Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Last night on TV

 I woke up this morning thinking about a TV show I’d watched the night before and comparing the writing of television dramas to my writing of novels. It was like going one-on-one with Lebron James.

Berating television is a popular pastime, even among many who watch it obsessively. But the best of scripted TV shows compares favorably with the best works on stage and screen or between the pages of books. A TV drama takes only an hour of your time, and with DVRs and TiVo you can watch at your convenience. A book, on the other hand, is something you read in bed and fall asleep after two pages. So how can we novelists compete with that?

Last night I watched a re-run of “Law and Order Special Victims Unit” and an episode of the family drama “Parenthood.” The “Law and Order” episode had all the elements of the best of crime novels: complex and compelling characters and a well-structured plot, plus the bonus of an ending that tugged at the heart strings. My only criticism was that the main character was obviously based on Lisbeth Salander from Stieg Larsson’s "Millennium series." The Law and Order franchise routinely lifts plots and characters from the latest headlines. As soon as some major crime story hits the airways L&A writers start crafting their version. But I guess we can forgive them that; writers have to get their inspiration somewhere, and maybe going to literature for inspiration is better than the usual “ripped from the headlines” story. I just wish they weren’t quite so obvious about it.

“Parenthood” was much better. It centered around a family conflict between two brothers, Adam and Crosby, who have gone into business together as record producers, much to the chagrin of Adam’s wife, Kristina, who is very, very pregnant and has more than ample reason to be pissed off at Crosby, the family’s number one screw-up. The confrontation between Crosby and Kristina, coupled with Adam’s ridiculous attempts to “hip it up” in order to impress a potential hip-hop client, presents a blend of high drama and great comedy. The story builds to heightened tension that is suddenly broken when Kristina’s water breaks and Crosby has to rush her to the hospital and stand in for her husband who is blithely trying to impress the hip-hop client and unaware that his wife is going into labor. The whole thing ends with a wonderfully joyful get-together of the extended Braverman family in Kristina’s hospital room where they welcome the latest addition to the family. And as if that weren’t enough, there are at least two equally dramatic parallel stories of other family members – one story involving a kid with Asperger’s who has to balance his need to stand up for what he thinks is right with the need to maintain his friendship with his young cousin, and another story about the alcoholic  ex-husband of another family member who tries to worm his way back into his ex-wife’s life just as she is beginning to build a relationship with a new love. Structuring all of that into a one-hour drama is damn good writing, even if the drunken ex-husband was a bit of a cliché and an obvious ploy to set up future episodes. Watch out, writers. Don’t let this become a jump the shark moment.

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