Watch and Learn: 10 Television Shows for Writers

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(Quick side note: check out my guest post today on Copyblogger.com — “Why Content is No Longer King.”)

Novelists are loath to admit they watch television.  It’s like a chef admitting they enjoy a dripping hot Whopper every now and then.  With extra cheese.

And while there’s an abundance of unabashed crap on television these days – and if it’s not complete crap then it certainly qualifies as guilty pleasure – there are a handful of programs that are worth your writerly attention.  Because not only is the writing spectacular, there are abundant and exemplary literary lessons at hand.

What follows is a list of ten such programs. 

Now, before the hair on the back of your cardigan goes erect, allow me to qualify.  There are some really fun and even legitimately good television shows that didn’t make this cut. 

Why?  Because this is about writing, not about the aforementioned guilty pleasure.  Many fun programs are factually compromised in order to squeeze them into a 60 minute box (like C.S.I. and its many rip-offs), many are too soapy to qualify as remotely literary (Grey’s Anatomy, Desperate Housewives, about a dozen others), and some are all concept (Flash Forward, Lost, Dollhouse, The Forgotten, about a dozen more) to an extent that an ending never materializes.

These entries are here for a reason. 

As a rule the chosen programs illustrate the role of the hero in a great story, and they deliver an empathetically-driven emotional ride that profiles a flawed protagonist as they beat down a deserving baddie (a can’t-miss hook).  All have crackling dialogue and character depth, and each viewing leaves you with a visceral hangover that validates the sense that you’ve just had an emotional-intellectual experience.

All of them make you want to write, to aspire to that level of excellence.

Watch and learn. 

House (Fox)

For my money, the best-written program on television on a consistent basis.  A very flawed and complex hero, dramatic tension, abundant sub-text, superlative and highly intelligent dialogue that will make you feel positively stupid because you can’t talk or reason that way.  This program goes deeper than anything you’ve seen on television before.

The Good Wife (CBS)

The poster program for delivering plots that engage a visceral empathy through a hero that overcomes huge emotional odds to make the world right for those victimized by predatory entities.  Also, an engaging arena.  This is Boston Legal without the over-the-top, self-aware stupidity.  Stunning.

Nurse Jackie (Showtime)

This new Showtime comedy has unprecedented character depth.  Watch it to see just how flawed and dark a protagonist can be and still enlist your empathy.

Burn Notice (TNT)

An unassuming spy who each week helps a little guy find justice while seeking his own vindication and identity.  Crackling good fun with a lot of literary meat.

Castle (ABC)

Okay, this one is a bit of a literary stretch.  But the hero is a bestselling novelist who helps the local cops solve cases, so it’s close to home.  They actually hired someone to write a novel (“Heat Wave,” under the name Richard Castle, the hero of the show) that parallels the novel the character is writing on the show.  It’s already on the NY Times Bestseller list and is selling at #7 on Amazon.com (check out the reviews).  Behold, the power of the media.

Dexter (Showtime)

The darkest concept ever – the hero is a serial killer, one who genuinely gets off on his hobby.  And yet, you root for him every week.   Watch and see how it’s done.  The fact that this is based on a bestselling novel (so is Bones, by the way, or in that case, on a bestselling novelist, Kathy Reichs; that said, Dexter is orders of magnitude better) says something about this one.

Californication (Showtime)

If your vanilla sensibilities are easily tweaked, skip this baby.  But if glib dialogue floats your literary boat, this story about a novelist turned father and college lit teacher will shock you into admiration.

The Sopranos (DVD series)

The classic character-driven, arena-intense program of all time.  Just try to look away.

Six Feet Under (DVD series)

This is an arena-driven program (welcome to the world of morticians) that is addictive and fascinating in its characterizations and shocking plots.  Raw and bold.  Don’t miss the series finale at the end of season five (Episode #63), perhaps the finest one hour of television ever produced. 

Everwood (DVD, the best cancelled series ever)

There’s a guy named Greg Berlanti working in Hollywood, and if you see his name attached to a show, watch it.  Ironically, most of his programs have been cancelled, and when you see one you’ll know why: this stuff is too intelligent and real for the general public.  But not for you, a writer who lives and breaths intelligent and real.  Everwood is perhaps the best episodic character program ever done about family dynamics, period, even better than monsters like Six Feet Under because it doesn’t rely on an arena/concept to make it fly.  Only on superlative writing, week after week.

