What I’ve learned from watching 1,000 television shows

March 20, 2016

Yes, you read that correctly… as of March 9th, 2016, I have watched at least 1,000 TV shows in my lifetime. I say “at least” because the first 500 or so titles I listed were done from memory and research, and I’m sure I’ve forgotten a few… but the list is officially at 1,000… and it’s attached in case you want to peruse the titles. tv show list

A little background for those who don’t know the origin of “the list.” I was working on my pilot “Kingdom,” which eventually helped me land my first TV writing job. But as happens when we writer types are stuck and banging our heads against our computers, my brain was all, “Hey, what could we do that feels productive but isn’t work?” And then I remembered this notebook my brother used to keep of every movie he had ever seen. We got those genes split decisively between us… he’s the movie guy, I’m the TV girl. And much like he will watch ANY movie you could possibly imagine, I will watch at least one episode of just about any TV show that sounds even a little bit interesting or stars someone I really like.

Thus, the list was born… and the rules were pretty simple: to make the list, I have to have watched at least one full episode of a show that originally aired in prime time. The program can be a drama, comedy, or a news/reality show – and I counted the shows I had to watch when I was making my living as a closed captioner because, well, I had to finish them, so they counted.

A lot of the original 500 shows were things I saw because of the magic of syndication (which is why I added the “originally aired in prime time” part of the rules). My parents loved to torture me with their favorite shows, so when I got hired on “Ironside,” I had actually seen every episode of the original “Ironside” because my mother loves Raymond Burr. Other shows were seen courtesy of friends whose parents had VCRs and taped shows I wasn’t old enough to watch when they were on but then saw later… some were viewed by way of the Internet and some were just seen through dogged determination to find them somewhere because I wanted to see them. Some were seen courtesy of the one human being I know who has definitely watched more TV than me, who tapes it all and saves it on DVD. And I own a ridiculous number of show box sets, as evidenced by my crowded bookshelves.

When I mentioned the list to my “Mysteries of Laura” writers’ room, co-ep Amanda Green said I had to write something once I reached 1,000 shows… I had to share what I’d learned by watching all that TV. So here are the musings I came up with on what all that TV taught me. But one thing I’ll be up front about right away… I’m not going to shit on any shows by name, for two reasons: One, some of my friends work on those shows, and ever since someone was a jerk to me about a show *I* worked on, I’ve been sure to never do that to another writer. Remember, no one is actively trying to write a show you don’t like… we just all have our own tastes. The second reason I won’t be dropping names is just good ol’ common sense. This is still a business, and I might have to go meet with a showrunner or executive producer who worked on a show that’s not one of my faves. I can still dislike it… doesn’t mean I need to make my career harder by telling that person here in print that I hated their show.

And now… on with the lessons…

 

1 – The reason I love TV is the long-term relationships with characters. I was writing features when I finished grad school and then finally woke up to the fact that I love TV and thus, should be writing it. That’s not to say that I don’t adore some of the movies I see… but when I fall in love with characters, 2-3 hours just isn’t enough sometimes. The weeks, months, and years that go into watching characters evolve and change and fall in love and get broken by tragedy on TV… it’s what made me want to be writer in the first place.

 

I’m a long way from a job title that means I get to decide how a show’s future gets plotted out… but I hope that when I get there, I take my deep love of the character/viewer relationship with me while I make decisions about what happens to my characters. As a viewer, it’s one thing to get a twist I wasn’t expecting – and be gut-punched by it – but see the beauty in it and walk away satisfied. A perfect recent example… I was sure I would be unhappy if anyone but Melinda May killed Grant Ward on “Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D.” because my goodness, she deserved to get to do it… but ultimately, when it was Phil Coulson instead… I just cared that it was done, that the actions of everyone involved made sense to me, and that finally my little “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” family was safe from Ward (well, sort of, but that’s a whole nother blog post).

By contrast, every TV fan has had a moment watching a show when you can feel the writers’ “aren’t we clever” vibe radiating out of the TV screen at you, and all you’re thinking is, “No, you’re not clever. Because you just made a character do something that five years of viewing tell me they’d never do…” and it’s frustrating, not because you didn’t get your way as a viewer, but because you just can’t buy the character’s actions or the story… and nothing ruins your relationship with a show faster than losing faith in the storytelling. That’s usually the only thing that will make me break up with a show I’ve been watching for some time. I refuse to “hate” watch… so once I dread watching a show, we have to say good-bye to each other.

Now that’s not to say that some good ol’ fan outrage isn’t awesome sometimes. When I’m screaming on Twitter at a show that they just ripped my heart out, it usually means they’re doing their job exactly right… and I’m suffering (in all the best ways) because of it.

