I think it’s safe to assume we all grew up with television in our lives. There are programs that shaped us, taught us things, or simply entertained and made us laugh or cry. But can we say that television is a creative influence for artists?
When I was studying creative writing in college, one of my writing instructors was anti-television. He considered it a waste of time and didn’t even have one in his house. Or so he claimed. He felt that writing for television was a hack job, beneath literary writers, and that we shouldn’t consider television scripts to be real writing. I remember the looks on the faces of my classmates. Shock, alarm, confusion. Why? Because they had all grown up watching television.
I’m no exception. I can remember television shows that aired during certain periods of my life. When I was very young there was Sesame Street and Mister Rogers, along with tons of cartoons (Bugs Bunny, Tom & Jerry, Rocky and Bullwinkle…). As I got a little older there was M*A*S*H* and CHiPs and The Waltons. Oh, and Hee-Haw. Later on I watched Saturday Night Live, Miami Vice, Cheers, Northern Exposure, Seinfeld…probably far too many shows for me to list here.
Sure, some shows were better than others. Some were just mindless entertainment, the sitcoms and cartoons. But there were some, like Northern Exposure and The X-Files, that had great writing and acting. I think it was around this point that I really started paying attention to the writing and began to realize how important it was.
Once I had this revelation, I began to rewatch shows. I went back to the old Twilight Zone episodes and realized they were basically short stories brought to life. As cheesy as the original Star Trek and Doctor Who shows were, the writing was excellent. All three of these programs had messages, made me think more deeply about myself and society, about the human condition. Some were more metaphorical, others more in-your-face, but either way I was learning how stories, good stories, were told.
But in a way, I think it’s sort of ruined me for mindless entertainment. Or at least, it’s made me more critical of bad television writing. And yeah, there’s a fair amount of that. In recent years my television viewing habits have shrunk to where I only watch a couple of shows. I still get my Doctor Who fix, and The Orville has filled the hole where Star Trek used to reside (I’m not a fan of the new Trek). Electric Dreams and Black Mirror fill in for Twilight Zone. And, well, that’s about it. Well, that’s not entirely true. I did enjoy The Mandalorian and The Witcher. So that fills my television entertainment quota.
I never did agree much with that writing instructor. In fact, I ended up taking a screenwriting class with a professor who had been a television writer. That was one of the best classes I took. It wasn’t that I learned how to write screenplays, but I learned a lot about the industry…and how I’d probably never be happy as a television writer. Too many hands on the scripts. I’m all for collaboration, but hearing how producers and studio heads would “tweak” things while wiping the excess white powder off their upper lips wasn’t enticing.
However, I believe that writers can learn a lot from good television. When writing a program you have to tell a complete story, or in some cases a complete chapter, in about fifty minutes every week. One of the things I learned in that screenwriting class is that one page of dialogue equates to approximately one minute of screen time. So a fifty-minute drama is going to have a fifty-page script. So that means a writer has to tell a fifty page story every week. That’s impressive. And in that time, they have to show character development, ensure consistent plotting with previous and latter episodes, verify continuity with various narrative elements, and keep the viewer interested. That’s no easy task.
Most fiction writers don’t have that kind of pressure when creating stories. We may have self-imposed deadlines, or maybe even a deadline from a magazine or publisher, but in my experience I’ve never had to write a fifty-page story in one week. Thank goodness.
I should probably clarify one thing – I’m not necessarily saying you should only watch quality programming. Watch what you want to watch. You can still learn from cheesy or badly written shows. You learn what not to do. It’s like reading. Sure, you want to read the classics, the award-winners, the well-crafted stories and books because you get to see how it’s done right. But even then, reading an occasional bad book, pulp fiction, or overly-commercial book can be educational, as well. It can teach you what bad writing looks like, things to avoid. It the same as making a mistake. If you do everything perfectly every time, you don’t learn anything. You learn from making mistakes.
Think about this the next time you start binge-watching a show on one of the many streaming services. Don’t just watch the show, look at how it’s written, how the narrative flows, how the different elements and plot points work together. I find that doing this adds to the value of whatever show I’m watching. It might teach you something, as well.