In Defense of TV, Sort Of

Spanky McFarland & Charley Chase by twm1340“In my opinion, television validates existence.” – Calvin and Hobbes

TV has been part of my life since the very beginning (not unlike children today who grow up with computers and social media). By the time I was a teenager, we were being warned about the dangers of television.

In 1981 “children spent about 2 hours each weekday watching TV” which meant that after fifty years they’d have spent over three years of their lives watching the tube as we called it back then. The primary concerns seemed to be that kids would grow up to be sedentary, that in addition to being inundated with violence (cartoons, westerns, police dramas which were beginning to get a lot edgier . . .) kids would spend less time outdoors, less time reading, less time interacting with each other.

So glad that didn’t happen. Er, um, well . . .

“In 2000, the average number of hours spent watching TV was 1,502, or 4.1 hours per day” and by 2008, the “projected average number of hours an individual (12 and older)” was expected to spend watching TV was up to about 4.7 hours per day.

Of course, today Americans spend over five hours a day online (including approximately 2 hours each day with their smartphones) while we only spend about an hour-and-a-half with our partners.

I’m not going to pretend to know all about the dangers of TV or about the potential dangers of smartphones or other forms of technology. I certainly don’t. I actually just spent over three years without television and, in general, I didn’t pine for it much except when March Madness rolled around.

Over the past few months, however, I have discovered a few television shows (some from a few years ago and others somewhat current) that I think are excellent:

A Game of Thrones
The Walking Dead
Veronica Mars
Freaks & Geeks
The Blacklist

And those shows got me thinking (always dangerous). So, you could say this post is simply one guy’s take on the way some television shows can be valuable tools for writers.

“After nourishment, shelter and companionship,
are the thing we need most in the world.” – Philip Pullman

We crave stories. Robert McKee says as much in his respected book on craft, Story.

We’re recycling more and more old stories for the big screen. We’re even bringing some old TV shows back from the other side. And don’t get me started on all the pseudo-reality shows that many people are addicted to watching.

We seek stories everywhere.

For a writer, TV is an excellent resource for studying and refining Elements of Fiction:


You can also learn about the effective use of DIALOGUE, how to write HUMOR which is much more complex than simply telling a joke, even things like PACING.

Let’s take a look at those elements with a few examples.

PLOT – the series of events that give a story meaning, events that “usually arise out of conflict experienced by the main character.”

Plot contains its own elements (conflict, complications, rising action, falling action, climax). Study a particular show you like to determine how effectively these elements are being used.

Each of the shows I alluded to above establish a variety of conflicts and masterfully use complications to keep the tension building. Here are a few others: NCIS, Downton Abbey, 24, Mad Men.

CHARACTER – typically, characters are “representations of human beings” (i.e. they have human characteristics, personality traits, needs, flaws, etc). Some are developed more fully than others, are more believable than others.

Some of the best shows have characters who are unique or textured. They’re complex, as are most people.

When writing, techniques such as Voice can contribute to characterization.

A character’s actions, his/her thoughts revealed through dialogue, even the ways other characters talk about and act toward a character can reveal personality. These same techniques are used in some of the best TV shows to create memorable characters.

As a matter of fact, some TV characters become so ingrained into the collective consciousness that they become indelible icons whose mannerisms, catch phrases (like Bazinga, thank you Dr. Sheldon Cooper, and Marcia, Marcia, Marcia), and ideals spill over into popular culture.

I bet you can think of several TV characters who have done that.

Newspapers recently placed obituary notices for Walter White, protagonist for the hit show Breaking Bad which ended its final season a few weeks ago.

When a popular show ends, some people mourn their favorite characters as if they were real people. Spending time with those characters each week takes on a deep meaning for some. Without exploring the psychology behind that phenomenon, we can examine many of those characters to get an idea of what makes them so profoundly loved or reviled.

Here’s a list of some characters I’ve enjoyed over the years, starting with some I got to know with my parents back when I was a boy (several are funny, a few are rather wicked):

Jackie Gleason
Barney Fife
Hawkeye Pierce
Archie Bunker
Fred Sanford
The Fonz
Dr. Cliff Huxtable
Fox Mulder
Sgt. Andy Sipowicz
Tony Soprano
Ben Linus
Jack Bauer
Cameron Tucker
Adrian Monk
Finn Hudson
Captain Malcolm ‘Mal’ Reynolds
Raymond “Red” Reddington

Writing Prompt – Take your three favorite TV characters and break down their personality traits (make a list of their values, likes and dislikes, fears, quirks, etc). Then flesh out some examples of how the writers for that show reveal each of those traits.

What techniques do they use?

Think about characters who are neurotic, naive, angry, altruistic, impatient, narcissistic, stubborn, evil. Characters you love. Characters you love to hate.

