Writers in the Storm

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September 16, 2015

TV Series Binge Watching--A Study in Character Development

James R. PrestonJames Preston

In Back to the Future, Marty McFly's mother's kid brother asks "What's a re-run?"

Marty replies, "You'll find out."

Pop quiz: What was on TV when Marty said that?

I am old enough to remember that if I missed an episode of "77 Sunset Strip" (BTW if in your mind you heard the "snap-snap" from the theme song you are my kind of people), I'd have to wait for a summer re-run. It was inconvenient but acceptable because Stu Bailey, Kookie and their pals were consistent and each story was self-contained. The same was true of "Maverick," and all those wonderful Warner Brothers shows that filled my Friday nights.

Stu Bailey was static. But, if you miss an episode of your favorite show nowadays, when you tune in you may tune in to find that a lead character has formed (or lost) a relationship. For that matter, they may be dead. And there are shows where a character can be dead and still be a character.

And, for those of us who write, that's great news.

Because what we do is about character, and it requires work. Your characters need to grow and change through the course of your story. I know you've heard that advice, but how do you do it? How does that happen? What kind of changes are there and what drives them? Well, obviously you need to read, but it takes a while to get through a stack of novels. (Settle in with the stack of Jayne Ann Krentz’s Harmony novels and you’ll see what I mean.) In addition to reading, I like TV.

I'm talking about binge-watching a good TV series. No kidding, I think some of the best modern writing is in what used to be the small screen. And, thanks to technology, in a week, maybe two, you can watch an entire season of CSI, or Under The Dome, or The Big Bang Theory. And, unlike Stu Bailey, these characters change and grow. It is a pleasure to watch Sheldon on Big Bang Theory go from finding people pretty much repugnant to actually having a girlfriend. (This is a guy who, when he decided he needed a friend, developed a Friendship Algorithm to guide him through the process.)

Binge-watching is sitting down and going through multiple episodes of a series. Some people do it for fun; it's kind of hip right now but for you & me, those of us who want to study character development, it's work.  Here are a few tips to make it easier.

Choose carefully! Watching several seasons of even a sitcom is a major investment of time.

Start at the beginning. Remember, you are studying how the characters grow and change, get better or worse. You need to see how they start out.

Use that Pause button. It's better to make notes as you go along. If you think, "Oh, I'll come back to that great line," you won't if you're like me.

Subtitles. I have nerve damage so my hearing is a little impaired. I think I would use subtitles anyway, just because it's so easy to miss a line, and like I said, it’s all about the reading.

I will list some shows that I like and make some comments, and rate in terms of gross out scenes, and the ever-popular nudity. You can't claim I didn't warn you.

Some shows to consider:

The Big Bang Theory. Hilarious, and touching. Every episode is good; many are flat-out great. Watch everybody grow. Howard, going from pathetic to almost normal. Penny growing up. And on and on. Gag-o-Meter:0. (No dissections.) Skin-o-Meter: 0.

Blue Bloods: I like this show, but I almost didn't include it. The character development is slow, but, and this is why it makes the list, the granddaughter is growing up. And the dialog -- especially hers in the episode where one of her high school friends takes a revealing selfie and it gets posted -- is spot on. Gag-o-meter: 3. Some blood, no beheadings. Skin-o-meter: 0. Family viewing.

CSI:   not bad. Good stories, and Greg grows as a person when he transitions from the DNA lab to being a CSI. Perhaps not as much character growth as some more modern shows, but Grissom is worth a look. Brilliant, flawed, and likable, at least most of the time. Gag-0-Meter: it's a show about autopsies. What do you think? 9. Skin-o-meter: 2. One special note: if you don't think TV has truly great writing, grit your teeth and watch the two-part episode written and directed by Quentin Tarantino. It's at the end of Season 5. Fair warning: this is a tough one. There are parts that will surprise you, and parts that will make your skin crawl, that is, if you haven't jumped out of it. Heh heh. Great story.

