Watching Stories

In On Writing, Stephen King recommends that aspiring writers avoid television lest they slog their creative brains with drivel. One moment I remember clearly from John Irving’s The World According to Garp was Garp walking by a living room and sighing as he saw the blue glow of television shining through people’s windows because, he presumed, it meant that people weren’t reading. These passages were written long ago, and I would be curious to see what these authors, as well as (many) others who are averse to television, think of the state of TV now.

(I do follow Stephen King on Twitter, and he seems to be less averse to the glowing blue box than before)

The way television has grown as a storytelling medium has fascinated me. I was never averse to TV, but I never considered it a superior storytelling medium. I preferred film – especially as I grew older, and became more familiar with independent and arthouse films which told excellent stories in ways I never thought possible. I shifted almost entirely to film by the time I was in college. Television just didn’t do it for me.

Then television became more cinematic. Premium cable channels started making more of their own shows, which could push the limits that the FCC and advertisers alike placed on broadcast networks. Services like Netflix pushed those limits even further, taking series that wouldn’t see the light of day on established networks and were given chances through a medium that not only wanted to show these stories, but could afford to. I’ve loved seeing the increased diversity and story themes across shows on HBO and Netflix, to the point where broadcast networks announcing pilots with more of the same (cough CBS cough) makes me wonder how far you have to bury your head in the sand before you become one with the dirt.

Reading is classified as the best way for a writer to learn their craft. I agree, but I think the current state of television is a close second. The way a series can flow now, with strong connections from one episode to the next (thanks to us being able to watch repeats, and on repeat whenever we like), and without commercial interruptions, gives them not just a cinematic feel, but the feel of a book unfolding through cinema cells (or digital pixels, with the current state of film). The writing and content is also fantastic. Yes, there are still plenty of shows that are trash, just like there are plenty of books that are trash. But it seems in the past several years that there are many more shows which defy the limits of either the medium itself (such as Game of Thrones) or the ideas of the people in charge of that medium.

I think of Master of None. My husband and I just finished the second season. That show is so good that it makes me seriously question producing more content. Why try when this exists? (I still want to produce content) It’s a show that I believe never would’ve seen the light of day if it weren’t for Netflix. It tells stories that corporate boardrooms insist we don’t want to see, and does so in ways that are almost painful in how creative they are. I especially love how cinematic it is – the homages to Italian cinema this season were an especially nice touch – and also the way the dialogue flows. The series unfolds like a book, with one-off chapters and an arching theme coexisting nicely in a tale of one man’s life among many, and the many lives that make up the stories of our world. Stories that need to be told, and need to be told well. I’m glad that television has become a medium where that story can be told well.

I could write extensively about many television shows, those shows’ respective merits, and how they inspire me as a writer. I probably will, down the road (coming soon: an ode to Mystery Science Theater 3000). Television – at least now – inspires me to not only write, but to write better. It shows me many possibilities on how a story can be told, and how it can be written. Never get comfortable. Never get stagnant. Challenge yourself, and not just to write a story, but to consider how that story can be told.

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