Got others?

There are other programs that certainly qualify as worthwhile.  Many others.  Even if it isn’t entirely literary, there may be something of value we can learn as writers. 

Even from sitcoms.  Even from reality shows.  Even from network news features like Dateline or 20-2

Then again, a good fat Whopper can be just the ticket once in a while.

I encourage your recommendations for television that will make you want to attack a keyboard.  The idea isn’t to write television, it’s to write novels and screenplays – to create stories – with depth and edge and provocative excellence.

Television as inspiration for writers.   Who’d a thunk it.

Photo credit: Mr. Thomas

36 Comments

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36 Responses to Watch and Learn: 10 Television Shows for Writers

  1. Another really fun show to watch, which almost always fits perfectly with your story structure lessons and layout, is Medium, also on CBS. I’ve had a ball tracking the FPPs, the Pinch Points, the Midpoint, the SPPs … and they’re all right where they need to be, every time, and the show is so well-delivered and executed, I’ve become addicted. But then, I don’t get out much, either.

  2. @ Dane — thanks, fixed. My wife loves Medium, but I didn’t include it because I’m not familiar with it. I think I watch too much TV and go to too many movies as it is, but there’s so much to learn by doing both, ya think? Even the bad stuff, once you get on the other side of understanding story architecture, is helpful to see.

  3. The only TV show i watch is Castle. i’ve not read the Heat Wave book yet, but i know there were some very unfavorable comments about the chapters they released online (ch 1-10 iirc).

    The only show that i wish was still on is Firefly, and i’ve been more inspired by the acting, writing, and pacing of Firefly than by any other show. many times i’ll put in the DVDs while i write for some good background noise or watch them when i have no inspiration of my own hoping for something that triggers creativity (it usually works).

    i’ve often wondered about the parallels of story architecture and episodic TV shows, and the next time my sons ask me to watch the last Castle episode online, i’ll have to break out my notecards and find out how closely they follow it. 🙂

  4. How about Mad Men? If you peruse the blogs that dissect every scene, every sentence, every word uttered on that show for the double entendre, it is extremely rich and complex. The character development for each and every character is unparalleled. I learn a lot about how to build my own characters and their backstory.

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  6. Patrick Sullivan

    Couple good ones for various reasons

    Kings (canceled sadly): This one is great from a writing perspective for several reasons. The fact it’s a re imaging of the tale of King David from the bible, but done such that it feels new and fresh still. It also has great dialogue/character interaction and deep plot. Not sure if it still is but at one point amazon had the hd downloadable version of the entire season available for $5.

    Heroes(mixed): First season was fun and entertaining/schlocky but enjoyable. However it also shows what happens when you don’t think ahead but intend to do a long running story. They had to seriously overhaul things to keep the plots from getting silly as the heroes grew so powerful thanks to the setups they were given. Lots to think about from it.

    Flash Forward (based on a book I haven’t read): The ending of each episode annoys me, but the characters and the what if factor this shows really gets me thinking and getting my own story ideas (mostly unrelated to the what if that came from FF’s own plot line).

  7. For your list, I definitely agree on the ones I’m familiar with (which is only House, Castle, and Six Feet Under), and will have to check out the others.

    I have to second Adam with Firefly, and its feature-length companion Serenity. The legions of rabid Joss Whedon fans sometimes have a bad rep, but I maintain that Firefly is pure distilled awesome:

    As a rule the chosen programs illustrate the role of the hero in a great story, and they deliver an empathetically-driven emotional ride that profiles a flawed protagonist as they beat down a deserving baddie (a can’t-miss hook). All have crackling dialogue and character depth, and each viewing leaves you with a visceral hangover that validates the sense that you’ve just had an emotional-intellectual experience.

    All of them make you want to write, to aspire to that level of excellence.

    …That is exactly how every part of Firefly makes me feel, even the not-quite-as-shiny bits, and even on the umpteenth viewing. “Out of Gas” is one of my favorite episodes to television ever.

    Another one I’d throw out there is Doctor Who, although I’ve only recently started watching it—the newer sequence, that is. The show deals with a lot of deep stuff for an episodic sci-fi format, and wreaks brilliant havoc in my brain.

  8. I will definitely second the recommendation of Everwood. It was a tremendous show, without the soap opera tendencies that many family dynamic shows tend toward these days. (Not that I don’t enjoy a good soap, because I do…it’s perfect escapism.)

