Rambling on about the new television season

I have written about writing about a new television show this year.  There are two reasons.  First, I actually love television.  I am a child of television.  A lot of my favorite entertainment and artistic memories are from the great 1 hour dramas television has shown us over the last 40 years.

The second reason is that, probably because of the first reason, I think of screenwriting as a literary venture and it interests me to study the way television tells stories.  Some of the best story telling lessons I’ve learned came from listening to the Battlestar Galactica podcasts showrunner Ron Moore did that accompanied each episode.  He explained the reasons behind almost all of his story decisions from how he structured the overall arch of the overall story and the decisions of when and where to place act breaks.

To my eyes, there are two ways to write a television show.  (I’m talking about the 1 hour dramas and not half hour sitcoms.)  The first is the more traditional stand-alone episode method and the second is the more serialized method.

The traditional stand-alone method is like a book of discreet yet interconnected short stories with the same main characters.  Each episode has its own arch that has a beginning, middle, and end.  The season as a whole may have some through-line that connects each episode, but you could essentially watch each episode on its own and all of the episodes in almost any order.  Traditionally each episode would end and the reset button would be hit and the next episode would start anew.

As television has matured as a story-telling medium even the traditional episodic shows have added more distinct and important through-lines that affect the character’s lives outside of the episodic storylines.

The more serialized method has gained in importance as the primarily cable dramas have used this method to do things differently than traditional networks.  This style is more of a novelistic approach with each episode standing as a chapter or part of chapter in a larger book.  The episodes do not necessarily have a distinct beginning, middle, and end because it is only a section of the story.  As I said above, the network dramas have started to use some of the ideas of that novelistic approach to add a larger arch to seasons that make the episodes more interconnected and try to tell a larger story.

The reason I want to study one show for a season is to study how the show runners tell a story.  What directions do you take?  Do you go for the easy feel good direction?  Do you take the darker direction?  Is the direction you decided to take a good one?  Are the decisions you’ve made over how to depict a character working or are they cheap and lazy?

The interesting thing is I don’t necessarily want to do a prestige show.  I could write about Mad Men or Homeland or any of the new premium cable shows coming out in the next few months.  I could also write about the second tier shows like Sons of Anarchy or The Bridge and still do the same thing.  The thing is I don’t want to write about any of those shows mostly because I still want to just sit back and enjoy television.  The show I pick will probably be one I would watch anyway, but not one that I would put on the level of those shows.

Right now television is maybe the most vital artistic endeavors in the United States right now.  We are at the end of what is termed the Golden Age of Television which brought us The Wire, Deadwood, The Sopranos, Breaking Bad, and Mad Men.  Television networks are throwing money and opportunities to writers and directors at an astonishing rate particularly on cable networks.  That is also the death knell of this period.

As the people who run television try to figure out how to monetize these prestige shows is that they are beginning to neuter the ideas so that each idea is the same as the last idea.  Networks have started to just import successful ideas from other countries and Americanizing them to varying degrees of badness.  The Killing, Low Winter Sun, and The Bridge were all shows from Europe whose American versions go from horrible, self-serious, to pretty good.

Once art becomes commerce and is monetized the people who invest always try to make money by predicting what will be successful by what was successful.  That always ignores the fact that most works of art that were successful were surprises that no one saw coming.

So, I want to enjoy this time in television as much as I can, but more importantly to learn about telling stories as much from the successes and mistakes from the new shows that are entering our television lives.

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2 Responses to “Rambling on about the new television season”

  1. scottprestonblog Says:

    I wouldn’t worry too much about the man ruining television. More and more they are realising just what you said: that what makes a show successful is the people behind it not following fashion trends.

    • That is especially true of cable, but I think it could be interesting over the next few years to see if more shows like The Good Wife or Hannibal make their way to network television.

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