Something’s up. Twice in the past week, I’ve done something I rarely do. In fact, I can’t remember the last time I did it, before last Thursday. I watched a TV show. Last Thursday found me scrolling through Comcast on Demand for Wolf Hall. Last night, I went to iTunes and downloaded The Americans. For many of you, this may seem either inconsequential (=dull) or too little, too late. I’ve never watched Breaking Bad, Homeland, Girls, or Downton Abbey; I’m hopelessly out of it when lunchtime conversation turns to Game of Thrones or House of Cards. I’ve heard of most popular series because I do not live in a cave. But watch them? Aside from Mad Men (which now feels stale although I’m dutifully finishing up the final episodes), I just haven’t caught the bug.
So what’s brought me back, in this small way?
“Back,” I write because I grew up, like most people, watching plenty of TV. Not only the good stuff from the 70s, like M*A*S*H* and All in the Family and Fractured Fairy Tales, but the inane situations on Land of the Lost and Run Joe Run and Three’s Company. I loathed Gomer Pyle, but I adored Gilligan. And I still remember, with a kind of time-deferred contagion, the excitement I felt in planning a sleepover for Friday night. Not only would Dad make his pancakes the next morning, but Stacey (or Tara) and I would get to watch the ABC lineup, getting more grown-up as the clock ticked from 8 to 10—Brady Bunch, Partridge Family, Room 222, Odd Couple, Love American Style.
I’m veering into dangerous “good old days” territory, I know. Who doesn’t recall her favorite episodes, hum to herself the theme songs of shows gone by? Haven’t the previous SNL seasons (ahem, decades) always been much better than the current? And who hasn’t tuned out reflections on what it meant to come of age while watching Murphy Brown and Kate and Allie? I’ll spare you all that. (Although I would welcome any insights into the intended audience for shows such as Gilligan’s Island and Hogan’s Heroes; could they really have been designed as children’s shows? And yet, did any adults ever watch them?)
What kept me watching then, and what’s brought me back now, is narrative and character. The same things I grapple with as a fiction writer. I’m late in jumping on the bandwagon, and perhaps because of this I’m starting with just two, Wolf Hall (on PBS) and The Americans (. Intrigue at King Henry VIII’s court; intrigue with Soviet spies living like suburban Americans. I’ve watched only the first episode of each, and I’ve been pulled in by top-notch writing and acting.
As I’ve noted before, I’m revising a novel. One of the elements I’m thinking (and rethinking) about is back story – how much we need, how little we can get away with, how to present it. I tend to get attached to back story – much as those late nights in the dorms gained for us intimacy with a new friend (or lover), much as those sleepovers bonded us back in fifth grade, back story is how I got to know my characters. So the reader needs it too, right?
In Wolf Hall, Thomas Cromwell’s wife urges him to go see his father, from whom he is estranged. After the wife dies, he shows up at a stable. We already have heard, from those who malign him for being of common birth, that he’s the son of a blacksmith, so when we see an older man at work on a horse hoof, we know why Thomas is there. And as Cromwell watches his father work on the horse’s hoof – the old man doesn’t yet see him – we get a flashback of his younger self being beaten bloody. The father looks up from the horse’s hoof, sees his son, spits. The reunion does not go well.
In The Americans, Elizabeth and Philip hide a kidnapped KGB defector in the trunk of their Oldsmobile. She’s especially brutal to him, and we learn why when we go back to Moscow 1960 and see her beaten, tied up, and raped by this man.
I didn’t choose Wolf Hall or download The Americans to learn something helpful for novel revision. Maybe that’s the pleasure, unlike the planned-out research, say, of picking up a book on plotting. The story seduces us, the characters charm or fascinate us, and we learn by a kind of absorption. Just as we learned, decades ago, about character and story from Roald Dahl and Laura Ingalls Wilder, from Fractured Fairy Tales and Alias Smith and Jones. Why should it be any different now?
What about you? What TV shows inform or inspire your writing? Which captivate you in their worlds?