Sunday, January 09, 2005

Television Writing

My typical day does not include very much television, if any. But like most North Americans of my generation, I watched excessive amounts of it while growing up, and despite not watching much I still somehow manage to see quite a bit, if that makes any sense. These days, most of what I watch deliberately is series that have been released on video or DVD.

My question is, why is there so little television that is well written? Is the talent required to do so such a rare beast? Or is it that the structure and economics of television select against good writing?

I ask these because my partner and I just finished watching the second disc of the first season of The L Word. I want very much to like the show but the low calibre of writing is making it very difficult for me, and I'm feeling frustrated. (See this post by activistgradgal for an analysis of the show that I substantially agree with.) I suspect I will want to keep watching the show, I just wish I was going to enjoy that experience more.

I don't remember who it was that described television as a "vast wasteland" but they certainly hit the nail on the head. It is trite to complain about having 80 channels with nothing to watch, but on those rare occasions when I try to amuse myself with whatever happens to be on I almost never have any luck. I find this extra frustrating because television is a medium with a lot of potential for telling stories. It combines being a visual medium with being a serial medium. The movies only do the former and that's a big difference; comic books are actually the closest thing to television in terms of the way the medium shapes how stories are told, in my opinion. The fact that it is a serial medium means there is an opportunity to build characters that are much more complex than a two hour movie would allow, and the viewer can get to know them (and they can evolve) over a period of years.

By "good writing" I mean a few different things. I tend to view television writing as occuring on five different levels at once: the line, the scene, the episode, the season, and the series. It is rare indeed to see all five of those levels done well, in terms of the shape of the words and of the stories. More important than that to how I'm understanding "good", though, is the characters: well written television creates a little construct of each character in my brain that feels like and acts like the little constructs in my brain that are created from the real people I observe and interact with on a daily basis. I'm not sure I can explain it any better than that -- they either feel complex and coherent and three-dimensional and real, or they feel like made-up, cardboard entities driven hither and yon by the whim of the author and with no independent existence of their own.

So what are some examples of good and bad television? Well, first of all, I'm not really talking about the half-hour format. I generally can't stand sit-coms. There are a couple that do fit a subset of that definition of "good writing", for me -- Roseanne and Sex in the City come to mind -- but the half-hour comedy format even when done well does not allow the characters the same latitude to become real and stories to be told in a non-forumlaic way.

It is also important to emphasize that in my world, being well written and being liked by me are two quite separate (although often related) qualities. I can't think of any TV where this applies, but, for example, I can concede that the movie The Talented Mr. Ripley is probably a pretty good one, but because of my own quirks with respect to how I react to stories, I couldn't stand it and was in agony through most of it. On the other hand, there are some poorly-written television shows that I still get something out of -- Forever Knight and Queer as Folk come to mind. (See my earlier post on the latter show for more detail on my reasons in that instance.)

There are a few places, distressingly few, where I have found good television writing. I like much of the work of Joss Whedon, though the quality of his series tend to vary a lot depending on how heavily he personally is involved with a particular episode or season. That means I like all of the short-lived Firefly, significant parts of Buffy the Vampire Slayer (particularly from earlier in the series), and very little of Angel.

The original series created by HBO and ShowTime seem to have more scope for good writing. I have only seen the first season of Oz but I thought it was great. I think Six Feet Under is amazingly well written. Years ago I saw the first season of The Sopranos, and I remember liking it, but I can't really remember much about the writing.

And then there is Star Trek: The Next Generation, which is an unusual one because there were some great and engaging characters (e.g. Picard, Q, Data) and some good and interesting writing on the level of stories, albeit mixed in with some mediocre and cheesy writing. However, it generally fell short in terms of dealing with characters as entire, complex, dynamic people. Characters either did not have arcs (i.e. the evolution over time we all experience) over seasons and the series, or they had simplistic or poorly-handled arcs. I think the fact that a handful of characters really stood out has more to do with the talent of those specific actors than with a real focus on characters by the writers. I still really liked the show, though.

Now, admittedly I don't tend to go flipping through the dial for new series to fall in love with, but it is both telling and distressing that only one of the shows listed above (Six Feet Under) is currently in production.

So what's the deal? Why is this so rare?

On the hand, I think there really is something to the idea that the talent is scarce. I believe that good writing of any sort can be taught/learned, but great writing cannot. In observing the impact of Joss Whedon's proximity on the quality of his series, I've concluded that the difference is his ability to see in his head what the finished narrative-plus-visuals is going to be, and to model the impact that will have on the audience an order of magnitude more effectively than the probably quite competent folks that comprise the rest of his writing staff. From my own limited experience with other kinds of writing, it's not about following rules or about being clever with words; it's about being able to hold an imaginative construct of the end product in your head, to be able to relate changes that you make in one line or scene or paragraph to changes in the overall entity, and to just feel how that's going to work.

On the other hand, we live on a planet with six billion people. I simply do not believe that the talent in question is so rare, even among the ample subset that speak English, to make it impossible to have a dozen or more excellently written television series in production at any given time. By rights, there should be plenty of low-budget series that are "deficient" in other ways -- they can't afford the best special effects, they're made in Toronto instead of Los Angeles, the actors are not well-known -- that are well written. Certainly there should be no high-budget dramas at all that are poorly written, though there are plenty. Writing skill is not that expensive, I don't think. Compared to the overall cost of an episode of television, writers are cheap, and from what I understand the ratio of interested individuals to opportunities in television writing is pretty darn high.

So perhaps it is the structure of television. Much writing is done by committee, and even if everyone in a committee is competent, that can completely ruin a final product if there is no strong, overarching vision (and talent) guiding the process. And perhaps the very inexpensiveness of writing labour leads it to be devalued by those who pay for television -- if you can get it cheap, it mustn't matter very much. Perhaps there is a perception by TV executives (and I don't know if it's true or not) that viewers care more about other aspects of production and therefore those other aspects are emphasized.

I don't know. It frustrates me. My partner's objections to the show are stronger than mine, but I will try and continue watching The L Word and keeping my eyes and ears open for well written television. And as for that holiest of grails, well written television that centres on counter-hegemonic ways of living in the world -- well, I can dream, can't I?

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