Wednesday, December 27, 2006
Why I Like TV Better than Movies
One of the downsides of working in a profession where you have to read a lot, all the time, is that recreational reading tends to fall by the wayside. After a day of grading papers -- even really good papers -- the last thing I want to do is look at more text. And so, several years back, Gary and I hit on a new form of relaxation: watching TV series on DVD.
I should add here that when we started doing this, we didn't own an actual television. We watched the DVDs on Gary's computer. Back then, the only TV we'd ever owned was one of those tiny beach TVs; I'd won it in some raffle at a temp agency where I was working in the 1980s, but the only time we took it out of its box was when Gary wanted to watch the NBA finals in 1994. This meant that even though we've never been TV people, we too -- along with most of the rest of the country -- got to watch OJ's slow-speed car chase. How weird is that?
Last year we splurged on a 42" plasma screen, but we still don't watch TV in the conventional sense. We don't have cable; we just use the plasma as a giant DVD player. When we explained this to the salesman who sold us the set, he looked at us as if we'd just landed from Mars.
The plasma's mostly for Gary, who's completely obsessed with movies and manages his Netflix queue the way other people monitor the stock market. Gary watches movies every day -- either in a theater or at home -- and adores both fine films and really schlocky ones ("good bad movies," as he calls them). I, on the other hand, have found my appetite for feature films steadily decreasing over the years, especially since so many movies I've gone into with high hopes have so thoroughly disappointed me. I come out of most movies thinking, or saying to Gary, "They spent umpty-ump million dollars on that piece of garbage? Did anyone connected with this project have a brain? Did anyone notice that the story makes absolutely no sense? Did anybody think about how much food and medicine those umpty-ump million dollars could have bought for people who need them?"
So I'm now very picky about what I'll watch. In particular, I won't see anything scary or too violent, because there's more than enough fear and violence in the real world. Gary, on the other hand, revels in cheesy action flicks and chainsaw-style horrorfests.
But, I've discovered, I adore good TV shows, even gory or scary ones. We started with Buffy and moved on to Oz, ER, Scrubs, Six Feet Under, The Wire, Deadwood, Rome, Firefly, and, of course, Battlestar Galactica. These are just the shows we really enjoy; I won't list all the ones we've started watching and have given up on after a few episodes because the stories were just too ridiculous. (Grey's Anatomy is probably the most egregious of that group.) There are other shows we're ambivalent about but have watched through an entire season or two anyway: Veronica Mars, Joan of Arcadia, Smallville.
At some point, I sat down to figure out why I loved TV shows so much, even though I'm increasingly lukewarm towards movies. The answer has to do with the episodic nature of TV. Movies are the visual equivalent of short stories; TV series are multi-chapter novels, giving the viewer more of a chance to get immersed in the world and familiar with the characters. There's just more going on, so they're more interesting in narrative terms. Also, TV is more forgiving of weak patches than film is (just as novels are more forgiving than short fiction). Even the best TV shows we watch have an occasional weak episode, but that's okay, because we have faith that the story will get back on track. A few weak episodes damage a TV show less than a few weak scenes damage a movie.
In other words, I enjoy TV shows for the same reasons many people enjoy daytime soaps or those multi-volume Tolclone fantasy sagas ("Volume 27 of the Dragonbarf Chronicles!"): I've become invested in characters and situations and want to stay with them for as long as I can. My reading tastes run to standalone novels, but my viewing tastes are the polar opposite.
We've now been watching TV series since March 2002, when we got our first disc of Buffy. We've learned to recognize actors from one series when they pop up in another. We've become quite adept at predicting plot outcomes, especially in weaker episodes. Remember the ER episode where Mark Greene's doing ambulance ridealongs with the annoyingly chatty female paramedic who keeps telling stories about her son, whose photo is taped to the dashboard of the rig? "That kid is so dead," I told Gary about five minutes into the episode. "That's why she keeps going on about him."
And indeed he was. "You called that one," Gary said approvingly.
One of my quirks as a writer, though, is a kind of chameleon effect where if I absorb many examples of a certain kind of story, my own narratives start to come to me in that form. And so an unexpected (and not entirely welcome) side-effect of watching so much TV is that I now have my very own TV series running through my brain.
This is ridiculous. I know nothing about the very technical aspects of writing for TV. I don't want to write for TV; my one brush with Hollywood (when Flying in Place was optioned by Columbia Pictures) left me thoroughly cynical about anything to do with the TV or movie industries, and I'm far too much of a control freak to hand my ideas over to strangers. Even if I did want to write for TV, it's not like I'd have the time.
When I first told Gary about this, he said, "Well, you could write the story as a novel." But it's not coming to me as a novel. It's coming to me as a TV show, complete with specific actors, character arcs, music, quirky visual details, yada yada. Yesterday Gary and I were listening to a song and he said, "This would be perfect for your soundtrack." Oh, dear.
I started making notes on this puppy a year ago. I now have about twenty pages of notes, which isn't very many, but on the other hand, the story and characters have stubbornly refused to fade into the background. I keep thinking about them. For the time being, I've decided that this is a harmless form of fanfic, a way to invent juicy roles for my favorite underutilized actors (Paul Ben-Victor, Clea DuVall) and pass time in doctors' waiting rooms.
If the idea's still stubbornly nagging at me after I've finished the ED sonnet cycle and the fourth novel (currently sitting in very fragmentary first draft on my file cabinet), then maybe I'll try to do something with it.
And on that note, back to proofreading Shelter galleys!