    Another good family dynamics show is Brothers & Sisters. The relationships, the characters, are wonderfully drawn and flawed.

  9. I will definitely second the recommendation of Everwood. It was a tremendous show, without the soap opera tendencies that many family dynamic shows tend toward these days. (Not that I don’t enjoy a good soap, because I do…it’s perfect escapism.)

    Another good family dynamics show is Brothers & Sisters. The relationships and the characters are wonderfully drawn and flawed.

  10. Holy Kick-Butt TV Shows, Batman!

    Larry, I actually modeled the novel I’m currently working on after Six Feet Under and Dexter, specifically how their memories (of the father in both TV series) drives the story.

    These two shows are my favorite TV shows of all time and I’ve often suggested to others to watch the shows because of the kick-butt writing.

    Glad to have someone backing me up. 🙂
    Great post, Larry!

  11. Christine

    Cancelled oldies but goodies:

    No one’s recommended Veronica Mars yet. A very good example of how to weave storylines together. This is how you tie in the mystery of the week with the mystery of the season. Also good for how to build tension and resolve it at the end but not completely to keep them coming back. Lastly, this is how you write about Dr. Phil and Jerry Springer characters in all their glorious dysfunctionalities while still keeping them believable.

    And since someone already rec’d Firefly, I’ll rec Whedon’s earlier show, Buffy the Vampire Slayer. All the characters have very distinct voices in that none of their lines are interchangable. When I think my characters are sounding too alike, I turn to this one.

  12. MissBlue

    With Christine on Buffy (top of my list of all time favourite TV) as something that appealed to the kids, but was clever enough (and pacey enough) for the grownups, but have to add the only sitcom I’ll set my recorder for – The Big Bang Theory. Not mass market appeal due to all the science jokes, which is exactly why it’s so great.

    I live in the UK, where we don’t get a lot of US TV (which as an Aussie I miss because it’s so fast and clever and full of impossibly beautiful people), and a lot of UK shows trudge along miserably, trying (and failing) to be as slick as their American brothers (UK scifi is HOPELESS – Dr Who, Torchwood, Primeval), they miss the boat on plot, pace and completely on the science, or making us believe the science. However, there are a few gritty little gems that the US have ‘borrowed’ – Cracker (Fitz in the US), Eleventh Hour and Ultraviolet (same title but never made it past US pilot season) to name a few. UK TV is mostly about ‘real’ people (ie soaps, reality shows and drama about the man in the street) which UK audiences appear to love. Me? I watch TV to escape reality, if I want to see ‘real’ people, I’ll go outside.

  13. Give my regards to Deadwood. Best. Show. Ever. Seriously, if David Milch brings me something else of this caliber I will pay for HBO.

  14. Hi Larry,

    House is a great gold medalist! Especially since I haven’t heard of any of the others in France 🙂

    Great piece on Copyblogger! I just had to drop by because I was stunned to see you there, having discovered your site just a few weeks ago.

  15. Breaking Bad and Mad Men. Both are about lead characters living a double life that plunges the viewer into nearly nonstop suspence. Both have an excellent sense of time and place. Both manage to navigate with seriously flawed characters.

  16. I’m with the others about Firefly. The characters were engaging and the dialogue was wonderful.

    I’d have to add Lost to the list. It don’t agree that it’s all about concept. While the concept is intriguing and the ongoing questions build many layers of suspense, the characters are what make the show so fascinating.

  17. Erik

    I would add ‘Dirty, Sexy Money’ to the list. I know that the show was cancelled a while ago, but the second season is on air in Germany at the moment. Given that, I have no idea if the story line will go bonkers within the next couple of episodes, but for the time being I have to salute the writers, the plot is very interesting and the dialogs are great; IMHO, of course.

    The reason why I would vote for the show? More than once I wished I could read the whole story in a book instead of waiting until next week. But, maybe that’s just me. 😉

  18. @Erik — I LOVED Dirty Sexy Money. Not sure if you’re aware, but the guy I mention in the post, Greg Berlanti, the creator of Everwood (one of my selections), also was the creative force behind DSM. One of the best writers in the biz, for my money (dirty, sexy and otherwise).

    Thanks for contributing.

    Also, thanks to all who mentioned Firefly, which starred the same dude who plays Castle.

