One of the recurring pop culture narratives of the 21st century is that we are in the Golden Age of TV, or at least were until the medium got overrun with new content on 21,000 different channels and websites. According to this narrative, TV programming took a big step forward when streaming channels like Netflix, Hulu and Amazon Prime arrived on the scene, bringing HBO-quality shows to a much wider audience.
The streaming channels, hungry for content, took chances on innovative shows that the traditional TV networks passed on. This in turn led to a whole new generation of writers who suddenly had a chance to see their work make it in front of the public. A premium was put on original storytelling and new ideas instead of the tried-and-true formulas that dominated the small screen for decades.
The result has been a steady stream (pun intended!) of groundbreaking shows that got decent viewership as well as critical praise – “The Sopranos,” “The Wire,” “Mad Men, “Breaking Bad,” “Game of Thrones, “True Detective,” “Boardwalk Empire,” “Fargo,” “House of Cards,” et.al.
Of those shows, the only ones I’ve seen in their entirety are “The Sopranos,” “The Wire,” and “Breaking Bad.” I mostly watched them in binge mode after their seasons or even entire run had already wrapped, gobbling up episodes four at a time and racing toward the finish line.
When I was done, I went back to my normal TV diet of sports, documentaries, and cooking shows. I don’t watch a whole lot of streaming shows because time is limited, and I don’t want to have to set a schedule around entertainment. But every now and then I dip my toe in to test the water.
Last year I binged on “Squid Game,” the massively popular Korean series about a dystopian underworld where down-on-their-luck people compete against each other in deadly kids’ games meant to entertain rich people. The series appeared on Netflix, started trending everywhere, and sounded like it had the right mix of darkness and suspense to grab and hold my attention. Plus, it was only one season, so it didn’t require a huge investment of time.
Well, I got hooked – quickly. I watched the whole thing in a matter of days, one episode after the other. The show was creepy and shocking and depressing and scary and often brilliant, with first-rate writing and fabulously weird plotlines. “Squid Game” generated huge ratings and massive piles of cash. It became such a major hit that one of the financial websites I write for assigned me a story on how much money it raked in for Netflix, and whether it might be a good time to buy the stock.
These days I am binging on another show: “Stranger Things,” the Netflix sci-fi horror series that debuted in 2016 and recently wrapped up its fourth and penultimate season. I’ll be honest – I hadn’t even heard of it until a few weeks ago, when it was all over the web after the Season 4 finale.
I took a peek at what “Stranger Things” is about, decided (again) that it had the right combination of darkness and suspense, and gave it a whirl.
I just finished watching the eight episodes of Season 1 and am now properly addicted, already barging into Season 2. Like “Squid Game,” “Stranger Things” is dark, creepy, and suspenseful. There are just a whole lot of things going on – evil things, mysterious things, things you can’t quite figure out, happening to people you are not quite sure about.
Like any good story, “Stranger Things” takes its time in some respects and throttles you by the throat in others. The pacing is such that just when you’ve had a breather from the horror, and can take a deeper dive into the characters and their backstories, something loud and spooky erupts on the screen and vaults you out of your seat. Season 1 was much more focused on the shock value. So far, Season 2 is a little lighter on its feet, with periods of genuine hilarity. But I have a feeling that will change soon…
Even though I have limited experience with streaming and Pay-TV shows, I tend to agree with the narrative that some of the most original and imaginative writing anywhere is taking place on this medium right now. Better than novels. Better than short stories. Better than films, plays, whatever. These shows are going places that writing has rarely gone before on such a mass scale.
I use the term “writing” in a fairly liberal sense here. TV and streaming shows are a visual medium, which means screenwriters have the advantage of using images, sound, music, camera angles and all kinds of techno-hoohaa to advance the story and crank up the thrills. They don’t need to spend a lot of time describing scenes and settings for public consumption.
With a screenplay, you can knock off in a few words what novel writers might need several pages to describe: the weather, the position of the clouds, the scent of the kitchen, the way the sofa sags to the right, the rattle and hum of the traffic, the glare off the building across the street, the dark alley with the rats and long shadows, the feel of the cold steel in your hand ….
These are some of the things I and others hate about writing fiction, and plenty of others love about it – spending page after page describing scenes and settings. It’s not something screenwriters have to invest a lot of time in. They can just do this:
Scene: The inside of a house, dim lighting, torn carpet, pictures not hung straight, dusty shelves, the smell of cat fur, the rattle of a dying fan, stained chairs, loud TV tuned to a game show.
