Love a Good Story? Watch Some TV

Mark BakerMark Baker has had a life long addiction to good story telling in any form.  He grew up reading books as quickly as he could get through them.  Now he tries to balance his fiction time between his ever filling DVR and his To Be Read Mountain Range (it surpassed pile or mountain years ago).  His desire to get others hooked on what he enjoys has lead him to reviewing, first at Amazon, then Epinions, and now on his own blog, Carstairs Considers.  There you will find reviews of books, movies, TV on DVD, music, Hallmark ornaments, and anything else that catches his interest.

Until he finds someone willing to pay him to enjoy fiction as a full time job, he supports his fiction habit as an accountant.

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I completely credit my love of reading to my parents.  Growing up, I didn’t watch a lot of TV, so when I wanted a story, I would escape into a book.  And I read and read and read as much as I could.  We made weekly trips to the library, and I always came home with lots of books, not all of which I’d get through before the due date.

I am sure that if I were allowed to watch TV growing up, I wouldn’t be nearly the reader I am today.

Which is ironic since I am going to talk today about why readers should consider watching TV.

See, when I moved out on my own, I started watching all those shows I didn’t watch as a kid as well as contemporary shows.  In fact, I watched so much for a couple of years that my reading slowed way down.  Right now, I watch too many shows and have a hard time juggling them all.  The upcoming fall TV season is not going to help matters any as there are several new shows I must start watching.  Thank goodness for lunch hours so I can still read.

But what is it I love about books?  For me, its great characters you get to know in a story that makes the pages fly by.  Tell me how that is different from a good TV show?

I can hear you now.  “But a TV episode is over in 42 minutes while a good story takes longer to develop characters and conflict.  Therefore, it is richer.”  And that is a point I can certainly concede, or would have back in the 90’s when I started watching TV seriously.  But a funny thing happened over the last 10-15 years – the introduction of the story arc on TV.  The best early examples of this would include Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Alias, and 24.  Then Lost exploded, and everyone tried to copy it.  These shows had longer stories where every week, sometimes every second, was important.  They made for shows with lots of buzz as fans would try to predict the next twist or what this particular clue would mean.  But along the way, the characters were allowed to grow and change.  When something happened one week, it changed the characters the next week.  That made them richer as a result.

Of course, there is also something to be said about a show that wraps itself up at the end of the episode or even balancing the two.  As a self-proclaimed USA Network addict, I think they’ve found the perfect balance between the two formats.

TV Image 1Let’s look at White Collar, my favorite show on the network.  It revolves around FBI agent Peter Burk and former conman Neal Caffrey, who was arrested by Peter but is serving the rest of his sentence helping Peter close cases for the FBI.  Most episodes feature a case of the week.  This finds the two working on whatever the latest crime is and catching the criminal whether it is art forger or theft or even insider trading.  However, there is always a storyline that is advancing forward.  In the first season, it involved Neil trying to get back together with his girlfriend from before his arrest and someone who was trying to keep them apart.  When that was resolved, a new one popped up.  These are natural progressions for the characters and usually take up maybe a quarter of the weekly episode.  The exception would be the mid-season and season finales where the current overarching storyline is the focus of the episode.

While I had always enjoyed this particular show, it was season three where I truly realized how awesomely this formula was being executed.  The characters had been so well fleshed out by that point that I couldn’t predict what Neal would do with the on-going story of the season.  And part of that was because I truly believe that Neal didn’t know either.  And the episodes ended with cliffhangers that grew solely from the characters – ones that would kill me while I waited for the next installment.

That is good storytelling.

Of course, for the USA Network, Burn Notice did it first, and White Collar’s creator Jeff Eaton has freely admitted to stealing their formula.  The other shows do it to varying degrees with Psych being more about the case of the week and Suits and Royal Pains more about the on-going drama.  In fact, they head more to soap opera at times, but the characters are so great it’s hard to not love those shows, too.  (I mentioned being a USA Network addict, right?)

I will admit to not watching as much on the traditional networks these days, but one show I do love there is Once Upon a Time.  A fantasy story, it revolves around the classic fairy tale characters we know and love who have been transported to the town of Storybrooke, Maine, thanks to a curse from Snow White’s Evil Queen.  The creators of this show were two of the writers on Lost, and that background shows.  I would argue that we’ve already gotten more resolution on this show in two seasons than we did on six seasons of Lost, however.  The story here carries over more from week to week than the shows I’ve been talking about, but as things progress, we truly get to know the rich characters.  Heck, in season two, I started to feel sorry for the villains of the piece.  No one is truly black and white, and those shades make for a show I can’t stop watching.

And I would be remiss if I talked about rich characters and story without discussing my favorite show of all time, Babylon 5.  This was a syndicated science fiction show from the early 90’s.  It was low budget, and you can tell, especially in the early seasons.  It was also the first show to use computer generated effects.  Those early seasons look very dated today, but season one came out in 1993, two years before Toy Story, so it is understandable.

TV Image 2The show is set on the space station Babylon 5, a kind of intergalactic UN of the future.  As a result, I like to describe it as a political drama set in space.  The first season looks very much like any other science fiction show of the era with stories that are introduced and resolved by the end of the episode.  There are hints and moments and a few episodes that introduce the longer story that is to come, but for the most part things stand on their own.

However, it’s really just laying the groundwork.  By the time you hit season three, all that stuff is coming back into play.  The characters we’ve gotten to know through stand alone episodes are facing a huge threat and their reactions are riveting.  I can’t rewatch some of those episodes without being deeply moved, and I’ve watch this show more times than I can count.

The show was always designed as a five year story with a beginning, middle, and end.  A novel for TV if you will.  The creator had to make some changes along the way as actors came and went, but the result still works.  Even with a few things that are introduced along the way and then dropped, I watch the final episode and feel deeply satisfied.

Now yes, I realize there is lots of junk on TV.  I have two roommates, so I’ve had to sample some of it.  I’m not arguing for just turning on the TV and watching what is on without any thought.

But I do think if you pick a few shows that sound interesting to you and give them a chance, you’ll find characters and stories you enjoy just as much as any novel.  It might take a bit more work to find the gold among the straw, but the end result will be worth it.