I just find that there’s something magical in the idea that writers can make an audience invest so deeply in characters that the viewers will stay through thick and thin, for years on end. I watched plenty of the shows on this list from start to finish… and I don’t regret a minute of it.

2 – I don’t watch nearly as much comedy as I used to. I’m not sure why that is. I used to watch every half-hour show around… and maybe it’s just because what I find funny has changed? I’m not sure. I do watch a few… “Brooklyn 99,” “black-ish,” “Togetherness,” (though it’s more dramedy than comedy), and I will usually try one or two new ones every year, especially if my comedy writer friends are working on a show. Side note: I will always watch at least one episode of anything from Tina Fey, Jack Burditt, and Robert Carlock because 30 ROCK FOREVER!

3 – Please give me the characters I signed up for. I’m all about cool guest stars. I’m the first person to get excited over someone in the promo for next week on a show I love. But I also tend to get attached to ALL the characters in my shows… not just the leads. In fact, sometimes the secondary characters have kept me watching when I’ve grown to dislike the lead characters. When shows sideline regular cast members for too many guest stars – stunting their character development – it is a fast track to me becoming less interested in the show.

4 – If death visits your show a lot, I probably didn’t keep watching it. No doubt because my number one reason for loving television is that relationship I feel with the characters, shows with high body counts have never been my thing. Which is why, when my shows do kill off characters, I’m usually curled up in a ball on the floor. I can barely think about Bobby Simone’s death on “NYPD Blue” without tearing up. Every single little Carter reference on “Person of Interest” is a hug and a knife to the heart simultaneously, and I remain deeply traumatized by Joe Coffey’s demise on “Hill Street Blues.” So, yes, I get it… characters have to die – sometimes because their story is done, sometimes because an actor wants to leave a show – but I need that to be a rarity.

5 – Some more lessons I’ve learned from shows I didn’t like or quit watching:

  1. I need an emotional connection to at least one character before the end of the pilot. If I don’t have it, I’m probably done.
  2. I don’t respond well to the “throw in everything including the kitchen sink” approach to storytelling. Once a show becomes about nothing but nonstop twists, it loses the focus on the characters, and I generally am out.
  3. Don’t get stuck in the same story rut. If the solution to every season is a return to the same story well… who has control of the business, what breaks Couple A up this time, who learns the secret this year… I usually get too frustrated to keep watching. I find that I can handle about two uses of the same plot device before I just start wondering what else there is to the show and have to move on.
  4. I don’t need the characters to be likable… but I need to know why I should care about what they’re doing.
  5. A show doesn’t have to be “bad” for me to not want to watch it. Sometimes it’s just not my cup of tea because it’s too violent or too dark or just set in a world that doesn’t interest me. That in itself is a lesson… not everything I write will be something people respond to. You have to know that going in… and be happy with the audience you do find.

 

6 – Procedure is not a dirty word. I promise. It feels like the turn to “character driven” has made the word “procedural” something worthy of a swear jar in this business. But one thing I know about myself as a viewer is this… if I’m not sure how your show works, I will end up turning it off. Every great show has a formula – again, I know, bad word – but it does. That doesn’t mean your show is a beat for beat paint by numbers project week in and week out. It just means that I know what the show is. If you introduce me to characters who are police officers, they have to be police officers at a certain point, even if the show is really about the dark and twisty parts of their personality. If they’re lawyers, they should be lawyers. If it’s a family drama, I need to know how the family functions. Whatever you want to dub it… procedure, your story engine, your overall blueprint… the sooner it’s established, the more likely I am to keep watching.

7 – The most important thing I’ve learned as a viewer and as a writer is this… every story has been done. It just has. Hell, some of them had been done when Shakespeare did them… so they’ve definitely all been done by now. But that doesn’t mean that your take on Story X can’t be fresh and cool and enjoyable. What does your buddy cop show look like? What does your dark and twisty apocalypse look like? Why is it special?

That goes for pitching in rooms, too, not just writing pilots. I am very careful not to ever say, “We can’t do X because Show A, B, and C did it.” Instead my approach is… “Show A did it that way, so what if we did this instead…”

In a climate where every network seems to be racing to remake what’s already been successful, I find what I’m responding to isn’t something that is a literal remake of something I loved but rather shows that evoke a feeling of one I loved once upon a time. For instance, I grew up loving reruns of “The Rockford Files” and adoring “Hart to Hart.” That type of show – the light procedural — went away for a little while, and then “Castle” showed up and I was like… “THIS! I missed this!” It wasn’t a remake of those older shows, but it gave me the same payoff… characters I cared about and a sense of fun while bad guys got put away. Similarly, I recently told someone that part of the reason I love “Code Black” is because it reminds me of “St. Elsewhere” – and that is a great thing. I didn’t even know I needed that show until CBS gave it to me… and now I am so happy to have it. The characters are very different, and it’s in no way a literal remake of the long-running NBC show, but its spirit is familiar in the very best way.

