-story apartment window in Miami. “I’m a TV guy,” my father said, “and both of my children have turned off the tube.”

I snowscreened TV for six years, but then instant viewing became possible with an internet connection within my budget. And I stopped sleeping normally (correlation does not equal causation). I’ll tell you what I’ve been learning from bad TV, and how some shows have applicable writing lessons:

Your theme doesn't have to stay consistent if you play with structure

Lost
Episodes Viewed: One through Finale
Synopsis: The healer, the torturer, the prophet, and the con artists all fell out of a plane and onto an island.
Themes: Started out a little Lord of the Flies with warring and Otherizing depicted as base human conditions. Moved to the eternal battle of good and evil, then to some accept-and-forgive Catholic purgatory/basic ghost story message.
Conclusions: When your stock characters get boring, delve into the mystery that you established in the beginning, and mess around with structure. Flashback, flashforward, flashsideways—storytelling needn’t be linear; that’s so premodern.

Embed a bizarro world in our normal world

X-files
Episodes Viewed: One through when it became apparent that Mulder wasn’t returning
Synopsis: Two diametrically-opposed FBI agents (one male paranormalist and one female scientist-Catholic) investigate the strange, reveal pseudoscientific explanations as to why it could be possible, then lose all the evidence.
Themes: An unwavering faith in science is the same as fundamentalist’s faith in his religion. All your conspiracy theories are true.
Conclusions: A great exercise is to experiment with taking the bizarro and making it typical within the confines of our culture (what’s the scientific justification of a UFO sighting?—swamp gas). Take characters to the brink of changing their worldviews, but those views don’t have to change—the possibility of rattling belief is more interesting.

Let the support characters do the work

Buffy the Vampire Slayer
Episodes Viewed: One through Finale
Synopsis: Valley-girl Buffy has superhuman strength and a rag-tag fraternally-friendly gang that helps as she slays vamps.
Themes: Classic call-to-action scifi with typical Joss Whedon friends-replacing-family herodom.
Conclusions: As long as you’re writing a decent set of characters, it’s totally possible to write a dislikable main character. Contrary to my theory that villains are always more interesting than heroes (they usually have ambitions, and act, while the hero only reacts), Buffy’s villains were rarely more interesting than the world Whedon created in Sunnydale, unless they were becoming good guys.

This show actually gives me nightmares

Law & Order: SVU
Episodes Viewed: Maybe Seasons Six through Eight?
Synopsis: Police officers actually give a damn about victims, investigate crimes, and deliver criminals to the ADA, who sometimes loses cases, just like real life.
Themes: Sometimes, order is as messy as sexual depravity.
Conclusions: This show became popular back in the day for portraying female characters in positions of power—making it a smash hit with many female viewers. Women read, too, so work on some strong female characters. The plots sometimes get very complicated (per detective genre guidelines), but each episode does a cops section and a court section. How complex can you make something with a confined structure?

Even musicals can have good dialogue

Glee
Episodes Viewed: One through Season One’s Finale
Synopsis: A rag-tag bunch of teens sing and dance to everything from Lady Gaga to Barbara Streisand with something called “show choir.”
Themes: Each episode blatantly discusses a theme (e.g. sacrifice, home, finding one’s voice…) all under the theme header of being comfortable with who you are.
Conclusions: You can create a character that people love even though they would hate that character in real life. Characterization through dialogue makes it or breaks it—a funny asshole is still a funny person. Experiment with the metaphor that shouldn’t be (e.g. “For me trophies are like herpes; you can try to get rid of them but they just keep coming. You know why? Because Sue Sylvester has hourly flair ups of burning, itchy, highly contagious talent.”). Don’t let everything your character says be true or correct or wikipedia’ed.

Now, I realize that it’s guilty pleasure for anyone in my generation to admit to watching television, and I’ve totally ousted myself from the Netflix closet (Netflix still recommends cerebral, minding-bending foreign films to me). But maybe, if you’re watching or reading genre, you can still steal a trick or two that it’s doing well. And finally, my father can stop telling me that story about seeing a TV for the first time, how every night he stood for hours in the Chicago wind to watch a neighbor’s television until his parents relented and bought one…how could his children abandon the thing he loves dearly?

