What We Can Learn from TV (Seriously!)

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I have a great amount of self-control. I go to the gym every day, I’ve eaten pizza only once in the last two years, at my bachelorette party, and in January, I even quit smoking, which was pretty much my favorite thing to do in the entire world. One area, however, where I have a very hard time exercising self-restraint: binge-watching TV shows. This is my last week off before starting a new full-time job, and I’ve spent most of it watching Sons of Anarchy. I just can’t stop! And it is by no means the first time I’ve spent days in a row doing nothing but watching episode after episode. I did the same thing with HomelandThe Shield, Mad Men, Six Feet Under, and, of course, Battlestar Gallactica (once by myself, and once with my husband). There are others, I’m sure, but that’s just off the top of my head.

I’m sure I’m not alone in this, as websites like Hulu and Netflix have made it nearly impossible to resist this kind of behavior.  Though perhaps, in my case, it might have more to do more with the ego-depletion theory, which basically says that practicing any kind of self-restraint uses up mental and physical resources, making it nearly impossible to resist the next temptation that comes along. Or maybe it’s my obsessive need to finish everything I start. Or the fact that my television is only hooked up to a Roku and not a network of channels, making a quick and casual half-hour visit to TV-land nearly impossible. Whatever the case, in between binges, I often go weeks or even months without even turning on the television set to just to avoid this type of behavior. A sort of television bulimia.

Why do I bring this up? Well. Disadvantages aside, I think watching a television show in its entirety can actually have some benefits, especially if you’re a writer of some kind. You learn how to easily spot plot-holes (uh, Battlestar Gallactica season four? The entire Heroes series?); you can learn about character-building (Walter White, Shane Vendrell, anyone created by Joss Whedon). You can also get a glimpse of what the current trends are (mystical creatures, criminal masterminds, and, as always, cops). You can also learn what to avoid, due to oversaturation (vampires!), or what to capitalize on (office dramas; quirky families).

Jimmy-Al-hijackingMost importantly, you can learn what kind of plot devices, however tempting they may be, can ruin what comes later. Specifically, there’s an inclination nowadays to slowly kill off every decent character of a TV show until all that’s left is a bunch of sociopaths with machine guns (or swords), a la Boardwalk Empire and Game of Thrones. A show really has to take a dive for me to stop watching it, and I stopped watching both of these shows for the exact same reason; after killing off nearly every character I had begun caring about, there was no one left to root for, so what was the point in watching it? What was at first shocking is now predictable and debilitating. For example, I don’t think Boardwalk Empire ever recovered from the deaths of Jimmy and his wife. In fact, from what I’ve heard, it seems to keep replicating the same type of scenario, regardless of repercussions. The same is probably true for Game of Thrones, though I haven’t been following it, so I can’t say for sure. The point is that once something is done once – or even twice – successfully, writers should understand that it’s never in their best interest to keep reproducing it, even with slight variations. This is true in any art, so why not TV? Or books for that matter?

Because we live in a time where someone can watch an entire TV show from beginning to end, and because TV shows seem to be overshadowing (if not destroying) the entire movie genre, the way they are written is changing drastically every year. No longer do they need to adhere to laugh-track quips, or one-episode plot arcs (a huge pet peeve of mine); in fact, writers often have to think seasons ahead. And because of the competition and amount of well-written shows out there now, they have to work even harder at creating a unique environment, as well as finding a way to get noticed.


Revolution, a show on NBC, exists in a future world without technology.

One doesn’t have to take much of a leap to see the relevance of the TV landscape in relation to book publishing, even with such a drastically different format.  And even if you’re not a writer, current trends generally reflect the collective unconscious, and there’s plenty to ascertain from that too. For example, what does it mean that viewers are so interested in apocalypse scenarios? Perhaps deep down people are very concerned about fast-paced technological advances (or environmental ones; i.e. global warming, factory farming, pesticides, etc.). Or perhaps, since most post-apocalypse realities tend to exist in a sort of eighteenth-century Wild West, people are feeling nostalgic for a simpler, more communal time, a time when you knew your neighbors and knew how to make the things you used every day.

Speaking of post-apocalyptic scenarios, what about the fact that a show about zombies is one of the highest-rated shows out there? Because I don’t think it’s something you can lump in with vampire and witch dramas — since they tend to exist in realities where most people are not affected by them or even know of their existence — perhaps there’s something to this. Maybe the obsession with zombies really has to do with a valid concern, especially in these hard economic times: what happens to a person when they’re starved, tired, beaten-down, and haggard, and all they can think about is getting more sustenance, no matter the consequences. Or, in a more literal sense, what might happen if Mad Cow Disease transferred one day into Mad People Disease.

I know as a writer I’m supposed to scoff and say I don’t even own a TV, let alone watch it — which was actually true of most of my adult life — but ignoring what the public wants isn’t usually a good idea. Things are popular for a reason. Obviously, what’s more important to writers is to write, but the next most-important thing is audience. Now that doesn’t mean one should just trash the novel they’re working on and start pitching ideas for another cliche sitcom or reality television competition — but having a good idea of what’s out there is important. Plus, there are always things you can learn — even if it’s what not to do.

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