Game of Thrones. This is amazing TV. Watch Sansa mature, watch her little sister turn into a killer, watch a good man beheaded for being good. Gag-o-meter: 10. I was not kidding about that beheading, and that's for starters. Skin-o-meter: 10. You want naked people? This is your show.

The Sopranos. Not my favorite, but still compelling characters. Gag-o-meter: 7. Violent, but no Game of Thrones. Skin-O-Meter: 8. Lots of young ladies with enhanced anatomies at Bada-Bing. Full disclosure: I haven't made it to the end of the series.

True Blood. Talk about different characters! Yow! I thought there were at least three places where the show "jumped the shark" but they pulled it out somehow. Gag-o-meter: 9. Definitely some blood, gore and vampires going up in flames. Oh, yeah, um, werewolf cannibalism. Skin-o-meter: 9. Everybody takes their clothes off at every opportunity.

There are several ways to watch a season’s worth of TV: renting/streaming from Netflix, or iTunes, or Hulu or cable-on-demand, or buying the DVDs.

So, make some popcorn, get out a notepad, pop in a disk -- Season One of <Insert Title of Your Choice>.

Look, I like to write, but -- raise your hand if you have experienced this -- there are days when it is like pulling teeth. Writing is art, and craft, and easy -- all you have to do it carve off part of yourself and put it on the page for people to look at. I hope these suggestions provide a way to take a little break and still feel like you’re at least working a little bit.

And when your friends ask how your work is going, you can say, "Great! I just finished Season 9 of CSI!"

How many of you recognized "jumped the shark" earlier? It's from Happy Days, when the writers were struggling for something new and had Fonzie water ski over a shark tank. It has become part of our language. See also "Nuke the fridge."

So, "What's a re-run?" You'll find out. You'll find out that there aren't any, because shows are everywhere, all the time. They're all out there, waiting for you to study, and enjoy.

I am very interested to hear how you have already made use of bingeing. What shows do you like? Which ones should be avoided? How do you record your observations and what use have you made of them?

Answer to the pop quiz: “The Honeymooners” was on TV when Marty saw it at his Mom’s.

About James:

 Sailor Home from Sea coverJames R. Preston is the author of the award-winning Surf City Mysteries. His books have been selected for inclusion in the California Detective Fiction Collection at the Bancroft Library, one of the libraries at UC Berkeley. James’ novella, Crashpad, will be published soon by Stark Raving Group. See bookxy.com for more information.

James' next appearance will be at Men of Mystery in November at the Irvine Marriot.

The newest Surf City Mystery is Sailor Home From Sea.

James R. Preston's Surf City Mysteries Series

56 comments on “TV Series Binge Watching--A Study in Character Development”

  1. Wow, James, I never thought about this (dumb though that seems, to say). When I think back, that's why 'House', much as I loved it, got old. House NEVER changed! Don't get me wrong, he was weird enough to hold my attention for many seasons, but that was a basic flaw - a huge one, I think,

    I'm currently binge-watching Longmire - and the characterization is incredible. There's a character (Branch) so conflicted, and real-to-life, I sincerely hate him, and love him, all at the same time.

    Great thought-provoking blog - thanks so much!

    And, dang it, Netflix - bring Game of Thrones - I know I'm going to love it!

    1. Luara, thanks! "Longmire" -- I need to check that out. I haven't thought about it in a while. I tried "House" and just couldn't get into it. I didn't like the way he treated the people who worked for him. And as I type that I think it's a comment on how real the character seemed. Hmmm. Do start "Game of Thrones" at the beginning. It defines "complicated story." The novels are excellent, too. BTW, I know I'm late, but congratulations on the RITA.

    1. I see your picture and you cannot have seen "77 Sunset Strip" the first time around, but thanks. Okay, curry (the right word?) that horse and then get back to the keyboard.

  2. As a screenwriter, binge watching especially with sub titles is a great way to study character development. And dialogue. And structure and it's a break from the keyboard.

    1. Good one, "Older." I left out structure, Thanks for bringing it up.You are completely right, I find myself looking at the elapsed time and thinking, "Okay, here comes Plot Point One." Any favorite shows?