11 Comments

  • Asa Maria says:

    My friend Jamie swears Buffy and Angel are the best things out there to teach you story structure. She has two books out by Tor, so she can’t be all wrong. :-)

  • Jason Sommer jason says:

    i not only quit watching buffy after the 4th(?) season, but also cancelled my netflix account at the same time because i asked myself “what am i getting from this?” and couldn’t come up with a good answer. someone recently told me that nathan fillion played an amazing bad guy in the final season of buffy, though. and on top of these story structure reasons, maybe i should revisit it. i totally restarted my netflix today.

  • JaimeRWood says:

    I’m a closet Glee fan. I guess not anymore!

  • Kathryn says:

    You know I had to comment on this post if only to come to the defense of LOST… Calling it bad TV…

    I think two things that you haven’t mentioned here that need to be brought up are medium and audience. Sometimes I think that as writers of prose that we call “literary” we forget that we might be (are) in the minority, and that that might not necessarily be a bad thing.

    Ultimately, TV (and books) exist to sell, and when an artist (or a group of artists) exist in the minority sphere of that art, we actually have to rely on what the majority enjoy. So I think applying the label “bad TV” (or bad books, or what have you) is a bit disingenuous. It’s just different. And clearly something is working or those shows wouldn’t exist. I can only really speak to two of those shows (LOST and SVU) though I enjoy them both. I’m sort of on a personal mission to stop referring to my loves as guilty pleasures though. And I’d be curious to know what you consider good TV.

    However, I do agree with you that there are lessons to be learned from the bad as well as the good. Sometimes I think I learn more from what I personally don’t like than from what I do.

    • JaimeRWood says:

      I’m not sure I can agree with the idea that books exist to sell, Kathryn. Some of them do, sure, and for some people that’s what all books are for, but I’d argue that many books carry more soul than that, for both their readers and writers. If not, libraries wouldn’t exist where people can read for free. Of course, this is a poet speaking. My poetry collection may never get published, and if it does, it may never sell much, but for all the years I was writing it, it kept me alive in a very important way.

      As for literary prose (and poetry) being in the minority, I’m in full agreement that it’s not a bad thing. As a matter of fact, it may be a necessity of the definition. If loads of people started liking and relating to a work, I have a feeling the literati would start calling it average.

      • amaris says:

        My definition of bad TV usually means that the viewer doesn’t have to think or participate in the experience of the art. That’s pretty much all TV, because part of the point of television is inaction, and I think that’s also a major complaint against it. Literary works require participation of the reader (and sometimes work, too), as does most art.

        I call it bad TV because I don’t have to participate. I often close my eyes while “watching TV,” tempting sleep. Unlike a good movie, I’m not left puzzling over something (like the often-cited “human condition” or a moral) or inspired.

        And I disagree that art is meant to sell. Folk art isn’t meant to sell. This blog isn’t contrived to sell anything.

      • Marcus says:

        I don’t know, I’m hedging toward Kathryn on this. I think books exist to sell. Writing does not exist to sell, but books do. Books as a physical entity are a packaging method that exists only to deliver the words inside. This is why I think “books” don’t really exist digitally; it’s the writing that exists, but book is a misnomer in the case of a Kindle; the packaging is very different.

        But I’m really intersted in the use of the words, and I agree with the sentiment of your comment, that writing exists beyond something you can sell or barter.

        And there is quite a lot of writing that exists to sell, also. Most self-help books, for instance. Mass-market fiction, maybe. Poetry, well, poets are too noble for such things. (Not being snarky; I believe poetry is much less tainted than most other genres.)

        Also, libraries buy a shit-ton of books. They’re a huge consumer. And they’re supported by public funds, mostly. If I could get one of GDP’s books picked up by a few library systems, I’d be sitting pretty.

        Maybe what I’m trying to say is not that books exist to sell, but that writing exists to be read, and the book is the easiest, most common means for that. And the book is a commercial packaging. So, in a way, writing exists to be part of a transaction. (Of course it goes deeper than that, if the writing’s good.)

      • Kathryn says:

        What I was trying to get at but did a pretty crappy job saying was that those books that maybe fall into the realm of existing as art first and product second have to, because of what Marcus gets at, rely on those that do sell. The money has to come from somewhere, because publishing is a business, not philanthropy. And I guess, yeah, ultimately I’m talking about TV here, and the comment was a somewhat bad attempt to pull it back to books, even though I say right off that I don’t believe it’s right to look at the two mediums through the same lens. That’s what I get for shooting off a comment in sixty seconds.

        But I do still contend that every one of those shows mentioned IS meant to sell. And I strongly disagree that a viewer doesn’t have to participate in the experience of LOST. I guess that’s where we disagree, but that show left me puzzling over a lot. One of its biggest draws for me was just that—that I couldn’t shut my brain off.