This gives the set designers, directors and even actors all they need to know about the setting and who inhabits it.
Writing for cinema or TV is mainly about telling stories rather than wowing the audience with your literary gifts. You need to create plots and story arcs that can keep the audience engaged over several seasons, all while developing rich and layered characters that are both believable and interesting.
This isn’t easy. It might be easy to write a believable character who is not that interesting, or an interesting character who is not that believable. But hitting both targets? That takes a certain gift that begins with having the ability to observe, listen to, and understand people – and then build characters around that information.
Screenwriters must also write dialogue that doesn’t sound like dialogue at all, but normal conversation. Again, not so easy. The tendency is to overwrite dialogue, so that every conversation sounds like a series of prepared speeches.
One of the most highly acclaimed TV series of the last couple of decades was “Mad Men,” an American period drama about Madison Avenue ad executives in the early 1960s. I figured this would be a great series for me to watch, given my interest in both the time period and New York City.
But when I watched the first episode, the dialogue left me cold for some reason. It sounded too clever by half, at least to my ears. It seemed like smart and witty lines poured out of these sharp and well-dressed people non-stop and effortlessly, to the point of distracting me from anything else. People simply aren’t that clever all the time, or even most of the time. Real conversation tends to be a lot of grunts and ums and hesitations.
I’m sure “Mad Men” is a good show to watch, and I might revisit it sometime. But still….
Shows I have admired didn’t have that problem. “The Sopranos,” to its credit, wasn’t afraid to show the dull side of its various mobsters and mobster acquaintances. Dialogue was often a series of snorts and nods. Same with “The Wire.” It takes real writing skill (and confidence) to let your viewers peek into the banality of life instead of delivering Shakespearean soliloquies all the time. Only the best fiction writers can do this effectively, regardless of the medium.
“Stranger Things” isn’t necessarily cut from the same cloth. It’s mostly a sci-fi/horror show, so it doesn’t dwell too long on the mundane because it needs to keep the action moving forward. For the most part, it does a masterful job on this score.
Granted, the show dusts off more than a few timeworn characters and plotlines. The bully kids and the nerd kids. The rich douchebag teens and the working-class rebellious loner teen. The pretty A student and her Plain Jane best friend who warns her not to get mixed up with the cool kids. The selfish, asshole ex-husband. The clueless suburban Dad. The frazzled single Mom. The cop with an empty personal life who drinks and smokes too much. A mysterious government program run by cold and merciless CIA types; a monster in the dark woods; a child with magical powers.
Many of these characters are lifted straight out of the films of the 1980s, which the creators of “Stranger Things” clearly have an affinity for (the show itself is set in the 1980s, and viewers who lived during that decade get plenty of ‘80s cultural references to feast on).
Even so, it works. And really, there’s nothing wrong with trotting out the usual cliches if those cliches are rooted in real life. There really are bully kids and nerd kids, douchebag teens and rebellious teens, government plots, etc. (My own novel – buy it here! – features an Italian-American mobster, a half-Asian science whiz, and an Irish-American district attorney. Pretty formulaic, yes? But then, there were a lot of these folks in the era when the novel is set).
There are also more than a few moments when the action in “Stranger Things” strains credibility, when characters escape from danger against all odds, or when coincidences are a little too cozy. But there again, that’s not unusual in any kind of fiction writing. This is, after all, a world of make believe.
Look, I know much of this is just disposable pop culture — here today, gone tomorrow. Fifteen years ago, “Lost” was a massively popular series that broke a bunch of rules. But how many people care about it now?
BUT: “The Sopranos” continues to touch a nerve with a whole new generation of viewers who weren’t even born when it debuted in 1999. The writing is that good, the stories are that compelling, and the characters have that much depth.
My own fiction writing has been greatly influenced by cinema, from both the small and big screen. I often write with an eye on a visual medium, imagining these scenes and characters on a screen. I might never write a screenplay, though I did buy a pretty lousy book about screenwriting last year to learn more. Maybe I’ll give it a shot some day.
If you’re interested, a good place to start would be visiting the ScreenCraft website, which offers various resources to aspiring screenwriters as well as writing competitions. I’ve entered a few short stories in the Cinematic Short Story competitions, and did pretty well, which you can read about on my About Me page.
Those who write for a living, or aspire to, can learn a whole lot from watching the best streaming and TV shows, just like we can learn a lot from reading the best books, short stories, poems, and plays. Never be afraid to widen your circle of influences.
But do be afraid of the dark woods….
*Note: The photo should probably be attributed to Netflix or something.