    1. I don't know the show, but if you say so, it must be worth a look. And, at four seasons, it would be possible to see all the episodes in a reasonable time frame. Thanks for the suggestion. BTW, I checked out your blog, and welcome! (In case that's too subtle for anyone -- it's worth a look. Check it out.)

  3. Great post! I fear I bingewatch more than I should. But it feeds back into my writing, I feel, though I don't take notes yet. Maybe I should start!

    Best shows: Breaking Bad. Best show ever, no contest. Walter White goes from mild-mannered, trodden-down schoolteacher to ruthless, murderous, drugs kingpin. Mr Chips to Scarface, as Vince Gilligan, the series creator, puts it. And we're with him (not necessarily always for him) every step of the way. How's that for a character arc? The support characters all have riveting character arcs too. Amazing viewing.

    Dexter's pretty good, too!

    1. Wow, Becky, you are right! I didn't list Breaking Bad,because (full disclosure) I just couldn't relate to Walter. He's dealt a very bad hand, but sooner or later we all are. However, you have convinced me. I will give it another chance. And, when I watched Episode 1 i was just blown away. What a great episode -- where it opens with him standing in the desert in his tightie-whities and then shows you how he got there . . . I was hooked. Then I drifted away. Okay, you got me. Thanks!

    2. Okay, I have to say this. I have seen a little of "Dexter" not enough to comment. But can you imagine being a screenwriter and your agent calls -- "Good news! I have work for you!" "Great!!" "Um, the main character is a serial killer. The showrunners want you to make him likable. While he kills people. But he only kills people he doesn't like."

      1. Yeah, Dexter is a hard sell! But he has a code. He only kills bad guys (Like really bad guys, people you're glad to see gone - they have to have taken innocent lives and they have to be those who will kill again if Dex doesn't stop them). So you kind of root for him. And his sister Deb is just so cool, she's a hard-ass cop who swears too much and shares inappropriately - but I totally fell for her, she is such a great strong female lead character, a rare beast! (Series 2 is better than 1, IMO.)

        1. You are right, it is hard not to root for him, but he is a serial killer! Thanks for pointing out the sister, he is great. Okay, you got me. i think I'll give Dexter another try.

  4. I completely agree. I would add Babylon 5, BSG, and Buffy to that list. The Blacklist is pretty good, too. I think, on my list, Babylon 5 probably had the best character development, especially in G'Kar.

  5. Laura, I was going to say Battlestar Galactica-the updated version. Because I didn't like the "new" characters in the first show, I didn't watch the first two seasons. But a friend convinced me to give it another try in the middle of the third season. I got "caught up" and loved it.

    Thanks for a fun, informative post, James. You gave this neophyte binger some great tips!

    1. I think I started watching in the second or third season, too. I have remake issues, lol. I don't trust them, and I LOVED the original when I was a kid. Luckily, it was the best remake I've ever seen!

  6. Excellent shows, Laura. I left out B5, but you are absolutely right, what a change G'Kar goes through. It looks like, between all of us, we are coming up with a a good list of shows to choose from. One genre that is sadly underrepresented is romance, which, given the importance of that genre to publishing (40% of the titles published the last time I checked), is surprising. The closest I could come was "Castle," which I don't know enough about to comment on with any substance. What I have seen i like. And thanks for letting me riff on your comment.

    1. James, I thought 4 times about not responding to your comment on romance not being listed. You're right. And I think it's not, due to the trope.

      Outlander is, from what limited watching I do, the BEST show I've seen. I've read all but the last book of Dame Gabaldon's series, so I can tell you, the characters don't change much. I mean, the hero starts out an amazing hero, and though he does advance in his views of women somewhat, he remains the best hero ever written. The heroine is an amazing woman as well.

      I mean, when you begin almost perfect, how do you top that?

      BUT. That doesn't mean there's no conflict. Internal and external, there's tons. The show has something for everyone - bloody battles, cruelty and drama for the guys, romance and a hunky guy for the women.

      I hate to say it, because I'm a huge fan of character development, but a really well done plot does just fine without it.

