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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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