I checked out Heath Lowrance’s blog today and came across this interesting post. He discussed the AMC television series, Hell On Wheels, a revenge-driven rip-snorter of a western series harkening back to the golden age of movie westerns. He also mentioned he has resisted getting cable up till now, preferring instead to buy the DVD boxed sets of certain series.
Now, while I too prefer the boxed sets (oh, those commentaries!), I also have cable, including the premium channels, specifically so I can see these shows around the time they’re first broadcast. Too often, the boxed set release is delayed for months (season 2 of Boardwalk Empire is still not out), and darn it, I just don’t want to wait. Besides, I enjoy seeing the shows at the time they’re creating the buzz. More importantly, though, I don’t want to read articles about a show (which might contain spoilers, or will certainly reveal plot points that are better learned by watching the show) and then have to wait forever to see the DVD.
All this plays to a point I think is not being talked about too much these days. And that is, the best writing and the best drama is now being seen on television rather than in movies.
I remember, and it wasn’t too long ago, when TV was as predictable as the rising sun: half-baked sitcoms (usually with precocious, annoying kids), ultra-formulaic dramas (complete with all the politically correct mix of characters), and in the daytime, a maze of game shows and soap operas. Was it any wonder I never watched TV during the 70s, 80s, or 90s? I did have cable, which brought me HBO movies in their entirety with no censorship or commercials. It also provided me with lots of baseball games and eventually of course, the invaluable TCM. But if you asked me about any network show during those years, my eyes glazed over. Law And Order? Never saw it. Friends? Get serious. Seinfeld? Who’s that?
Needless to say, that’s all changed. While Hollywood continues its mindless pursuit of the next There’s Something About Mary, I’m setting my DVR to pick up every episode of Boardwalk Empire, Mad Men, Magic City, Justified, and several others. These are shows that would’ve been laughed out of pitch meetings only ten years ago, and as the pitchers glumly head out the door, the producer calling after them, “Bring me something like Facts Of Life. Or The A Team.”
I honestly never thought TV would rise to such dizzying heights, shedding its formula chains and hiring writers to pen shows for grownups. Movies, meanwhile, have entered a dark period of downward skidding. The best directors now make movies only every three or four years, and if they waste some of those efforts on misfires or political ranting, as Oliver Stone has done, then you’re looking at ten to fifteen years between worthwhile films. Scorsese, Stone, Tarantino, Mann, and a few others are keeping me coming back to the theater, just not as often.
But boy, do I love TV nowadays. I have the Blu-Ray boxed sets of many of my favorites and yes, I’ve watched them more than once. I just finished watching the full six seasons of The Sopranos in their entirety for the third time. In watching these shows, I pick up hints and tips about writing I would’ve otherwise missed out on. In that respect, I’ve become a better writer, but how could I not? Television is truly a writer’s medium. Directors are there merely to flesh out the writer’s vision, which is often cast over several seasons, sharply defining each character and each plot development.