      The exception that proves the rule, perhaps?

      And I'm still wincing at criticizing what I believe to be a top tier show.

      1. I am not familiar with Outlander, but it's definitely a show I will check out. It just struck me sort of "What's wrong with this picture?" because the romance genre is SO important to publishing. I know what you mean about plot, too. I was totally hooked on "Fringe" until the end which I thought was weak. Ditto for "Lost" although I think Shepherd sort of grew.I'm glad you added the comment; who knows maybe a Hollywood producer will read this and think, "Now there's an idea." (I also believe in the Easter Bunny.)

  7. Fae, thanks. I left out shows that go away and then come back. BSG is a great example. One thing that occurs to me, reading these comments, is how important it is to choose wisely.There are a lot of episodes in most of these shows; watching all of them is no small task. And Babylon 5 is interesting since it was planned from Day 1 to be a five-season limited series. It would be a big job, but very interesting to watch the whole thing and pick out the overall structure. Is there a big Plot Point halfway through Season 3? Anybody know? Laura? Have you noticed one?

    1. It's been too long since I watched B5... although I do have the entire series on DVD in a cabinet right above my head. I should rewatch it. I also have most of the script books that JMS published through Cafe Press over the years, though they are in storage. The fact that he plotted the series in advance (which was messed up when it was almost cancelled because of the UPN/WB thing and they didn't think they would get season 5) influenced me a lot. I have a long character and plot arc planned for my series, which means I should probably go with self-publishing, but for some reason I am querying instead... ah well. It's just time, lol.

      But I'm a little like Jenny - the shows I used as examples are mostly old because I don't watch a lot of tv anymore. I'm either writing, at work, or I forget what day it is! I rely on Netflix when I remember a show I wanted to keep up with. 🙂 I like the Blacklist enough to pay to watch it on Amazon!

      1. Ah, Laura, you make another of my points. Almost all TV, certainly recent shows, is available all the time. Technology has freed us from "OMG, it's 8:00 and 'Twilight Zone' is starting!" When I started thinking about this essay I remembered a show that was cancelled . . . and didn't care. They simply moved over to the internet and continued producing episodes.. The name of the show escapes me and I could not find it in time for my deadline (the WITS folks are iron taskmistresses). Anybody know what I'm talking about?

        But "77 Sunset Strip" is still not available. Bummer!

        1. Community - I think that's the show you mean. I love that show although I must admit that my interest waned as the character development dwindled. I think characters that don't change start to become caricatures.

          1. Thank you, Miss! I think you're right. And, has anybody but me noticed what an interesting discussion this is? I'm having a great time! Thanks again, everybody, "Community," got it.

    2. Careful, James. You do know that the only historical period I'm really good with is medieval? With a specialty in weapons and implements of torture?

      1. That wasn't me! Someone used my name!! Please don't hurt me. Ow Ow Ow. I'll be good.Sorry, it's getting late, but what a bunch of great, intelligent comments. (This one not included.) One more show -- "Fringe" did not have a lot of character development, except for Walter, who really came to understand his mistakes. It's worth a look.

    1. Welcome back, Jenny. I think you will find that there is a great deal of really good work being done in TV. At the same time, I think movies have become weaker as the budgets went up. I liked "Mission Impossible 5," but there weren't many surprises. On the other hand, if you're spending a hundred million bucks I guess you want to be pretty sure of a profit. All of the shows suggested in the comments are worth a look. (But if your daughter is like my Goddaughter's children, soon it will be soccer and science fairs. Binge now while you can.)

    2. Yeah, Jenny, there's more on tv now than Frozen and whatever kid shows are hot right now. Turn on the tv after Bean is in bed!

      And this from the woman who didn't own a TV P.A.D. (pre-Alpha Dog). Netflix has sucked me in and held me hostage. There's just such GREAT writing out there now!

      1. Don't you think it helps that you are semi-retired? Maybe I'll get to TV after the kid is gone. My four roles are mom, wife, writer, day-jobber. TV just doesn't make that list.