        • amaris says:

          Yeah, ok. I used “bad” because, I’d held onto the opinion for several years that all TV is bad, time-consuming, energy-sucking, and mind-rotting. I’m outting myself and the reversal of my opinion in this blog.

          Like reading genre fiction. I’m not one of those “beach novel” people. But, hanging out with all the MFA students back in the day softened my opinion of genre fiction. Genre’s okay and TV’s okay.

          Both are meant to sell.

          TV has always been meant to sell. One third to one fourth of a show is commercials.

          But I disagree that books have always been meant to sell. They are merely a convenient medium for a message. The message, for a long time, was history, records, and patriotism to the glorious nation that had written the book.

          The Bible was not written to sell tons of copies, though now it’s marketed in a variety of ways to sell, sure. The Persian Wars, same thing (except maybe hip marketing to teens and depressives). Gargantua and Pantagruel was meant to sell, did sell, was and is hysterical, but is probably less widely purchased than The Persian Wars now (if only teens knew of all the innuendoes of lesbian nuns). So Marcus, you’re probably right–a shift in the approach to the book and a printing press happened. But books haven’t always existed to sell.

          TV in 500, 1000, 2000 years? We’re gobbling through media too fast (beeswax to vinyl to 8-track to cassette to CD to those minidiscs to jumpdrives…in one century) so unless the message sticks, it’s not worth it. TV’s too cheap to last.

  • Roxy says:

    Guys, the point being made here is that these shows have their pros and cons. Not everyone can like the same shows (take my own list below!) and everyone has different opinions on each. People love these shows despite their flaws, or just don’t see their flaws because their positive aspects are too much fun or too enjoyable. Which is perfectly understandable. The point being made here, I do believe, is that most TV is Bad TV and even Good TV is Bad TV to somebody. You love them, and just like with most things we read or watch you wonder, how did they get away with THAT?

    Here are my additions. I love these shows. Safe to say they’re my favorites. Bad TV is a wonderful learning tool! I have my own ritualized television shames. And I love every minute of them.

    Castle
    Episodes Viewed:
    Season one until most current episode.
    Synopsis: A wealthy mystery writer (along the lines of James Patterson) follows around a hard-edged, New York lady cop on her homicide cases as a “consultant” and bases the main character of his new series of novels of off her.
    Themes: Relationships (all kinds) are the stuff stories are made of. And, of course, writing genre can get you a condo in New York city and will let you get away with (and get) almost anything. Including a bullet-proof vest that says WRITER on it.
    Conclusions: The main plot can be flimsy and stock and very “genre,” but great, well-developed characters, character growth and relationships can keep a viewer glued to the television regardless that you’ve seen this same story a million times. Oh, and there IS such a thing as great, witty AND believable dialogue in television. Who’d have thought?

    Lois & Clark: The Adventures of Superman
    Episodes Viewed:
    All four seasons.
    Synopsis: A revamp and new telling of the Superman story, starting on the moment Clark Kent arrives in Metropolis and gets a job at the Daily Planet and focusing on his relationship with Lois Lane.
    Themes: Superman isn’t really just super. He has everyday issues and problems, just like the rest of us. Just because you’re a superhero, doesn’t mean the girl you like is going to notice you.
    Conclusions: The writers took the cardboard cut-out of the Flying Boy Scout in red and blue and made him a rounded character, cheesiness will always be excusable when dealing with a show based off a superhero, and there is no need to settle for everyday problems only–like a normal soap opera–when you can make it much, much worse by having the world about to explode!

    Burn Notice
    Episodes Viewed:
    Almost to the end of the most recent season.
    Synopsis: A U.S. spy gets “burned” (i.e. cut off/abandoned/fired) and is dumped in Miami, FL. He tries to find out who burned him and a) get revenge and b) get his job back, and along the way helps people that can’t be helped by the police and gets jerked around by mysterious people behind the scenes.
    Themes: Sometimes the people close to home and close to you are more important than saving the world from crazy black-op power-trippers. But then again, saving the world is what you do for a living. You can’t please everyone. Especially not your mother.
    Conclusions: McGuyver meets Super Spy with a bit of PI shenanigans makes a fun show to watch. Voiced-over narration of the main character talking to the audience (indirectly) can work! It doesn’t matter if half the time you can’t follow who’s the big dog of the big dog pulling the strings behind the scenes. It’s worth it to have Michael Weston tell you how to blow up a car with a cellphone battery.

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