Monday, May 4, 2009

Where TV & Books Collide

This bookish girl likes to watch TV. I admit it freely. I like stories, so I’m more likely to turn on the TV (or podcasts like This American Life and RadioLab) for “company” while I’m cleaning or cooking or whatever. But I can’t take reality shows (except for Project Runway, of course), and I just don’t connect with sitcoms, usually. Hour-long comedy/dramas are usually what get me. Lately, I’ve been thinking about what it is that makes a show one that I can’t miss, or one that I want to own on dvd, because I think some of the reasons may be the same things that make a book one that I love and want in my library.

I own every season of West Wing (except season 5, which is dead to me). I think it’s probably my all-time favorite show. I also own all three seasons of Veronica Mars and of Arrested Development. And multiple seasons of Gilmore Girls and Grey’s Anatomy.

All ensemble shows. Each has a focal character, but much of the strength lies in the support system surrounding those characters. One of my favorite episodes of West Wing is in season one, when Josh is offered the card that means in the event of attack, he can go to the bunker. But none of the other staffers get it, besides the Chief of Staff. At the end, after a conversation with the President and Leo about the strength and remarkableness of the women of the staff, Josh gives back the card, saying, “I want to be a comfort to my friends in tragedy, and I want to be able to celebrate with them in triumph, and for all the times in between, I just want to be able to look them in the eye. . . . I want to be with my friends, my family, and these women.” The most touching moments in all of these shows are when the characters rally to support and be there for each other, and some of the funniest come from them knowing each other so well. Which is the case, certainly, in Arrested Development. The show got funnier and funnier as the series went on because we know all of the characters so well, and can pick up even on the subtlest joke.

Snappy writing. I have a hard time watching tv or movies that aren’t well written. Maybe it’s part of why I can’t watch reality tv--there’s no pleasure in language. But all of the shows I’ve mentioned here are so smart. They’re full of relevant cultural references of all kinds--not just current events or just pop culture or just music or film or what-have-you, but blend of all of those. The dialogue moves swiftly and doesn’t explain itself. The writing expects the viewer to keep up. And the characters say the honest things everyone thinks, and say them eloquently. A little bit of snark is always nice, too, when it’s balanced with sincerity and silliness.

Inherent drama. Each of these shows has a setting and situation that lends itself to the dramatic. The West Wing . . . well, is set in the West Wing. Grey’s Anatomy is set in a teaching hospital. Veronica Mars--high school, with a girl who’s both a social outcast and a p.i. investigating her best friend’s murder. Gilmore Girls--private high school with a single parent household and overbearing grandparents. Arrested Development--an eccentric family that’s “lost everything” as the intro says.

All except Arrested Development are hour-long shows. And I've never been a huge short story reader, I think for the same reason I don't usually get hooked by half-hour shows. When I love characters, I want to spend time with them. Half an hour, or twenty-odd pages, just never seems like enough time.

And now that I’ve thought about how well-done all of these shows were and how much I like them, I’m sad that only one is still on the air. Why do all my favorite shows go away? And what will be the next that catches me up the way these have? It’s been a few years since I’ve had a new favorite. Although . . . Mad Men is pretty amazing.


  1. Argh--I so know how you feel about shows you love not being on the air any more. The very best show ever written was Firefly by Joss Whedon. Have you seen it? An ensemble cast and the wittiest dialog I've ever seen--it was brilliant while it lasted!

  2. I like the TV show House for all the reasons you list here. I just discovered it recently, so I've been playing catch-up by watching old episodes on the USA network. I don't think there are any plans to cancel it anytime soon.

    I'm with you on reality TV. I can't understand why it's so popular.

  3. I grew up watching Northern Exposure. That show was all about philosophy and existential self discovery, expressed through a really eclectic cast, set in a claustrophobic little town. Loved it.

  4. if i want to be inspired or feel inadequate about my writing, i watch mad men. ha! i love FRINGE--but only if you liked x-files would it work for you.

    i watch so much reality tele it's not funny. the fluff helps me unwind. you don't have to think about it.

  5. We loved The West Wing too--but the fifth season broke us, and drove us away. Have you watched Sorkin's earlier show, Sports Night? It's a half hour sitcom, yes, but then's not. He fought very hard not to have a laugh track, and you can hear it going away in season one, and abandoned in season two. It's really more of a comedy-drama, and far less about sports than it is about the relationships of the characters. You should give it a try if you haven't seen it... good stuff.

  6. Alan, you should totally watch seasons 6 and 7 of WW. It takes a few episodes into season 6, but once the Santos campaign starts, they get their footing back.

    Sports Night is on my netflix queue, as is Northern Exposure. But first, I'm getting through Battlestar Galactica. :)