        1. Thanks, ladies. You make another of my points. Thanks to the wonders of DVR, DVD, On Demand, Netflix, and so on, you can wait until you have an evening of free bliss. After the daily word count has been met, you can sit down with a bunch of beheadings (I seem hung up on the beheadings but, honestly, GoT has other ways of killing off characters. Really. Sometimes they are shot with crossbows.) Anyway, it's all out there, waiting for our study.

  8. House is a catalyst character. He remains inert/unchanged while those around react to him and change. The character growth is in his team, and the patients and families he touches. He's never meant to change, and he only becomes more self aware through the series.

    It's no surprise that most shows mentioned with true character change are based on book series. That's a better place to learn character changes.

    I love urban fantasy. Series I can recommend are Jim Butcher's Harry Dresden series and Marjorie M. Liu's Maxine Kiss series. One series that I’ve admired for the changes in the main character is Darynda Jones’ “Grim Reaper” series. Charley has even dealt with PTSD after she was almost tortured to death, and it took over a book for her to deal with it and come out on the other side changed.

  9. Kent, thanks! House as a "catalyst character" -- I like that and will have to give the show another chance to see how it works. You caught me -- yes, I like shows based on books, but then I am a book guy. And you have listed some good series to check out. Thanks!

  10. I'll have to second Game of Thrones, not because I've read the books several times and watched the series, but GRRM does a very good job with characterization. I just binge-watched Sherlock, season three and I'm only just realizing that I wasn't watching for the who-dunnit but for the evolution of the relationships and character growth. I watch Elementary for the same reason. If a story is plot-driven, there isn't much to recommend repetitive viewing, is there?

  11. Thanks for a great comment, Debbie. Wow, it raises at least three points.Yes, it's Martin's people that bring us back again and again to both the books and the show. (Will Jon ever find some happiness?) Second -- how could I miss Sherlock!? I love the show, and you are certainly right about character development. I believe, however, that no new episodes will show until next year. I may be wrong. Finally, good observation about plot-driven. I reread the Spenser books not to see him save the day, but to watch him grow. You know, this has turned into a very interesting discussion. You people are making me think.

  12. I'm seriously conflict averse in real life and have been way too hesitant to put my characters through pain. But binge watching Under the Dome has been schooling me in how effective it is to keep heaping on the trouble for beloved characters.

      1. I know what you mean about putting your characters through pain; I don't like it either. The saying, "Imagine the worst thing that could happen to your character and do it" is good advice, but so hard when you like those people. And you have to like them to write about them.Catch-22! I am working my way through Under the Dome -- I liked the novel -- so that jury is still out. Thanks!

  13. M*A*S*H is another great example. Three of the original characters--Trapper, Henry Blake, & Frank--never developed much, but Margaret really changed and the others developed more depth as the series went on. (One caveat: I thought the series ending episode was not true to the character of Hawkeye. His conduct on the bus reminded me of Frank.)

    1. Mowalsh, MASH is another great one that i missed, and probably one of the earliest examples of a series that allowed character to develop. Excellent! If memory serves, Frank developed but I'd have to revisit the shows to make sure. I can hear that theme music in my head right now. Thanks!

  14. The first show I binge watched for the writing was How I met your mother. The characters were flawed and fantastically real.

    1. Kristi, Thanks for the tip. I have not seen any of How I Met Your Mother, but the characters sound like they make it worthwhile. I took a look at "Mom" when I was working on this essay; didn't know enough about it to comment. However, now that I have seen the first eight episodes (thanks, iTunes) I can say those are some interesting, charming, flawed people. If you haven't seen it, take a look. And thanks for commenting.

  15. I am no feeling justified in my binge watching this summer. I had a major life change and in my new home, I haven't forked out the major dollars to have cable. So, I plugged in a Roku and started watching seasons of shows I had never considered watching before out of pure boredom and the need to hear human voices. It was one of the best things I've done. I'm impressed with the writing on shows that are outside my normal box.

