I know that a good amount of writing advice out there includes a rule somewhere that says something like, “Turn off the TV and write”…
Which is not bad advice at all. Ultimately, to become a writer, you must put other distractions aside and write.
But I do take exception to the idea I hear sometimes that TV=BAD.
I am aware that there is some terrible, horrible, no good very bad TV out there. (I’d also argue that there are some terrible, horrible, no good very bad books out there, but that’s a subject for another day.) But there is also some excellent, well-written, incredibly acted and produced TV out there. TV that I would argue can even help your writing.
How? Maybe a bit of dialogue will spark an idea. Maybe one of the character arcs will help you figure out one of your own characters. The bottom line is, good storytelling is good storytelling, whatever the form it takes. So on days when your muse is ignoring you, or you need something to watch while you’re cooking dinner, or you just plain old need a break, turn one of these shows on.
In no particular order, the TV shows that have helped me most with my writing are:
1. Lost Yes, the ending of the series was a gigantic let-down. But unlike some critics, I don’t believe that cancels out the incredibleness that was Lost. The first three seasons were some of the best TV I’ve ever seen, and not because of the mysteries. (I’d argue that it was focusing on the smoke-monster-time-travel stuff that made the later seasons inferior to the earlier ones, and ultimately caused the show to jump the shark.) Lost was amazing in the early seasons because it was a character-driven drama. The way each episode zoomed in on one character, showing us their past and giving us clues to how that was affecting their relationships and actions in the present–it was character-driven storytelling at its finest. If only it could have continued throughout the series.
I Do (Season 3) because The Others brilliant/cruel playing off the Jack/Kate/Sawyer triangle comes to a head
Through the Looking Glass (Season 3) because a whole bunch of stuff happens, all of it equally heart-wrenching. And that ending!
Live Together, Die Alone (Season 2) because Desmond. ‘Nuff said
2. My So-Called Life It’s a travesty that this show went on for only one season. Anyone writing YA needs to watch this, for its brilliant, realistic portrayal of teenagers. Anyone writing anything needs to watch this for its incisive dialogue and Angela’s just positively brilliant voiceover observations.
Strangers in the House because “There’s the people who you’ve known forever who know you in this way that other people can’t because they’ve seen you change…they’ve let you change.” This quote sparked the idea for my second novel.
Betrayal because it’s so heartbreaking and so real
Pilot because it was just so good and it was just setting up for the goodness to come and how did this show not live on ugh
3. Mad Men You want brilliant writing and brilliant characters? This series has it in spades. A character-driven drama at its absolute finest, this show is nothing but beautiful character studies.
The Suitcase (Season 4) because I love relationships that are complicated, and Peggy and Don’s non-romantic, non-familial, more-than-boss-and-protegé will go down as one of my favorites of all time
Shut the Door. Have A Seat. (Season 3) because all of them overcoming conflict to band together against a common enemy is what good drama is all about
The Strategy (Season 7) because more Don and Peggy, of course
4. Firefly Speaking of TV shows who definitely should have run for more than one season! If you know me, it’s no secret that I adore Joss Whedon and his entire body of work. This show is something I started watching solely because of its creator; I’m not generally interested in space-cowboys. But it’s an ensemble drama with character relationships at its core, and the only thing wrong with it is that it ended way too soon.
Jaynestown because it turns the idea of the hero on its head
Heart of Gold because it has a kick-ass shoot-out/rebellion against the patriarchy, as well as one of the series’ most heartbreaking moments
Serenity because the pilot episode was simply awesome, in the literal sense of the word
which brings us to…
5. Buffy the Vampire Slayer My favorite television show of all time, and not just because I grew up watching it. Joss Whedon is a master of character development and this can be seen in no better place than his lovely, enduring series about a teenage chosen one. There’s also all the feminism and the dialogue and the metaphors, but I love this series most for the characters, and I always will.
Becoming (Season 2) because origin stories and improbable alliances (Spuffy!) and impossible decisions
The Body (Season 5) because it’s the most realistic portrayal of death I’ve ever see on TV
Innocence (Season 2) because the analogy could have been way too nail-on-the-head, but it wasn’t; it was heartbreaking and perfect
So that’s my list. I know I’m probably leaving some brilliantly-written TV out due to not having watched it yet (Breaking Bad–it just seems like such a commitment) or my inability to get through them (The Sopranos–I watched the first few seasons but the violence was too much for me; The Walking Dead–I quit before the first episode concluded, I just can’t with the gore), but still, feel free to let me know if you agree/disagree + what I’ve missed in the comments!