    And as for Mad Men, yeah, I hear the critics, and I’m sure it’s just terrific. Frankly I don’t watch it… to many sleazy white guys smoking cigarettes… reminds me of my parents. And of the ad biz from whence I came. Not good on either count.

  19. There are a couple of others I’d suggest.

    It isn’t an hour show, but I’d put “Frasier” in the category of some of the soundest writing on TV. If you want to find an example of the writing saw that says “take a character who’s basically happy with him- or herself and put them in a situation they hate”, there’s no better. I liked “Becker” for the same reason.

    It was fun to look back on some of the good (and bad) writing I’ve seen on the “idiot box”, as Dad used to call it. Thanks for the post!

  20. Larry,

    I was pleased to see so many of my favorites on your list, three in particular, Burn Notice, Dexter, & Californication. My vanilla sensibilities are not easily tweeked, yet every so often this show goes too far for me, but I keep coming back because the writing is just that good.

    Chris

  21. Gotta just say that I love House

  22. There’s no such thing as too many movies and too much watching of good shows if you love writing and reading!

    I’ve always instinctively absorbed the structure of them and the character evolution, knowing right away if the characters don’t engage me at all. It takes me very little to get hooked by a great show or film, same as with a good book.

    I need gentle, witty humour, credible character building and relationships, and characters with healthy doses of some kind of integrity as well as wit. As you keep saying, Larry, the characters also need to be credible when the stakes are upped and they’re saving more than themselves.

    Everwood‘s the one I was going to mention! We’re nearly at the end of the re-runs now and the flaws and flagging are starting to show, but it’s been wonderful. The structure’s been a joy, and I’ve enjoyed the bravery of the deliberately slow pace which echoes the small town living it depicts. It gives you time to get fond of everyone’s humanity so that you end up caring when a person or a value is at stake.

    I love Supernatural, again because of the relationship between the brothers. It makes humour so much more credible because you just know when a remark’s in character. You come to expect the quips. The episodes are perfectly paced and structured, too.

    I enjoyed Veronica Mars, too, for the reasons Christine mentioned, and also because the relationships between the characters emerged organically, especially the relationship between Veronica and her dad. Again, this strengthened not only the humour, but the pathos. If you grow to care about characters, you care when they lose out. (I watched it with my teenage daughter, but got hooked myself.)

    But one of the most compelling of all the US series I’ve enjoyed on DVD was The West Wing. As funny and intelligent as House, it also took the time to let the characters grow and blossom, which got us all hooked on what the stakes were for every single one of them. The wit was amazing and had me laughing out loud. I felt like I was having a déja vu when Obama got elected.

    This was a great topic for a post, Larry. Lots of writers I know have had parallel passions for the screen and books all their lives. I’m still enjoying superimposing your story structure over films afterwards to see if they fit. What frustrates me is I can often predict the plot of TV shows (it annoys my family) but I can’t invent my own from scratch!

    Some day can we discuss the connection between good soundtracks and settings and good writing? I visit a site where all I do is drool over stills of movie sets, but what strikes me is how I remember every detail of them. A good, solid house setting makes a huge impression on me first time round and becomes a character in its own right.

    PS I also want Jack Bauer to retire, settle down and get happy!!!

  23. I totally agree, TV can be very inspiring, specially for things like pacing plot. I live in the UK, so my list is a little different but for me it has to be (in a rough order from the top)

    Merlin – sort of a Smallville for Arthur and Merlin, I think the way how, particularly the latest series, packs in so much per episode, as well as each stand alone story, you have the overall story arc of Merlin and Arthur growing into the characters they will be. Merlin always makes me want to rush to my keyboard.

    Doctor Who, particularly most of the Russell T Davies episodes – now I know how it’s fashionable to knock Davies but he is a master at compressing so much information into an episode, whilst not overloading you and still entertaining you. Plus I like his story arcs, characterisation and dialogue. Davies book on writing, although about screen writing, is an inspiration for any writer, particularly on how he works (not a method to be recommended, he always misses deadlines) is great because it’s always good to see how another writer thinks.

    Torchwood, particularly Children of the Earth – great for seeing how far boundaries can be pushed and exploring behaviours in authority that in the scenario could be all too frighteningly realistic.

    Spooks – for pacing and not being frightened to get rid of characters and growing from that.