    One of my favorites for character study is In Treatment. Fabulous. Has some wonderful actors, too. I also loved Fringe, Covert Affairs, The Glades (except that they left us in a lurch), The Killing, and comic book series of Arrow, The Flash, and Gotham.

    After each episode, if I could tear myself away from the next episode long enough, I typed up any observations about the characters or writing style. I also enjoyed searching for symbolism.

    My writing style and character development have vastly improved. Mostly, these shows expand how I look at things. I guess I had a really boring life and didn't expect much.

    1. Karen, your life doesn't sound boring at all! Sounds like you are improving your writing by leaps & bounds. On to business -- "Fringe!" How could I leave off one of my favorites! Thanks for bringing it up. Watching Walter turn into a human being is, by itself, worth the price of admission, and the stories are very often compelling. I am not familiar with In Treatment, and Covert Affairs was one of those I always meant to watch and never did. I will add them to the list.
      Notice that Karen finishes an episode and then records her notes. I use Pause and do them as I go.
      Finally, for those of you looking for another way to binge-watch, Google "Roku." Karen added a device to the list. (Full disclosure: I've never used a Roku, but it sounds good.)

  16. Two shows I find excellent for character development study -- not just the main characters, either, though they are great, but all the characters: Castle, which is still airing new episodes with past seasons shown on cable networks and available on dvd; and China Beach, which is available on dvd.

    1. Kerry, thank you very much. I thought about listing Castle, but I've only seen a few episodes. "China Beach" is one of my favorites. One of my best friends, Alan Brennert (author of Moloka'i, Honolulu, and Palisades Park) was a writer on China Beach. Shameless name-dropping, huh? Anyway, glad you liked the post. And I am really pleased at the response. What an outstanding conversation! We've got more shows, new technology (Roku) and new ways to make notes. Thanks again.
      Who's next? Hmmm?

  17. What a great idea! Television is one medium that has improved tremendously in my lifetime. There is so much good storytelling there, I agree that Game of Thrones is great television (with an insane amount of nudity). I'd also recommend Breaking Bad, especially if you want to watch a character in moral decline and watch the development and consequences of hubris. 🙂 Terrific post!

    1. Excellent, Eclectic! "insane amount of nudity?" I still remember the punishment for the guy that tried to poison Danerys and was tied to a horse and forced to run. Yow! Can you imagine the actor's agent? "Well, I have a great part for you, but ah, it doesn't end well." After the blog went live I took another shot at "Breaking Bad." For me it's a tough go, but I'll keep at it. The "Vast wasteland" seems to have improved. And I just realized something: not very many mentions of "Lost." Maybe because the show was driven by, "WTF is going on here?" (Er, I mean, plot.) But that first episode is amazing, as is the first episode of "Breaking Bad."
      Thanks for a great comment!

  18. I'm currently binge-watching Once Upon a Time, The West Wing, and I was binging on Supernatural.

    Once Upon a Time irks me because there are many static characters, and I feel like characters react certain ways just to fit the plotline. West Wing is wonderful character and intelligence wise (everyone needs to binge that show), and while Supernatural was good at first, I'm wondering if it's losing steam. There is definitely character development - but they've done much now I'm not sure there's anywhere else to go.

    And I agree with the above comments about Battlestar Galactica, Buffy, and Blacklist! Great character shows.

    1. I was finally able to watch the first two episodes of the Blacklist for this year Wednesday, and WOW. I SO love that show! I'm watching yesterday's episode sometime today.
      Once Upon a Time and Supernatural are both shows I like, but haven't watched for a few seasons. With Supernatural I guess it's about five... lol. I still like the show, but someday I'll just binge watch the entire thing.

  19. R. K. & Ella -- Excellent comments! Ok, I give, I will have to look into Blacklist. And R. K. is right -- sometimes the story is so compelling you just have to find out who dies (yes, I am thinking of Game of Thrones, where actors reportedly read each script, thinking, "Am I going to die?") This whole conversation makes me think about technology and how much things have changed. When Rod Serling was writing "Twilight Zone" he didn't have this capability. On the other hand, he didn't need it. Anyway, thanks to you both. I've got some TV to watch.

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