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.
James 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.