    Plus favourite US shows: Buffy (of course), Heroes (in most parts), Twin Peaks (up to the point they found Bob, after that it was an exercise in when not to continue a story), X-files (early series, but like Twin Peaks an exercise for when they should of stopped), Farscape (went on a bit too long) and Babylon 5 (ditto), so other than thinking a lot of my favourite US shows should have finished before they actually did, all great for story arcs and pace.

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  25. I have to agree with Medium. Love it! One of my favorite series as far as characterization was NYPD Blue. The evolution of Andy Sipowitz from the beginning to end of that series was so compelling that I still remember a few of the best lines.

  26. russell

    The Wire. That is all.

  27. Joe

    Although I’m new to the site and am slowly catching up I have to agree with Russell. The Wire, in my opinion, is the best show to ever grace television. It probably helped that the executive producer was a writer himself (David Simon who wrote “Homicide”) and much of the show was based on what he saw, but the stories and characters are so rich and intertwined that it is hard for any other show to compare.

    I highly recommend it to anyone who has a love for television and writing as it really sets the bar for both.

  28. Matt

    Another great show is “Pushing Daisies”. Not a lot of big names attached but well written and Narrated by Jim Dale of Harry Potter audio book fame.
    It combines well written dialogue and storyline of a pie maker with the ability to bring things back to life with certain rules.
    It’s canceled now sadly after roughly two seasons but it was great while it lasted.

  29. @Sky – loved “Pushing Daisies.” The big “boss” guy is playing essentially the same role on the new “Human Target” show, which isn’t nearly as good. Seems like they cancel the good stuff too quickly (“Dirty Sexy Money” and “Eli Stone” come to mind). Thanks for commenting! L.

  30. Blair

    Does everyone know the man who plays Dexter actually wrote the novels?

  31. @Blair — sorry Dude, but that’s not true. The series “Dexter” is based on a 2004 novel called “Darkly Dreaming Dexter” by writer Jeff Lindsay, who doesn’t appear in the show. The actor who plays Dexter is a career thespian named Michael C. Hall, who is involved in the executive production function as well.

  32. Rin

    The irony is I was just about to watch Firefly. Maybe I’m a blasphemer, but I’ve never seen it; the reason I AM is because I’ve had some people suggest that I should. Then again, it aired when I was a bit younger and more addicted to the internet than TV.

    Though I do adore House. I wasn’t surprised to see it on the list. I mean that in a good way. Season 6 ended what, about a month ago? There has been a void in my life since then.

  33. GREY’S ANATOMY! I don’t fall in love with television shows very often, but MY GOD! I will probably regret admitting this, but I have, on SEVERAL occasions, squalled like an infant while watching… no, not “watching”… It may be more accurate to say that I “squalled like an infant while VISITING Seattle Grace Hospital and its surgeons.” I’m not exaggerating. I have NEVER felt like I was watching a TV show with actors and actresses with Grey’s Anatomy. Those people are my friends and family. That’s how realistic and heartfelt that show is. If you’ve never “visited” my friends at SGH, you MUST find seasons 1-8 (season 9 is airing now) and don’t move away from the television until you’ve finished! As a matter of fact, I think I need to pull out some of my Grey’s dvds and get my fix until Thursday comes. ENJOY!

  34. “House of Cards” on Netflix is genius. It has an amazing mix of dark, moral instability, attractive people, suspense, and humor. It is so easy to get emotionally attached to these characters because of the beautifully written plots.

    Now if you want to be utterly amazed with a tv series, watch “Deadwood”. It was an HBO show that was cancelled after the fifth season for God knows what reason. It is an amazing story of the town Deadwood in the Dakotas. A town outside of USA amnesty at the time, it was filled with crooks, gamblers, gold-diggers, prostitutes, and people of all ethnic backgrounds. There was no law and that is evident in this series. The characters are so complex and they draw you in unlike any show I have ever seen. If you want genius, Deadwood is everything you could imagine. Bravo to HBO for that glimpse of perfection in a TV series if only it could have continued I would be the happiest man on earth.

  35. One more show I would recommend. “Justified” is an absolute bomb shell. Watch the first 5 episodes and you will not be able to stop thinking about them all.day.long. Great characters, great acting, great everything. I am a southern man and love to see a depiction of what states other than my own in the South are like. Raylon Givins aka Timothy Olyphant…enough said.