But it always comes back to the writing. While the idea might not be new… how you approach it can be. Your ability as a writer to convey what you find magical about the setting and the people… and the performances that are born from those pages… that’s what will draw an audience in. Every family drama is, at its core, the same show… but something about the Taylors of Dillon, Texas, was more real to me than any other TV family I’d seen in forever… even though they wrestled the same issues as most of TV families… job stresses, how to keep a marriage together, and teenage kids pushing their boundaries.

I guess what I’m really trying to say is… I’m always being inspired by things I loved. I want to write cool superhero shows because I love “Agents of SHIELD” and “Agent Carter” and “Daredevil.” I want to write my version of uplifting sci-fi because I love “Star Trek” and “Star Wars.” Someday I hope I write a family drama half as beautiful as “Friday Night Lights” or “Once and Again,” and a show about cops that resonates as deeply as “NYPD Blue” did for me, or maybe something that’s even a fraction as breathtaking as “The Americans” or “Manhattan.” Whether it works or not will be about taking what inspired me and finding a way to make it *my* story… what do I have to say about being a cop or a superhero or a family in a small town that someone else hasn’t already said? Hopefully the answer to that question will affect an audience the way these shows did me.

8 – Things that will make me watch a show forever:

  • Character consistency: If I already love the characters, as long as their evolution is true to the person you introduced me to in season one, I will stick with them through anything.
  • A feeling that the show knows where it’s going: I don’t mean that I can literally see where it’s going, but that every season of the show reaffirms my faith that the writers know where they want to go with the series. The truth may be the writers’ room has no idea how it all ends… but the storytelling on screen is so steady, so solid, that I, as a viewer, get to live in the belief that they have it all figured out while I stress out and analyze and wait for the next season to see what comes next.
  • Respect for the audience: again, this isn’t about giving us everything we think we want. It’s about never losing sight of the fact that you’ve asked your audience to invest their heart into a show, and it should always feel to the viewers like it matters to you that they’ve been willing to do so.
  • One great relationship: I’ve stuck with shows when they took a downturn because of one key relationship and generally, I’ve been rewarded with the show finding its feet again and ending strong. And that doesn’t have to be a romantic relationship… a great partnership, a real, grounded friendship… that can be enough to keep a viewer hanging in when the story gets a little murky.

9 – All these television shows later, I maintain this as a statement of fact: “Hill Street Blues” is the greatest show in the history of television. It not only holds up terrifyingly well (if you could CGI the giant portable phones out and update the cars/clothes) with storylines about community policing that shouldn’t still be relevant and yet absolutely are, but it changed the face of television in a way that made every other “greatest” show since possible. The thing I personally loved most about it was the relationship between Joyce Davenport and Frank Furillo. It would still be a modern, risky take on a relationship now… then, it was stunning. These were two world weary, sexy people who were focused on their careers and carried a ton of baggage from their individual lives; smart, savvy individuals who loved each other deeply, respected one another, and yet still constantly struggled to make room for one another in their lives as their careers brought them into constant conflict. I often think back on that relationship when I write couples in my own work, trying to find that level of depth and intelligence in their interactions.

And now that you’re all, “Girl, wrap this up,” I’ll do so by offering the piece of advice I pass on to all aspiring TV writers in case you’re the ones who are reading this – be a student of television. Watch TV. Watch shows older than you. MUCH older than you. Those are the shows that inspired the showrunners who created the TV you love. Know them. Love them. Learn from them. And love TV. LOVE IT. Because it’s too hard and brutal a business to be in if you don’t. When people give you shit for loving it so much, remember that it’s just your chosen form of storytelling. Some people come home and read books every night… you choose TV shows instead. There’s nothing wrong with that.

And never lose your inner TV fan. Because if you love it… that fan is why you love it. Protect him or her at all costs… from cynicism, from snobbery, from haters of all shapes and sizes. LOVE TV. Always.

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2 Responses to “What I’ve learned from watching 1,000 television shows”


  1. Loved reading this, you’re an incredibly dedicated (and brilliant) TV writer, stemming from being a fan, and student of TV. Thank you.

  2. Marc Webster Says:

    Great piece for actors also to access! Revealing insight into the mind of one who pens the concept!😊 Enjoyed!


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