I usually write about books—reading books, writing books, appreciating books. At the core of a good book is good writing, something most would agree is an art form. Writing can be transformative, completely engrossing entertainment which sparks the imagination and challenges us to see and understand things we may have otherwise never dreamed of.
At the other end of the spectrum is our attitude about television. Some proudly proclaim they don’t have one or, if they do have one, claim they never watch it. The boob tube, the idiot box, is something to be avoided at all costs and, in some minds, far from anything that could be considered art. In fact, we make ourselves appear smarter by declaring our negative attitude toward the passive, mental download of ridiculousness broadcast to our family rooms.
I offer that if you declared your hatred for television viewing in the past, you may want to check back in and see what’s new because much has changed—namely, the quality of the writing.
The writers seem to get better and better. Perhaps because so much of the new programming on television originally came from books, writers have had to rise to the challenge of transforming intricately plotted stories and multidimensional characters into something we can watch once a week, or binge on with episode after episode on Netflix.
Hollywood has long known that, with the right screenwriter, books can make great movies. Television has been a bit slower in picking up the book idea, but the medium is proving a much better way to bring books to life. Multiple episodes over several years are more capable of giving us the multidimensional characters we appreciate and the complicated plots we expect.
In the last few years, shows like Trueblood, Orange is the New Black, Game of Thrones and the super hit, The Walking Dead, have proven magic can happen when it originates from a book even if it’s a graphic novel. And this fall, lovers of the bestselling series, Outlander, will finally get to see their beloved Jamie come to life on the screen. Fans have been hoping for a movie from this series for decades, even though they’ve known that no two-hour movie could ever capture all they’ve loved about the series. The new show, produced by Starz, could be the perfect solution to the long hoped for screen event.
I like to think the screenwriters working on the book-to-TV shows have inspired others. There’s a lot of smart, engaging television on now. Shows like Ray Donovan, Breaking Bad, Homeland and the new Penny Dreadful, are all demonstrations of superior writing bringing us intricate plots, fascinating characters and stories we don’t want to end.
Penny Dreadful is particularly interesting. The Showtime production offers familiar supernatural characters in a new light. Set in Victorian London, we meet Dr. Frankenstein and his monster, Dorian Gray, vampires and werewolves, all in a dark but thoroughly engrossing show. It’s become my new favorite, one I hope will be around for many seasons to come.
Maybe we’re just now learning how powerful episodic storytelling can be. Perhaps the richness of writing today is leading cable channels like HBO, Showtime and Starz to push boundaries since they no longer face the restrictions of the broadcast channels. Whatever the reason, television is much better than it has ever been.
And the improved skill of writers isn’t restricted to simple entertainment. Two new programs produced by The History Channel, Vikings and The World Wars, are both fantastically written, highly entertaining, expensively produced programs offering a look at historical facts through engaging storytelling. The hours of television programming may not be as educational as reading a book, but they spark the imagination, lead us to ask more questions and leave us hungry for more. I may never pick up an historical tome called Vikings, but I’ve spent hours watching the show of the same name and know more about Regnar Lodbrok than I ever had before.
We’ve always known that television is a powerful tool. We are learning that the art of good writing can make the powerful medium even more so by creating programming that we are unashamed to watch. Nowadays, if someone says they don’t watch television, I tell them they have no idea what magic they are missing.