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:
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.
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.
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.
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?
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?