On some shows, the protagonist is the most compelling, while on others it’s the supporting cast, the other characters (like with Buffy and Raymond and Seinfeld) who make the world and the story so worthwhile. Shows with ensemble casts like West Wing and Heroes and Friends and Modern Family develop each of the characters in such ways that there’s usually someone who appeals to most sensibilities, most tastes.

On FRASIER, the character of Niles Crane is neurotic, among other things. His idiosyncrasies are revealed and reinforced in each episode by the things he says and the things he does (his quirks, habits, prejudices, and so on).

Here’s a scene (which some have dubbed “the funniest 5 minutes on television”) that relies on almost no words to reinforce that characterization. See if you find the series of events (Niles’ actions and his reactions to the subsequent circumstances) funny.

How might you write such a scene out in prose?

SETTING – sometimes the location for a show becomes iconic (like the bar from Cheers). Here are a few TV shows with quite different settings (time and place):

Addams Family
Twin Peaks
Little House on the Prairie
Buffy The Vampire Slayer & The Vampire Diaries
Veronica Mars
Sleepy Hollow
LOST – sometimes setting is an integral part of the story, like another character
The Office
Downton Abbey
Northern Exposure
Welcome Back Kotter
Doogie Howser, Scrubs, House, Chicago Hope, Grey’s Anatomy, St. Elsewhere, ER

Writing Prompt – Examine some of your favorites TV shows and try to describe the settings using prose.

POINT OF VIEW – who is telling the story? How does that affect the way we interpret it, the way we feel about it?

Shows like LOST have impacted a lot of other shows that have followed. One of the aspects of the show that was effective was the way each episode focused on a different character, with flashbacks and flashforwards expanding that character’s backstory and also revealing ways in which each of the characters was connected.

HEROES did this as well.

Some well written books do this, like Game of Thrones for example which focuses on a different character’s P.O.V. in each chapter and which has, not surprisingly, been made into an acclaimed TV show.

Can you think of other TV shows (or books) that allow you to get close to a specific character at different times?

STYLE, TONE, LANGUAGE – narrative voice, diction, vernacular used by characters, language can be used in a variety of ways to enhance a story, just as language that doesn’t fit can “spell the end” of a show much sooner than necessary.

Here are just a handful of TV shows that have had distinct voices, tones, styles:

Freaks & Geeks
Veronica Mars
Pushing Daisies
The Wire

Can you think of more? What can we learn from such shows about the use of language?

THEME – I’m going to explore the element of theme more fully in an upcoming post, but think about the books, movies, shows, stories you love best. Is there a similar message? What messages seem to resonate with you?

IMAGERY (also Symbolism and Allegory) – an image is a sensory impression used to create meaning in a story.

Television relies on visual imagery. We watch scenes unfold. But good scenes and rich stories, even on TV, also develop imagery based on other senses.

Writing Prompt – Watch a scene that you find especially compelling (perhaps with the use of a DVR or Youtube, you can even pause it, rewind it, study it frame by frame).

What other senses are being employed in the scene?

If you were writing that scene out as prose, how would you convey those moments of sensory imagery with your words?

Practice writing out a scene that you find especially effective on TV. How does it stand up as prose? What aspects of the writing need to be strengthened. These are useful, and often fun ways to practice writing, to develop your own sense of craft.

According to some, Here are the Top 50 TV Shows Ever. According to others, These are the 50 Best. See if you agree or disagree (mostly, though, consider why you agree or disagree; think about what it is about these shows that works for you or doesn’t work, as the answer to that question might influence some of your own tendencies).

I’m not saying that TV can’t become addicting, or that it can’t become a convenient distraction from the things that matter most (including our pursuit of our dreams) the way Aldous Huxley warned that we’d become dependent on such sensory distractions in his novel Brave New World.

I’m not going to say that the excessive violence, increased profanity, and more and more overt sexual situations presented on an ever increasing number of TV shows isn’t potentially dangerous.

I’m just saying, if you pick a few shows (the ones that resonate with you or that seem to fit with what you like to write), and you watch them with intention, and you use them as tools for developing and for enhancing your skills, TV can offer a writer an abundant selection of wonderful examples of the elements of story. And for that, I’m grateful.

Here are what members of the Writers Guild of America (WGA) consider the Best Written Television Series. See if you agree.

I’d love to get YOUR TAKE on a show or shows that might provide a great example of an element of fiction that could be useful for writers to explore. Thanks for your time reading this post. Keep after it!

The photo at the top is of one of the characters of The Little Rascals which was popular when I was a boy. I wanted to include it as the creator of that show, Hal Roach, is from my hometown (or I should say, I’m from his) and he’s buried not too far from Mark Twain in the cemetery where I like to run.