Some people say that television rots your brain. Some people say television is a mindless form of entertainment. Some people say television can rob you of your ambition and your creativity, especially if you’re a writer.
I am not some people. I believe when used responsibly that television can be not only a source of instructive and engaging entertainment, but a source of inspiration as well. Writers, should they choose to watch television shows with an analytical eye, should they be active rather than passive consumers of this medium, can actually learn some valuable lessons about writing, and, hopefully, use those lessons to improve their own work. Below is a list of television shows I watch (or watched), and what I learned.
- The Wire (HBO). This is an obvious choice because some of the best crime writers in America also wrote for this show. The list includes Dennis LeHane and George Pelecanos. But more important than the entertainment value of this, the best drama that has ever been on TV, is the show’s in-depth character development. Take Omar, the scar-faced warrior who robs drug dealers. What I learned from this particular character is that you can (and should) have a balanced mixture of stock qualities and unusual qualities in a so-called “bad guy.” Omar carries around a pump-action shotgun and talks like a thug, but he is also an unashamed homosexual and he accompanies his grandmother to church every Sunday. Additionally, he has a strict moral code: “Come on now, when have you ever known me to out my gun on someone that’s not in the game?”
- Luther (BBC). On the surface, this show is just another police procedural, but if you analyze it from a structural standpoint, you can see how Luther is light years a part from Law & Order. The show is not so much concerned with the detective work, but with the psychological motivations of both the detective John Luther, played by Idris Elba, and the criminal. Within the first five or ten minutes of every episode, you already see the crime in question, and you know who did. What matters is why the criminal committed the crime; what matters is why Luther is ruining his personal life to chase bad guys, and hint, it isn’t just because he wants to protect and serve. Over the course of the episode, the point of view shifts from the detective to the criminal, and with each shift, you start to get at the why and not so much the how. Any writer can benefit from watching this show, and taking note of how to build a character while building tension and drama. The best novels, whether they be mystery or literary, science fiction or romance, contain well-rounded and interesting characters, not just cardboard cutouts that do things without reason or rhyme.
- The West Wing (NBC). This show is worth watching simply because of the dialogue. Sorkin, the inventor of “the walk and talk,” is a master of creating rhythm and tension through dialogue. Now mind you, it doesn’t always sound realistic, but it always creates a mood, a musicality that can hypnotize the viewer. Good novelists also have a good ear for dialogue, and use it to ensnare the reader, pull him or her further into the story.